Pipeline: Mazzuchelli's "Daredevil" Reigns Supreme

Tue, June 26th, 2012 at 12:57pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN ARTIST'S EDITION

When the "Daredevil: Born Again Artist's Edition" (IDW, $125) arrived at my doorstep, my three year old daughter wanted to open it right away. She was impressed that a book could be that large and that heavy. I opened up the box for her and she hefted the thing up as high as she could. It's literally half her size. This is not a book you're reading on the airplane en route to San Diego, though you will be able to pick it up at the IDW booth. The airline will probably charge you $50 if you classify it as carry-on, so be careful.

Like any "Absolute" edition, you need to sit at a table and open this puppy up like you're examining a classic manuscript that someone at the city library you're visiting had to dig out of a back room using white gloves.

Perhaps I'm overselling it, but these books are just that impressive. And large. "Born Again" is 200 pages measuring 12 by 17 inches.

I think I said this in my last review of an Artist's Edition (let's go with "AE," for brevity's sake), but it bears repeating: If you're looking for a fast read, this is not the format you want. Any AE will slow you up. It's not possible to just flip through the pages, scan the caption boxes and word balloons, and keep moving. There's not a page in this collection that you won't stop to stare and marvel at.

It starts on the inside front cover, with an image spread across the two pages of Daredevil stepping on some snowy wires, his weight bending them out towards the reader. As a small panel inside the story, it's a nifty little image, but seen at full size and in black and white, your eye starts picking out the details to see how it's done and to find things you just never noticed before. Specifically, Mazzucchelli uses either White-Out or some kind of white paint/correction fluid across the tops of those wire lines to mimic the snow. It's a trick that shouldn't make any sense, yet it does, even in (relatively speaking) black and white. It's not just negative space for its own sake. It adds width or depth to the place where Daredevil is running by blocking out a thin line of the background to show how there's more there in the foreground. Mazzucchelli doesn't draw the snow. He just blanks out the space it occupies and let's the surrounding art and the reader's imagination do the rest. The effect is even stronger where streaks of white paint simulate the driving snow fall.

You also get a better sense of the third dimension in Mazzucchelli's art. Shown this big, the way Daredevil's body twists a little bit and his limbs poke out and recede back are much more apparent. The ink line width differences help that, too. Seen at regular page size, it's almost cartoonish how the ink lines vary in size. But at this size, you get a better idea of the more subtle aspects of those lines. Maybe it's the better printing or the larger size or just the lack of color, but you see so much more here.

In some places, it's definitely the bigger size. Mazzucchelli uses lots of background screen patterns in the book. In the final comic, it makes for a fuzzy gray area, with some occasional moire patterns. Seen at full size, it's a more elaborate shading pattern. You noticed where it's cut out and how it interfaces with the artwork to help the foregrounds pop out better. In that way, an AE is a great class for wannabe artists.

Just to give you an example of how a vellum overlay might be used, here's a page from late in the book. All of the information for the monitors on the right side are on the overlay, as is the pattern on the screen Captain America is looking at in the first pencil. At this stage, it's all in rough blue line form. The final text, I presume, was done by the letterer. Mazzuchelli's notes in the margin indicate which parts should be reproduced as blues, yellows, or reds.

The surprise bonus in this book is the half dozen vellum inserts. If you've never seen them before, they're the clear extra layer of art that goes on top of a page in the days before compositing in Photoshop was easier to do. Letterers would sometimes work on vellum overlays to help speed up production. They could letter while the inker did his or her job. A colorist could use that extra layer to determine which colors to hold (i.e. which black lines to draw in with color). It's a fun bit of production work to see today, and a nice bonus that adds to the value of the book. At the end of the book, there's a note that Mazzucchelli used the overlays throughout the book, but they didn't survive. Judging by the notes in the margins of the art, it looks like just under half the pages in the miniseries had these overlays, though that number drops in the middle.

And that's the rub. It's the one part of this book I'm most interested to see the reaction to once the book gets in more hands. Some people are bound to be disappointed that those vellums are lost to the ages, because it means there are moments of missing art in the book. There are panels, for example, where the background drawings of New York City skyscrapers are missing. Sometimes, they're off behind closer buildings. Sometimes, they're seen through windows. In the original printings of the book, they were solid blues or reds. Those were obviously done on these missing vellums. In this AE, they're just gone, white spaces on the page.

