Pipeline: Examining Skottie Young's Storytelling Evolution

Tue, February 23rd, 2016 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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A TALE OF TWO SKOTTIES

Art from "Giant-Size Little Marvel: AvX" by Skottie Young

I just picked up the hardcover collection of Skottie Young's "Giant Size Little Marvel: AVX," along with the final issue of the first story arc of Young's "I Hate Fairyland" series at Image Comics. The two turn out to be good things to talk about together.

The "Little Marvel" book is just what you'd expect it to be -- an expansion of Young's wildly popular alternate cover style into a four-issue story arc. It's a showcase for his work, and his sense of humor, and it pays off. Until we get an actual art book collecting those covers, this collection will have to satisfy that thirst.

The book is funny. Young's gags at the expense of Marvel history and all its characters never fall flat. The jokes range from small twists of the knife into a character's open wound of continuity, to simple puns and cutesy humor. When a gag might seem simple or too punny (not that there is such a thing, mind you), Young gets away with it because the characters are so earnest and believable.

It's exactly the kind of material you've seen on his covers, but with a story to hang them together on.

Art from "Giant-Size Little Marvel: AvX" by Skottie Young

Young's coloring compatriot, Jean-Francois Beaulieu, joins him here. Beaulieu's colors are bright and fairly restrained, filled with plenty of subtle gradients and textures, but they never show off. The kids look like shiny balloons, and Beaulieu's choices match that, often with round white reflections on armor and bare skin. The art takes center stage in the issue, and Beaulieu's coloring only helps that cause.

If there's one flaw in this book, it's the twins at the center of everything. In case you haven't read the series, a pair of twins is new in town -- "Marville," naturally -- and the X-Men and Avengers go to war to recruit them to their clubhouse. Why? Because twins are cool!

To that degree, they serve their plot purpose. They are the line that Young hangs all of his jokes off from -- from Daredevil's blind jokes to Cyclops' eye jokes to Medusa's royalty jokes.

But do we ever care about the twins? No, not really. We know they are slightly annoyed at the way everyone around them misunderstands twins. They sort of act as point of view characters for the reader, trying to be neutral to the craziness around them. They act as the straight man in a comedy duo. But they have no mission. They have no purpose. Do they even want to join a team? We don't know. They're the new kids at school who get shoved along through the series for the sake of setting up the next set of gags.

There are whole stretches of this story where I forgot they were even there.

Art from "Giant-Size Little Marvel: AvX" by Skottie Young

But you know what? It doesn't matter. Young's mission is to draw the young, cute Marvel characters he's become known for on all those dozens of variant covers. To make them cute and funny, with the personalities of young children, layered on top of their adult selves' known traits. Have them mix it up, and let comedy ensue. That works. It works really, really well. The twins are just there to provide the spark; they are not the stars.

The hardcover also includes the Young-written "A-Babies vs. X-Babies," drawn by Gurihiru. This one shot is like a Warner Bros. short cartoon. Baby Steve Rogers can't find his teddy bear (Bucky Bear, of course) in his crib at bedtime, only to look out the window to see that Baby Cyclops has it. Using his baby monitor, Rogers assembles the Avengers and goes to war with the baby X-Men to get Bucky back. Thing escalate quickly, bringing Galactus and Phoenix into it, until the neighborhood falls into Armageddon levels of madness. It's cute, it's funny, and it's short. I like it.

If you want something from Young with a little more plot, try his creator-owned series at Image, "I Hate Fairyland." The just-released fifth issue completes the first story arc. The series is an explosion of ideas, with new inhabitants of Fairyland popping up in every scene before falling at the incredibly bloody hand of Gertrude.

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Spoiler Warning: While not in graphic detail, the rest of this column will have spoilers for the issue.

Like "Little Marvels," Young's art pops off every page. New ideas hit fast and furious, with a wide array of environments and characters coming and going as fast as he can make them up. There's an energy that feels like it comes from someone creating directly on the page, not working so hard on perfecting everything before laying down the first panel. The jokes are equally quick-witted, most notably in the dialogue with its pseudo-swearing and colorful descriptions of everything and everyone.

Unlike "Little Marvels," though, there's a stronger story underneath all of this. Gertrude is on an ambitious (and long-lived) quest to get out of Fairyland. It's a loose narrative trick that Young uses to explore Fairyland at his leisure. The plot isn't the center of the story here. This story is very character-centric and less focused on getting from Point A to Point B so much as it gives Young the excuse to give us a whirlwind tour of the place. But there is an arc that informs the story. It's spelled out and it's followed to the bitter end. It makes Gertrude a more likable character to know why she is the way she is, and what she is reaching for.

Last week's fifth issue finale does a good job in resetting the table and presenting us with a new set-up for what the next story arc will be. It surprises the reader by pulling the rug out from under them. After all those issues of Gert trying to get out of Fairyland, it doesn't quite happen. What could be an unfulfilled promise on the part of its writer, though, is nicely twisted in its final moments to reveal a new situation for Gert to overcome. A character flaw in the series' protagonist causes the plot redirection. It makes sense. It feels right because it's due to the action of the character you're following. She's not a victim here of anyone other than herself. It's a learning experience.

