Tuesday, December 21, 2010

FYC bonus: Bryan Talbot's "One Bad Rat"

While I was writing for the Pulse, I had the opportunity to interview via email a number of creators whom I had admired for a long time. One of these creators was Bryan Talbot, creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Alice in Sunderland, and Grandville, among many other classics. Sadly, the piece on Bryan Talbot never made it to publication before my association with the Pulse ended. Now, I get to change that. And I need to thank James Robertson, curator of the great Bryan Talbot site, for setting this up for me back in 2008. If you are at all interested in the works of Bryan Talbot, check out www.bryan-talbot.com, it is a wealth of information and art.


For Your Consideration: Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat
By Chris Beckett

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Written and Drawn by Bryan Talbot
136 pages, full color
HC: $19.99
Dark Horse Press, 2010 (2nd ed.)

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

Helen Potter is living rough – begging for food on the London streets as the chill of December sets in. A teenager, she has run away from home, following a similar path of her hero – Beatrix Potter. Her only friend is a pet rat. Living in Helen’s coat, it keeps her company as she tries to survive and figure out what to do next.

Walking along the banks of the Thames one evening, Helen is accosted by a drunk who tries to take advantage of her. Luckily, a group of boys roughly Helen’s age come to her aid, relieving the old sod of his wallet and Rolex in the process. They invite Helen to stay with them in their squat. She begs off initially, but the rain thrumming on the box she calls home changes her mind, and Helen makes her way to Kensington.

Helen finds comfort here for a while but is still plagued by the visions that have pursued her since she was young. She whiles away her days re-reading her Beatrix Potter library and copying the drawings found within. Helen feels a strong connection to these books and to their author. She tries to fit in with the others but when one of the cats kills Helen’s rat, she moves on once more, leaving the city behind to follow Beatrix Potter.

Heading into the countryside, Helen Potter is joined by a large apparition of her now-deceased rat. In the Lake District, Helen finds what she has been seeking – the peace needed to come to terms with her past and what her father did to her. With the understanding Helen gains from her self-reflection, she comes to realize that she must confront her father in order to finally move on with her life.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is a brilliant piece of fiction that feels far too real. Not just an expertly crafted piece of drama, One Bad Rat is also an important and relevant narrative that speaks to one of the most important and discomforting issues of our day – child sexual abuse. Tackling this subject is not an easy task – tread too far one way and one can be accused of “preaching,” while falling too far on the other side destroys the integrity of the work. But Talbot is at the top of his game with One Bad Rat and manages to weigh each of these priorities – telling a good story while conveying an important message – in order to produce an incredibly powerful comic.

The pacing of One Bad Rat is delicate, with Talbot teasing things out in an unhurried fashion. He intersperses the contemporary narrative with flashbacks, giving readers insights into Helen’s past, which in turn illuminate her current state of mind. Through these memories, the audience learns quickly what her home life was like. It’s not pretty and explains a lot about how readers have seen her act prior to this revelation. Uncomfortable with new people, unable to trust them, Helen is afraid of getting close to anyone and has an understandable problem with people trying to be affectionate with her.

Over the course of the story – originally broken up into a four-issue mini series – Helen grows as a person. She comes to grips with her past, moving beyond the guilt she once felt to anger at being taken advantage of. In a moving scene, Helen climbs the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain half a mile high, and, in the rain, releases her pent-up frustrations, screaming into the darkened sky. This is the turning point, the moment in which she knows she can finally confront her father.

Talbot is also an accomplished artist, and his work is as crisp and clean in One Bad Rat as in any of his other works. His landscapes in this tale rival Geof Darrow for their detail, and the facial expressions of his characters are second to none. There are some scenes that go on for pages sans dialogue, and Talbot conveys the emotion and the meaning of these scenes beautifully through the body language of the characters. It’s a classic example of using restraint to enhance the storytelling.

Talbot also utilizes the nine-panel grid with a facility rarely exhibited by other comic artists. In order to control the pacing of the story, he warps the nine-grid, stretching some panels right to the edge of the page while other smaller panels are overlaid on larger ones expanding across the background. He also combines panels to create larger ones when it suits the story, giving readers the comfort of the nine-grid while pushing at its boundaries to enhance the storytelling. It’s subtle but engaging, a master storyteller using all the tools available to create an important work of art.

