Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Elephant Words

There are some great fiction websites floating around in the ether, if you can only find them.  While Warren Ellis's ENGINE was running, I was lucky enough to find one - in fact, was there at the beginning and eventually got a chance to contribute.  The brainchild of Nicolas Papaconstantinou, based on the parable of the blind men and the elephant wherein a group of blind men try to discern what the elephant is like by touching it and describing it.  But they each touch a different part of the elephant - the tusk, the ear, the tail - and find themselves in complete disagreement as to what is in the room with them.  The lesson being that reality can be different depending upon one's perspective, putting fallacy to the idea of "absolute truth."  WMDs anyone?

Anyway, I'll allow Nick to describe (as can be found on the website) his site:

The premise of the site is simple: Every Sunday, one writer will post a picture, and every day for the next six days, they and five other writers will interpret it for your entertainment.  [The writing schedule rotates so that Writer 1 - who, in that first week, would need to contribute a piece within 24 hours of the image going up - contributes a piece on Monday, Writer 2 Tuesday, and so on.  The following week, everyone rotates up a space, so that Writer 1 now goes to Saturday, Writer 2 up to Monday, Writer 3 to Tuesday, and so on.  It keeps things fair, obviously, while sparking inspiration, especially for that writer with the week's 24 hour window.]

The writers can be as literal or as “out there” with how much they allow the image to inspire them, and their brief is to write whatever they want, as long as they do it interestingly and on time, so you as a reader may get to enjoy prose, poetry, maybe the odd cartoon, in genres ranging across the board, from fiction to anecdotal autobiography, science-fiction to period drama… Really, the possibilities are only limited by our contributors’ imaginations. I want the creators here to have as much fun as the readers, and stretch their wings a little, so we can’t guarantee that you will always get to read what you expect, but then, who would want to?

What we can gurantee is that daily, from Monday to Saturday, we will do our best to entertain you, and also to show you writing that is fresh and engaging. Check back regularly, or subscribe to us in using the RSS feed, and we don’t think you will be disappointed!

It's really an interesting concept and Nick has managed to keep it going without a break for over a year and a half now with writers moving in and out and a completely new lineup for this calendar year with a number of female voices added to the mix, which is always a good thing.  

When I saw Nick's call for auditions back in July of 2007, I immediately took up the task and offered my own interpretation of that initial image.  I'll post that up here next time and talk a little more about the site too, but for now, please feel free to hit the links and pop over to ELEPHANT WORDS and check out some of the fiction there.  You won't be disappointed.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

STREETS OF GLORY by Garth Ennis & Mike Wolfer

In my big box o' comics last month, I got the latest Avatar offering from Garth Ennis, STREETS OF GLORY.  A western set at the turn of the twentieth century, the protagonist is an old "wore out" soldier who is believed dead by some and revered as a legend by all.  He's come to this small town for a chance to re-ignite a romance long since gone by and he steps right into the middle of tensions sparked by a greedy landowner seeking to expand his empire and turn a profit by purchasing devalued lands around this town - lands devalued through his own machinations.  
As with other Avatar books, EIC William Christensen allows Ennis to create the story he wants without editorial interference.  I don't want to say there is no editing going on - I could not speak to that- but it does mean that Ennis's voice, as with the voices of Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Jamie Delano and others that create work under the Avatar banner, is not diluted or censored.  Whatever these imaginative creators wish to bring to the comic page - if Christensen believes it is feasible from a business standpoint - they are able to write or draw.  With this edict, Avatar has published some of the more adventurous and exciting books in recent years.  
I enjoyed STREETS OF GLORY, though I didn't find it as engaging as prior offerings from Avatar like Alan Moore's THE COURTYARD (adapted by Antony Johnston & Jacen Burrows) or Ennis's own 303 (with, again, Jacen Burrows).  That said, it was still a very enjoyable read, full of the horrific and extreme scenes one should expect from this Irish comics author while including the characterization and interesting plotting that makes for a good book.  
There were parts that I found a bit truncated, parts that could have benefitted from an expansion of the scenes in question.  I can't say if this was a deficiency of the art, a need to work a particular chapter into the page count alloted, or due to the art of Mike Wolfer.  I should say that, though he is a competent artist, I am not a fan of his work and his art does not seem to offer the nuance and subtlety often needed in quiet scenes.  I hope that my prejudice against Wolfer's art did not color my enjoyment of STREETS OF GLORY, but I imagine it did to a certain extent.  
That said, Ennis again showcased an aspect of his writing at which he excels.  The old adage goes:  if you have a murder in the third act, you need to place the gun in the first act and Garth Ennis is a master.  Since this book recently hit, I'll not ruin the surprise for anyone else who discovers this, but offer instead an example from Ennis's 303, also from Avatar.   Early in the story, the protagonist, an old Russian soldier with a strong sense of honor is leading his band of young enlistees in search of an American plane that had gone down.  Reaching the crash site, he looks down to see a single soldier sitting in the shade of a small cave.  Others are around - for the British and the Americans are also in search of this downed jet - and he knows they must be cautious.  As they make their way down, he looks again, and still sees the rifle jutting out from the cave, but no feet or any other sign of the soldier.  Ambushed, they are cut down by - if I remember correctly - the British soldiers just as the American choppers are arriving.  The Russian loses his own firearm and is helpless after having taken out a number of the Brits.  During the melee, readers have forgotten about the rifle that was left as a decoy to lure the Russians into the crash site, but the old soldier knows it's there and takes it to finish off the one enemy soldier still standing there.  It's a masterful use of misdirection that I am unable to give its due in this description, but suffice to say that Ennis makes it look easy and utilizes this sleight of hand once more with STREETS OF GLORY.  
It's a fun read, and if you're a fan of westerns or of Garth Ennis, definitely check this book out.  It'll be worth your time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

