Pipeline: Revisiting Mike Kunkel's "Herobear"

Tue, May 28th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

A MORE CRITICAL SECOND LOOK AT "HEROBEAR AND THE KID"

I can't get enough of these transformation shots. Kunkel's sense of motion on the page is awesome.

As excited as I am to see Mike Kunkel's "Herobear and the Kid" return to the world of comics, it's been a decade since the book first came out. I haven't looked at it since its initial release. I have the original hardcover compilation of the series, though, and it's been on my bookshelf in a place of honor since its release. But I never cracked it open to reread it.

I did that this weekend, just to see if the book still holds up. My reaction is more mixed than I thought it would be. While the heart and soul of the book is still there, the art and comic book storytelling has some shortcomings that I find harder to forgive today than I did a decade ago. It's not that the book is bad, by any stretch, but rather that the series of nits I can pick start adding up.

To recap: When Tyler's grandfather dies, his family moves into the grandfather's house and accepts his inheritance. Included in that is a butler by the name of Henry and a stuffed polar bear on Tyler's bed. The stuffed polar bear, of course, becomes Herobear. Tyler becomes "The Kid." And the true inheritance from Grandpa is much bigger than you might suspect. It's revealed in the final part of the series, and it's a whopper. It also conveniently answers some questions of the series you might not have thought to ask, like "Why a polar bear?" or "Why is red the only color in the book?"

Along the way, we follow Tyler to school with a cast of characters including the overweight nerdy science friend, the beautiful girl of his dreams, and the three bullies who are merciless on poor hapless Tyler, who has a propensity to miss his bus and daydream out loud with embarrassing results.

The series is best remembered for its artistic style. An animator, Kunkel chose to reproduce the book directly from his pencils with all the guidelines still showing. The book was all black and white except for Herobear's red cape. There's also some gray wash being used. From the looks of it, it's produced with the old watered-down ink bottles and not a Photoshop effect after the fact. (I'm not sure anyone was doing that with Photoshop quite yet in 2001-2003.)

Watch the Herobear stuffed animal thrown about before assuming its new shape. Stretch and squash.

Kunkel's art is wonderful. When he picks his moments and shows characters in motion, his style has some of the most fluid artwork I've ever seen in comics. His ability to draw Herobear as a stuffed animal thrown about during his transformation into a larger living character gets me every time. The sense of weight and dynamism in those sequences is unreal. This is the work of an animator and not someone who learned to draw comics from reading other comics. It's clear Kunkel studied movement. In the sketchbook section at the back of the original hardcover reproduction of the work, there are two pages of loose gestural sketches of Herobear that show you all the evidence you need that Kunkel knows what he's doing. Preserving that energy is important for an artist like Kunkel, so reproducing the book straight from the pencils was the right way to go.

The drawbacks to the art are unrelated to that. First, there's the lettering. The first four issues used the same Whizbang font I gave "Bikini Cowboy" grief for last week. Ten years ago, it was more common, but still could have been replaced with something else. By the last issue, Comicraft had created a font for Kunkel based on his own handwriting. (You can buy it today for yourself.) It's an improvement, but it doesn't solve all of the issues. Kunkel is a lettering newbie. Even with Comicraft's font, the crossbar "I" still shows up in the middle of some words. The balloons are often the wrong size for the words they're trying to hold, and at times the balloon and the tail aren't joined together properly. It's cringe-worthy.

These looser gestural movements give you an idea of Kunkel's talents as an artist.

The robot villain of the book, X-5, speaks in a different font meant to reproduce a mechanical feel. Instead, it looks like a standard issue font being thrown awkwardly on top of a beautifully organic page. Also, the words are centered in the balloon, but the balloon is a rectangular shape. The reason you center the words in a balloon is because it's round and you're trying to fit them all in. Once the word balloon is square or rectangular, centering the words leads to lots of awkward white space.

And the sound effects aren't convincing in the book at all.

Storytelling-wise, the pages are incredibly busy. Kunkel would often use five tiers of panels. The panels were a variety of shapes, including triangular and circular. That makes the pages look cramped. One tier of panels would inevitably be very tiny, and the attempts to include backgrounds in those panels would lead to a compressed look that's too busy. I want this art to breathe more, even when it's simply kids talking in a school hallway. Yes, "Herobear and the Kid" could have used some decompression.

The gray tones in the book weren't always convincing, either. I think they don't work as well when you're reproducing a book straight from pencils. The gray washes next to the gray lines lead to a muddier look. It gets better as the book goes on, though. Like much of what I'm criticizing the book for this week, I think a lot of it comes from someone creating their first comic book and learning the ropes as they go.

The other problem with the washes is that they're all very literal. They're used to show how dark Tyler's hair is, or how hard a shadow is falling across a building, or how gray a kid's sweatshirt is. It's not a tool being used to help separate the planes of a panel or to help a character pop out from a busy background, for instance. Spotting blacks is important for comic strips and comic books to add weight and balance to the page, but this is not being used in that way. This feels inconsistent and mis-applied.

