Pipeline: Infinite Digital Smurfs

Tue, March 13th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: March 14th, 2012 at 9:56am

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

BUZZWORD BINGO

I follow three worlds on-line: Comic books, technology and photography. Whenever two of those three intersect, I get excited. It's fun to see who else straddles two worlds with me, but it's also uncomfortable when one takes over the other.

Comics has been on a collision course with Technology for a while now, but I never thought tech would take over so completely. Marvel announcing a new publishing initiative at South By Southwest is one such moment, and it provided plenty of fodder for this column.

Try as I might, though, I still haven't gotten past the third paragraph of CBR's main story breaking down what Marvel's announcement was. Here's where the comics world ended and the technology world took over, inserting themselves with every cliché, bit of techno jargon and square of buzzword bingo into the opening paragraph of one announcements. Emphasis is mine. See if you can count up all the clichés, buzzwords and trite shorthand Marvel managed to fit into one paragraph:

"Decades ago, Stan Lee introduced the letters pages as a way of directly engaging the reader and building a comics-reading community. That was a major innovation at the time, and we're taking it to the next stage with AR app features that will engage the reader in ways they haven't been before," Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso said. "Our AR app features provide added-value story content that will enhance the reading experience in ways we're still cooking up."

Surely nobody talks naturally like that, right?

If only they could have circled back to that topic and taken the meeting off-line, perhaps they could have formulated an action agenda to move the ball down the field towards their end goal of hockey stick growth before needing to pivot to capture the eyeballs necessary to grow a profitable venture that they're all passionate about on this journey to the next level of comics' evolution with greater outreach by giving it their 110%. That'll boost the ramp time while cutting back on the burn rate.

I just wish they'd worry more about telling good stories in an affordable format that are accessible by more people in a format that they'd like. But I'm old fashioned. In fact, I think that this might have been the weekend where I felt more like an Old Man of Comics than any other. I just want to read comic books: sequential narratives told in discrete pages, serialized a chunk at a time. Give me good art, a strong story, a few laughs here and there and I'm good. I don't need "interactivity."

But, then, I'm not 16 years old with an iPhone, an iPad, an X-Box 360 and a Netflix subscription servicing my every spare moment's need for mass media consumption. If I were, I don't know that I'd want to look at a comic book, either. So if this move to woo a new generation of readers works, then good for them. I hope it does. I just wish they could speak in plain English while explaining it, because I'm lost.

JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

The first collection of "Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine" is right up my alley: strong script, strong art, complete story, good sense of humor and not beholden to current continuity. Jason Aaron's story takes the two title characters on a tour through time and space, landing them in different eras while maintaining their tense relationship. Spider-Man quips, Wolverine menaces and the villain of the piece is played almost for laughs. It's not that he's not dangerous, but the Aaron's script doesn't work so hard to establish how he was abused as a child, is mentally deranged now and might just snap your girlfriend's neck at a moment's notice -- and, hey, how about a gratuitous scene of him snapping ten necks to prove how dangerous he is! None of that. While there are dangerous situations and lots of tension throughout the story, there's nothing that tries too hard to sell you something bloody and evil. I like that. This is a "fun" Spider-Man story, complete with a romantic interest that helps place it in current continuity without relying on any particular events of Dan Slott's "Amazing Spider-Man."

This book is the spiritual sibling of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness' "Superman/Batman" series. It features two characters who have a begrudging respect for each other, a long history, but an underlying difference of worldviews that leads to clashes that keep the book entertaining. It comes complete with the alternating caption boxes to get you inside both minds and have that play off each other. Aaron's sense of humor works not just for Spider-Man's one-liners, but also for that back-and-forth of worldviews.

The art from Adam Kubert is as inventive and easy on the eyes as ever. I like Kubert's style to begin with, though. You can see the influences of his father and brother in his art, but it stands on its own, with a nice flowing line. His stuff doesn't look overworked. The art retains what I assume was its original energy. (And if it is overworked and this is what remains, then he's drawing more energy than anyone else in comics, to begin with.) Plus, his page layouts are inventive without being show-offy or distracting. There's a nice use of panel shape and storytelling. He can design a simple grid with the best of them, then make wavy rectangles that make sense without constraining his art.

There are a couple of different inkers used on the book and it shows. But there are also pages done in the "Origins" style, mimicking the look and feel of Andy Kubert's work on that series. It's still all Adam Kubert at the root of it, and while there is a difference in final looks, they're both attractive.

