Pipeline: Phototracing, Colan and Digital Price Points

Tue, June 28th, 2011 at 2:00pm PDT | Updated: June 28th, 2011 at 2:06pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

TWO FLASHPOINTS FOR THE WEEK

I loathe phototracing. It makes every artist's work look stiff. It makes comics that look like fumetti. It's a crutch for too many. When I see a book that's been carefully rotoscoped, I run the other way. So when I picked up DC's "Flashpoint: Hal Jordan" for this week, I took it as a challenge to enjoy it on its own merits and maybe see something new in the style.

In looking more critically at Ben Oliver's art, I realized that the colorist gets the glory work in a phototraced situation. It's up to the color artist to either augment the thin black outlines of actors who've been posed and photographed to make the characters look photorealistic. Or, they can be slightly more impressionistic and create a new "look" or "feel" to the art that can be appreciated on its own. Some colorists today can pull that off. Look at the work Jean-Francois Beaulieu does over Skottie Young on the "Oz" books. It's a completely different situation there, as Young's work is on the exact opposite pole of photorealism, but the colorist is equal to the art, adding not just color to the pages, but also textures and mood. Check out the unique color palette of J.D. Mettler on "Ex Machina." Tony Harris' artwork bothered me for being redrawn fumetti, but Mettler's stylistic coloring over it changed it to something I could absorb.

With Oliver's art on "Hal Jordan," colorist Allen Passalaqua goes for a softer look that shows up like a mix of charcoals and pixellated color pencil shadings. It looks like the book was shot straight from the pencils, which also helps with the softness. Passalaqua adds the shading to make everyone look hyper-real, while cutting the lines and gradients enough to give it a computerized look. He doesn't accomplish some of the finer shadings by doing a simple Photoshop gradient trick, but rather by cutting a series of strips of colors to approximate the same look. It adds style and just enough tension with the phototraced art to make the whole package work. Thankfully, the color scheme he chooses for the book is bright enough to not swallow up the art. The book almost feels lighter in your hand due to the lack of muddying shadows and low contrast lighting. The blue skies Jordan flies through are actually -- blue! Shocking, I know.

Oliver's storytelling is predominately widescreen, though usually at odd angles and diagonals, often spread across two pages at a time. It's an interesting mix. Alongside writer Adam Schlagman's sparse narration, the book is a breezy read with a lot of breathing room on the page. The planes in the issue are drawn with technical authenticity, while the people are phototraced, but with enough abstraction to make it interesting.

Schlagman's story, by the way, is the basic Jordan origin story. He's a real big fat jerk who's a piloting hot shot whose father died in front of him. And then a purple alien crash lands in front of him. There's also a mako shark who attacks just in time for you to hurriedly turn the page to see what happens next, only to find out the next thing is a professional basketball player ordering a sandwich from a chain sandwich retailer. And to give credit where it's due: There's a dearth of talking/jumping mako shark models to phototrace.

The end result is an interesting visual experience attached to a breezy and somewhat redundant read. I enjoyed it, but forgot about it five minutes after I read it.

Also out this week is "Flashpoint: Project Superman" #1, featuring the art of Gene Ha. Unfortunately, the end result is art that doesn't impress me as much as Ha's work has done in the past. For starters, I think Ha set an impossibly high benchmark with "Top Ten," by which all future work will be judged. Here, the book looks almost too wide open. After those extremely dense multi-tier layouts in "Top Ten," seeing a half page Ha drawing looks cartoonish and cheap.

The story by Scott Snyder and Lowell Francis is basically the origin of "Captain America," but with a Steve Rogers who's inspired by anime. Everyone else in the book looks on the border of being phototraced, but then the main character of the title (not shown in the earliest solicitation covers) shows up with the upswept hair reminiscent of some manga or anime release of the early 2000s. That was just weird. He stands out on every page he's in, which I suppose might be the point, but it's a bit jarring. Everyone else looks carefully drawn and leaning towards photorealistic, and then there's this superpowered guy in the middle of it all with his glowing hands and anime haircut.

The issue ends with the first hint of a Superman connection, but I won't spoil it for you here. The bigger problem is, it feels like I've read this story before, and the art isn't up the high standards I normally hold the artist. So it's not my favorite thing in the world. Other "FlashPoint" books have stepped out a bit further from the usual origin stories and rehashed/remixed plots. Maybe this one will do all of that in the following issues, but it's not there in this first issue.

Gene Colan, June 2009
Photo by Luigi Novi

GENE COLAN

Sadly, we lost Gene Colan this week.

Colan's work was unique in a world that overuses the word "unique" to the point of uselessness. Colan is one of the few whose style has never been duplicated. In fact, I can't think of anyone who's ever even tried it. Any other stylistic maverick in the comics field you can think of has spawned imitators or people who tuned their styles to the original. Popular styles tend to cluster together and form movements. Make fun of the early-'90s superhero style all you like, but it sold well and many people adapted their style to fit in. You had dozens of cheap Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld clones.

Colan's fine pencil work stands alone. Who would even try to ape the madness that was his "Tomb of Dracula" work? How can an artist look at Colan's pencil sketches and not want to cower in the corner? The man was as great an artist in his 70s doing commissioned pencil sketches as he was in the 1970s, during his publishing prime. I'm sure I've asked for it before, so forgive me this repetition: I'd love to buy a big fat book reproducing a couple hundred of his sketches. Since he did mostly Marvel characters, maybe they could produce it. Please? It's the one art book I want that I can't buy yet. (Yes, the Hero Initiative worked with Marvel on "The Invincible Gene Colan," but that was a mix of things. I want one brick of a book reprinting just those pencil sketches.)