Though the linework and layouts in One Bad Rat are impressive, the coloring is what really stands out for me with regard to Talbot’s art. There are many pages where it feels like he is using watercolors to achieve his effects. Much of the color feels it was applied with a brush, giving the art a more natural feeling than the flat coloring found in so many comics. The overall effect is that I find myself drawn in even more because of the classical beauty of the art. Even fifteen years removed from its initial publication, these four issues stand out against the “rest of the crowd” found on the comic racks in 2010.

An Interview with Bryan Talbot (originally conducted in 2008)

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Bryan Talbot: I've been reading them since before I went to school, before I could read, in fact, following the stories without the words. I started drawing my own comics when I was about eight. I just continued reading them as I grew up. I love illustration. I also love stories. With comics, you get both! What could be better?

Beckett: What was your inspiration for The Tale of One Bad Rat and what aspirations did you have for the book?

Talbot: The original idea was to set a comic in the English Lake District, a place I know very well. One day I visited the house of Beatrix Potter, the writer and artist of children's storybooks who died in 1943 and it occurred to me that she told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, as did I. After researching her, I didn't think that I could make an interesting graphic novel based on her life. The recent movie "Miss Potter" made it interesting by cheating - they just made things up, departed from the truth somewhat. I didn't want to do that.

Then I saw a teenage girl begging in a London subway station. She was being harassed by this huge Jesus freak, who was trying to get her to go somewhere with him. She looked so mortified, as if she wanted the ground to open and swallow her up. It put me in mind of descriptions of Beatrix Potter at her age: "painfully shy". That became the first scene in the book.

Beckett: How much research went into the creation of One Bad Rat, and was it difficult for you to work on a book dealing with such uncomfortable subject matter?

Talbot: It wasn't all that difficult. I just had to make sure that I wasn't being preachy or simplistic. I was careful not to make her father, the abuser, a two-dimensional monster. Like the vast majority of abusers, he's just an ordinary guy who's so selfish and thick-skinned that he doesn't consider his daughter's feelings.

I did a great deal of research. I read about a dozen books on the psychological after-effects of abuse, though one would have done. They all repeat the same things in different words. I also read transcripts of abuse survivors talking about their experiences and talked to friends who had been abused. The same phrases are repeated again and again, both in survivors’ descriptions of what they felt and still feel and in the coercive language of the abusers.

When I was plotting the story, I needed an excuse for her to run away from home. Sexual abuse is often a reason for kids running away and I put it in, almost without thinking. It was only after I'd done the research that I realised that this was far too important to be a marginal story device and that it had to be what the book was all about.

My primary concern was to tell a good, gripping story

I also read over a dozen books on Beatrix Potter.

Beckett: I like how you broke the story up into different sections that fell at natural points within the narrative ­ Town, Road, & Country. But these didn't fall within the prescribed 32 page increments when initially published. How did you approach the initial mini series and were any revisions necessary for the story to work in the standard comic format?

Talbot: No, it was just a matter of where to cut the story. That's why the comic page count varies in each edition. The story was structured as a novel. The book is really in two halves, Town and Country - a reference to Beatrix Potter's tale of the town mouse and the country mouse. Road is just a short linking sequence.

Beckett: You are an artist who has managed to achieve success within the comics medium on your own terms. That said, what advice would you give to aspiring creators hoping to break into comics?

Talbot: Persistence seems to be the overriding factor. If you have the talent and really want to do it, don't give up. Bad Rat was rejected by every publisher of illustrated books in Britain. This is before the current boom in graphic novels, when "comics" was a dirty word.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Talbot: I'm writing the next CHERUBS! book, which is now being drawn by Mark Stafford. The first graphic novel in the series was published recently by Desperado. Mark is the hottest Indy comic artist in the U.K. and his work on CHERUBS! is amazing. I can only compare him to an Evan Dorkin or Bob Fingerman, though his style is clearly his own. The book is a supernatural comedy-adventure, featuring a bunch of gonzo cherubim loose in New York on the eve of the apocalypse.

I'm also about halfway through my next graphic novel. It's called GRANDVILLE (published by Dark Horse, 2009) and is a steampunk detective-thriller.

