Pipeline: Making Comics 'Special' Again

Tue, April 23rd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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MARVEL #1: X-MEN FOREVER

I took advantage of comiXology's recent Marvel #1 sale. I didn't bother downloading all 700 titles, though that might have been quicker than pushing the 400 buttons I did. I found enough new stuff to read and old stuff to give a second look to that I thought it might be fun to do some reviews here.

This week, let's run with "X-Men Forever" #1. Marvel published this series for 24 bi-weekly issues in 2009-2010. It gave Chris Claremont the chance to go back to the end of his milestone run on the series ("X-Men" #3) and tell the tales he would have told from there on out, had he not been shown the door. I've only read the first issue, but it's good enough that it makes me seriously consider reading more in the future.

The ease with which I slipped back into Claremontian prose was surprising to me. So much of comics has moved away from Claremont's more poetic styles. Dialogue has become ten times more important, abundant, and shown in larger balloons. Narration has been simplified to a Frank Milleresque shorthand, and thought balloons have been shown the door. Claremont uses all of those in this issue. He sticks to his guns and tells his stories in his style. Thank goodness for that, since it's the draw of the series.

If you liked Claremont's classic X-Men run, then this book would be a must-read. It carries forth the traditions of the series without skipping a beat. Yes, some of the trademarked phrases get used in dialogue, and the caption boxes explain plenty. The soap opera and melodrama are thick, as is the sexual tension and the team dynamics. Most notably, Jean Grey and Wolverine are having feelings for one another again, but Scott Summers is blind to it.

The art by Tom Grummett -- with inks by Cory Hamscher -- is perfect for the book. He can capture the early 90s look of Jim Lee's costume designs while updating their feel. The excessive cross-hatching and feathering is gone, though there are plenty of decorations in the ink line. Grummett is an overlooked journeyman. He's been in comics for a long time (and I loved his "Superboy" and "Robin" runs), and has a perfect style for this classic look of a superheroic book. He can draw a team book without resorting to cheats (extreme foreground characters blocking lots of panels, or backgrounds disappearing), and can establish a scene and then move freely around it without skipping a beat. His style is easy on the eyes, while also being uniquely his. He's another Todd Nauck or Dan Jurgens. His work is distinctly his own, but is rarely called out for being a great stylistic departure from the norm.

The gist of the book is simple: After killing Magneto, acolyte Fabian Cortez is on the run and the X-Men are out to get him. Meanwhile, Nick Fury (the white dude with the eye patch) is taking control of the X-Men for the sake of national security. The X-Men find Cortez, there's a fight, uncomfortable things happen between characters to kickstart future subplots, and the bad guy gets caught. It's a well-done story that's complete in one issue, but leaves lots of angles open for future stories. Everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, everyone is introduced, and everyone has something to do. Claremont wrote the book on keeping a superhero soap opera running for a decade, so he knows how to do this kind of thing. It's just a shame he's not in comics doing more of it today. In an era where creative teams don't stick around with comics very long, maybe his style that requires a longer run is just an uncomfortable fit?

Special credit goes to colorist Wilfredo Quintana, whose colors are bright and simple. They don't hide any of the art or the ink lines. Even when he colors a single scene in one color, it's more of a mostly-transparent overlay than an overpowering coloring trick.

This isn't a monotone panel. Quintana colors it in and then tints the panel, rather than filling everything with varying brightnesses of red.

Best of all, they brought in Tom Orzechowski to letter the series. The letterforms are clearly his, and it makes everything digestible. It helps to keep the classic look of the Claremontian X-Men together. He doesn't do a lot of his classic stylistic tricks in the issue, but we can probably blame that on the computer lettering and a touch of Marvel House Style. I wouldn't bet that such experimentation and creation with lettering wasn't welcome at the time. Or maybe it was Orzechowski's learning process with digital lettering. This is clearly his font, but it's just too perfect and too regular to be classic Orz styling.