Here's the original art seen in the Artist's Edition book versus the final panel as seen in Marvel's trade paperback edition of "Born Again." The vellum overlay had the entire cityscape that Kingpin was seeing through his window. Mazzucchelli's margin note indicated a blue line for the city, though it looks like he also added some yellow colors to the lower half of the city before final print. Mazzucchelli was credited as colorist on this issue.

Their loss didn't bother me as I read it. It's a trade-off. I prefer the final look of this book in black and white to the full color original comics and their subsequent reprintings, as a rule. The explosion at the end of the first issue, for example, looks more impressive when you've dropped the coloring work. Maybe a modern coloring style would improve the readability and drama of the art, but I'm happy with the black and white. I think a lot of the coloring in the issues in the primary reds and blues don't do the book any favors. I understand why they're there and how they're working to tell the story and the printing limitations of the time, but I never felt lost reading this book for the first time in just black and white. It was only looking at my unread copy of the Marvel trade paperback for the story that I see the differences now.

Here's the scene in Matt's office, with and without the "surprint overlay," as Mazzucchelli references it in his margin notes.

It's obviously more than just missing color in this case. It's technically missing pieces of the art. In some cases, they would be nice to have. There's a very noir shadow cast past Matt Murdock at his desk in one early scene that's missing in the AE. It's just a blank white area where the art doesn't exist anymore. It's negative space. If you didn't know it was missing, you'd never notice it wasn't there. It's more obvious when characters walk in front of windows that are large blank white squares, but even then I took it as a compromise of the format and looked past it. Some purists might disagree.

In other words, original art fiends are having a second computer lettering moment here, where a bit of production work means a less complete page of original art. Most Marvel/DC art hasn't had hand lettering drawn on it for a decade or more now. Any AE that might come out of a more recent work would need to re-composite the digital files on top of the pristine black and white artboard work to create a readable story. Heck, I wonder if any other previous AE had similar issues? Did John Workman ever provide overlays of his lettering on "Thor"? Or did they just cut and paste word balloons onto the art? With "Born Again," the missing vellums represent missing art. Will that bother the serious collectors?

I hope not, but this is the internet. There's a complaint for everyone.

One last example. Here we can see the overlay being used not just for the buildings in the background, but also for the snowy sky and the smoke coming off the stacks to the left. The AE page on top is whiter than this in real life; I had some camera issues in taking this last image for the column. The book is too large to put on my scanner, unfortunately.

Mazzucchelli's art is beautiful at any size, though I doubt you'd be surprised to hear I think it looks best here. He has a way of drawing New York City of that era that feels authentic. I could pull out panel of his cityscapes and fill this column with how natural they feel, and how of the period they are. From the random strangers in the streets to the taxi-filled streets and the grimy and decrepit buildings, Mazzucchelli shows a real feel for the city. And I love all the extra work he put into the pages with various tone effects. They have to be seen at this original size to truly appreciate them.

His art style, in general, shifts a lot in the course of the book. Some pages look ripped out of the Miller era of the title, while others hew pretty closely to Gene Colan's line. Then things change again, and characters suddenly look like completely different people. Photo reference starts popping up in the book, to the point where the final page slips into the Uncanny Valley where Greg Land dwells. There's also a quality to his ink line that reminds me a lot of Miller and Klaus Janson's. I'm not sure I can put a finger on the technique being used to describe it, but it appears most frequently with the nurse character that Kingpin sends after Urich. She looks like someone stepping out of "Sin City".

Next to Matt, Ben Urich undergoes the biggest change, morphing into a caricature of himself as he finds himself deeper in trouble. I'm not sure whether to believe that this is Mazzucchelli attempting to mirror Urich's internal conflict with an external art change, or whether it's a simplification of the art in an attempt to hit his deadlines. I tend to think it's the latter, as Urich isn't alone in this, and Glorianna O'Breen (ya think she's Irish?) has some major changes along the way, like Mazzucchelli's model moved on to a better paying gig halfway through his run here.

Mazzucchelli's storytelling is beyond reproach. I was never lost in the story at all. The layouts are fairly straightforward grids of varying sizes, which Mazzucchelli mixes up as he goes along. Whether it's a pair of bold action panels filling up a page or a series of quick looking smaller panels to expand out a small movement of some kind, the sequential storytelling stuff is never a problem, even on a larger page size which can sometimes illuminate or put the spotlight on any larger storytelling problem. Your eyes are confidently led along the way.