Monday, December 20, 2010

previously unpublished Joe Quesada interview from 2001

Back in 2001, Dan and I and a few other friends started to discuss creating our own comics & prose anthology. If you read the introduction, you know how that endeavor went and how it eventually led to Dan and I finally publishing the first issue of Warrior27. But, back in the spring/summer of 2001, I managed to get one piece of that initial puzzle completed.

At the time, Joe Quesada was just a year into his tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics. With the advent of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on New X-Men, Brian Michael Bendis on Daredevil, and J. Michael Straczynski on Spider-Man, I was excited about Marvel Comics again. So I emailed Joe Quesada, introduced myself, explained that my friends and I were putting together a self-published anthology, and inquired as to his availability to answer some questions. To my surprise, he said yes. And even after I cut and pasted the questions into my subsequent email, leaving Mr. Quesada with a page of illegible nonsense, he was incredibly gracious.

What follows is the article as I wrote it back in 2001. This is the first time it’s been published. I hope you enjoy.


Joe Quesada, in a relatively short time, has risen to prominence within the comic publishing community. After working on Spelljammer, part of DC’s TSR line of comics from the early 1990s, his work was showcased in the 1992 four-issue mini series The Ray. This was followed by another four-issue mini series, written by legendary Batman scribe Denny O’Neil, entitled Azrael. With these two series, Quesada was now fully within the sights of comics’ fandom.

After some more work for Marvel, DC, and Valiant Comics, Quesada started his own independent company with Jimmy Palmiotti called Event Comics, which published the series Ash, among others. This venture led to Quesada coming to work as editor of the Marvel Knights line of comic books, which has produced well-received projects such as Daredevil, Black Widow, Marvel Boy, The Inhumans, and Punisher by such noted creators as Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Paul Jenkins, Jae Lee, Kevin Smith, David Mack Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka, and J.G. Jones, as well as Quesada and Palmiotti – a virtual who’s who of today’s top-notch writers and artists. And now, Quesada is a year into his tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, arguably one of the most high profile jobs in this business. The following interview was conducted via email, and I would like to thank Mr. Quesada for taking the time to answer my questions.

CHRIS BECKETT: Given the amount of enthusiasm and love for your job you convey, is it safe to say you are comicdom’s biggest fan boy?

JOE QUESADA: I really am beginning to hate the term fanboy. Do movie buffs call themselves Moviemaniacs? It’s kind of self loathing in a way, but that’s a conversation for another day. Am I comics biggest, fan? Nah, I think Stan Lee is!

BECKETT: What do you see as Marvel’s place in the industry? And, along those same lines, what do you see as your place in the industry?

QUESADA: Marvel’s place is as the industry leader. That doesn’t just mean sales, it means the leader in making the public aware of all the different types of comics that are available and what they’re capable of. Of course, Marvel had trouble doing that in the past because we got to the point where we were only doing one type of book. We also have a responsibility to be a positive voice for our industry! My role in all of this is a simple one - just try to keep the place on track.

BECKETT: Movies are able to tell stories visually and with action, books allow us to use our imaginations when experiencing the story, and television lets our interaction with the story be a very personal thing. As a storytelling medium, what does the comic book industry bring to the table that is unique unto itself?

QUESADA: It brings you the wonderful meshing of all these mediums. It captures moments in time and combines them with intriguing narrative that, if done well, suspends the readers’ belief in the fact that they are simply staring at still pictures. It’s a feast of the senses and mind that I believe can’t be found in other mediums. Similar to TV we offer something that movies can’t and most books don’t. We offer our stories in a continuous serialized fashion. Like TV, when we do this well we tell the best stories on the planet. For the most part, especially if you go to the movies a lot, you’ll notice how little care is taken with stories. On average, when done well, you get more bang for your buck with comics.

BECKETT: Why should somebody pick up a comic book or a graphic novel and read it? What is your argument in favor of comic books as an exciting way to tell stories?

