Pipeline: Bikini Cowboys, Marvel Knights & Rob Liefeld

Tue, May 21st, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

BIKINI COWBOY

Of all the comics I've reviewed in recent months or years, there's none more improbably named than Luke Weber's "Bikini Cowboy," a newly available graphic novel on comiXology. It's also being serialized on Yahoo!'s Tumblr site. Right now, the web page is about a quarter of the way through the book. The final product weighs in at 375 pages of story for just $5.99 at comiXology. It's a steal, though I suppose the more patient might be fine with wading through the website to see all the pages.

"Bikini Cowboy" is set in the early 1800s and stars a cowgirl in a yellow string bikini, hat, and cowboy boots carrying a surfboard through the desert. She's out there looking for something, but someone else is out there looking for her. The book becomes a race for her life and an attempt to understand what it's all about, all while cracking wise and beating up bad guys in creative ways. The book takes odd turns, delights in its own anachronisms, and displays a very modern sort of feminism along the way. Sometimes, it just gets a little weird and almost out of hand, but that's part of the entertainment of the whole thing.

The cowboy -- Whisky Jill McKay -- saves a boy named Rod, and introduces him to parts of her world that would otherwise seem completely foreign and unknown. Along the way, we learn of two of her "sisters," meet one of them, and get hints towards a larger story that never gets explained. I'm OK with that. There's room for a sequel if he wanted to do one, but Weber puts together enough in this book to be satisfying and feel complete. As a one off centered on the crazy visual of a skinny cowgirl in a yellow bikini carrying a surfboard, Weber infuses more life and creativity than anyone might have given the book credit for at first blush.

Weber is an animator by trade, something that's readily apparent from the opening pages of the book. The characters move in the panels in exaggerated ways by comic book norms. It's intensely expressive in the hands, face, and body posture seen throughout the book. Scenes that are just progressions of poses tell more story than what others try to do with a paragraph-long caption box and a stiff pose.

The black and white pages utilize a lot of gray washes to add depth to the scene, while the final ink lines are fairly skinny, like the whole thing was whipped together in short bursts with a ball point pen. Some textures are done with what looks like a charcoal pencil, but the overall effect is a very loose and energetic line. If you liked Thomas Boatwright's "Cemetery Blues" art, for example, you'll like the style here. If you like the stylistic tendencies of "Daisy Kutter," you'll find something to like here, too. If you like westerns like "Lucky Luke," this one might appeal to you as an oddball cousin. Early pages look to be done with a rougher pencil line, but as the pages wear on, the art "simplifies" itself into a more scratchy inkier line. There are less details and less attention paid to the backgrounds, but the book doesn't suffer from it. The character work is still top notch.

Sometimes, the lettering is wrong in multiple ways. Check out panel one here, where "Witch's Honor" becomes "Witche's Honor." I'm still not sure if that's a typo or a botched possessive/pluralization error.

Most impressively, Weber doesn't go for the cheap titillation in this title. Yes, the main character wears a string bikini and is scrawny looking and has a cute face. But she's never posing for the reader. There's no brokeback poses in the book. She's not even well endowed. She's never thrusting her shoulders back or her hips out to sexualize herself. She's just an active scrappy fighter with a cute smile. It's a refreshing break what you might have assumed a book like "Bikini Cowboy" might be.

If there's one downfall to the whole book, it's the lettering. I like how Weber uses a thick black line for the balloons, and he butts them up against the panels nicely, but he also uses Whizbang for the font. That was state of the art computer lettering 20 years ago, and it looked ugly then. But there's only one shape for each letter, and the overall font is cheesy and awkward. (Amazingly, you can still pay $35 for the font if you want to use it in a comics project of your own. Please don't.) His balloons aren't often big enough for the words he's cramming in there, and in some cases he even shrinks the font down to fit the words in the balloon.

Occasionally, there's hand lettering for sound effects or special vocal effects. They don't usually work well, though. I'm guessing the lettering was the last thing done on a grueling schedule to produce the webcomic. It's a shame because it does impact the overall look of the book, and the multiple typos and misspellings are downright tragic. The book could use a light-handed editor to catch the obvious problems like plural/possessive confusion.

That nit-pick aside, "Bikini Cowboy" is a creative western with an animated style that appeals to me. The low price is right, and there are plenty of pages you can sample right now if you want to try the book first. Weber packs a lot of interesting high concepts into this book, and the overall effect is a strong one. Don't complain about the high price of comics today and then not give this book a shot. $6 for nearly 380 pages is a steal.

MARVEL KNIGHTS #1

Once upon a time, when Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were helming the scrappy startup "Marvel Knights" lineup of titles, Chuck Dixon was given the street level title "Marvel Knights" to write. The late great Eduardo Barreto handled the pencils with Klaus Janson on inks. The series ended just 15 issues later (all are available at comiXology), and famously led to Dixon's outcry against Marvel's ageism. This week, I re-read the first issue again, and was just as entertained as I was by it the first time, more than a decade ago.

"Marvel Knights" was a team book without a team. Chuck Dixon brought together a diverse character set from amongst Marvel's street level superpowered set and had them fight oddball foes. It's long-time Dixon favorite, the Punisher, who leads the way, discovering a warehouse filled with dead mafioso and a green glowing hole in the floor. Since he knows when something is above his pay grade, he goes to Daredevil for help, who goes to Black Widow, who had just met up with Dagger. Shang Chi is a side plot that doesn't fit in just yet. Each step of the way, Dixon employs his trademark style with solid action bits and fast-paced dialogue to tell the story and establish the characters. The meeting between Punisher and Daredevil, in particular, is wonderfully staged. Daredevil is introduced chasing down a street punk, who Punisher shoots in the knees to stop. The punk makes for great comedic relief in the scene while also showing the reader the different attitudes of the two characters. Punisher shows little concern for life, while Daredevil is all about law and order.