FYC #4: Scott Chantler's NORTHWEST PASSAGE

Originally published on 06/28/07

For Your Consideration: Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Northwest Passage: The Annotated Edition
Story & Art Scott Chantler
272pp. b/w Hardcover
Oni Press
Volumes 1-3 also available.

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The American West has been romanticized for over a century now, and in recent years there has been an attempt to reclaim the Old West for what it was – a grimy, harsh wilderness filled more with human characters than larger than life ones. But there is another frontier that often gets overlooked, one that, when illuminated, is shown to have been even harsher and more challenging than the American West. That frontier is found to our north, in the wilds of what is now Canada.

It is within this harsh northern climate that Scott Chantler places his historical adventure, Northwest Passage, titled after the fabled route that many explorers of the time were searching for in order to trade more easily with Asia. Set in 1775, Chantler’s tale takes place in Rupert’s Land, a large swath of land comprising the entire Hudson Bay drainage system, which includes northern Qu├ębec and Ontario north of the Laurentian watershed, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and a portion of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. This land was granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was responsible for exploring most of the land and setting up trading posts throughout the wilderness. For years, the HBC had a monopoly within this territory.

As the story opens, Charles Lord, after nearly twenty years in service to the Hudson’s Bay Company, is stepping down as Governor of Fort Newcastle, preparing to return to England after too long away. The supply ship carrying the new Governor, Hargrove, entered the bay days ago and if the winds are good should be in dock the following day. Having spent more than half his years on this new continent, Lord is ready to step down and is looking forward to returning home, if only for a short time. Troubled by the fact that the company has been content to sit in their forts on Hudson’s Bay while the French pushed farther inland, Lord intends to speak with the shareholders, and the King if need be, in order to mount up a new expedition westward. The Northwest Passage still calls to him, for Charles Lord is not a businessman, he is an explorer.

But nothing comes easily in this new world. What nobody at the fort realizes is that the supply ship has been overrun by French mercenaries, and not just any mercenaries, but a band led by Guerin Montglave. This isn’t as simple as a dispute between two nations, for Montglave and Lord go way back, all the way to when they first arrived on this wild continent. Montglave hates Lord, and Lord returns this sentiment. This is far worse than an international dispute. This is personal. And if Montglave has his way, nobody will survive his siege of Fort Newcastle.

Scott Chantler is a first-rate storyteller and he demonstrates this with Northwest Passage. Initially released as three volumes, the complete first adventure of Charles Lord will soon be available as an annotated hardcover from Oni Press. Northwest Passage is a fast-paced thriller that feels completely genuine, a testament to the research Chantler did in preparation for this endeavor. He allows the realities of the 18th century wilderness to imbue his narrative with tension and conflict, while utilizing the confines of the comic page masterfully to keep readers on the edges of their seats through to the end.

Chantler need also be applauded for his well-developed characters. These are not stick figures thrown into an historical wilderness to be moved around like pieces on a chess board. All of the conflict stems from these fully realized people that Chantler has created. They are human. They make mistakes. And sometimes they do not treat one another as they ought to. Lord’s half-breed son, Simon, detests his father, blaming him for his mother’s death. Lord knows this and finds it difficult to relate to the boy, preferring to be the governor of the fort rather than the father to his son. Guerin Montglave, the villain of the piece, is utterly ruthless and deceptively clever, two traits that have kept him alive for so long in this wilderness. And in a terrible irony, Montglave manages to persuade the estranged young Lord that he is his friend and would enjoy Simon’s company on his voyage home. This, and other choices made by these characters, leads to a bloody climax from which none will be able to survive unscathed.