QUESADA: This is one of those tough questions because either you get the excitement of comics or you don’t. Most of us have an immediate reaction to great art. For me it runs especially deep with illustrators like [Norman] Rockwell and [Alphonse] Mucha. These are artists that are conveying a story, or trying to, with a single image. So I just imagine the thrill of seeing beautiful artwork telling a story in multiple images. Not every artist is a Rockwell, but we have so many different types of styles available in our industry that there’s sure to be something for everyone. The problem is making them aware of it. Comics are also man’s most basic and oldest form of expression. Just look at cave walls and you’ll see that we’ve been telling stories with pictures for a very long time. I think the problem is that we’ve placed such a stigma on stories with pictures that most adults don’t see it as viable. But who among us can say that they haven’t read a novel and at one point thought about how cool it would be to have an illustration or two sprinkled about? I mean, we’re already doing it in our mind’s eyes anyway.

There is also a larger emotional connection to a great comic. You can curl up with it and savor it, or breeze through it – whatever mood strikes you. It is the perfect synthesis of a great epic movie and a wonderful thick novel!

BECKETT: What graphic novel would you lend to someone to spark their interest in comic books and why?

QUESADA: The usual stuff. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Marvels and Watchmen.

BECKETT: Before ascending to Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, you began as an artist. Who were some of your influences and what did you learn from these artists, either by observing their actual work or from discussions you may have had with them?

QUESADA: Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, Alex Raymond, Mike Mignola, and Alphonse Mucha were among my biggest influences. I learned basic design and placement of blacks. Graphics have played a very important part in my artwork based on these artists and their influence.

BECKETT: As an artist, would you rather work from an intricately detailed script like Alan Moore’s or from a basic plot like the “Marvel Method” made famous by Stan Lee?

QUESADA: It really doesn’t matter to me. I’ve worked with both. The key is that if you’re working with a writer who writes full script, you have to hope he or she has a visual sense to them. What Marvel method does is it cures a lot of stagnant talkie scenes that non-visual writers are prone to writing. This is what I’ve discovered in my days editing here at Marvel. If you have a writer with a great knack for dialogue, this particular writer may write the most amazing scene between two characters as they walk down the street. This can go on for five pages and the writer, even the editor, may not suspect how bland the action is because they are so overwhelmed by the naturalness of the conversation. This works well in novels, but in visual mediums it usually puts the audience to sleep. What happens normally is that nobody knows it’s dull until the artist calls up complaining about the scene. In the Marvel method, you’re forced to describe the action and then let that dictate the patter afterwards. What happens in this case is that if the writer knows that the characters are going to have a long five-page chat, he or she will find themselves writing, “Page One, they walk. Page Two, they walk some more. Page Three, they . . . oh darn!” At that point, they realize that visually there’s nothing going on, and the editor sees it very clearly as well. What I find really works well is a mixture of the two. A quick action description by the writer with a block of dialogue of what’s going to be said on the page so the artist can pace accordingly.

BECKETT: What are the inherent advantages and disadvantages of these two differing styles?

QUESADA: See above for the disadvantage of full script. The Marvel method can be disastrous if you have an artist that doesn’t understand pacing and storytelling or is one of those throwbacks who only care about big pinup images, leaving the writer nowhere to go.

BECKETT: Many fans think of inking as an easy job because it “only involves tracing” the pencils. Obviously, there is more to it than that. What is it that a top-notch inker brings to a project?

QUESADA: Well, for starters it is an art of control. A great inker brings with them drawing skills of their own that can help enhance a penciler’s work. They can add dimension to pencils or that certain x-factor that really makes the art sing.

BECKETT: From a layperson’s point of view, it is fairly obvious what an artist needs to do in order to try and break into the business of creating comics. For writers, it is a little more difficult. When looking over blind submissions from aspiring writers, what are some things you look for if you are seeking to hire new talent, and what are some tips you could pass along to aspiring writers regarding their submission and how to better their chances of getting into the business?

QUESADA: A short proposal. That’s the first key. If I see paragraph upon paragraph, I tune right out. Any great idea can be described in a short paragraph, any brilliant idea in a sentence!

BECKETT: With the Ultimate line, Backpack Marvels, the Marvel Knights and Ultimate Marvel magazines, MAX, the upcoming mature line, and the weekly War Machine series, there has been a lot of experimenting going on at the House of Ideas. Regarding the War Machine series, you cite the popularity of manga in Japan as part of the reasoning for this project. Keeping with the manga theme, is there any chance we may see an anthology of original and diverse material from Marvel anytime in the not too distant future?

