Pipeline: T'was the Season for "Li'l Santa"

Wed, January 2nd, 2013 at 8:58am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
0

I'm feeling nostalgic for last week, so please forgive me this look at two books about Santa Claus that I've already reviewed. That would be "Li'l Santa" (2003) and "Happy Halloween, Li'l Santa" (2005), both from NBM.

This pair of oversized hardcover books from NBM reprints some of the best and most animated silent comic book storytelling I've ever seen. Artist Thierry Robin's characters are delightfully cute, imaginative, and energetic. Even a simple scene of Santa Claus waking up, getting changed, and going out the door is a process worth detailing. (Credit to the legendary Lewis Trondheim on the writing for devising the steps, of course.) When you get to the larger splashes and double-page spreads, it's easy to get lost in the world while looking at all the little details, whether it be in the elf's workshop or in the Halloween character's haunted house of cute ghouls.

The stories are told in a 16 panel grid, packed full of little activities and smaller gags that lead up to a larger storyline, whether it be in the way Santa saves Christmas or his local forest. The Halloween edition is still available through NBM's website, though the first book is out of print. That's a shame, but it's still worth placing an order. I prefer the first, but take what you can get; you'll still be happy. If you like Skottie Young's style, I think you'll see some similarities in line and intention here.

From the opening pages of "Li'l Santa," here's the title character waking up and getting changed as he walks out the door.

Re-reading the book seven years later, I start noticing the little artistic tricks. Robin uses his foregrounds and backgrounds very well, adding layers to panels to create depth in his storytelling. Sometimes it's just as simple as showing the top of a tree or an elf's hat down in the corner, but it works. When you look at a panel, you look into it. He sacrifices that a lot of times when the scene stands still for a character interaction to happen, but that's with a purpose. It's when the acting happens that your eyes are best guided directly to the middle of the panel. The background, once established, can drop off to concentrate on the action.

I talked a lot about this in my review of "Sergio Aragones Groo: Artist's Edition" in November, and you can see more examples of it there.

Robin also does a neat trick in guiding your eye in multiple directions in the same panel. It's a zig-zag shape that packs a lot into one static rectangle on the page. In reading the book, these were the stand-out panels. Let's take a look at a few of them.

This one is more of an "S" curve than anything, but it combines well with foreground/midground/background to tell a story. It's Santa leading the Abominabable Snow (that is the correct spelling) and a long line of elves on an adventure. The movement in this panel is striking, going down and then up, left to right, and back to front. Heck, my eye started with the smoke coming out of the chimney, so there's even more curves to it. The great thing is, this bit of motion doesn't become a gimmick. It's a nice motion that you might not notice unless you're looking for it. But once you see it, you find it in other places, too.

This one takes advantage of the Snow Dragon's natural snake-like appearance. His body moves at a couple of different angles before his face looks in another one, in the direction Santa and Abominabable are running away from him. The trees flying around help a little bit here, too. And, again, we have action happening from the background all the way up to the foreground.

Again, the Snow Dragon's shape helps as the chase continues. He's a dominating figure in the panel, taking up half the space. His body is moving right to left, while looking off to the right, where Santa and an elf are running not just left to right, but also climbing up to the top of the panel and out towards the reader. You're almost spiraling through the panel. Robin knows how to play with dimensions, even without 3D glasses.

This one's a little simpler. It's going in two directions. The elves are lined up and pulling down and to the left, towards the reader. The ship they're lugging about is moving up and to the left. Key here is that Robin chose to draw the ship in this panel a moment before it drops down and slides uncontrollably down the hill. He's setting the scene here, and adding tension. Gary Larson once wrote of "The Far Side" that the funniest gags were the ones that didn't show what was going to happen, but rather the moment before. Let the reader fill in the blank. That same tension works in this panel. The background is just a quick scribble of some trees off in the negative space to the left. They're inconsequential, but help provide scale and a little extra color to the panel.

Finally, there's this tall panel that takes up an entire column of the page. It's the characters marching off to their home in the tree that you see in the background. Robin has laid out half the track to get there in the form of ice bridges. It's almost counter-intuitive how he places the characters as walking away from the tree, even though you know they're heading along the path that will get them there. It's a simple, quiet panel, but one that's ten times more interestingly drawn like this than just as a couple of characters walking in a straight line to a big tree right in front of them. Robin plays the angles.

We're used to all the usual rules about action moving left to right and top to bottom. We've heard about how any action going in the opposite direction should be meant to be antagonistic, or out of sorts. We hear about artists who draw backgrounds or let them slide. And, yes, rules are meant to be broken. But Robin gives us a chance to look for a different type of storytelling in sequential narrative. Not everything needs to move in a straight line. Sometimes, you get more interesting results, particularly when paired with action that happens across multiple panes in the same panel.

Now, for the frustrating part of this column: I discovered from the French Wikipedia that Dupuis published five different albums worth of "Li'l Santa" material. Or, as they call it, "Petit Pere Noel."˜ There's a story of a runaway robot, a recovered present 60 years later, and one neither I nor Google can translate into anything sensical. (It's "On a volé le courrier du Petit Père Noël".) You can see cover scans and read the descriptions (en francais) by clicking on the numbers 1 - 5 on this book dealer's page. These books are not available and have never been reprinted in the States.