These and other character traits, as exemplified by a 3-page, 12-panel sequence in which Lord and his son have a stilted breakfast conversation punctuated by long silences, add much to Chantler’s tale. Chantler deftly weaves these quiet moments throughout the story, dropping these scenes in among the action sequences without slowing down the narrative. It is a difficult balance for any creator, and Chantler makes it look easy.

Chantler’s art style adds much to Northwest Passage as well. His work reminds me a lot of Jeff Smith’s work on Bone. A style that seems heavily influenced by animation – utilizing a minimal amount of lines to delineate his figures – this type of art can be disarming for readers. It draws readers in with its familiarity and simplicity, while accentuating the scenes of violence through a dichotomy set up by preconceptions formed with the audience’s initial response to the artwork. And make no mistake, Chantler does not water down his story, but conveys the random cruelty of the times and the hardness of these men honestly.

Chantler also understands comic art and how best to utilize the tools of his trade. He is able to vary styles when the story calls for it, while also utilizing the page structure of comics skillfully. Not unlike the small number of splash pages found in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Chantler saves those few full-page images found in Northwest Passage for important events that demand emphasis. He subtly reveals just enough in some panels to start readers down one path of thinking while turning things upside down with the turn of a page, a technique found in films such as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.

This is a great book and if you’re still unsure whether it is for you, then head on over to the Oni Press website where they have a free preview of the first 50 pages available here. It’s like getting something for nothing (actually, it is getting something for nothing). Do yourself a favor, check out the preview and then go out and buy this book. It’ll be worth it.

An Interview with Scott Chantler:

Chris Beckett:
Why comics? What does this medium offer you as a storyteller that others might not?

Scott Chantler: I've always felt that comics are unique in that they offer the visceral experience of a film, but are also personal and intimate, like a book. It's a way for those of us who like to tell stories with pictures to be able to do so, and do it how we want, without putting together a multi-million dollar budget or dealing with Hollywood corporate politics, and without sacrificing a one-on-one relationship with the reader. Comics combine what's best in a lot of other mediums--film, literature, the visual arts, drama--into something that's potentially very powerful.

CB: Your artwork reminds me a lot of Jeff Smith – utilizing a minimal amount of strong, confident lines to delineate your panels. How did you develop your style and do you find it challenging to be so precise with your inking?

SC: No, I don't find it a challenge. I think the pages through pretty thoroughly, and pencil fairly tight. I learned long ago that if it isn't in the pencils, it's not going to be in the inks. So when the time comes, I can just relax and ink with real confidence. Which is the way it should be done. Inking is the fun part.

My style really came together from my experiences in commercial illustration and animation. I spent a lot of time in the early '90s breaking into comics, and part of the reason why I wasn't successful (other than it just being a really bad time to be trying to break in) was that I was trying to draw like everyone else who was doing comics. This is a common problem with young artists...they haven't got a style of their own yet, so they just ape the popular favourites. Years and years of doing editorial illustration broke me of that, and gave me a style that was appealing and decidedly less comic-book-like. And animation taught me how to really get characters to perform.

There are still plenty of comics artists who inspire me--Eisner, Jeff Smith (who you mentioned,) Chaland, Bruce Timm, Paul Grist, and Pierre Alary are some whose work just blows me away--but whatever I might take from their work now gets filtered through my own sensibilities and experience.

CB: Are the main characters of Northwest Passage based upon any actual historical figures or did you conceive of them whole cloth?

SC: The characters and events in NWP are fictional, but grounded strongly in real history. The annotated edition that's being released in July goes into detail about the historical underpinnings of the book.

CB: Northwest Passage was obviously a well-researched series, which translates on your part to a lot of time reading and absorbing the details of the period. What sort of compromises, if any, had to be made by you (whether it be the historical accuracy or the need for you to move past the research to the creation stage) and how were you able to reconcile these issues?

SC: I try not to let the history overwhelm the storytelling. You don't want it to come off as a history lesson--you want the story to be the main concern and let the setting be background and motivation. So if I need to sacrifice a little bit of accuracy to make the drama work as best it can, I will. There are lots of places in NWP where that happened--I raised the height of the ceiling in the ship, and extended the sailing season into Hudson's Bay, to name two that spring to mind. But you just have to hope that readers aren't going to notice or care, and that the things that you *are* accurate about combine in such a way to set a scene that's believable, if not 100% realistic.

