Pipeline: Murder Mysteries, Ultimate Power and Smurfs

Tue, August 23rd, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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HALCYON

This is not the final trade paperback cover. The real one has a plain white background with completely different art in front of it.

"Halcyon" is the first of two Image Comics miniseries from the last year that I've recently caught up with in trade. We'll touch on the second one next.

Right up front in the introduction, Marc Guggenheim makes no bones about it -- "Watchmen" was a big influence on his writing. "Halcyon," then, is a clear descendant of that comics milestone from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. "Halcyon" doesn't ask about The Watchers and who is watching them; Guggenheim is instead asking the fundamental question of, "If everyone is good and crime is eradicated, what does that leave the heroes to do?"

The answer comes in the form of a neat self-contained story spread across five issues of a comic book collected here for just $15. It has a complete beginning, middle, and end, with surprises and twists along the way. It's a satisfying chunk of story (and is co-written by Guggenheim's wife, Tara Butters), because it's the whole story. By the time the book is done, you'll find out that you were honestly interested in the fates of these characters, and even rooting for one or two of them to win.

Guggenheim doesn't candy coat this, either. He shows both the positive and negative side of a world without crime. First, there's a trust issue. Is this just another scheme of some villainous rabble rouser that needs fixing? If so, should it be stopped? Second, accepting this has happened, what does mean for the self worth of your average superhero, who's now only able to handle evacuating people in emergency weather situations?

This isn't Ryan Bodenheim's first comic. He's done spot work for Marvel before, and drew Jonathan Hickman's "Red Mass for Mars" series. But "Halcyon" should prove to be a nice calling card for his career. If he wanted to move on to Marvel and DC or some higher-profile super hero-themed work at Image, this is all he needs to prove he's capable. His style mixes the likes of Steve Dillon and Frank Quitely, with a hint of John Cassaday. (And, hey, since only one of those three artists is capable of drawing a monthly book these days, more power to Bodenheim. I hope he takes advantage.) His characters have full faces and a tendency to look straight towards the reader. His costume design has Quitely flairs. His storytelling is simple and straightforward, solid panel-to-panel work.

Mark Englert colors it all up with a palette of colors that never hides the art. It's very complementary, allowing the reader to see what's going on and pushing forward and back the appropriate levels of depth in the art. He can go from naturalistic colors to a more color-keyed approach, which more often than not relies on greenish tings.

It's tough to talk much more about this book without spoilers. There are a number of smaller character moments that help sell the book as it goes on, but being a self-contained story arc with a beginning and an end point for each character, most observations can't be handled in a spoiler-free reviews. I enjoyed it. It's available today, for $15.

SAM & TWITCH: THE WRITER.

Released quietly last year and mostly overlooked, the four-issue miniseries "Sam & Twitch: The Writer" was a project years in the making with an Italian creative team that you've likely never heard of. The series passed up all of the over-indulgences of the "Spawn" franchise, instead crafting a solid murder/mystery tale with some graphic elements and a slightly high-concept character to help explain it all.

To sum up Luca Blengino's story, there's a string of murders happening in New York City, in which a novel is being written by being carved into walls, park benches, dead dogs, and recently-murdered bodies. Sam and Twitch get the case, along with an extra hand in Charlotte Garland, a graphologist. That is, she analyzes hand-writing to tell a lot about a person. In a week where I read an article about how pronoun usage can tell a lot about the writer, I don't find that a stretch at all. And, yes, it's a real job.

There is no supernatural elements to this tale, no swirling mists of smoke or satanic possession or spells to ward off evil spirits. There is a church and a priest, but this isn't a battle between Heaven and Hell waged by winged demons versus feather-clad angels. It's a straight-ahead crime book, and a decently entertaining one at that. There's a mid-sized cast to include plenty of suspects, red herrings, and twists. There are personal elements in it, as we see Sam get hurt at the very beginning of the tale. There's a seemingly-logical conclusion to the whole thing. (I didn't go back to re-read the whole thing knowing what I know now, but I was satisfied that it made sense on first reading.) There's some police work, some action, and some tension between the characters. What more could I ask for?

It has very nice art. Artist Luca Erbetta (with inker Fabio Bono) handles the honors here, with a clean and clear style. He lets the colorist, Filippo Rizzu, fill in the gaps and set the mood, but his art is free from black shadowy areas, instead relying on basic construction to tell the story. He's a great storytelling, not relying on gimmicks or fancy layouts to tell the story, but rather on detailed panels in basic tiers. Yes, there are even backgrounds here, and lots of them. They help keep the book feeling real, giving the characters a real place to stand and move through.

Ben Timmreck's lettering uses the trademark typewritten style that's been there since Brian Bendis wrote the "Sam & Twitch" series so many years ago. It's unique in North American comics to this day, but it fits the story. I like the shaky and wavy lines used to indicate the balloon tails and the underlines to show the edges of the balloon that isn't there. It shouldn't work, and yet it does.