The hardcover edition of this collection is a nicely packaged book. It contains the entire script from the first issue by Aaron, as well as a selection of cool pin-ups and alternate covers. And the book maintains the three page fold-out panel that Kubert drew into the third issue that -- well, that would be a spoiler, but let's just say it was a fitting moment for an ultra-widescreen image. It's one of the most bizarre and crazy moments of the series, so stopping to unfold the pages and take it all in is fitting.

The book is available today both in hardcover and paperback. It's a fun self-contained read that's perfect for those of us who aren't completely on the bandwagon of following the on-going series and current continuity. Take a break from all of that and give this book a shot.

VERTIGO PROVES THE SUPERIORITY OF DIGITAL

I'm not sure why DC Entertainment bothers to put Vertigo Comics on paper. I'm sure it's due to relatively low sales that they have to print them on the comics equivalent on toilet paper, but this cost-cutting has officially surpassed its usefulness.


Take their latest release, "Fairest" #1. It's a spin-off from "Fables," unsurprisingly, and features some wonderful art from Phil Jimenez. The coloring from Andrew Dalhouse is beautifully sculpted to fit the line work, adding shadows and dimension and drama. It's obvious that a lot of effort and thought went into each page.

Then it's printed up and 90% of it is lost. It's like you're looking through a fogged up lens to view the art in the book, and it's oddly the kind where the lettering is the only un-muddy thing left on the page, simply because there's no color involved.

I suppose it's possible that the paper quality reflects the original vision of the art team for this issue, but somehow I doubt that. And, thankfully, we can do a quick comparison to judge for ourselves:

The image to the right is scanned in from the printed comic. The image on the left is a screen grab from the ComiXology website preview of the digital issue. To be fair, no scanner is perfect, and the settings chosen when performing the scan may influence the final appearance. I will say that my eye may have some margin for error here, but this is how the book looks to me when I hold it in my hand. Check it out at your comics shop for yourself this week.

Here's another comparison, using a page shown in CBR's preview of the issue. This is an image provided directly from the publisher. This is how they think the page should look, next to an image scanned from the final printed edition.

Again, in the interests of fairness, there's a moire pattern on the scan that's not there in the printed edition, and I had to blow up the image a bit in Pixelmator to get it to be close to the same exact size as the CBR Preview page. So there might be some softness to the line work that can be forgiven. Taking those two points into account, the two images are worlds apart, particularly in the close-up of the characters' face in the final panel.

It's like looking at a VHS copy of a movie versus a Blu-Ray. I know I don't want to go back to VHS. And if this is DC's print publishing program for Vertigo, I think I'll stick to the digital comics, thanks.

An excerpt from this story can also be found in the "Vertigo Preview 2012" comic DC published with samples of their March-publishing Vertigo titles. This free sampler, though, was printed on better paper than the actual first issue of "Fairest," itself. It's glossier, more white. So here's another image to add to the comparison:

You can see that the art looks much better on glossy paper than the basic cheap paper used in "Fairest." It's a little brighter and slightly more clear, but it's still dark and gloomy. The digital comic still leaves it in the dust.

The digital publication is still be preferable in these classes, unless you're viewing it on a supremely messed up CRT display. In the meantime, wait for the hardcover compilations to show up in a few years. Those seem to work out OK.

EURO COMICS, MOSTLY SMURFS

Moebius is a giant in the world of comics, but you wouldn't know that in the United States, which hasn't managed to successfully translate much of his work at all. His "Metabarons"/"Incal" stuff made it over here in the 1990s and 2000s (and recently had a well-received hardcover compilation through Humanoids), but the western "Blueberry" work has been out of print for better than twenty years. I remember seeing a page of it in "Comics Scene" magazine around that time and making a mental note to seek that out someday. Surprisingly, "Corto Maltese" made it to print first, just this month Maybe it's Moebius' death that'll spur enough interest in the comics readership for someone to go back to print on those western titles.

All of this is to say that while I do write about bandes dessinees in Pipeline from time to time, I'm completely unqualified to write anything about Moebius. Go read the other best of obituaries and tributes here. And check out " Quenched Consciousness" for the ultimate Moebius Tumblr site.

Coincidentally, I've been reading a couple of European translations this week.