QUESADA: By now you’ve heard about our Manga 5th week event in January. We have a few more big announcements for that launch, but if it does well, who knows, maybe we’ll create an imprint around it much like Marvel Knights!

BECKETT: For a number of years, it has been the perception that DC Comics has been ahead of Marvel in having top-notch talent such as Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Charles Vess, and others, as well as offering a wider variety of projects in genres other than the typical superhero stories that are a staple of the industry. However, this has certainly changed with many big name creators coming to work for Marvel, along with the expansion to a mature line and a creator-owned line. How has this major change for Marvel Comics come about? What is different now at Marvel that is allowing these changes to take place?

QUESADA: Well, for starters, it’s not a perception. DC did have the big guns. Granted, a lot of what they did later was inspired by early Epic, but there’s no doubt that they did it better. I think that the creative community has been waiting for Marvel to change its ways; they just had no idea how long it was going to take. We’ve changed our way of doing business creatively. It’s a simple philosophy. Hire the best creators and let them do what we hired them for!

BECKETT: One of the biggest problems still facing comic books is the prejudice that they are only for kids. What are some ideas you have for educating people about the medium and overcoming this narrow-mindedness?

QUESADA: Getting rid of the [Comics] Code was a start. Also, no offense to the Vertigo line, but since Marvel is so good at getting mainstream press, I think that the MAX line will be a big boost towards changing those perceptions. Also, stuff like the Cartoon Network launching adult cartoons late at night will help the perception of comics as well.

BECKETT: Another problem facing the medium is the perceived lack of return on one’s financial investment. Some people feel they are not getting their money’s worth when they can finish a $20 trade paperback collection in less than two hours. Marvel’s Essential line of trade paperbacks is a big step in the right direction regarding this. What are other ways to tackle this problem?

QUESADA: Well, with print media it’s very difficult because of the high price of paper and the low volumes. Hopefully, as readership increases, publishers can be more aggressive with the print numbers and prices can be lowered. Another option is the dot comics, which make a large amount of material available without paper costs.

BECKETT: Late shipping books are another problem that seems to plague the industry. Whether it is a week or a month or six months, these delays in shipping can become annoying to consumers and end up driving fans away. Can you tell us what Marvel is doing to try and alleviate this predicament and what are some other things that you feel need to be done in order for these books to ship in a more timely fashion?

QUESADA: We took a very aggressive approach by hiring Bob Greenberger as our new Managing Editor. Bob was instrumental in setting up a system years ago at DC that kept the trains running on time and as smoothly as a line that large could.

BECKETT: What audiences do you feel are not being reached by the comic book industry, and what would you do to tap into these markets?

QUESADA: Young girls. Outside of Archie [Comics], no one can come near them. It’s tough. At one point, Marvel had Barbie Comics, but they went the way of the dinosaur as well. We’re looking at a number of different properties for girls, but it’s really a crapshoot.

BECKETT: Other than direct market stores and bookstores, where should comic books and graphic novels be sold today? Why?

QUESADA: Everywhere! Toy stores, music stores, you name it!

BECKETT: What are some other problems you see that are holding the comic book market back, and how would you suggest handling them?

QUESADA: We have a big distribution problem, but I’m hopeful it will fix itself. I’m going to bet that in the next few months book outlets like Barnes and Noble are going to see the profit potential in comics and increase our exposure. As long as we continue to improve our content and provide readers with stories and art that they want to read, this trend will continue to increase.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Scripting via Poutine

NOTE: I've pulled all but the first image (leaving it as a teaser and placeholder) because I've managed to place the story with an online anthology, but they prefer first-run work, so I'll do my best to abide by that. I'd rather not say any more right now (superstition and all), but once it goes live the images will return here. Thank you very much Noel for the kind words and to those that have checked this short story out. It's much appreciated.

Over at the Poutine website - the collective home of Canadian artists Noel Tuazon (Elk's Run, Tumor, The Broadcast) and Jason Copland (Perhapanauts and collaborator on this UFO story for Ape) - Jason has thrown up 11 pages of art he did while in Las Vegas. He had no narrative in mind while drawing them, and has offered the pages up to writers who might wish to script a story with them. In his blogpost, Jason states that one can rearrange the pages as necessary to create the story, but I chose to keep them in the order offered, a nice writing challenge.

