Friday, October 9, 2009

FYC replay: Larry Young's Black Diamond

For Your Consideration: The Black Diamond from Larry Young (writer) and Jon Proctor (artist)
By Chris Beckett

Astronauts in Trouble put Larry Young on the map, and made readers rethink our history in space. With his most recent addition to the AiT/Planet Lar line, ably assisted by artist Jon Proctor, Young puts his stamp on the near future and has fun doing it. Come in and check it out. It’ll be worth your time.

The 411:
The Black Diamond: On Ramp
Written by Larry Young
Art by Jon Proctor
32 pp. Color $2.95

The Black Diamond #1 (of 6)
Written by Larry Young
Art by Jon Proctor
32 pp. Color $2.95
AiT/Planet Lar

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

In 1999, Larry Young first came to prominence in the comics community with the publication of Astronauts in Trouble: Live from the Moon, which he created with artists Charlie Adlard and Matt Smith. Young initially shopped the idea for AiT, as it has come to be known, to a number of comic publishers but they all passed. So, confident in the strength of the work and wishing to get it out to the masses, Young published it himself. Naming his publishing house AiT/Planet Lar (you can figure that one out), Young eventually published two more chapters in the astronauts’ lives: Space 1959 and One Shot, One Beer. With the success of these books, Young decided to start publishing books by other creators like Brian Wood, Matt Fraction, Joe Casey, Becky Cloonan, Warren Ellis, Kieron Dwyer, and Fabio Moon with titles that include The Couriers, Giant Robot Warriors, Badlands, and Come in Alone.

One thing is certain, one can always count on an entertaining and quality read when picking up an AiT book, and this most recent addition – the first color book from the publisher – is no exception. The Black Diamond is set in the near future where, in his 2016 inaugural address, President Fulton promised to make the nation’s highways safe for everyone. His solution is The Black Diamond, an elevated superhighway set above the rest of the population; it is a place where there are no laws – one can pass on the right, drive 150 miles per hour, or travel singly in the car pool lane. Built in response to the rampant lawlessness on every street corner, the Diamond becomes a haven for those with a wild streak.

And it works, as the Diamond spawns its own subculture where mechanics are looked upon in the same manner sports stars are on the surface, where waitresses take the place of supermodels, and where shantytowns crop up in the breakdown lanes. High above the surface, away from prying eyes, those running wild on the Black Diamond experience life on the edge, never thinking about tomorrow, only living in the moment. It’s a brave new world, and if one has a muscle car, then life is very good.

It is within this near-future that Young tells his story. Doctor Don McLaughlin, a dentist living beneath the 8-lane highway, is a typical guy. He makes no trouble, obeys the laws, goes grocery shopping, and loves his wife. Life is simple. At least, life is simple until his brother-in-law R.J., a police officer, shows up with bad news – Don’s wife has been kidnapped.

In recent weeks, activity on the Black Diamond has gotten out of control, and the Army is taking it back, cleaning the elevated Autobahn with extreme prejudice and Don’s wife Kate has been taken in response to this new edict. Despite their simple life, his wife is a relatively famous woman. Kate’s father was the engineer who designed the Black Diamond, and somebody hopes that if they have her, the clean-up of the highway will cease. But nobody in authority is paying attention.

R.J. wants Don to go to Baltimore and find Kate. Don protests, but his brother-in-law will have none of it. He’s brought Don a 1973 V-8 Mercury Cougar that will get him across the country in record time as long as he goes up top. When he arrives in Baltimore, R.J. hopes to have discovered where Kate is, at which point they will figure out how to get her back. It’s not the best plan, but it’s the only one they have. Don hesitates for a second but slides into the Cougar, a plush ride complete with power windows and air conditioning – a ride that will get Don from ‘Frisco to Baltimore in style. But will he be too late?

This first issue of Larry Young’s and Jon Proctor’s The Black Diamond, along with the preview book On Ramp, released in 2005, are great reads. Young has completely thought his idea through, seeding the preview book with multiple story possibilities in setting up this brave new world that’s full of fast cars and faster death. The dialogue is crisp and entertaining, and he opens each book up with large panels and double-page spreads that shoot the story along at a break neck pace. Young smartly matches up the storytelling with the story in order to immerse his audience in the hectic, nail-biting, life or death world of The Black Diamond.

Young also knows how to slow things down, giving readers a glimpse into this world through the conversations, quiet and otherwise, between the characters. Whether the conversation between Don’s two assistants or the one he has with a young patient, they all flesh out this slightly off-center world while thrusting the narrative forward from first gear through to fifth.

Young’s partner in crime, Jon Proctor, utilizes an art style that is reminiscent of Tony Harris. Proctor evokes that photo-realistic look overlaid with the subtle fluidity of line that is a staple of Harris’s work. Though not as polished as the Ex Machina penciler, Proctor is still a fine artist whose style meshes well with the story set forth by Young. His storytelling is clear and he moves from wide shots to close-ups with ease, making sure never to cause these transitions to be jarring for readers. Proctor also does the coloring and adds a lot to the story with his palette. Scenes on the Diamond are drenched in a hot red, while those on the surface have a soft green or yellow tinge to them. It’s another great use of the comic page that enhances the dichotomy between life on the ground and life above.

This initial issue of The Black Diamond is a great opening chapter, setting up the story nicely while still managing to be entertaining in its own right. Young and Proctor work well together, producing a taut, fast-paced comic that is also fun to read – something missing in many comics today – and left me wanting more once I reached the end. I am anxious to see where Young and Proctor are taking readers and look forward to the possibility of more stories on the Black Diamond in the future.