Dixon throws in a few humorous bits of character-driven dialogue, and keeps everyone in motion throughout the issue. A lot happens in these 22 pages. It's a fast read, but not a thin one. There are four or five scenes in the issue, in total, but they flow nicely together, banging up against each other hard. The moments are nicely timed, without resorting to the kinds of carry-over captions that Alan Moore popularized in "Watchmen" and which dominated so much of comics for the decade that followed.

Barreto's artwork is beautiful, feeling both modern and classical. His characters don't look like supermodels. Yes, they're thin and attractive and fit, but they aren't posing like they're in an underwear ad. Their fighting stances often look nonchalant, but not hyper-stylized or pushed to an extreme for the sake of seeming more than human.

Klaus Janson's heavy inks work here. On a street level book taking place at night with some dark characters, his blocks and black inks fit the tone perfectly. Occasionally, he pays extra attention to a texture, and his expert line work comes through, like on Punisher's five o'clock shadow or a brick wall's gritty scratchiness.

The bright white light is tinted blue. The inky black sky is blue. Everything is blue!

Avalon Studios handles the colors, with a clean look that lets the colorful characters pop off of brighter backgrounds. Blues dominate empty warehouses and night skies, while the reds of Daredevil's costume and Black Widow's hair provide a natural contrast. Steel colors and darker blues are also abundant. The book has a look and feel to it that feels planned without being forced. I like that.

Comicraft handled the lettering, as they did for most of the Marvel Knights titles of the time, if not all, as memory serves. In this case, specifically, future Top Cow mainstay Troy Peteri did the honors, still using Comicraft's fonts. He'd move onto his own signature font and style a little later.

Nelson DeCastro would take over the inks on the book a few issues later, and the book only lasted 15 issues, but it's a fun throwback title done at a time when Marvel was looking for a new footing. Dixon's scripts and Barreto's artwork set the tone and gave readers characters to care about. It's a shame it didn't last longer, but it's almost a bigger surprise, in retrospect, that it existed at all. I guess I'll just be thankful for what we got.

Dixon returned to DC after this, for a short-lived tenure there that ended abruptly. He's never dished the dirt about what happened there, but quickly found his way to CrossGen, where he wrote the excellent "Way of the Rat" amongst other titles. Comics needs more of Dixon right now. If nothing else, he could keep DC on schedule single-handedly...

OF LIEFELD AND COMICS COLORING

You know what the internet needs more of? Serious analytical discussion of Rob Liefeld's storytelling tools. I'm serious. Rather than pointing and laughing at a bad (and likely rushed) Captain America promo shot, let's take a look at his earliest art and discuss what it's trying to do and how well it works. It can't be analyzed in the more formal language of modern comics analysis, no. It needs someone to look at it from a different angle. Thankfully, Sarah Horrocks is now doing that. The first two of three parts are up. They're an entertaining read and a serious defense of the storytelling style of Liefeld's "X-Force"/"New Mutants" work. If you keep an open mind, you'll learn some things from it, even if you wind up disagreeing with it.

The first entry is an analysis of perhaps Liefeld's brightest moment of that era, "X-Force" #4, with distinctive coloring by Brian Murray, who'd go on to work on Liefeld's "Supreme" book at Image. The impact of the coloring on the art is definitely worthy of discussion, particularly in how out of tune it was with the rest of Marvel at the time. It would be the only issue colored in that style, so I'm guessing Marvel Editorial didn't appreciate the bold new direction of it, either.

Check out Horrocks' other post about the awfulness of modern comic book coloring for more on the topic. It, too, is smart stuff. For example:

The First thing, like I said, is that the choices are extremely literal. Jeans are jean colored. Vest is all vest colored. So on and so forth. It's very boring—particularly when you think about how things change color every second of the day depending on light, depending on the color of the things they are next to—color is not an entrenched thing—it's a wavy thing that is constantly shifting to reflect time around it. One panel Superboy's vest could be bright pink, the next it could be blue and orange. Things shift.

Colorists are good at keeping directionality of light in mind. It is often what dictates where the gradients go. But when it comes to the effects of that light on the perceived color of what it's hitting, things often go downhill. I think a part of that might be defensive, though. Who wants to deal with hate mail from those who aren't well versed in color theory complaining that Superman's cape is the wrong shade of red, not realize that the scene is set in the Golden Hour when the light hitting it is pure orange and that might affect the perceived color? Just color it blood red and don't give the fanboys anything to howl about. It's the same way space ships make sound in the vacuum of space when firing their space lasers. It's not right, but it's expected and it's easier to do it that way than to be correct and look wrong.

The second part of Horrocks' Liefeld series is a look at his panel layouts. They are unorthodox by today's standards, wildly out of place, and seemingly nonsensical, even for stereotypical early 90s comics. But there's a method to Liefeld's madness there that Horrocks explores. Namely, she argues that his work is fun and appropriate for the story it's telling. What looks wild and reckless has actual storytelling purpose.

It's all wonderful stuff with lots of illustrations, and I hope you click through to give it a chance.

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TAGS:  pipeline, rob liefeld, x-force, bikini cowboy, marvel comics, marvel knights

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