MARVEL 2002: "EDEN'S TRAIL"
This is the second installment of my look back at some of Marvel's experiments in publishing from the early 2000s. Last time, I took a look at "Gus Beezer" and "Black Widow." This week, we turn to the works of Steve Uy.
"Eden's Trail" was a five issue miniseries that stuck out like a sore thumb in Marvel's superhero-centric lineup. It looked to capitalize on the rising popularity of manga and anime at the time. Picture Marvel deciding to do a book in the vein of "Trigun" or "Cowboy Bebop." That's what "Eden's Trail" is: a comedy/western/fantasy drawn and colored in a style more familiar to those who were so busy devouring Japanese pop culture at the time.
The story circles around Eden, a young woman who runs a bar in the middle of the desert. One day, some armed gunmen come in to hold up the place, a stranger steps in to stop them, the bar blows up, and Eden finds herself on the road looking for hidden treasure to rebuild.
It's a very strong first issue followed a strong second before it starts running off the rails. The early coolness factor is quickly supplanted by a half-baked romantic comedy thing with odd and seemingly random pacing. The middle of it drags. New characters who don't necessarily move the main story ahead in a meaningful way are added, and by the end, it feels like the story is dragging to its inevitable conclusion, rather than being something influenced by the interesting characters we saw at the start. The feel of the book changed over its five issues, and the end result is lackluster.
This would be a good time to stop to discuss the controversy surrounding the book. Despite its unique look and lack of any tie-in to the Marvel Universe, it was done on a work-for-hire basis by Steve Uy with Chuck Austen on scripts. Over the course the five issues, the credits changed. Uy's work, particularly with the scripting, is minimized, while Austen's influence grows larger. By issue three, Austen's name came first on the cover. The first issue's credits for Uy said he "Created and Directed" the book, with Austen doing "Script/Co-Plot". The final issue's credits for Uy name credit him for "Art/Storytelling/Original Concept" while Austen is credited as the writer.
After this experience, Uy went to Image for another five issue miniseries, "Feather," which we'll talk about in a bit -- here are some of his comments from the text pages of that miniseries:
"Conceived as a work-for-hire project, Eden's Trail has no relation to any previous works of mine. Originally a story about identity, and finding a place to belong, it was rescripted in its entirety to be a comedic romp through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Or something like that." ["Feather" #3]
"So, that wraps up my very first ever editorial. And the very first issue of my very first book. Hmmm... didn't I have a book published before this, though? Er... nah, must've been just a bad dream. Good thing I'm awake now..." ["Feather" #1]
Something went wrong during this book's production. And it shows. I could make wild guesses and speculate about who was to blame, but it doesn't matter. One rumor I dug up even suggests that Uy completed the first issue, only for Marvel to give it to Austen to script from scratch without a clue as to what the book was about. Once something like that happens -- and I'm not saying it did -- the chance of a cohesive sustained narrative is toast.
Rich Johnston summed up the controversy back at his days here at CBR doing LYING IN THE GUTTERS with this Year in Review recap:
The year began with an amazing fight as Steve Uy, whose creator-participant series "Eden's Trail" (originally, creator-owned) was gutted by editorial, rewritten by Chuck Austen and curtailed before its end, causing Steve Uy to kick off against Marvel in a most extreme and David Cho-like fashion, before hastily realising his mistake and withdrawing all his comments. And Mike Doran standing over him with a large hammer didn't even enter into it.
You can also read the original write-up of that scuffle. I can't find the original comments anymore, but I suppose those don't matter. The gist is out there.
"Eden's Trail" was published in the so-called "Marvelscope" format, which means it was done sideways (landscape mode, in today's parlance) with heavier cardboard covers to help the book stand up on store shelves when the staples were on the short side of the page. Marvel experimented with the format a lot at the turn of the millennium, though it didn't stick with it for too long. It was an age in which televisions were moving to 16:9 format and home video finally changed to show audiences all the movies in their original aspect ratio. As comics grew more cinematic, Marvelscope was a valiant stab at assimilating the format onto the printed page. It's still something that I think could work with the right visionary behind it. You just don't see that happening anywhere at the moment. The format didn't last long and is now completely absent. That's another shame.