CB: What advice might you share with aspiring artists looking to break into the field of comics? An aspiring writer?

SC: My best advice for aspiring comic book artists is to not draw sample pages. Draw your own stories. When you do "audition" pages you're trying to show how well you can draw, and from how many ridiculous angles, rather than concentrating on telling a story simply and efficiently. Do minicomics, start a Web strip, do your own stuff. If you're any good, people will notice and you'll be started on a career. Study good comics--Eisner, Kurtzman, all the masters, and all of the great people who are around today, like Jeff Smith and Paul Grist, two of the best storytellers the medium has ever produced. And study stuff outside of comics. Film directing, animation "acting," design. All of it will inform your work and make you better, and a more unique artist.

I have little advice for aspiring writers. If you can draw at all, draw your own stories. Even if they're pretty crude, it's still better than trying to get people to read scripts. If you can't, the best you can do is hook up with an artist who you trust, and hope they'll draw a few pages in exchange for a split of the rights. I really don't envy anyone trying to break in as a writer.

CB: What projects are you working on now and when can readers expect to see them?

SC: I'm going to be doing pencils and inks for the Hawaiian Dick relaunch at Image. Not sure when it'll be out, but we're hoping to have a handful of issues in the can prior to solicitation, to avoid the delays that plagued the two miniseries. And I'm writing vol.4 of Northwest Passage, so readers who are waiting for more Canadian frontier adventure will get it, eventually.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

FYC #3: MoCCA goodness

Originally published 06/25/07

My Saturday @ MoCCA: a personal reminiscence
by Chris Beckett

My buddy Dan and I finally decided to check out the MoCCA Arts Festival this year. We’d heard a lot of good things about the festival and after talking with the writers and artists at last year’s SPX, we wondered why we hadn’t done this before. Disappointingly, we only had one day planned in the city due to our job responsibilities back home here in Maine. So, we had to make the most out of our Saturday at MoCCA. And I’d say we did a pretty good job of it.

Arriving at the Puck Building shortly after 11:00 am, we could see a line had already formed, but once in line it only took a few minutes for us to make our way inside. Exhibitors were scattered among four rooms – three connected rooms on the lower level and a fourth on the 7th floor. An older building, the interior of the Puck Building had a lot of character – hardwood floors and brick walls on the first floor, while upstairs the hardwood was illuminated by wide open windows spanning three of the four walls – and the layout was pretty easy to maneuver, even with the seventh floor being a bit out of the way. This was apparently the first year exhibitors were on the seventh floor and many were curious as to how those upstairs would fare. With the elevator providing the only visible access to those exhibitors, it did make for a smaller crowd on the upper level, which obviously meant less foot traffic, but it also allowed fans more time to look and to talk with the artists present. Able to make that closer connection with readers, this more personal atmosphere could certainly pay off in the marathon that is creating comics.

Exhibitors, particularly those larger publishing houses in attendance, were spread out nicely – each room having its anchors such as Top Shelf, AdHouse, and Picturebox as the three points of a triangle in the main ballroom, while Vertigo/Minx and the Fundraising Sketch Table with artists such as Alison Bechdel and Dean Haspiel could be found upstairs. Having these and other publishers like Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly, spread across the four rooms made each one a “destination” spot and gave the other individual creators a chance for some face time with those attending the show. And there were plenty of these creators deserving of such attention.

But first, after an initial walk-through, we needed to catch up with the Top Shelf crew at the bar. Publishers of quality books for ten years, it is always a pleasure to get a chance to speak with Chris Staros, Rob Venditti, Alex Robinson, and the other creators. I was also anxious to finally get a chance to meet the other half of Top Shelf’s publishing duo, Brett Warnock. Everyone involved with Top Shelf is filled with an excitement about the medium that is infectious, and this year was no different. One of their major offerings for 2007 is Super Spy by Matt Kindt. Although not available in stores until September, Top Shelf had an initial batch of the softcover and limited hardcover editions flown in from the printers in Hong Kong just for the show. This book, especially the limited hardcover, is a beautiful book and if there is any justice this will be a big hit for them. Not only does the story look great – and judging by the way Kindt pulled me right in with his previous book, 2 Sisters, I expect it to deliver – but the design work on Super Spy, particularly the cover for the limited edition, is magnificent. This is a book that would look great on anybody’s bookshelf.