The book has some nice bonuses, including a two page introduction from Mazzucchelli himself, to help set the stage for how the book came together and how he and Miller worked on it, plus a few of the original pages in color form to show you how the overlays worked, albeit shown in thumbnail size (relatively-speaking). Mazzucchelli's art was a key piece of my understanding for the book, though. In reading the issue, I saw a lot of Miller's influence on Mazzuchelli's storytelling and art. I wasn't sure if Miller did layouts or not. He didn't. The two worked extremely close together, though, so there's some bleedthrough in either direction. (And I love the part about how Miller helped Mazzucchelli out of a deadline crunch with his script in a way that worked for the story.)

Some more recent (2007) Mazzucchelli Daredevil drawings appear between chapters in the book. They're done in a completely different style from the rest of the book, so they're a bit off note. They're nice to see, but they feel more like Mark Waid's "Daredevil" than "Born Again."

I suspect those pin-ups are there to help pagination, which is something the trade paperback didn't bother considering. There are no double page splashes in the book, so you might argue that it doesn't matter. I have to think, though, that the left side page reveals were often carefully considered by Miller and Mazzucchelli. Those kinds of details aren't left to chance. In that way, this AE is a better representation of the material. (I don't know how the ad pages spaces out in the original comics, but I know that Page One of any comic of the era is always a right side page. The trade paperback misses that, and the AE works to nail that detail down.)

The overall book design is great, too. The chapter listing page is superimposed perfectly on a map of Manhattan. The front cover's logo is spot varnished. The chosen art for the title pages and the insider cover spreads all look great. Pages are stitched in tight. It's not that I've been trying to rip them out, but that I've done a lot of flipping through this book while preparing this review and never felt anything give.

There's more to talk about with this volume, but I'll save it for next week. I have some thoughts on Frank Miller's writing style for this story and how it has evolved over time. There's also lots to point out about the lettering in this issue and some of the production miscellany we can see from the original art for the first time.

It is asking a lot for $125 for a seven issue comic book collection, but the format and the scope of this project is impressive enough to warrant the price. This book won't be for everyone. For original art fans, for process junkies, for Mazzucchelli adherents, and for fans of exceptional comic book packaging, it's a worthy addition to their collections. If you just want to read Frank Miller's follow-up to his legendary "Daredevil" run, feel free to pick up Marvel's trade and enjoy. This book is something different from that, and something wonderful.

And if that's not all impressive enough for you, the next "Artist's Edition" is a "Groo" collection. Picture a double-page spread from that series drawn by Sergio Aragones. Remember all those little people cramped into the backgrounds? I can't wait to see what they look like at full size. It will definitely be an interesting take on the "Artist's Edition" format. Not that previous artists haven't shown remarkable detail, but that Aragones' art is so cram packed, I'll be curious to see if the lack of color hurts the composition of the panels, or if Aragones is so good that he's always taken that into account when he designs his pages and we just never realized it.

ONE LINK, TEN YEARS OF COMICS TO READ

I can't believe it's been ten years already since "Stylish Vittles" hit the summer convention season. This week, Taylor Page has made the entirety of his classic autobiographical comic available as an eBook. FOR FREE. There's a donation button above the downloads link, and I'd suggest giving a few bucks in appreciation, but it's not a requirement. You'll have to go through Google to download the PDF, but it's worth the extra step or two to get there.

You have three options for your download. The first is everything plus the kitchen sink, including "thousands of pages" of sketchbook and development material. The second is the complete collection of just the books. The third is the "Director's Cut," which pares out all the unnecessary stuff (I'm guessing that includes the opening of the first book) to get just to the heart of the matter. It's the Reader's Digest version of things. Depending on how big a download you want, pick your poison. It's all good.

There's a lot of reading in there. The Process Appendix part of the half-gigabyte kitchen sink download is complete overkill meant for ridiculous completists and anal retentive process junkies. Yes, that's why I liked it, though I admit I've only flipped through it and scanned random pages. It would be too exhausting even for me to sit down and read in its entirety.

And due to the use of double-page spreads throughout the books, you might find yourself flipping your iPad around to read some pages, or squinting at the smallish text. Blowing this up to full screen on a large computer monitor might be the ideal way to go.

If you need further convincing, here's a breakdown of past Pipeline reviews:

That should keep you all busy for a week or so. Enjoy!

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TAGS:  pipeline, idw publishing, daredevil, frank miller, david mazzuchelli, stylish vittles, taylor page

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