Uy's art handled the format well. He knew when to use full page splashes to draw the reader in. He knew how to guide the eye through the page, laying things out in such ways that you never didn't know where to read next. (Chris Eliopoulos' lettering no doubt helped in places.) He drew lots of little square panels to make room for the larger more dramatic wide panels, where appropriate. He mixed things up and kept the reader's eye darting all over the page (across and down, down and across, zig-zag, etc) but in a very controlled way. There are a variety of layouts here to show some of the ways a sideways comic can work, and how the format best fits certain scenes. It deserves further analysis in the future.
Uy handled both the art and the coloring, and I can't imagine those pieces being handled separately. The color is an integral portion of the artwork. Obviously influences by anime, it also fit in neatly with some other rising star artists of the time, such as Joshua Middleton and Rob Haynes. (Was Sean Galloway around yet at that point? He'd fit right in.) It's the look where color dominates the page, and black inks don't dictate shadows. Uy's work has a pale look where different shades of the same color indicate depth and texture. Black lines are thin and solid black areas are non-existent. Even in the dark cave in the last issue, the darkness is handled with an extremely dark blue color and not a solid black area.
It's a shame that the script fell apart so badly in the second half of the series. What Uy said was initially a "story about identity, and finding a place to belong" became something much lighter that didn't connect with the reader. I don't automatically blame Chuck Austen for that. For all we know, it was a rash editorial decision that Austen had to cope with as best he could. Maybe Marvel felt the original script would be too artsy for its audience and wanted to simplify it and use more established consumer-friendly tropes. Problem is, the people who were looking at the book for its art style were expecting more of the other kind of comic, I think. And those who were just checking it out for its own merits were disappointed that the story wasn't strong enough, no matter what its direction was.
"Eden's Trail" ended up an experiment that failed. It didn't save the Marvelscope format. It didn't inspire a sequel or a new line of books. It alienated its creator from the publisher. I suspect it didn't sell too well. And if I didn't write this column, would you have even remembered it?
We never heard from the "Eden's Trail" world again.
UPGRADING TO "FEATHER"
Steve Uy didn't give up on comics just yet. He followed what is now the well-worn path of moving from Marvel creator to creator-owned Image Comics creator. "Feather" is Uy's solo effort to show the world what he's capable of when left alone. It came out hot on the heels of "Eden's Trail" as a bi-monthly reworking of a long form comic project he did in art school first. It's an interesting mix of his art school style and the work he polished up on "Eden's Trail."
The story stars Sehven, a young man who wants to follow in his slain father's footsteps and become a dragon slayer, even though the war is long behind him. He's a bit of a slacker, living with his more grounded older brother, Clip. His best friend is Leeka, a girl who claims to be a full-blooded dragon, even though Sehven believes she's just one of the half-breeds. (We meet her mother early on, though. She's definitely a dragon.)
When Leeka helps Sehven fulfill his dream with the help of his mother, things go terribly wrong and the fallout encompasses the last couple of issues. It's the story of a boy who grows up fast, of honor, destinies, and friendship. It's much more impactful than "Eden's Trail," with much deeper themes.
There's more definition to the art in "Feather," with more black lines and solid black areas. The coloring still overtakes the whole page, but it feels like there's more contrast and definition thanks to Uy's ink line. It took me a bit to adjust to the shift. The work he did in college was straight black and white line work. Sample pages from the earlier work can be seen in the back pages of the miniseries. While the art is definitely a step up in maturity, I wonder if he sometimes didn't rely on those old layouts a bit too much. Some of the layouts in the early pages have awkward gutter widths, and panels seem to stop just a hair too soon. Additionally, he utilized more computer graphics with "Feather," drawing an early flying bicycle and some tools and things over top of an obvious 3D rendering. Some special effects are also rendered digitally. Those bits stick out from the more organic line work on the page. It's jarring at times.