Art from "I Hate Fairyland" by Skottie Young
Gert has a way with words.

"I Hate Fairyland" #5 is a strong ending to the story, beyond just the blockbuster battle against Happy that takes up most of the issue. The story flows naturally from everything that's come before it, while getting us to the story moment we've been waiting for the whole while and the decisions that lead Gert to a new adventure in Fairyland. The humor is stronger for being part of a stronger story.

The collected edition for these five issues will be available at the end of April.

LUCKY LUKE'S NEW SERIAL

spirou cover 4061

This year at Angouleme, they celebrated the 70th anniversary of Lucky Luke, the cowboy character created by Morris. Notably, "Asterix's" René Goscinny had a long and memorable run as writer on the title, producing the strongest stories that I've read of the character. Cinebook has more than 50 volumes of the series translated into English and in print now. The series is still published actively in France, though Morris died about 15 years ago now.

Good news! The weekly humorous anthology series, "Le Journal De Spirou," is running a new "Lucky Luke" serial, written and drawn by Matthieu Bonhomme. It starts in issue #4061, and is scheduled to run ten parts. So far, the first two parts are available. Since "Spirou" is a weekly magazine, it's a fun pace to follow the story at. As much as I love collected editions and complete stories, there's still a warm spot in my heart for serialized comics done right. And with each digital issue of the series being only two Euros for 52 pages, the price is certainly right.

This new story, which in part homages the classic John Ford-directed movie, "Who Shot Liberty Valance?", begins with Lucky Luke face down in the dirt, shot dead. Then, we immediately flash back to a few days earlier as he rides into town and we start piecing the puzzle together of what happened. How did the man who can shoot faster than his own shadow for the last 70 years land in this unfortunate spot?

I haven't seen the movie since a film class in college. It's memorable in that it stars Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, plus has a bit of a 'twist' ending. I just don't remember all the details leading up to that. Roger Ebert named it one of his great movies, and Netflix does have it available. I think I'll need to rewatch it before finishing up this serialization.

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That all said, this first chapter stands alone on its own beautifully. Opening on Luke's death gives the book a ticking time bomb that escalates the plot nicely. We expect that death to happen around the corner of every page. Every character we meet is immediately suspect. So the tension is palpable as each character is introduced and meets up with Luke.

luckyluke pages2 3
Lucky Luke rides into town in a most dramatic and well-told way.

The story holds off on showing Lucky Luke's face until the bottom of third page. Bonhomme is careful to keep him in shadows as he enters town and finds someplace for his horse to stay. It's almost Cowboy Noir, right up to that last panel when the lantern shoots light up on his face as he turns around and we see Luke's face as drawn by Bonhomme for the first time. It's a dramatic reveal.

The coloring is a big help. It's flat colors. There are no gradients or lens flares or knocked out lines. There's no computer tricks at work here at all. It's just a flat orange color used to fill in the negative areas of the stark shadowy inky artwork.

Bonhomme uses the reader's curiosity -- what will this artist's take on the character look like? -- to his advantage to create a memorable moment out of what is normally a perfunctory two or three panel sequence.

luckyluke layout
I love the layout in this panel. From the silhouette on the left side to the angled bar on the right and Luke's perfect placement and classic laid back body language. It all works.

The book is meant to be more "serious" than the usual "Lucky Luke" material, and it shows in Bonhomme's artistic direction. The angles in all the panels are more dramatic. There are more close-ups and shadow-soaked imagery. The medium shots are even more dynamic, tilting into a scene or letting a guiding line draw your eye in. Morris' style is flatter in the original series, as befits a more humorous comic where the style needs to show off the gags and not itself so much.

It's still a Lucky Luke tale, though. Bonhomme ends the first chapter with a great moment that I won't spoil here. Let's just say it's a creative and crazy way that Luke avoids getting shot using only what he has on hand. It's a gag that couldn't work in too many comics, but works perfectly here. It's in character, even with the different tone for the series.

I just downloaded the second part of the story, but haven't read it yet. It's a wordier chapter, so I'll need some more time to read it and translate it for myself as I go. By the time I manage that, the third part will be out. I'm swimming in an embarrassment of riches here.

Izneo.com offers "Le Journal de Spirou" digitally for just over $2 American after the Euro conversion. It's not translated, but keeping a Google Translate window open next to the comic is a big help. It's slow going at times, but still worth it.

If you want to try an English language edition of "Lucky Luke," go check out Cinebooks' offerings and pick up one of the volumes by Goscinny and Morris. I'd recommend "The Oklahoma Land Rush" (I reviewed it here.) or "Emperor Smith" as a good starting point. "A Cure for the Daltons" is another strong one.

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TAGS:  pipeline, skottie young, giant sized little marvel avx, i hate fairyland, lucky luke, matthieu bonhomme

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