The first is the "The Smurfette" volume of NBM's "Smurfs" series. It's the fourth in that series. It's hard to imagine that these stories, which formed the basis of one of the most successful cartoon series of the 1980s, barely saw print in that decade here in the States. It wasn't alone. There was no attempt to reprint the original European Marsupilami stories when that character was starring in a Saturday morning animated series in the early 90s, either. I have one of those books in French, and the art is pretty cool, even if the character isn't necessarily true to the version that wound up on the TV screen.

In any case, "The Smurfette" is the origin story of the only female Smurf in the village. The story that Katy Perry told, as the character in the 2011 movie, is true to the comics: Gargamel created Smurfette as a way to disrupt the village and destroy it. And as bad as you might think a feminist reading of that plot point might be, the entire story is even worse. At one point, the Smurfs grow tired of listening to Smurfette, and concoct a way of annoying her back so badly that she'd stop bothering her. How's that? They call her fat. She runs away and cries.

The whole story is so awfully wrong that it's charming. You have to remember that Gargamel created Smurfette specifically to be disruptive and to use whatever means to do so. So you could argue that Smurfette doesn't represent Peyo's vision of women at all. Smurfette is a singular character created with a nefarious purpose. But, man, it's not a story that would work well in modern times at all. The assumption would be that, first, Peyo is a creep for not having a more diverse cast of characters to begin with, but that secondly, the first one he creates is evil, driving men into a tizzy before being defeated with a cruelty that only extends to the fairer sex in the male dominated which features beauty above brains.

Though, to be fair, the original Smurfette doesn't have that long flowing blonde hear of hair. It's stringier and darker, making her look less like a supermodel and more like a shrewish witch. When Papa Smurfs uses a spell to turn her into "a real Smurf" is when she turned into a blonde bombshell. Read into that what you will. ("Peyo preferred blondes?")

The last time I discussed these reprints, I said that I thought the smaller page size worked well to tighten up the art. And while I still think that's true, my eyes could certainly use a rest after 60 story pages at that size. Janice Chiang's lettering is tiny, so while the art might be better, the overall reading experience is constrained. That's unfortunate.


Still, I marvel at Peyo's work. He's drawing a village of 100 Smurfs who all look alike with very little variety: Brainy has glasses and Papa Smurf has a beard, but everything else is in the accessories. He got really good at drawing the basic Smurf shape, and it shows on every page. These little guys emote and they can move believably. I love what Peyo does with their gestures and with their movements. A Smurf is a simple series of shapes; each has a big oval head atop a pear shaped body with two lumps for feet and no toes to complicate anything. If superheroes had this kind of anatomy, I'm sure you'd see much less smoke and rocky debris covering up characters' feet.

But it's the final ink line that sells the stories. It's where Peyo's style comes out. The variation in ink weights is the stuff they should teach in art school. It increases the mass and depth of each object it defines, but it also adds a personal touch of character. Nobody else can fully implement the same lines with the same amount of character. Every time I read a Smurfs book, I find myself doodling again. It's inspirational stuff.

I admit that I don't know all the history of The Smurfs or their creator, so it came as a fascinating surprise to me this week to learn that Peyo once worked in advertising with Morris, the man who would go on to create "Lucky Luke," another classic European series that I adore. It's currently being reprinted by Cinebooks, and you should go out there and read ten of those volumes immediately, particularly if you like comics like "Groo."

I read "The Bounty Hunter" volume of "Lucky Luke" this past week, also. This time, Luke intercedes when the local rich guy accuses a local Native American of stealing his horse. Instead of playing up the socio-political conflicts, we're thankfully treated to a funny comedy of escalating errors and frustrations. Luke runs around trying to defuse a situation that only gets more complicated with time, until his eventual victory in which justice is served, everyone learns to get along with everyone else and a lesson is learned. The book guest stars Lee Van Cleef as the bounty hunter who wants to cut a deal with everyone to get his man and profit the most.

Cinebooks has published something like two dozen of these "Lucky Luke" volumes and there's still no end in site. Pick one and random and give it a shot today. I think it's the kind of book that will appeal to more people than those folks might expect it to.

IN CONCLUSION

I also ordered an iPad 3 last week. It'll be my first iPad, so you can only imagine what next week's column might be about.

Around the rest of the web, I point you to the links below. I have a bunch of original art on sale on eBay, including a John Romita Jr. "X-Men" page. And the VariousandSundry.com blog just won't die. OK, it's mostly "American Idol" and iPad write-ups, but it's still active!

eBay Auctions || AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com || Original Art Collection || Google+ || Twitter || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, digital comics, infinite marvel, smurfs, peyo, jason aaron

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