Pipeline: Modern Master Garney, "Screamland" & More

Tue, January 17th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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MODERN MASTER: RON GARNEY

I like Ron Garney's art, but I haven't read enough of it. Like most comic readers of my generation, his defining moment was 15 years ago in a well-nigh-legendary run of "Captain America" with Mark Waid. It got famously cut short for "Heroes Reborn" and their return afterwards wasn't as spectacular as everyone had hoped. I think the only other time I saw Garney's art regularly was on "Amazing Spider-Man" during J. Michael Straczynski's run. Beyond that, I can't name anything he's done that I have in my collection. It's a little frustrating, to be honest. I know he did some "Wolverine" work a year or two ago, and his "Silver Surfer" issues are well-regarded. But that's it.

So I enjoyed reading "Modern Masters: Ron Garney" because so much of it was new to me. While I loved hearing more of the behind the scenes stuff from the one or two series I remember the most, the rest of it was a tabula rasa. Garney's art has never soured in my eyes; he just hasn't been working on anything I was excited by otherwise.

Garney is an interesting guy, a Connecticut resident destined to be a fantasy painter who made a left turn into comics and rose up the ranks perhaps more quickly than he was prepared for. His art blends together a certain openness and animation without losing the "seriousness" of superhero art. His characters have weight on the page, which is something lots of artists never achieve. The characters don't just appear in the comic, but also occupy space. Garney's penchant for directing the action and the reader's eye is better than most, particular from a generation that came into comics aping the styles of Jim Lee and his Image cohorts.

In the book, Garney is candid about his professional decisions, how the "dark times" in his personal life affected his work and how the lows were necessary to achieve the good things he has today. He's clearly an artist who thinks about his work, and one who might be happier with it now more than ever, but I doubt will ever he happy with it, period.

Looking at Garney's current work, it can be frustrating to see his earlier art. Many of his earlier pages showed great structure, only to be caught up in the popular inking style of the day, which flattened the art and noodled it with unnecessary lines. As you watch his art progress in the "Modern Master" series' trademark visual style, you can see Garney loosen up and become more comfortable in his own artistic skin. It makes you want to go back in time and tell everyone how to fix their stuff. (The first thing I'd fix is that awful font on "Captain America." I know those were early days for computer lettering and fonts were scarce, but that one is a travesty.)

The thing I found most interesting in Garney's interview was how hard he stressed the schedule and hours of work a comic book artist puts into his craft. In today's comics, there aren't many artists who can draw 12 issues a year. Most can't make six issues in a row, and often jump from project to project. I'm beginning to think that's just to buy themselves lead time between runs. Garney comes across sympathetic, though I think less charitable people might find him a bit of a whiner. I don't, because I wouldn't want his job of being stuck crouched over a drafting table for 12 hours a day/seven days a week, just to produce enough work to be able to do it all over again the next month. There's a reason we have so many fill-in artists today and so many short runs and miniseries. Those long hours can get to you.

Is it just that today's generation is a pack of whining wussies who can't suck it up and draw? How did Jack Kirby draw so much on a monthly basis without missing a beat while Garney and his ilk struggle to get four in the can, and cite a four to six (!) week schedule for a single 22 page comic? (Most artists don't even draw their own covers anymore, but that's a rant for another week.)

I think there's two things at work here. The first is that we expect more detail of artists today. We expect every little thing to be researched, photo-realistic and detailed. Blank space in a panel is a cheat. We demand little lines to show textures, odd lighting patterns and every button and knob the artist can throw into the background. All of that takes extra time.

Secondly, we expect more finished art from pencilers. Garney's work is sometimes shot straight from the pencils. That means he needs to finish off his work to a greater degree in order to make it camera ready. No inker can save his hide at the end of the day, and it's the inker who also kept the deadlines at bay "back in the day." Inkers were artists in their own right, often what we'd term "finishers" in today's parlance. The pencils would be loose enough for the inker to finish them with a little of their own style. We laugh at the concept of "tracer," but there's no doubt that today's inker needs to stick to the pencil lines more precisely than previous generations of inkers. There's less work to be done in terms of finishing off a costume's detail or correcting a bit of anatomy or adding in background matter.

