Pipeline: New "Smurfs" Anthology, Digest-Sized Experiments

Tue, August 20th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: August 20th, 2013 at 2:58pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

ANTHOLOGIZING THE SMURFS

The first volume of "The Smurfs Anthology" takes Papercutz's Smurfs campaign in a new direction. Rather than a series of smaller (6.5 by 9 inches) thinner (64 pages) books, the "Anthology" series promises a large book size (192 pages at 9 by 11 inches), collecting all the Smurfs stories in something closer to chronological order. I eagerly bought it to see if the larger page size would make for a better reading experience.

Surprisingly, it isn't as big a difference as I had hoped.

It doesn't hurt, though. The text is a little easier to read, but my eyes are still good enough that that wasn't a consideration. But the art is only about an inch larger in either direction, even though the page size is so much larger. The large white margins seen in the smaller book double for the larger book. I wish Papercutz had cut back on some of that so the art filled up more of the page. While this oversized hardcover is nice, I'm betting the original albums these stories were published in were bigger still. We're still not seeing the stories as they were meant to be seen, and this is likely as close as we'll ever come.

Original comic book art in North America is usually drawn at roughly 14 x 17 inches for a comic book size that shrinks it down to something closer to 7 x 10. Peyo drew on pages roughly 12.5 x 17 inches in size. (You can see an original page at ComicArtFans.com, of course.) Artists often take that effect into account when they draw their art. They know that beyond a certain point, the detail they add to their art won't be seen on the printed page. The finest lines and the smallest textures will disappear. When you see their original art after being trained on the printed page, you see how much more open the line work seems. The amount of detail seems sparser.

I scanned in a panel from both the original Papercutz digest-sized printing and the new "Anthology" format with the same settings. If you look in the lower right corner, you can see the same Smurf in both versions and see that the size difference isn't all that much.

That's what happens with the "Smurfs" artwork. If you're used to seeing it in the smaller Papercutz format, this "Anthology" book will make the art look a little more open. Peyo looks a little more human, not like an insane machine attempting to draw as many little Smurfs into as small a space as possible. It feels a little more organic, though perhaps slightly less impressive if you're more into that insanely detailed stuff. You never missed any lines in the smaller format. It's all a matter of perception and the confines of the smaller page.

In the new "Anthology," dashes are in and ellipses are out!

Though make no mistake about it, Peyo's style and art is still awesome. The Smurfs are relatively simple creatures in their construction. They all look alike with minor flourishes and attitude differences. Peyo has a tough undertaking to put that many characters on page after page, and to draw them without boring himself or his readers. And I love the way he draws hands and the way he positions the bodies to be expressive without being over the top too often. He specializes in medium and wide angles, usually showing the Smurfs' full bodies in every panel, often as if they're walking just parallel to the bottom of the panel. There are no exaggerated perspectives.

While the detail might fade away a bit with the large page size, you do get a better look at the ink line. If you're a student of inking, there's more to study here. The minor variations in weight of the black lines shows up better now. It's not a dramatic difference, but you'll see it in places if you're looking for it.

Here's a fun game to play: Spot the added sound effect. Give them a little bit of extra space, and they'll fill it!

The lettering by Janice Chiang hasn't been resized for the new "Anthology" in relation to the art. With a larger page size, they might have been able to shrink the text a bit and potentially even the balloons. (Have you ever noticed how large the word balloons look in one of DC's "Absolute" volumes?) That's a lot of work, though, and the lettering was small to begin with in the pint-sized books. Keeping it the same size relative to the art works for this format. We should be happy they didn't obscure more art with larger lettering for the smaller books, instead.

They fixed the halos on sign lettering.

One correction I saw in a couple of places is that the white outlines around lettering done on signs has been removed. It's a little cleaned-up detail that makes the book feel a lot cleaner. Computer lettering on signage never works, but at least they made it look slicker. That's a very positive correction for the new printing.

There is a number of minor differences in the content of the lettering, though. I'm sure there are reasons behind all of them, though I'll be darned if I could guess at what some of them are. Sometimes, it's swapping around ellipses or commas for em dashes. A couple lines of dialogue change, but carry the same meaning. Additional sound effects get added in, possibly because the large page size left room for it. It's fun to find them by comparing the different editions of the same story, but they don't make a substantive difference with the Anthology that I've seen yet.

The "Anthology" book gives Papercutz a chance to revise some lines of dialogue. I suppose "Fire away!" is slightly more descriptive.