The entire story lasted four issues. The trade paperback is only $9.99, but it has more than just the story pages. In fact, the most fascinating part of the trade paperback is the section in the back showing Todd McFarlane's red line suggestions to the pencil art. If you read it carefully, you can see how McFarlane's view of comic art is more extreme than Erbetta's. He wants more things very close up with more dramatic action that sends characters flying further across a panel or towards a reader. To his credit, Erbetta adjusts his art to McFarlane's suggestions, but pulls back just a little bit. In one panel, McFarlane called for an extreme close-up of Twitch's face, in profile, in the foreground. Literally, the profile of Twitch's glasses filled the height of the frame. You were only seeing a sliver of Twitch. Many have long held that such closeups are shortcuts taken by popular artists to draw less. I think this one red line correction proves that it's more a mindset of storytelling style. McFarlane wants more extremes. He pushes things up or back or across much further than another artist might. Erbetta, in the final panel, did bring Twitch closer to the reader, but it's more a head-and-shoulders shot. The collaboration strengthens the final artwork without overwhelming it. The angle is more dramatic, but not over-the-top.

The thing is, Sam & Twitch is a cop drama and not a superhero book. So when Sam gets punched out, he doesn't need to fly across the wide panel the way a villain might at the fists of the Savage Dragon. It detracts from the reality of the situation, though some might point out how mundane reality can look. McFarlane doesn't draw that line. He pushes it further and, again, Erbetta pulls back from it just a tad. It's a fascinating give and take.

One other interesting nugget in the back of the book is a look at some of the pages from a first draft of the book. Initially, Erbetta drew the book in a more traditional shadowy style: lots of solid black areas, harsh angles, characters blending into the backgrounds. I'm very happy they didn't go that way as the more open style with the modern coloring techniques works brilliantly. The book would have looked like a more run-of-the-mill graphic novel with the noir style.

For ten bucks, you're getting your money's worth out of this book. If you're looking for a particularly well-drawn crime story to get away from the superheroes for a half hour, I'd recommend this one. It is a Mature Readers book for a variety of reasons, so be warned.

CBR talked to Todd McFarlane about the series and its lead characters as the series concluded last year.

SMURFS AND A BIG BIRD (NO, NOT THAT ONE)

Right after I finished reading "Sam & Twitch," I opened up a "Smurfs" book. I'm not sure if it was an attempt to clear out the darker corners of my brain so I could think happy thoughts again, or if I'm just funny like that. Tonally, they're leagues apart, but they are both by European creators, so maybe that's the segue I should have gone with here.

The sixth volume of the series from Papercutz is titled "The Smurfs and the Howlibird." It features a story in which the Smurf Village is attacked by a bird affected by a potion-gone-bad made by Papa Smurf and accidentally dumped onto a baby bird out in the wild. The rest of the story is a race for survival and the effort needed to revert the bird back to its original state, such that it wouldn't impact the friendly blue creatures in the future.

It's a fun and occasionally silly tale, with plenty of smurfy dialogue ("Quick! Out the door or my goose is smurfed!") and running jokes to keep your mind busy while your eyes take in the page. This story is credited to both Peyo and the single-named Gos, who worked on Spirou and helped out in some unnamed way with this story. All I know is that the end result is the strongest-looking Smurf art I've seen in the series so far. It's almost a disappointment when you get to the second story in the book and Peyo is working alone again. Suddenly, the Smurfs look a little more wiry, less defined, and less stylized. They're still cute and energetic, but the black lines that create them are a little looser and wilder, in comparison. The difference isn't that great, but I sure noticed it.

"The Smurf Express" is a shorter eight page tale with the Smurfs going up against Gargamel when a train they build wanders into bad territory. The third promised story in the book is a one page gag. It's funny, but it always seems weird that Papercutz tries to promote three stories in the book, when the last one is so slight.

For $5.99, the price can't be beat, and the quality of work put into the package counts for a lot. The pages are nice and bright, the line work is unpixellated, the lettering is easy on the eyes, and the binding is solid. They're doing a great job in bringing these books over to an American audience. I still wish we got the reprints at a size more closely resembles the original page layout.

I also want to learn to draw a Smurf well. (I can already approximate one from memory.) Once you can do that, you can pretty much draw the entire comic, can't you? They're all the same exact Smurf, with the most minor differences in costuming and props. Throw a couple mushrooms in for background and you're 95% of the way there. That’s part of the reason why I marvel at what Peyo and friends did in the series. The repetition must have been taxing on them. It's not like they had a variety of Smurfs to play with. The only variety is in the way that they accessorize. That could get stale fast.

One other random Smurf thought: If I were starting a new sketchbook today, I'd give it a Smurfs theme. Imagine your favorite artists in comics today drawing Smurfs? How cool would that be?

FARE THEE WELL, OLD 52

Say good bye to the DC Universe as you've known it. This week, it all ends. I'm assuming every book hit its deadlines. If not, we'll know because DC so famously said that next week will see the release of only "JLA" and "Flashpoint." Soon, we'll only have the reality of the books we've read to complain about, rather than just the potential of the books we've seen teases and hints for. It'll be an adjustment period on Twitter, to be sure.

CONTACT INFORMATION

I'm still on Google+, trying to figure out what to make of it. I do post little snippets of upcoming Pipeline columns there, though.

I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm posting pictures from a recent concert I shot made up of a couple of local bands. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other thoughts that aren't comics- or photography-related.

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

TAGS:  pipeline, image comics, peyo, smurfs, spawn, sam and twitch, halcyon

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