By noon, the exhibitor rooms were filling up nicely and traversing the three main rooms became more of a chore. Just off the entrance, the first room – situated between the main ballroom and the third, smaller exhibitor room – Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly were set up together, happy to talk about their Oni Press book, Local, of which there are only two issues left to draw. Ryan was also very excited about a personal project he was developing. Though he could not say much more as it hasn’t landed with a publisher yet, he expected it to be arriving in comic shops sometime next year.

Gia-Bao Tran, Xeric recipient for his self-published comic Content, was also anxious to talk about upcoming work. He has been researching his next big project, which is still in the early stages and involved a trip to Vietnam earlier this year, while also contributing some short stories to anthologies such as the forthcoming Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened and a future issue of Negative Burn in order to keep drawing. Other self-publishers of note that had new works at MoCCA included The New Radio with the first of four 104-page issues of Poison the Cure written by Jad Ziade and art by Alex Cahill, Justin Fox’s latest issue of Earth Minds Are Weak: “Kaiju Jugoruma” which includes the first four chapters of his new science fiction serial (which, as he notes in the introduction, is something new for him having told only self-contained stories in previous issues), the first in a series of short graphic novels aimed at nine to twelve-year-olds entitled Super Bill and Buster from William Binderup and John Schuler, Abby Denson’s Passing Notes, Nothing Better #1 by Eisner-nominee Tyler Page, a preview of Mike LaRiccia’s sequel to his well-received and Xeric-awarded Black Mane, as well as Becky Cloonan’s new trade paperback Minis collecting a lot of her early mini-comics, which helped land her the art chores on Brian Wood’s Channel Zero: Jennie One and subsequent work on DEMO, East Coast Rising, and American Virgin. These, along with works offered by many other artists such as Nick Bertozzi, Rick Veitch, Kevin Colden, Evan Dorkin, Matthew Loux, Rick Spears and Rob G. made for a wealth of choices to be had for all attending.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the MoCCA museum where Keith Knight, creator of The K Chronicles and (th)ink comic strips, was speaking. He has been doing The K Chronicles for fourteen years now and I wish I had discovered his work before. Knight is an incredibly funny man and the strips he displayed for the audience were brilliant and topical and controversial. With The K Chronicles, Knight sheds light on important issues and utilizes humor to communicate a message of how ridiculous the world can be and how we can better our lives and the lives of those around us. Keith Knight is a cartoonist you need to know.

However, despite how impressed I was with Knight, the big draw for me at the museum was the current Stan Lee retrospective now on display. The walls were covered with pages and pages of original art from the beginning of the “Marvel Age” of comics during the 1960s. The majority of these pieces were of course birthed from the gigantic imagination of Jack Kirby. Everywhere you turned his powerful artwork greeted you. The highlight for me had to be the original black and white cover image from Fantastic Four #1. Amazing. Anybody that has a chance to get down to MoCCA for this or any other exhibits they offer, you need to do yourself a favor and do it. You will not regret it.

Back in the main building for our final pass, we had a brush with fame that was completely unexpected.

But first, I got in line at the AdHouse table where Paul Pope was signing his new art book Pulphope, which was selling briskly for AdHouse and may hopefully do for this publisher what Lost Girls did for Top Shelf last year. And if sales on Saturday are any indication, this is a distinct possibility. Chris Pitzer, head honcho of AdHouse, and Pope were both great to talk to. They, like most everyone attending, were excited about the possibilities of the comics medium and enjoy discussing this with like-minded individuals. AdHouse seems to be at a point where Top Shelf was a few years ago, a small publisher providing quality books by cutting-edge creators, slowly growing its catalogue and keeping books in print for the new fans discovering them at shows like this. With any luck, people will be talking about the AdHouse tenth anniversary celebration in a few years as they were talking about the Top Shelf anniversary this past weekend.

Departing the AdHouse table, Dan and I were making our way out of the Puck Building when we stopped suddenly and looked to our right. A fan that I had seen around the hall all day was talking with a gentleman who seemed very familiar. The gentleman in question was standing with his wife and their young baby. Then he spoke and it was obvious. It was Morgan Spurlock, the independent documentarian who came to prominence with his film Supersize Me. He was walking around like everyone else (except for being accosted by strangers with comics and handshakes offered his way), checking things out, interested in the creators and the comics. Spurlock was very accommodating and seemed genuinely interested in speaking with us and any other fans that came over upon recognizing him. He said his next documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, which examines the commercialization of Christmas should be out later this year.