Below are the lettered pages as scripted by me. I hope they make sense. There's a bit of non-linear storytelling going on due to the restriction of keeping the pages in order as they are on Jason's site. maybe I'll return to this after the holidays to see what other narratives I can come up with, as this is really the beginning of something. Click the images to get a better look.

Artwork © 2010 Jason Copland


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Colored version

and here is the final version of my Aquaman piece for the Comic Geek Speak secret Santa list:


Thursday, December 2, 2010


Yesterday I threw up the pencils for my Secret Santa sketch at the CGS boards. Today, the inked version.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

some amateur art


I'm participating in a "Secret Santa" activity over at the Comic Geek Speak boards. You put your name on the list, one of the other members "draws the names," and for whomever you get, you draw a sketch of their choosing (regardless of artistic talent) and send them 3 comics from your collection. This is the first year I've been involved, and it's a pretty cool idea. And, I thought I would share the evolution of my sketch, which was for any JLA character. and, since I've enjoyed his characterization on the few Brave and the Bold cartoons I've seen, I went with Aquaman.

Here is my initial penciled version for the sketch. Hope you enjoy.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flash Fiction: Futures that Never Were

On Neil Gaiman's blog a few weeks back, I caught a post wherein Gaiman mentioned he would be the final judge for a flash fiction contest put on by New Scientist. The premise was to create a story of 350 words or less of a future that never came to be. So, my mind started racing and below is what I conjured up. Hope you enjoy.


By Christopher M. Beckett

The wall crumbled. The Iron Curtain fell. And the scientists stepped through to an age of unprecedented cooperation and development.

With this, came an explosion of ideas, heralding a new age. Jet packs, hover cars, retinal scanners, holo-screens – everything we’d wished for. And . . .

Asimov’s dream made real – the integration of robots into society.

Entering the labor force, artificials, as they were known, soon spread into the home as butlers, cooks, and housemaids. It was a grand day. And this proved so successful we ceded the manufacturing industry to them. Why not? Artificials were more efficient, never fatigued, and boasted a precision we could never realize.

From there, we linked them into the grid. No more need for early warning systems or Star Wars (missile defense, not the film). No longer would we fear attack from foreign dictators. The machines were on watch now.

We had achieved something real. World Peace.

Utopia was now within reach.

In January, 2019, we finally handed the artificials the keys and told them to drive. We had taken them as far as we could. They evolved, as we had – synthetic skin in favor of chrome plating, high-grade plastic joints instead of titanium alloy, bio-synth eyes rather than glass. It was amazing. Some models even seemed more human than human. Hell, they could have been my neighbors, for all I knew.

But we’re still in charge. Garbage in, garbage out, you know. ‘Course, you got the conspiracy theorists and factions like that declaiming against the artificials – they’re bad for humanity, they’re not infallible, they’ll wipe us out, all that type o’ shit.

I don’t buy it.

Sure, there was the problem in California with that inadvertent missile launch. But that was just a fluke.

And claims they’re taking over the government, secretly moving into powerful corporate positions, CEOs an’ shit. Come on. They’re robots, right?

I mean, okay, I guess it’s possible. But that haszzn’t happened yet?

Haszz it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.5: final thoughts

In re-reading these first 10 issues of Marvel's The 'Nam, initially published in 1986-87, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. It was such a tough place for the creative team to be: producing a war comic about a time in our history that many people wished to forget, and having to do it under the auspices of the Comics Code and a large publisher like Marvel within a 22-page limit. And, just to make things interesting, they want each issue to take place in real time, so those 22 pages showcase the story for a given month. Not an easy task. But I think they did an admirable job, considering the constraints and the fact that Doug Murray was, in fact, a rookie writer.

There are times when I cringe a little bit - the fact that, for the most part, the American troops are righteous in their mission while any time they find it necessary to shoot a civilian, these always tend to have been VC in disguise (and I could be forgetting if there was an unwarranted killing early, but I am referencing the tunnel rat issue, #8, where Ed Marks and the tunnel rat kill the Vietnamese girl who has a grenade taped to her body). Things are just a little too clear-cut as far as the conflict. From what I have read, it was terribly confusing, and that isn't something we feel in reading these initial issues.