There are five trade paperbacks that reprint the whole "X-Men Forever" series. Most of the original issues -- including the Annual, but minus the last four issues, oddly enough -- are available through the comiXology Marvel App today. I'm not racing out to buy them all right away, but they're going on my Wish List. Maybe I'll run across those trades on sale at a convention someday, or I'll need something fun and comfortable to read on a whim someday. I can picture downloading more of the issues for that.

Sorry to disappoint, but there's no "X-Factor Forever" (by Louise Simonsons) or "New Mutants Forever" (also with Claremont) on comiXology yet. Neither of those made it past an initial six-issue story arc.

RECLAIMING COMICS AS SPECIAL

During the festivities last Thursday marking the occasion of Superman's 75th anniversary, I saw one of John Byrne's "Superman" covers from around the time of the 50th anniversary. It brought me back to an early experience buying back issues at a comic shop. Or maybe it was at a local flea market. I forget which. But I remember paying $3 or $4 for that comic, and happily so. When I brought it home, I read it multiple times and treated it like gold. It was a comic from a creator I easily put in my Top Ten at the time, from a period just before I started reading comics. I had no access to that comic aside from the back issue bins, and it was from a run that I had heard only good things about. This was likely around 1992 or so, and the internet hadn't poisoned my mind yet.

Last week, I "bought" over 400 comics from comiXology as part of Marvel's Free #1s promotion. I've read and enjoyed a few of them already, but none hold the esteem or the importance of that random Superman comic from 25 years ago.

There's something to be said for scarcity, you know? You value more what's not easily or cheaply attained. You spend more time with it. You think about it more. You don't try to race through it because it was cheap and easy to get a hold of. I still have that Superman comic. Many of those Marvel digital comics I've already deleted from my iPad and will likely never read again. Yes, I can always download them again, so maybe that safety net made deleting the books easier. There's no risk to it, short of the distributor going under and taking everything with them.

But, still, it just feels different.

This isn't to say I want to restrict access to comics or create a new collectors' mentality. No, I like the idea of cheap and easily available comics for all. The more, the merrier. I don't ever want to live with the frustration of not having easy access to a piece of media I'd like to take in, whether that be a movie or a TV show or a comic. Ubiquity is awesome.

But it's different, and it's something we need to reteach ourselves. I think many of us have lost the value in certain things and treat them as too easily recyclable because everything is so much cheaper and more easily found today than 15 or 20 years ago. It started with the rise of trade paperbacks a decade or more ago, and only accelerated thanks to digital comics.

In writing this all out, it dawns on me that it's likely a big part of the reason I cherish my higher-end comics today. I prefer hardcover books. I love oversized editions. They're more expensive, often go out of print, and present the material in a way that isn't easily replicated. I'm not going for the largest number of comics I can find. I'm looking for the best and the best-presented. All of those things bring me back to the way I felt about comics as objects 20 years ago. They just seem more special, somehow.

I wish I could buy "special" for $4 again instead of $75 or $100.

PIPELINKS

    • I liked the way Byrne's stuff looked on the short-lived run on "Action Comics" a few years back, with Nelson on inks. I know Byrne hated it and made a big fuss about it (Nelson redrew some panels), but I liked the different look for Byrne's style. It helped add a new layer and changed the 'feel' of Byrne's work, which was a welcome branch out from the usual. I think a heavier-handed inker could improve much of what I've seen of Byrne's style lately, as a matter of fact.

        My "I'm An Old Fogey" moment of the week: I can remember going to San Diego not too long ago (OK, it was a decade ago) when I'd walk the two blocks from the hotel to the convention center and look at the people parking their cars in the half empty parking lots. Now, there's a lottery for parking spots under the convention center and I'm pretty sure those small outdoor parking lots are gone. I think maybe the Padres' stadium was built over them.

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    TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, x-men forever, chris claremont, superman, tom grummett

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