This cover looks like a bad piece of layout from a letters column c. 1995. There's a background image behind everything, while floating bits of art merge into each other chaotically. I'm also not a fan of the logo.

From the story's point of view, there's never a lot of momentum. It feels episodic. When there is a big reveal in the fifth issue, it comes at you out of left field and not like the whole series had been building towards it. Situations repeat themselves; Tyler is bullied, Tyler daydreams over the cute girl, the same bad guy attacks, Tyler is hiding his superheroic adventures from his family with some lip service but not much drama. There's a villain whose motivations and purpose are never clarified. Given the revelations in the final issue, you can start to make some guesses, but it's never clear. I'm sure there's more to be learned from him in future stories, but his villainy might have felt stronger had we known more about his motivations up front, rather than that he's a guy with a goatee who you can picture cackling with an evil laugh.

Finally, there's the hardcover book itself. It could have used a better book designer. A lot of the problems look to stem from someone new at using a digital program to create something publishable. You wind up with a table of contents whose words have shadows. You get background images behind other images, serving to confuse and distract, on the cover.

It's also a bit weird that this oversized hardcover puts a black border around every story page it reprints, effectively shrinking the art from what could be its full size. Since the original pages all have nice white borders around the outside of them, it could have been possible to cut those off to make the art slightly larger to fit more on the page. But maybe the aspect ratio of the hardcover was just too different from the original comic? I can't give them too much grief on that. It still looks good.

The hardcover, which was published first in December 2002, came with a Herobear cel, which I'll reproduce here. It ran $50, and I don't think you'll be able to find it anywhere anymore today. It's a shame, because the sketchbook material in the back is awesome. It includes pin-ups from the likes of Scott Morse, Tom Bancroft, Terry Moore, Jason Lethcoe and Linda Medley. There's also a nice chunk devoted to the series' development, including earlier teddy bear-looking versions of Herobear and how he came to have his bigger nose and more gigantic size.

Judging by what we saw on Free Comic Book Day, Kunkel has redesigned the logo and is moving to a more finished art style. Some of the guidelines are still visible, but it's not nearly as overt. The panels are larger, the pages are less cramped, the gray tones make more sense, and the pages feel lighter while maintaining that animated gestural feel. The lettering looks neater though not perfect, but we only have a small sample to look at here so far.

It gives me hope to see the shortcomings of a beloved comic from a decade ago, and then to see that the artist appears to have acknowledged many of the same things. The changes being made for future work give me hope that the follow-up to "Herobear and the Kid" won't just be more of the same, but actually be better. Don't let my extreme criticality this week dissuade you from a great Eisner Award-winning series that so richly deserves a second chance at life, and is getting it this year via Boom!

You can follow all of the sneak peaks at Kunkel's upcoming work at the official Herobear Facebook fan page.

PIPELINKS

  • How much longer before Lawrence Marvit brings back "Sparks"? And when will Jason Lethcoe return to comics? He's been gone for a decade now, since those "Gus Beezer" comics at Marvel. Tom Bancroft recently popped up with a Kickstarter to reprint "Opposite Forces." I want a second boom of animation artists showing up in comics today...

  • Being married to a school teacher means I help out a lot with signage and bulletin board art projects. When it comes to using type, I find myself going to Comicraft's "Storyline" font. It has a nice combination of readability and quirkiness to it that makes it look interesting.

  • Inside joke for anyone with a child who'll get the reference: The most boring page in a Doc McStuffins coloring book is the one featuring Lambie and Chilly.

  • Today is the day Kirby Krackle will be announcing their new album and release details. Exciting!

  • Related: A Kirby Krackle concert is available for free viewing on the web. This is from The Calgary Expo show, where they opened for "Weird Al" Yankovic.

  • Greatest Kickstarter ever? Rob Liefeld is Kickstarting his new "Brigade" series, hoping to raise enough money to give away lots of copies of the new series. The real treat here is the $60 pledge level:

    THE POUCH LEVEL! An honest to goodness actual, real life, useable pouch. Sturdy and available to store your valuable tokens, Bubble gum and hand grenades! Signed with a head sketchy King of All Pouches, Rob Liefeld!! Includes the Extreme swag bag of comics at the $10 level!! International pledges add $25 for shipping!

    Here's what the pouch looks like.

    Awesome Kickstarter reward? Or awesomest Kickstarter reward ever? You make the call!

  • Speaking of which, Sarah Horrocks posted the third part of her Rob Liefeld appreciation soon after last week's Pipeline went up. This one covers "Decoration In Comics" and is likewise thought provoking. She takes on those patterns Liefeld used for backgrounds in this installment.

  • Comics Should Be Good did a series of pretty good "Star Trek" mash-ups the other day. Check it out for a few good laughs. I think Uncle Scrooge wins top prize, but I'm biased in that direction.

  • I wrote two reviews for the CBR Reviews section last week, for "Sex" #3 and "The Activity" #13.
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TAGS:  pipeline, herobear and the kid, mike kunkel

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