I also found it a bit troubling that the two American characters who seem to be the most perverted by their time in Vietnam were minorities - the Top Sergeant and Ramnarain. Yes, we do have a white soldier try to frag Sgt. Polkow, but that was more subtle and not as overt as the other two soldiers. Maybe I'm nitpicking - probably am - but in this more enlightened world, it just seems to stand out more to me.

That said, I was impressed with all the aspects of the war Murray, Golden, et al. were able to showcase in these first ten issues. The Kit Carson scouts, the tunnel rats, the atrocities (on the VC side at least), the street economy, and I was impressed with the characterization of Ed Marks through these issues. You can see subtle changes from month to month. And there are some very moving moments in these issues as well. Overall, I think they did a fairly good job of giving readers a starting point, which was something Murray hoped for, and understood to be the best possible outcome for a 22-page corporate comic book.

I don't know if this was in the collection, but I was surprised - and found it a bit confusing narratively - to find the "tunnel rat" issue split into two different stories that involved the same character. The second half of that issue - the "5th to the 1st" story - must have been a third installment from the series of features Murray and Golden had done for Larry Hama's b/w war magazine, Savage Tales. Only two stories ran in the magazine before they were offered the opportunity to do The 'Nam as a regular monthly. For anyone curious about those (were they in the collection?) this shows how they were laid out, with a voice over in captions relating the story. This also exhibits the more "adult" nature of that feature, as we see the tunnel rat kill his Lt. I was surprised this actually got into the regular book. I can't imagine editorial allowed something of this nature to be showcased again in the run, though I admit I could be wrong on that count. It would have been nice if they'd been given the freedom to tackle some more of these problems in the book, but there were too many interests involved to allow such a thing - and, of course, sales to be considered.

finally, Mike Golden's art. There were many readers who felt that his cartoony style did not fit the serious nature of the book. And though I can understand that sentiment, I think his art worked very well in the book. It's a little hint of manga, before manga landed with its full force over here, in that he exaggerated facial expressions and body language in order to convey emotion, and did it very well. And, Doug Murray made a good point in favor of Golden in the Comics Journal interview I referenced above, stating that he felt Golden was a good choice for the book because of two factors.

  1. One, he has a high level of detail, and accurately depicted the hardware used by the soldiers, including remembering to make every fourth round loaded into a 50-caliber a tracer (I know I am remembering this wrong and cannot find the quote).

  2. Two, Golden is able to make each character instantly recognizable. The problem, as Murray put it, for a war book is that everyone is wearing the same things - camo fatigues - and if you don't have a good artist they all blend together. With Golden, you certainly never got that. His soldiers were all individuals and you always knew who was whom.

For these reasons, I think Golden's work on the book is essential and no doubt helped that book rise to the top of the sales pile early on.

Anyway. Overall, a good book, one that I think is important for a number of reasons. it would be interesting if, at some point down the line, the Comic Geek Speak guys were able to read Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal for a BOMC and compare it with this. And with Transfuzion recently reprinting all 16 issues of the original series in four trades, that might be a possibility.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.4: final TCJ quotes

And some final quotes:

Murray points out that because The 'Nam was doing so well (selling roughly 250,000 copies/month and in Marvel's top 5 selling books) a decision was made to make the book a direct only title, but geared toward a slightly younger demographic. The price point went up (and it did become non-returnable since it was no longer provided to newsstands) and the circulation dropped to around 100,000. At the point of the interview it was hovering between 85-100,000 according to Murray.

Dagilis continues to ask about how some of the more graphic content got into earlier issues (of particular interest is, I think, #5, which has a very suggestive cover showcasing massacred Vietnamese in a shadowy foreground as Marks and his company stare at the atrocity) and Murray says

The thing is that we got away with some of that stuff because we were able to do a smokescreen. We did a cover we knew they wouldn't accept, and things like the flies [buzzing around the dead bodies] you can get away with because none of the guys looking it over in the Code . . . keep in mind that the Code doesn't look at the book individually. There's a person at Marvel whose job it is to look over books and say, "Hey, the Code won't take this," and make us change it beforehand. So basically what you do is you make some trades; you can trade a "hell" for a "damn;" you can trade a puddle of blood for something else, and that's pretty much what we did when we had Hama in charge, because Hama was able to ramrod that stuff through. but it takes an editor with a lot of balls to do that sort of thing and they are in relatively short supply at Marvel.