And, yes, though this is a more expensive book that might be aimed at a slightly older audience, Papercutz is sticking with the purple-colored Smurfs instead of the black ones. There's a text page introducing that story with a sample of Peyo's original art to explain why they did it. While I would still like to see the original art in this case and understand that the story isn't meant to be a racial metaphor, I understand why Papercutz has chosen to go this route and can't complain too much about it.

From a strictly process junky point of view, there must have been a lot of additional work put into the story to change the all-black Smurfs into purple. When the Smurfs are purple, there's no delineation between their outlines and their skin tones. To turn those solid black Smurfs purple, someone had to go in and choose where the outlines ended and the purple skin began. (You can see more examples of this on a different page of original art from the story.)

"The Smurfs Anthology" is a great way to own this material. It's up to you if it's worth buying it all over again. It's not a completely transformative work from the smaller format, but it is just as enjoyable with some little cleanups that make the material just a little bit better.

Now if only we could get an "Artist's Edition" of Peyo's "Smurfs"...

DIGESTING 'DRAGON'

While I'm not the best scanner of things in the world, it should be noted that the cover of the digest printed out off key. Mako looks too green, like much of the blue channel went missing from the file at printing time.

Erik Larsen is up to his old tricks again, playing with his storytelling in the recently released "Savage Dragon" #190. This time, rather than go with the same number of panels per page, or the same span of time per page, he's upped the ante. He drew the book with the idea in mind to publish it as both a standard-sized comic and a digest-sized comic.

Each standard page becomes two digest pages by rearranging how the panels fit on the page. Nothing was redrawn or resized. (Almost. There's one half-page splash that has an extra eighth inch of art added to the top of the panel and taken away at the bottom for the digest. I can't explain it, but I'm sure it makes sense somehow...) It's a matter of moving some panels around to fit the new format. The layouts had to be done keeping the digest format in mind. You can feel the difference as you read the standard-size comic, though you might not be able to quite tell why.

As with the manga format, it shows how important it is (generally speaking) to use fewer panels as the page size decreases. You wouldn't want nine panels per page in the digest format. There'd be no room for the lettering. Smaller pages mean relatively bigger images. If you compare the two formats side by side, you'll see that the digest was sized specifically to maintain the size of the printed art. Nothing is shrunk down or enlarged. Every panel is the same size in both formats. Some gutters feel like they're wider or narrower, but that's probably because some didn't exist in the original page, when two tiers of panels are then shown together on a tier in the digest, or when a horizontal row of panels becomes a vertical stack.

The biggest and most obvious signs of this format split are with panels that go full bleed. They stick out more in the full-sized comic, where they're often surrounded by a sequence of panels around them that aren't full bleed. When it comes down to the digest, they blend in a little better, either because they're designed to be full page splashes, or because there aren't as many panels around them to make that bleed issue as obvious.

This is how the first page of the issue broke out into two digest-sized pages.

The most impressive achievement with this experiment is how disrupting the natural left-to-right flow of action doesn't affect the storytelling. There are all sorts of techniques and rules for comic books that revolve around the notion that panels are read left to right, top down. You don't necessarily want a character running off the right side of the panel and seemingly off the page when he appears in the middle of the next panel on the next tier, for example. You don't want to lead the reader's eye from the left page across the staples to the right. Controlling the direction of action in an individual panel or across a series of panels can prevent those mishaps.

A lot of the individual panels in this issue are centered towards the reader. The big battle between Mako and Dragon has the large splashy images with strong directional impact both left and right, but even they don't lead to unnatural movements off the page or in the wrong direction of natural reading. There seems to be more movement along the z-axis, which moves towards and away from the reader.

Is it necessary? Of course not, but Larsen has shown us his experimental art side like this in the past. It's part of how he keeps himself interested and excited, I'd guess. Rather than drawing the same thing every month, he presents himself challenges that readers who are paying attention will appreciate and, hopefully, enjoy. As an artistic experiment, this digest book is a fun one if you're willing to spend the extra $3.99.

MARVEL 2005: SPELLBINDERS

Amongst Marvel's experiments in the earlier part of this century were ones involving formats. They tried a little of everything. They tried magazine format reprints meant to be sold at newsstands. Oversized hardcovers collecting a full year of a title were big sellers, though they sadly didn't last long enough. The Marvel Premiere Edition format (six issues to a hardcover) became more popular, and though that name for the format has been retired now, the format, itself, still exists to a lesser degree.

One of the other attempts to break into a new market via a new format was Marvel's lineup of digest-sized reprints. It was aimed at the audience who was eagerly lapping up the latest manga at bookstore shelves. The books reprinted six issues of a Marvel series in full color at an 8 by 5 inch size for just $7.99. That experiment included the first "Runaways" series and two entries from Sean McKeever, "Sentinel" and "Mary Jane."