It all means that the penciler has to do more work on a page, and is now trained to not let it go until it's basically camera-ready, even when it's being inked. I don't mean to say that pencilers don't trust their inkers today, or that inkers are glorified photocopy machines. Heck, I wrote a whole column last year about the skills Scott Williams brings to Jim Lee's artwork. I think it's a systemic thing. I think the attitude has now taken hold that an artist's job isn't done until it's so refined that even the inker can't screw it up. (Not that pencilers haven't always complained about their inkers. Ask anyone whose work was touched by Vince Coletta, for the most obvious example.)

Inking is a different skill in 2012 than it was in 1982. I'm not sure when that started to change exactly. My hunch is that it took hold in the early 90s, but maybe a more veteran inker could help me out here.

Thus endeth the tangent.

Jorge Khoury's interview with Garney works well, particularly since Khoury was working at Marvel during the time Garney was starting in comics. It's doubly interesting to get perspective from both sides of the editorial fence. From the transcript in this book, it sounds like Khoury told Garney about a thing or two that Garney hadn't even known. I wish more interviews these days had that kind of give and take. Garney talks candidly not just about his creative partners and who he didn't work well with, but also about his personal life (in vague terms, and I respect his privacy) and his missed opportunity at DC. If no other book does it for you, this is a good one for deglamorizing the comic book artist. He doesn't always name names, but he comes across very honestly in he book. Besides, a quick check into ComicBookDB.com will fill in the gaps for you.

The one thing I hate most about those Modern Masters books is that they always end with me shopping for more books to (re-)read. I have a lot of Garney books to pick up, and look forward to grabbing some soon. I'm impressed not just by his work ethic and my own memories of his work from another time, but by his attitude in this book and the sampling of his personal art that's shown in the gallery section at the back of the book. He hints at doing future creator-owned work, even mentioning Jason Aaron as someone he'd like to collaborate on a project with. That would be another great "get" for Image, if it happens this year.

"Modern Masters: Ron Garney" is 120 pages for $15.95, with that book-ending gallery section in full color. The one nice thing that TwoMorrows offers on its own is digital copies of their books. If you don't want to spend the $16 for the print edition, or would feel more comfortable adding it to your digital collection, that PDF will only run you $5. That makes the book a steal in any format.

SCREAM!

A hidden gem, "Screamland: Death of the Party" from Image Comics is an imaginative, funny and very modern look at monsters, conventions and media culture. I'm proud to say I guessed the ending after the second issue, only to be disproved at the beginning of the fifth. Drat!

"Screamland" is a buddy cop murder mystery story. Sorta. Harold Sipe and Christopher Sebela's script tells what happened to the movie monsters long after their Hollywood career peaked. As it turns out, they're a diverse group of people who went a number of ways. Most of that would be wrapped in spoilers, so I can't tell you too much about it.

But it's creative and it's often funny, without resorting to cliches. Let's face it, monster stories -- and modern takes on classic characters -- have been done to death. But "Screamland" takes it in different directions and gives us something enjoyable and engaging; the book isn't just about the irony of "real life" monsters, but about their character and their relationships. You believe this rag tag group of monsters are old acquaintances, with squabbles and friendships more complicated than a simple gag book would portray.

If anything, the best comparison to be made for this book is to the movie "Galaxy Quest." That'll give the disgruntled behind the scenes setting, the conventions, the dreamers and the doers, and more.

The book is set during Fantasyscape Con, a thinly disguised San Diego Comic-Con, right down to jokes about stabbings and "Twilight" craziness. Six monsters form the core of the story, from a metal man with an exposed brain to an Elvira-like vampire movie hostess, a wolfman, an invisible man, a slime monster, and an engineer from a science fiction TV show who later went on to do a detective series. He's, yes, the William Shatner character, the human in a world of monsters who was accepted as one of their own.

When The Invisible Man is found dead at his booth, that human (Travis Walters) and the Wolfman (Carl London) team up to crack the case. One more twist: The Invisible Man (Izzy) had a home movie of a 1977 gathering of all the monsters and an orgy they had. Not everyone would want that film to see the light of day for obvious reasons. So the search is on for both the killer and the film reel. Travis jumps at the chance to relive his glory days on the television show he once starred in as a detective. Carl humors his friend, and finds it to be an excuse to pin the murder on his rival, the slasher movie star. But, nah, that would be too obvious.

