TERRY DODSON HAS A "MUSE"
Due out in March from Humanoids is "Muse," a ridiculously beautiful piece of artwork from Terry Dodson, originally printed in French and now translated to English by Humanoids. It'll be $35 to collect the two albums under one cover, but it'll be printed at full size (9.5" x 12.5") and in hardcover. I can't ask for a better format choice than that.
"Muse" is the story of a young well-endowed woman named Coraline, who gets a job as something of a nanny to the terror of a steampunk estate. Her job description is left up to the imagination, but she's basically there to keep the boy distracted and to maybe get him out of his lab where he's invented all manner of curious gizmos, from steampunk horses to treehouse builders. When Coraline starts having bad dreams that feel all too real, a mystery is sparked. What happened to the previous nannies? What is this boy's true story? Why is he so secretive? What are the other helpers in the house holding back from her? I'm not entirely sure I get it all, even after two reads, but I hardly care. This is an art-centric book, and it succeeds on that front wildly.
Terry Dodson's art has never been more impressive. The coloring from Rebecca Rendon and Dodson, himself, does a remarkable job in showing off the art and being attractive in its own right. The style feels painterly without being either too brush stroke-filled or too perfectly Photoshopped. The color palette is fitting for the era the book is set in. It almost feels like a color book printed a hundred years ago, if tha makes sense. It has muted colors, well defined shadows, and strongly differentiated foregrounds and backgrounds. Looking back on it now a second time, I can see even more detail added in by the coloring than I noticed the first time. That's a good sign that the coloring does its job without getting in the way. It's not until you purposefully pay attention to it that you start noticing all its intricacies.
The story from Denis-Pierre Filippi is tailor-made for Dodson's work. It's centered on an attractive young woman who loses her clothes with nearly alarming frequency. It's a Good Girl art book, for sure. Particularly in the dream sections of the book, Coraline has a tendency to find herself in scenarios where clothes are easily ripped, to the point where it becomes a running gag. There is full top-half front nudity in the book, which makes it all the more odd in the panel or two where her hair just happens to land just right to obscure certain anatomical features.
It is more than just that, though. As Americans, we're not used to seeing that in our comics, so it'll obviously be the thing that jumps out at us. But the opening scene, alone, is breathtaking in its visuals. In it, Coraline arrives at the gate in front of the estate, where she's met by the butler-type character who ushers her to the house via a fancy steampunk car on track tracks. Along the way, we're treating to lush imagery of a countryside leading up to an old stone castle atop a hill. The mechanical bits that were so highly detailed on the car are nothing compared to what's inside the house.
An opening half page splash pulls the camera way back to show a house filled with gears and swinging arms and pulleys. To me, these pages -- and those where the boy drives her over the lake and through the countryside -- are as impressive as any of the chance encounters Coraline has in her dreamscape in which she loses her underwear.
Filippi writes a very visual story. Coraline's dreams are a montage of great high concept bits, including pirates, Tarzan, Titanic, natives who want to eat her, fairy tales, and Arabian Nights, amongst others. There's a lot of great design work spread throughout these pages. While it might not all fit together as seamlessly as you might like as a story, in the end it's still fun to look at and keeps you turning the pages to see what might happen next.
The art is shot directly off the pencils, which will likely be a bone of contention for some. I liked Salvador Larroca's artwork best on "X-Treme X-Men" when it was shot directly from the pencils with colors by Liquid!, so perhaps I'm in the minority. I like it this way. It allows for some creative shadow techniques that solid black inks won't allow, and preserves some of the original energy of the art. There are a few times when things seem under-rendered and that maybe an inker might have filled that in, but that also seemed to happen most in the second half of the book. Either deadline pressures loomed or my expectations were set so high in the beginning that there was no chance of the rest of the book holding up.
The trick with so-called digital inking is in darkening the pencils just a tad so that the lighter lines don't disappear, while the bolder lines don't look like smudged charcoal. Then, you need to pair them up with a colorist whose work doesn't muddy the lines. The work of Dodson and Rendon highlights the artwork, maintaining a lighter tone, particularly in the second book, which gets very light with its saturation and contrast. While some of the darkening of the pencil lines is inconsistent from page to page, I thought the overall effect worked.