For those of you who would like to know a little bit more about Larry Young, here are a few quick questions with the comic creator ... For Your Consideration.

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What is it about the medium that attracted you, not only as a creator but also as a publisher?

Larry Young: Why comics? Because I love the form. There're not too many artistic forms of expression that combine disciplines to make the whole greater than the parts while simultaneously sporting a pretty low barrier-to-entry. Words by themselves can tell a captivating, interesting, constructive entertainment... and pictures by themselves have a powerful mojo that was old before we came down out of the trees. Combine the two and you get a powerful narrative engine. Sure, at some level, film is a combination of words and pictures, but you need a piece of equipment, at the least. You need a camera, and film, and at least a grounding in the technology to get usable pictures and clearly spoken words from actors to drive your tale.

But all you need to have to create a comic is a piece of paper and a Sharpie. The only difference between a few pieces of typing paper folded in half with drawings and word balloons and the hardcover version of Watchmen is just a matter of scale.

So that answers "why comics?" as a creator... as a publisher, I suppose it's because of what happened to us when I was shopping around the first Astronauts in Trouble: I put together a five-page graphics-heavy teaser in order to get across the tone of the story I wanted to tell. I think it's not bad, really, considering there's only one piece of actual art in all of the five pages...

Many of the folks I sent the proposal to were very encouraging, including Jim Valentino, Bob Schreck, and Phil Amara. Many, though, basically said, "Look around; I don't know if you've noticed, but the comic book industry is in the crapper. Established veterans can't get gigs; why do you think we would publish your little astronaut confection?"

Mike Carlin of DC, bless his decrepit heart, finally came out and said, "You know, you'd be better off putting out this project yourself, than trying to get one of the big publishers to do it. The fact is, there's just nothing to put between your first and last names."

"What d'you mean, Mike?” I asked.

"You're an unproven talent in the marketplace," he said. "We'd have better luck selling your next project, when we can say "Larry Astronauts in Trouble Young" in the advance solicitations. Go the Kevin Smith route; the Robert Rodriguez route, and do it yourself."

So, I did. Creator by enthusiasm; publisher by necessity. Seems to have worked out so far.

CB: As you are the publisher at AiT/Planet Lar, how difficult is it for you to separate those responsibilities from your job as creator when you publish a book of yours?

LY: Well, it's two different sides of my brain, and two different parts of my personality, so it's not too hard to separate them. Writing comics is sort of schizophrenic, anyway, keeping characters and their traits and all in your head as you tell their stories, so it's not that big a deal for Larry the Writer and Larry the Publisher to coexist and work together, while there's a late 50s male anchorman, his early 30s female segment producer and their late 20s male cameraman still having adventures on the moon in my head. Not to mention the zombie dinosaur, the last vampire, the time-travel crew, and the invisible girl, or the various other cats all waiting in the wings for me to stop picking out paper stock and writing press releases and sending review copies to Nisha Gopalan and sit down and get their adventures on to the page. So, yeah. "Publisher" and "Writer" are just another two columns of responsibility on the Great Excel Spreadsheet of My Life.

CB: Following up on that, do you have somebody that reads over your stories, as an editor, or do you edit yourself? And, if the latter, how do you manage, again, to separate the two disciplines and read your own work critically?

LY: My very good friend, the writer Adam Beechen, always seems to be able to make time to take a pass at my scribblings and give me insightful notes that I almost always address, and AiT publisher Mimi Rosenheim is a valuable resource for making sure I pass the "This Doesn't Make Sense; Fix It" test. As she's not really a comics fan, sometimes I'll write a bit of dialogue or make a story-telling assumption that would pass muster to a comics fan but doesn't play in the real world for your regular fiction readers. And I have a tendency towards the flip comment to get out of a scene or to give my favorite character in the piece all the best lines, and she makes suggestions that smooth over that sort of thing.

CB: In your opinion, what is it that Jon Proctor brings to this series?

LY: Jon is a frankly amazing artist. His story-telling is clear while maintaining a core visual flair and a sense of style and rhythm that's just electric. After working on this project for so long, to say that I can sit down and just read the thing and it sings to me like I'm reading it for the first time, every time, is a testament to Jon's strengths.

And he's a bad-ass colorist.

CB: The Black Diamond seems rife with story possibilities. Do you have any other stories in mind revolving around the elevated highway?

LY: Actually, I have two other narratives in mind that might see the light of day sometime, but I'd guess Jon's going to be really busy with Big Four work after this comes out, so it may be a while. I do have to say that the end of Doctor McLaughlin's story doesn't do anything to alleviate some of the bigger political issues raised in the miniseries, so there's a follow-up story that writes itself, right there. And it is fun for me and Jon seeing stories like Dennis Culver's "Jet Swanson, A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence)" and Ken Lowery, and Benjamin and Marlena Hall's "That Old Time Religion" as back-ups in the Tales of the Black Diamond. It's neat seeing folks have fun in our sandbox.

CB: What other projects do you have in the works – whether as creator or publisher – and when can fans expect to see them?

LY: I unexpectedly had an idea while putting together baby furniture that lends itself to an ongoing story, but who knows if that'll ever see the light of day? It seems a little ambitious, even for me, what with the new human coming any day now, to try and tackle an ongoing monthly. I'm actually presently struggling with learning superior swaddling techniques and trying to understand what it is about Cheerios that infants find so appealing.

1 comment:

Dino said...

Great interview. Very insightful look into the industry.