And so, after a long day at the Arts Festival, it was time to head over to GSTAAD on 26th Street and help celebrate the tenth anniversary of Top Shelf. All the usual suspects were there from the publisher – Chris Staros, Brett Warnock, Rob Venditti, Alex Robinson, Andy Runton – along with a large number of fans and creators including Leland Purvis, Ivan Brandon, Keith Knight, Kevin Colden, Miss Lasko-Gross, Jose Villarubia, and many more I can’t remember right now. It was a fun time with great food, good drinks, and cake! An excellent party put on by some fun-loving, classy people that seemed a perfect way to end the day in New York.

This was a great day and I am already making plans to spend both days at MoCCA next year. And if you love comics, and especially indy books, then you should too.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

FYC #2: James Hindle's Worry Stories @ Pulse

Originally published 06/21/07

For Your Consideration #2:
James Hindle’s Lamplighter & Folded Paper Assembly #1
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Written/drawn by James Hindle
22pp., b/w
Hand-pulled screen printed cover

Folded Paper Assembly #1
Written/drawn by James Hindle
24pp., b/w
Hand-pulled screen printed cover

Not available in stores, but you can purchase them online at Hindle’s website

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

James Hindle was exhibiting across the aisle from me at last year’s Small Press Expo. A shy unassuming young man, he seemed content to allow people to discover his comics rather than pushing his books upon unsuspecting passersby. This was refreshing within the general clamor of the Expo, and despite not being the best way to get one’s book into readers’ hands it did not deter him from selling books. A lot of this can be attributed to the eye-catching covers Hindle produces for his minis, two-color screen printed illustrations incorporating simple images with vastly contrasting hues that make these covers pop. His books stand out against the rest of the crowd and are easily visible from across a room. This is one of the best ways to get readers to sample a book.

Of course, a good cover does not a worthwhile comic make, and Hindle realizes this as well. Upon reading Lamplighter and Folded Paper Assembly #1, it is obvious that he is creating very personal stories. They are “slice of life” stories told in an understated manner, unadorned by melodrama or exaggeration. Most comic book fans would dismiss them out of hand, longing for the heavy-handed plots and uber-physiques of the spandex set. Sadly for them, they miss the point that Hindle’s stories carry more weight because of the truthfulness to be found within each narrative. These are tiny vignettes that come straight out of small town America, which any reader could easily recognize. The personal stamp that Hindle puts on these tales is not only a testament to an artist following his muse, but also allows for a wider audience than the typical superhero fare.

Lamplighter takes place on what appears to be a late summer evening. A group of friends – not far removed from high school if they are not still enrolled – are meeting at Abe’s house for a party while his parents are out of town. All of these kids realize, though it may be subconsciously, that this is an important moment in their lives. They are standing on a precipice, looking forward to what awaits them beyond their little town while afraid to leave behind what comfort they’ve known all their lives. Whether it be Noah’s self-induced sleep deprivation, Abe’s drug-induced hallucinations, or Forest’s insistence of maturity, each one of the friends seems to be searching for his/her identity in their own individual ways. The action, as it is, is relatively tame but wholly recognizable to any of Hindle’s readers. It is this recognition of oneself within the pages of Lamplighter that can shed light on the answers we all seek while plodding through this life.

Folded Paper Assembly #1 collects three of Hindle’s shorter works, which can also be found at his website. The three tales revolve around the common, though often unstated, insecurities and obsessions of everyday teenagers. A young man in “None of Them Knew They Were Actors” gets lost in a soap opera while trying to survive a sweltering August day. Anyone who has ever had an obsession with a band (for me it was Van Halen) will easily relate to the second story “You Can’t Talk About This.” Despite only being two pages, this is probably the strongest offering in the book, and Hindle conveys perfectly through his main character the feelings every teenager has experienced with their own favorite band. The final story, “Our Mercurial Pace,” is the longest at thirteen pages and conveys the fragile nature of relationships during this pivotal stage in one’s life. The insecurity. The peer pressure. The hormones. They all contribute to the highs and lows of high school life as readers are witness to a close friendship between a boy and girl turning sour after one foolish moment – a stolen kiss – from which the two seem unable to recover. With sharp, precise scenes, Hindle carries his audience through an entire school year in these thirteen pages, telling his tale poignantly without going over the top.