I read an advance copy of the book from a PDF file. At full screen size on my 27" screen, the pages are the exact same size as what the final printed book will be. I will be lining up to buy the paper edition. I'm sold on this format. Art like this should not be shrunk down. The artist expected it to be seen at this size and drew for it, so let's show our support for that.
The story is not the book's strong suit, though the mystery of it will carry you through. I'm not sure I buy the ending completely. A couple of elements pop at in the second book almost at random just to make the ending seem like it was pre-planned. (Namely, the scene in the local town in the second book felt tacked on at the last minute to introduce the grand finale.) But there's much to recommend this book, from the strong characters to the visual spectacle. That's the selling point of the book, though: Dodson's artwork. On that front, the book delivers.
I just hope even half the people who claimed to enjoy Dodson's artwork when he was drawing X-Men characters will see fit to give this book a try next month. That would make it a huge hit.
XIII: THE IRISH VERSION
"XIII" is an interesting Franco-Belgian comic. I think most people in the States here would remember it for a breakthrough video game a decade ago. It was amongst the earliest to use cel-shading to give it that comic book look while being full motion. Or maybe they remember the television mini-series starring Val Kilmer a few years back, when everyone thought it was a "Bourne Identity" or "24" rip-off. (Granted, it was inspired by the "Bourne Identity" novel at the start.) If you're in Canada, you also had two seasons of a television series that followed-up that movie in 2011-2012, with a cast that cost significantly less.
But, no, it's first and foremost a popular Franco-Belgian comic series that started nearly 30 years ago, wrapping up in 2007. (Recently, a new "cycle" of the series has started with a new creative team.) Marvel published a translation of the first two volumes in 2007, but never followed up. (Oddly enough, it's still available via their Digital Comics Unlimited program, and you can read a lengthy excerpt of it for free.) Leave it to Cinebook, then, to pick up the English language pieces and finally publish the whole series. The second-to-last book of the first cycle, "The Irish Version" just came out last month and is notable for its guest artist: Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius.
I haven't kept up with the series, so I was jumping into this volume cold. I'm happy to report that it's a strong read on its own merits. If you know absolutely nothing about the series, you can dip into this book and get in and out with a complete story that you'd understand. There's a little bit at the end to tie it into the series as a whole, but the story is perfectly self-contained. I'm sure devoted fans of the series can read a lot more into it. I know from reading some promotional materials that this issue fills in the last remaining gap in the main character's knowledge, but the book wasn't lacking for that one lost surprise on this relative newbie.
The biggest surprise to me is Giraud's art. I'm used to seeing his "Blueberry" work, his "Incal" stuff, and his conceptual Marvel work (the posters, the Silver Surfer book). Everything seems loose, fantasy-based, filled with high concept designs, and possessed of a very specific and recognizable style. Giraud hides most of that in this book, choosing instead to stay largely in the style of the series' regular artist, William Vance. It's more of that "Largo Winch" look, where everyone looks very real and the backgrounds are littered with glorious detail. There are no great exaggerations, and no bombastic panel-to-panel storytelling. Everything is pretty straightforward here.
This isn't to mean it's boring. I just don't want to disappoint those looking for "Arzach" and finding, instead, something that looks like a spy movie. Giraud plays with his panel arrangements throughout the book, though; it's not a simple three-tier layout on every page. There are open spots for the captions, half-panels to illustrate faster action, and spots where the backgrounds drop entirely to white to highlight the action in the foreground. They're never difficult to read, and you'll never have an issue knowing which panel to look at next.
He also uses a lot of high angles, which is something you don't see in a lot of comics these days. He can bring his 'camera' immediately above the action for a down angle, or pull it back up and away for an interesting Dutch Angle from on high. The vast majority of them are used only in scenes where you could put a theoretical camera in that space, though. When there's a scene in a confined office or back room, the 'camera' tends to stay lower. But once you have a busy outdoors scene or a large warehouse type of space, Giraud chooses his wide angles with a higher perspective than many other artists might use.