Another of these outreach books in the Marvel digest program was "Spellbinders," a 2005 miniseries with no connections to the Marvel Universe. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, the book focused on a high school girl who had just moved into town, only to find herself caught up in a war between two groups of rival magic-empowered kids and the non-magical "blanks." It was an attempt by Marvel to create a new property to sell in the mass market to an audience willing to accept "Young Adult" adventure of a supernatural set. It's a product of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" era, but just shy of the "Twilight" movie hoopla.

The real influence on the book's format, though, was Tokyopop. At the time, manga was huge in the States and growing. Some predicted manga would overtake the American comic shop market. We all know now that that didn't happen, but there was a bandwagon there to be jumped. It was a market willing to be served. Marvel stepped in with "Spellbinders." While the six monthly issues were published at standard comic book size, the collected edition saw print at the time only in this smaller Tokyopop-sized format. (Look, the cover even has the color stripe up the left side, a la Tokyopop.)

The book was created by Mike Carey and Mike Perkins. Carey came fresh off a couple of successful Vertigo runs on "Hellblazer" and the critically acclaimed "Lucifer." He had done an "Ultimate Elektra" miniseries as his introduction to Marvel. Perkins would later get tapped to draw the adaptation of Stephen King's "The Stand," but at this point had worked on "Captain America" after a run as Butch Guice's inker on CrossGen's "Ruse."

The book isn't great, though. It feels like a hodgepodge of typical high school drama bits combined with supernatural witchy bits, mixed up into a salad that is too familiar to be interesting. The book is overpopulated with characters. They're necessary for the story Carey wants to tell and they do have vaguely distinct personalities, but I didn't wind up caring about too many of them. Too much bickering, not enough growth. Even the lead character feels too passive and humorless through most of the series. When she pulls things together at the end, it feels like the hammer of plot mechanics more than the summation of a character's journey through a story arc.

Carey moves his pieces across the chessboard well, and does a great job in tying everything together in the final issue. Getting there, though, feels like a slog. It might not be fair to put it this way, but the whole thing feels very paint-by-numbers. Most genre fiction is, and much of it is very entertaining, but "Spellbinders" lacks a novelty or flair to make me want more. None of the characters interest me enough. The main story of the book isn't exciting enough for me. Or maybe I'm just getting too old to take teenage angst seriously.

Mike Perkins' artwork, likewise, doesn't inspire me. It's, again, solid work. He has a definite style. He has some strong moments in the series, such as the way he brings out the dead by dropping the inks, and how the crowd shots of dead people in the last couple of issues use thinner line weights. But it's too realistic. Coming from inking the likes of Steve Epting and Butch Guice, it should be no surprise that Perkin's natural artwork is as realistic as it is. That works for certain types of stories, but it only furthers the feeling that this book is trying too hard to be "real" when it needs more extremes or personality. It winds up looking stiff.

The coloring is from Guru eFX, but it wouldn't be fair to review that here. These digest books went for $7.99. The paper stock is awful. The line art and the color suffer for it. Everything is naturally muddy and some of Dave Sharpe's mixed-case lettering looks a little shaky at this size and print quality.

But, hey, $7.99.

I see references online to a new full-size trade paperback edition of this series that Marvel published last summer. I see nothing in the way of new reviews of the series based on that. It wouldn't surprise me to see it show up as a television pilot one day. If DC published "Spellbinders," I'd be waiting on news of a CW pilot about now. It feels like something that would fit in there.

Mike Carey talked to CBR about "Spellbinders" in 2005.

The format for the book is a good compromise to reach the price point, though the effective lower resolution at this size and with this paperstock hurts the book. It doesn't matter anymore, though, I suppose. Now you can buy the full size trade and be done with it.

More looks at the Marvel of a decade ago:

OF CLOSETS AND WEDDINGS

This one is too impressive to pass over for another week:

Cartoon Closets is a site that puts together outfits for women based on cartoon and comic book characters. It includes links to where you can buy all the clothes. It focuses mostly on cartoon characters -- especially Disney princesses -- but you can spot some superhero wear here and there, like with Rogue and Obelix. There's even a Coraline in there for you Neil Gaiman fans... (via Kottke.org)

Also check out When Geeks Wed, for all the weddings you wish yours was more like but couldn't convince your spouse-to-be to try. An elegant Batman wedding, anyone? Another Batman wedding. How about a rundown of Comic-Con International: San Diego wedding proposals?

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TAGS:  pipeline, smurfs, peyo, savage dragon, erik larsen, spellbinders, mike carey, mike perkins

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