While many artists in recent years have tried to reproduce their work directly from pencil, Colan remains the one to make it work. In fact, being able to publish comics shot directly from pencils is a technological advance that seems custom-made for Colan's style. With all due respect to the inkers who slaved over Colan's pages -- particularly Tom Palmer -- it is Colan's full pencils that were the ultimate versions of his art. I'm glad that some of his work saw the light of day that way. I only wish we could still be seeing more.

In the meantime, the best resource for this kind of thing is ComicArtFans.com. Run a search in Colan's name and soak in all the wonderful art.

THREE QUICK THOUGHTS

  • Speaking of art books, Todd McFarlane's is now six months late. Remember that one? Would have been a cool Christmas 2010 present. Maybe it will be a cool Christmas 2011 present, instead? Most likely, it'll never see the light of day. I bet there are legal issues. If it's a timing thing, well, McFarlane isn't doing "Haunt" anymore and "Spawn" is in other hands, so why not devote that new free time to the previously announced and solicited product, eh?
  • David Hahn's "All-Nighter" is a refugee from DC's failed Minx original graphic novel line, and sadly it shows. It's not a bad book, but it was clearly not originally created with serialization in mind. It feels like things are just getting started with setting up the world that's To Be Rocked by an event, and then the issue just kind of ends. I think this will read better in an eventual trade paperback. Hahn's art is as beautiful as ever, though. Again, it might have worked a little bit better when reprinted at the smaller Minx line size (certainly, the lettering wouldn't be so large), but it's not bad at standard comic size.

  • "The Mission" #5 came out last week, and now I'm afraid the series is about to lose me. They ask for far too large a suspension of disbelief in this issue, and I'm afraid the teasing out of storylines just isn't going to work for me after all. We might end up chalking this one up as "great premise, flawed execution" when it's all said and done. I'm not giving up on it yet, but I'm not quite as hopeful as I once was.
DIGITAL DOLLARS

I haven't been a Netflix subscriber since the days when all the service did was mail red envelopes to my home a decade ago. I do have an Apple TV, though, but I use it more as a video podcast player than anything else, or to catch up on a missed TV show on the odd occasion where my DVR misses a show.

Last week, that changed. I discovered that Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" series is now available on the Apple TV. This is the original documentary-style hour long program from the UK, not the cleaned-up and cartoonish American version. At just 99 cents an episode to rent for a series I don't need to own, really, it's a steal. The show has everything you need: British accents, adult language, restaurants that don't change even after they've been straightened out, voice overs, and an astonishing number of scenes of Ramsay taking his shirt off to put on his chef's jacket. (I take it that Ramsay is considered a sex symbol over there?)

What does this have to do with comics? If "Kitchen Nightmares" had been $1.99, I likely would have watched one or two episodes and called it a day. At 99 cents per show, though, I plan on watching all four seasons that are available to me, spending somewhere around $30. It's absolutely a mind trick. That one dollar price point is a siren song.

So, yes, you can add me into the camp that thinks digital comics would sell better at a buck a piece. You'd make up for it in volume. There are comics I see good reviews of on-line that I'd be curious to read today, but won't pay $3.99 or $2.99 or even $1.99 for. But at 99 cents? I'd be buying digital comics every week. It's a buck. It's less than a bottle of soda from a vending machine. I know that money would add up by the end of the month when the credit card bill comes due, but I'd still be able to justify in my head as "cheap" entertainment expenses. It's the price of one DVD boxed set. Not too bad.

I know it's not so easy to pull this off. I know that publishers have done the math and they'd have to triple sales, which seems like an impossibility, to make the same money. I know comics needs a larger base of readers before such bold moves could be profitable.

But from the reader's side of things -- and I am a reader and a buyer -- I'm telling you what will work for me. And the sooner the industry meets up with me and readers like me, the sooner the money can flow back in.

And, as Wired Magazine points out, Angry Birds is 99 cents. How does that five minute read of the latest "Superman" issue compare to that in the mind of a comics "civilian?" Yes, you can point out that Angry Birds can be that cheap because it has a larger audience, but that larger audience isn't going to see the value for the money in comics at $2.99, or $1.99. That's reality, not excuses.

In a way, digital comics are no different from their print counterparts: The audience is too small, the per unit cost is too high, and people don't even know they exist anymore outside of the movie theaters.

I wish the digital comics retailers released sales numbers. I'd be curious to see, for example, how well Comixology's 99 cent "Wonder Woman" comics sold over the weekend. I'm sure DC is keeping close tabs on those numbers, as I'm sure Marvel keeps an eye on their weekly 99 cent sales. They haven't gone away yet, so that's a good sign.

It's still not a perfect system due to the lock-in effect, but I'm not sure that's such a major issue with the majority of people yet. It is a huge issue that needs fixing, whether people realize it or not, but the reality is that most aren't thinking about it, especially if they live their comics lives on one device in one application.

I'll keeping fooling myself into thinking that it'll all work out in time and we'll eventually get what we want. I just hope the comics world doesn't implode before then.

CONTACT INFO

I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm quietly counting down the days until my next concert shoot. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other oddball thoughts that aren't comics-related. This week, diabetes is a major topic.

Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

TAGS:  pipeline, flashpoint hal jordan, flashpoint project superman

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