The story, however, is ten times more powerful. "Feather" is a bit of a gut punch. What feels at first like a slightly confused tale of friends in an age of dragon slayers will twist you around about halfway through, and then come crashing down at the end. It's a much more emotional roller coaster than "Eden's Trail," which feels even lighter when compared to this book. It's not just that "Eden's Trail" had a more comedic bent, but that its execution felt flimsier. It was more rambling and inconsequential, with emptier characters. "Feather" might err more towards the side of serious literary pretension -- it does feature some poetry, and is ultimately a tragedy -- but it never gets close to the line of being overwrought.
It's a surprisingly dense book. Uy has a clear backstory in mind not just for the three major characters at the start of the series, but also for the entire world. It's an age after a great war against the dragons, and what happened in that war still reverberates through the title. By the time the five issues are done, you'll see in your mind a better picture or how it all fits together, but you won't realize it does, necessarily, until you get there. "Feather" isn't cute with nudging and winking at you every time it drops a hint. It's much more subtle than that, and it's a subtlety that adds up.
Uy's weakness is so obvious that he cops to it in one of the text pages: action scenes. They're jumbled and confused. Backgrounds drop out when they are most desperately needed, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks from the dialogue after the fact, which is the least satisfying way to experience a good action scene. I'm not sure if he's using the Photoshop effects to help cover it up, or if those over-the-top effects are what help kill the storytelling. Fights happen in caves, under water, amidst fire-breathing dragons, and in the rain at night. (Sounds like a bad PIXAR movie made to experiment with a new rendering technique, doesn't it? It just needs more long hair to test.) It's like Uy is trying hard to hide the deficiencies by drowning them in distracting colors.
The book is also a bit uneven. It spends the first two issues setting things up. I enjoyed the character interplay and exploring the new world, but some might consider that a slow start. It doesn't matter, though, if you read the book in one sitting. On a larger scale, the so-called "slow" start evens out. The action parts don't feel rushed. Everything just fits together, like it was meant to. It's a solidly crafted comic.
The other problem the book had was its lettering. Uy did it himself, and you can see what having a veteran letterer working on your comic can mean for your book's overall look by comparing these two miniseries. "Eden's Trail" looks amore polished, with balloons at just the right size placed in just the right corners of the panels. Uy's choice of fancy fonts for captions and some characters' voices is ill-advised. Granted, it was relatively early in the computer lettering world, so there weren't as many fonts available as today. Still, they're distracting.
The first issue has a few crossbar-"I"s showing up, though Uy seems to have caught and corrected this quickly enough. But there are a lot of balloons that look a size too small, or the borders feel off by a notch. It's tough to describe, but it's jarring once you start noticing it.
Overall, though, despite those small bumps, I liked "Feather" a whole lot and would recommend it to you if you chanced across it in a back issue bin at a convention this summer. If that's the kind of work Uy is capable of, let's hope he finishes off another project and brings it back to the comics world sometime soon.
After "Feather," Uy went on to do a book called "Jova's Harvest" for Arcana, which I have no recollection of whatsoever. (It was written in rhyme, and here's a CBR interview with Uy talking about it in 2005.) He's done other work on his own, very little of which has seen print. You can see some beautiful pages on his website, including those done for a "Feather" follow-up called Feather Rex."
Since that time, his work in comics has been limited to covers, including "Avengers: The Initiative" and "Legion of Super-Heroes in the 30th Century" for the late Jonny DC line. Click through his website and you can find some of his stuff -- including a novel he wrote while attempting to write a comic -- on sale in the Kindle store. He also had a failed Kickstarter a couple years back for a video game.
It's too bad that he's started so much work and not finished more of it. If he can find the focus to see one of those through the end, I think he could make a good splash with a return to comics.
TWO FINAL LINKS FROM THE ARCHIVES
- I found my review of "Eden's Trail" #1 from Pipeline of September 24, 2002. I liked it a lot back then. It sounds like Marvel was giving a lot of the book away as a digital comic of sorts back then. They had it up in Adobe Flash, and it was a time when we still worried about dial-up connection speeds. Baby steps. . .
- Just before that, Rich Johnston saw an early solicitation for "Eden's Trail" and quipped, "Good to see Marvel going after the CrossGen dollar there." It's amazing how much context for comics we forget about over time. I hadn't considered CrossGen's influence on comics at the time as being a motivating factor for "Eden's Trail," but I'm sure there was something going on there.