Hindle’s art style fits these stories wonderfully. Not unlike his writing, Hindle’s artwork is simple and self-effacing. He is able to compose a fully realized world within the small panels of his comics, utilizing well developed backgrounds without cluttering up the panel or losing the focus of the story. And yet, he also employs some very complex narrative devices within his artwork. Most notably he utilizes a technique I first encountered reading Watchmen, where a static background spreads over multiple panels while the characters move about the area within each of the panels. One instance where Hindle uses this technique is on the rooftop where the party is being held in Lamplighter. Forest seeks out Abe, who is alone on the roof, to find out why he isn’t hanging out at his own party. The roof spreads across the top 2/3 of the page and is cut into four panels within which readers see Forest’s feet or Abe’s head coming in off a panel as they move around while talking. It is a beautiful illustration of what makes comics unique, and it is also an interesting storytelling device that should be used more often, but seems to be missing from most creators’ toolboxes.

It is this combination of the simple and complex in his storytelling abilities that makes James Hindle a creator to watch. Blend this ability with stories that touch the emotional heart of what makes us human and are easily accessible to readers, and I am hopeful that Hindle will continue to work – creating and publishing comics that strike a chord with those who enjoy good stories.

An Interview with James Hindle:
Chris Beckett:
Why comics? What is it about the medium that makes you want to create comics?
James Hindle: I think I chose comics because it is a very personal way of creating a visual narrative. It also feels really simple and really complicated at the same time. I’ve always liked that.
CB: Your 2-color covers are very eye-catching and I was curious as to whether they come from an artistic instinct on your part or if they are a result of any art instruction you may have had, and what is the thought process like behind your covers?
JH: The two color covers are really the result of the screen printing medium. Since each color is another screen you have to pull, it makes sense to keep it simple. And then the challenge is just to design within this two color limit (actually, three colors, including the paper).

CB: The layout of your comics is based, for the most part, on the 9-panel grid within which you expand or contract panels for pacing and storytelling reasons. Is this a conscious decision on your part and what are the benefits and drawbacks of the 9-grid in your experience?
JH: It’s a conscious decision for the most part. When I’m thinking about the layout of a page I’m thinking mostly about the composition and the amount of time that is existing on the page. The 9 panel layout is a sort of controlled environment for that.

CB: Unlike most comic artists, you utilize some of the strengths uniquely inherent to the comic page which make for some very interesting storytelling choices in your works (I am thinking specifically of pages 10 and 12 of LAMP LIGHTER) that allow you to play with “time” in the comic panel. What is the genesis of this specific technique, and could you speak to any other qualities unique to the comic medium?
JH: Those two pages are really just examples of different ways to show a lot of time and movement in a small amount of space. Since showing time in comics is an abstract thing, I think you sometimes need a less literal way of presenting it.

CB: What is your process when developing one of your books? Does the story or the imagery come first, or does it differ between projects?
JH: It’s always an idea first. I think of something small and then a narrative will develop around that.

CB: What other projects are you working on now, and where and when can people find these and other projects of yours?
JH: I’m planning on making more comics. People can find them at http://www.worrystories.com/.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

When the column moved to the Pulse

In keeping with the look back at what we have done (Dan & I) in our endeavor toward becoming published, I continue to peer through the prism of memory at my column spotlighting small press, web, and indy comics. With the last SPX Swag post, I found my column without a home as Independent Propaganda went on an indefinite hiatus - and has since ceased updating, though Wesley Green who started the site has continued to try and spotlight independent comics through a new iteration of the site focused on news and announcements.

I started casting about and came across a bulletin at the Pulse seeking writers for the site. I emailed Jen Contino and after going back and forth a few times settled on a weekly column focused on the small press and web comics I had been featuring at IndyProp, which would also include the Q&A with creators I had incorporated into the SPX Swag series. With that, I got a few columns "in the can" and it was ready to go in the middle of June, 2007. What follows is the introductory piece I wrote. Some information is outdated, but I hope you enjoy and stop back for more updates and reminiscences sooner rather than later.

Originally published on 06/13/07
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: An Independent Spotlight

So. Who am I and why should you care? Well, I’ve been reading comics for over twenty years now. It started with G.I. Joe #23, “The Capture of Cobra Commander,” and has grown into a collection that encompasses multiple long boxes and a number of tall bookshelves. I love comics, can’t get enough, but I worry about the medium. I want new artists and writers to come into the fold and share the amazing stories they have rather than choosing a different avenue. I want to see comics continue to grow and someday finally to get the wider respect it deserves. For these reasons, and with much thanks to the PULSE for this opportunity, I am bringing this new column to you.