"XIII" is a wordy comic. As the title ("The Irish Version") suggests, the bulk of the book is set in Ireland, during the time when car bombs were all too frequent. An introductory text page from Van Hamme gives you a detailed history, in fact, of the last 100 years of Irish history, just to help set up what is to come. It's very helpful in understanding the story, so definitely read it. Most of the book is a flashback, with narration from the lead Irish man. It's a slow read, but not a boring one. Don't confuse the two. This is the story of a single character whose life experiences and family best illustrate everything that was going on in that country for decades. Thankfully, it's been a while since "a car bombing in Ireland" was a regular feature of the nightly news. I bet for most readers in their 20s and earlier, it's not even a memory. Geopolitics never stops, but occasionally they do get a little less bloody in places.
The most difficult part of reading the book is dealing with the colors. Credited to Giraud and Claire Champeval, there are far too many dark pages. Cinebook uses a solid white paper stock that soaks up the color. Perhaps in a higher-end album format with glossier pages it wouldn't be the case, but there are a lot of pages you'll strain to read through. I'd scan them to show you, but it wouldn't do the pages justice. They'd look flat brown, with tinges of green. Giraud doesn't frequently use black areas of ink, so you're working extra hard to read all the thin line work in a sea of brown and darker brown.
The lettering works in that it doesn't use an awful font, though it does carry on Cinebook's frustrating practice to use the crossbar-I in the middle of words. The sound effects, I'm betting, are Giraud originals. They look great. They're obviously handcrafted; they have such life and bounce to them. They make every panel they're in look a little bit livelier, whether it's from a car explosion or a gun firing.
"XIII: The Irish Version" is a great self-contained story to sample the series with. Yes, it'll spoil one of the reveals of the overall series for you, but you still have 16 previous books and 12 other identities to bring you those shock surprises and twists. If you want to be sold on Van Hamme's writing in the first place, give this one a shot. (Or try "Largo Winch.") And if you want a sample of Moebius' work, this will give you one. It might not be his most iconic, but it's definitely solid work that carries a wordy script. It's $11.95.
But here's the catch: It's not available in the States yet. It has been published in the U.K. already, but won't be available here until April. On the bright side, that gives you a couple of months to go read the first 15 books if you're really spoiler-averse!
PIPELINKS AND QUICK THOUGHTS
- Heidi MacDonald breaks the happy news that AdHouse is going to publish a collection of Boulet's 24-hour comic, "The Darkness" in April. I just mentioned his blog in this column a couple of weeks ago. Let's hope this is only the start, as Boulet has a large backlog of awesome blog entries that could be reprinted, a la Lewis Trondheim's "Little Nothings." Also, Boulet is doing a tour through the U.S. at that time. Very exciting news. Jump on this one, folks. JUMP.
- I mentioned Don Rosa's difficulties with Disney's atrocious comics reprint policies here last week, and not for the first time. But as bad as those policies are, I have to wonder how much those non-royalty arrangements made publishing Duck books profitable at all in the last 20 years in this country. Part of the reason Gemstone/Gladstone could publish as much as it did, I imagine, is that their publishing overhead was (relatively) low. They never needed to pay an artist. Yes, they gave work to Rosa and Van Horn and a few select others for new covers. Yes, Todd Klein and others got paid for lettering, as did translators. But the "top line" creative names didn't cost them a thing. When the books were selling numbers in the basement, how did the publishers continue to pay their printing bills? Their titles were made up of reprints that they didn't have to pay for. Pretty sweet deal. I'm not saying I like it or that it's a good excuse or that we all shouldn't feel just a tad dirty for enjoying these "free" comics over the years, but it is what it is.
- Speaking of Rosa, here's a cool commission he did, incorporating the commissioner's house into the art. Awesome.
- Tom Bancroft's "Opposite Forces" has come to Kickstarter. Bancroft is hoping to raise the funds there to put together a trade paperback collection of his four-issue mini-series, which will now be fully inked and colored. The book also has a bunch of cool bonus material in it. I reviewed the second issue in 2002 and the fourth and finale issue in 2004.
- Non-comics, but fascinating for my fellow word news: 12 Letters That Didn't Make the Alphabet. If you want to know how the ampersand got its name or why "Ye Olde" is the same as "The Old," here you go.