At the heart of this series is a mystery, but Sipe and Sebela weave a lot of character around it, creating a diverse set of characters who are each sympathetic and multi-dimensional in their own ways. I've mostly hit on the high concept moments with this review, but the meat of the series is those conversations at the hotel bar, behind the autograph table, and out "in the field" on the hunt for the killer. They pull you in.

Lee Leslie's cartooning in the book fits the character of the story well. He uses a measured progression of panels to tell the story, three or four tiers to a page. There aren't too many fancy layouts in the book, letting the story be the star of the book. But Leslie's work has a comfort and a cuteness all its own. It's not that he's drawing chibi monsters or anything crazy like that. His monsters are drawn to include their stereotypes as part of their personas. And Leslie doesn't shy away from drawing that. They're misshapen, ugly, and wonderfully human all at the same time.

Sure, the book is a bit scant on backgrounds at times, but Leslie still packs in background sight gags when he can, and is careful to establish his scenes before pushing his "camera" in to follow the actions.

The only thing that lets me down in this book is the coloring, credited to Buster Moody and Kevin Gritzke. It doesn't do its job in making the story clearer. It's a bit of a muddle, to tell you the truth. Brown characters appear on undifferentiated brown backgrounds, while surrounded by a dark green page color. There's not enough differentiation between foreground and background, and the general colors being used are a bit dreary.

They do some nice work with adding textures and effects, like the pattern on the carpet or the texture in a character's t-shirt, but the color selection, overall, lets down the book. The pages look much "heavier" than they need to. Looking at some preview pages, I can see where the book printed a little darker than the color files show up on a computer, but it's not enough. It's still the choice of monotone colors that lay pages flatter than they need to be.

The trade has an opening six page section that's pure plot exposition. It's a slow read, but it introduces you to all the characters in the book. By the time the story starts up and the pacing loosens up a bit, you feel like you know everyone in the book. It's a neat trick. And while it might not be the smoothest thing in the world, it's worth the initial five minutes to kick the book off right. I like starting a story and feeling like I know the characters already. By the end of the book, I'll know them all in a completely different light, but it's a better start.

To the great credit of all the above-referenced creators is the fact that it wasn't until after I had read the book and wrote this review that I discovered that this is the second volume of the series. There was a volume one (almost four years ago!), drawn by series co-creator Hector Casanova, who also did the covers for volume two. The fact that they were able to pull off a second volume and make it stand on its own merits so strongly is a testament to the skills of the book's writers. In fact, you can read more about it in CBR's interview with Sipe and Sebela.

"Screamland: Death of the Party" is a fun genre-bending murder mystery for $16.99. It also includes an introduction by Matt Fraction. The series flew under the radar last year, but I hope the trade gives it a strong second life.

FOLLOW UP

It has been pointed out to me that the "Rocketeer" issues "Rocketeer Adventures" collected were more than 22 pages, so the $25 price point for four issues isn't as bad as some might think it looks. You're getting an extra half issue or more for the price, including plenty of pin-ups.

But like I said last week, we don't consider the "quality" metric enough when talking about book prices. I'd happily pay $25 for four issues of a great comic than $20 for four issues of a merely good one. With "Rocketeer Adventures," you have an impressive collection of talent in one book, all doing great stories. So it's splitting hairs to even mention the price. Besides, you can buy the book discounted in many places, so you don't need to spend more than $20 for it.

Happily, there's a second miniseries starting up in March. I had missed that completely, but it makes me happy to know now.

Coincidental to what I wrote last week about personal branding, Sean Murphy posted an excellent article on artists' Five Year Plan, and what should be in it. Strong, forward-thinking stuff.

Ron Marz devoted his column right here at CBR to the topic last week. He agrees with what I wrote about finding a niche and sticking to it, though he says it's unfortunate that it's necessary. I agree there, too. I also think the niche thing becomes less necessary the further you progress in the industry. It's helpful to get yourself jumpstarted, but eventually your name will lend credence to your work, in whatever niche it is. It might be very difficult to move on, but it'll at least be possible without being hurtful to your career. So there's hope.

And here's a tweet this week from Mike Norton to round things out:

"I don't regret not focusing on one thing in my work. I think it's made me stronger than a lot of guys. And a hell of a Pictionary player."


This week, a review of a Ron Garney book led to a discussion on inking. Next week, Jubilee leads to Tom Orzechowski. Come back to watch the mayhem begin, won't you?

In the meantime, here's where I am on the web:

AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com || Google+ || Twitter || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

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