But what about qualifications? I had an article published in issue 6 of Pacesetter: The George Perez Magazine, which examined Perez’s approach to female characters during his 60-issue tenure as writer and artist on Wonder Woman. A short piece is available for viewing on Scott Morse’s website here. It offers a quick summary of our local discussion group’s examination of Morse’s graphic novel The Barefoot Serpent along with a short Q&A I conducted with Morse’s generous participation. And, for the past year I have written reviews and conducted interviews for the website Independent Propaganda, which focuses on small press, self-published, and independent comics and movies.

Comics are amazing. Through the confluence of words and pictures, they stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, something unique unto itself. Anything is possible on the comic page, there are no special effects budget constraints, no impossible stunts, no expensive costumes or set designs. The only limitations are the imaginations of the creators. One of the earliest forms of communication we learn, comics is also one of the easiest tools for crossing barriers of literacy and language. And yet, for all of this, comics is a purely niche medium within the far wider world of publishing.

In order to avoid stagnation and the implosion of comics as a viable outlet for artistic expression, there is a great need for a wide variety of stories to be available to consumers. Unlike other artforms, comics is dominated by one single genre – superheroes. Now, superhero comics can be great: J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. on Spider-Man, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely doing Superman, and Alan Moore writing just about anything are but a few examples. But the superhero story is limited for a number of different reasons, of which the fact that the status quo must hold seems the most difficult to overcome. Does this mean that I don’t enjoy superhero comics? Not at all. But those I do read are fewer and farther between as it becomes increasingly more difficult for me to get excited about them like I once did.

This is a problem for the medium because many fans will and do tire of superheroes. As readers’ tastes evolve, they need something to fill this void. And when they enter their local comic shop looking for that something, what do they usually find? They find more superheroes, which results in many of them looking to other mediums for their entertainment. Whether they gravitate to prose – where works of various lengths in a variety of genres are available – or to movies, television, videogames, or something else completely, they are all searching for something different, something not offered in the overwhelming majority of superhero comics.

But is this adherence to superheroes necessarily the fault of the comic shop owner? Maybe, but their job is to run a business and keep the bills paid. It would behoove them to order more diverse books, but therein lies a risk many do not with to take. Ultimately, they order what sells. And in the vast majority of comic shops what sells, with some notable exceptions, are superheroes. Of course, fans could order from the Previews catalog, but anyone who has tried to wade through the tome that is Previews in order to find something new to sample understands where the phrase “needle in a haystack” comes from.

That does not mean it’s impossible to find these books. For decades, writers and artists have been pushing against the self-imposed boundaries of the comic medium. From EC’s horror and war comics to Gil Kane’s Blackmark, to Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, explorations of various genres and storytelling styles have been attempted, if often overshadowed by the brightly clad spandex set. Do all of these experiments work? No. Some are best left forgotten. But there are many that are successful, at least critically if not financially. They are the product of an artist or artists reaching for something more permanent, something grander than what is expected. These men and women defy expectation because they believe in their craft and understand so much more can be achieved within this medium. Creators like Joe Sacco, Colleen Doran, Harvey Pekar, Linda Medley, Greg Rucka, Paul Pope, and others are working to push these boundaries today. Books like Fun Home, Casanova, Lost Girls, Rubber Blanket, and Acme Novelty Library go against the grain. They challenge the school of thought that says comics have no literary merit, and through the diligence and talent of these and other creators these critics are proven wrong.

Hidden in this wilderness of comics is a great wealth of diversity – biography, fantasy, romance, horror, science fiction, historical fiction – and this is what is needed to keep this medium vibrant and moving forward. There need to be options for comic readers, something that will keep them as fans because the medium really does have so much to offer. My aim with this column is to turn you on to the really great “alternative” comics that are being created. They may be from publishers you recognize like Dark Horse and Image, from smaller publishers such as Avatar and Oni, from artists who publish their own work, or they may be comics found on the web. These are all fair game to me, as long as they fall outside the purview of what the general public commonly considers as comics. I will be spotlighting those books I feel are worthwhile of your attention; there’s enough negativity swirling around all of us that I don’t feel a need to add to it, and why should I bother wasting your time with a review of a book I didn’t like when I could help you discover something new and exciting in the world of comics?

So, I hope I haven’t turned too many people off with this long-winded “hello.” I’ll be anxious to hear from people once the reviews/recommendations start next week. And if anybody out there has suggestions of books that might be at home within this column please drop me a line here with the pertinent information. I know there are a huge number of books out there of which I am probably unaware and maybe we can help each other out.

And if I can get hold of the books you recommend, and I like them, I’ll let you know about it right here. Thanks.