The funny thing about this is that it wouldn't take any translation at all to print these books. Cut a deal with the rights holders, get the files, and print your money. You don't need to pay a colorist or a translator or a letterer. Such a book is front-loaded with profit -- except that too many people in North America wouldn't buy it because it's slightly oversized and wouldn't fit neatly in their miniaturized bookshelves. Kids books don't sell in the Direct Market. And Li'l Santa is a "seasonal" character. Maybe someone can turn the series into a collector's item by packaging all of the books together into one expensive oversized hardcover?

The simpler solution is to order it from a book dealer overseas and pay the high shipping costs. If you're just looking for the NBM books, maybe try eBay as your backup solution. At this point, I'd even take a digital comic, though the smaller screen on an iPad might be a problem. Thankfully, my iMac's 27 inch screen is larger than the book, so if it's a high enough resolution file, I'm in. Isn't it time the European comics producers started publishing their stuff in America, digitally? Maybe that's the entry point for them. Is it a licensing issue for them?

It's all a big fat shame, and I hope it can be worked out some day.

WAS 2012 THE YEAR OF THE CREATOR?

A year ago this week, I wrote a Pipeline titled "2012: The Rise of the Creator?" It wasn't exactly a trailblazing editorial. It wasn't the biggest leap in logic. It just followed all of the tides that were rising at that point in the comics industry. It correctly predicted that Image Comics would be the "Comics Publisher of the Year" for 2012. DC stumbled after initial success with the New 52. Marvel is having a bit of a changing of the guard with its creators right now, but had some great successes in its publishing program. Problem is, it feels like more of the same old, same old. Image pumped out a string of surprise hits and welcomed in a series of new projects from new names, or names that had since gone on to Marvel and DC and were now returning.

Some of my predictions in that column were for behind-the-scenes things that I can't verify the results of. Is there a new economy for independent packagers or editors to help out creators moving into the independent comics world? I haven't seen it, but maybe I'm just not aware of it.

One thing I did say last year that I'm still looking for and expecting is "The industry is overdue for another Image-level exodus event." Take a look at the list of names working at Image now. Few have defected completely from Marvel/DC, but many are returning after a long absence or are testing the waters for the first time. Creators seem more willing than ever now to parlay their higher-profile gigs at the Big Two into a creator-owned title elsewhere. But they're also a cautious lot, not ready to burn bridges and leave for higher ground without a back-up plan. I don't think we'll see Image II. I think we'll continue to see a slow leak, replaced over time by a new generation that will repeat the cycle again.

One other prediction I wrote in that column:

That said, digital comics aren't done evolving. We still have a way to go before that market shakes out, particularly in price points and DRM. 2012 will be the year we see some corporate changes, too. There are too many digital distributors. There are bound to be mergers or bankruptcies from companies who can't find additional funding. It'll be interesting to see where all the chips land at the end of the year.

DRM is still a silly issue, but Graphic.ly did jump out of the digital comics business to expand to be more of a digital book publisher. So that's starting to happen. We're also seeing Comixology continue to strengthen its grip on the world of direct comics, becoming the one stop shop that everyone thinks of for downloading digital comics. We're also seeing statistics proving out the theory that digital will increase the base, and not suck the Direct Market dry. Anecdotally, I can't remember a time where I've heard so many people I didn't associate with comics talking about the comics they read on their iPads recently. Digital comic apps make it so easy to have access to any comics, past or present, that it's bringing in more of the sort of casual readers we never thought we'd see again. That's encouraging.

I still think we're in for more changes from the other distant second digital distributors, though. There's just not enough for them to grow on right now. And with Amazon growing with collected editions now, where's the growth space for a straight-up digital comics play? I'm speaking Silicon Valley Venture Capital-ese now, aren't I? Ugh.

Does 2012 qualify as the Year of the Creator? I think we made great strides in that area, and saw some remarkable successes, including incredible sales for "The Walking Dead" #100 and "Fatale" being so successful that it's been upgraded to a monthly series. We saw the kind of distribution experimentation we'd only get from creator-owned books, like "CyberForce" and its free first few issues.

I think, though, that these things are still the tip of the iceberg. We have much further to go. The biggest hurdle creator-owned comics has to face is still a primary distribution network built for The Big Two. THat's why, to me, the fates of creator-owned comics and digital comics are so closely intertwined.

In other words, last year's predictions are still a work in progress, with bullet points that have yet to come true, but someday will. I'm sure of it. I wish they would happen quicker, but these things take time.

AND FINALLY...

Our thoughts go out to Peter David and his family right now, as he begins his recovery from a stroke this past week. I watched Twitter with fascination when the news broke on Sunday. In an industry that's so often pulling itself apart and cracking in two, this one piece of news brought about the biggest groundswell of support I think I've ever seen, from all corners of the comics internet. We've all read Peter David's work over the years; we're all hoping to read plenty more in the years ahead.

As I write this on Sunday night, the original blog post at David's site is showing more than 2000 Facebook shares and 500 tweets. It's nice to see. Good job, Comics Land.

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TAGS:  pipeline, lil santa, nbm publishing, thierry robin

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