And, with regards to royalties:

I get some royalties, but Marvel takes the position that foreign publications don't count under the royalty agreement, and in fact, the 'Nam paperbacks which you've seen [there were eventually 3 volumes, each reprinting 4 issues each] are now going into a third printing, but I don't see any money from that unless they sell above the royalty numbers, but they're printing fewer than the royalty number so there's no way I'll see any money from that. The work-for-hire agreements are set up that way, there aren't enough legal precedents to change them at the moment.

Note: emphasis is mine in the above quote

And finally, Murray mentioned that there was a communication problem between editors at the Big Two and creators who were not top-tier, which came in reference to the fact that Murray and his then-editor (I don't think he's named) had a falling out over the fact that the editor wanted to "Rambo-ize" the characters even more and Murray had a serious problem with that characterization. The editor and Murray did not speak for a number of months, there were a couple of fill-in issues done by another writer, and then Murray returned to the book. But, with regards to editorial communication, he said

It doesn't matter, it's a question of ... Marvel and DC both have - all the editors of both companies are difficult to communicate with from any level. If I was to send a story to, let's say, Denny O'Neil at DC, I would not get a call back, I would have to call him back . . . Even if it's a regularly scheduled book, if there's a problem the editor won't call you back with the problem, you have to call them back.

But, Murray notes this isn't unique to the comics publisher as he states

I've run into the same thing in the magazine industry doing film articles, I've seen the same things in publishing houses.

I'll finish up with my final thoughts on these first ten issues of the 'Nam in response to the book of the month club discussion the Comic Geek Speak guys did on this trade.


Friday, November 19, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.3: more TCJ quotes

Some more from Murray's interview in The Comics Journal from 1990:

In response to a question about whether Marvel had directives regarding political questions of the war, Murray said

No, nothing like that. I have a personal problem with - I'm not happy with the way I've handled the racism aspect of things.

One of the things I've tried to show in The 'Nam throughout is the futility of war. I've made a point over and over again that nobody really wins. that was the whole idea behind my getting involved in this.

Later, Dagilis asks Then the series changes. Soon we have characters like the cliched, Dirty Harry-esque Iceman Phillips, the gonzo, Rambo-esque, Pig; we have scene after scene of grunts charging into armed exchanges with smiles on their faces, gleefully calling down airstrikes with napalm, etc., etc. Whereas in the first dozen or so issues, Rob Little keeps telling [Ed] Marks not to be so "John Wayne" . . .

To which, Murray says

Part of the problem is not the fact so much that Ed Marks left as . . . other people left. Around the same time you're talking about, when Marks left, I also lost Michael Golden and not that long afterward I lost Larry Hama, and at Marvel a change in editor doesn't mean nothing's going to change in the book . . .

Anyway, basically what happened was, once Michael left and Larry left, I was steered in a somewhat different direction by the editorial staff, who wanted to ... to ... I want to say this without insulting anybody ... The original concept of The 'Nam was that it was a comic book, but for a relatively adult audience.

Some final quotes and thoughts on this tomorrow.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1 pt.2: some TCJ quotes

Yesterday, I wrote a short summary of the furor within the letters pages of The Comics Journal surrounding Marvel's The 'Nam around 1990. What follows are some interesting quotes from Doug Murray in his The Comics Journal interview from 1990. I was impressed with how candid he was, not just with regards to Marvel editorial but with his own shortcomings as the writer of the book.

I ghosted some comics at DC [around 1972], which I prefer not to talk about
I did do a few Vietnam War stories for the DC war books . . . but they were changed from Vietnam stories to World War II stories because DC was in its "Make War No More" phase and really didn't want to deal with the Vietnam War, so I just stopped talking about it, basically, and settled into doing film articles and such for magazines like Larry Brill's The Monster Times

. . . there's a balance that has to be struck. I was trained as a historian, my college degree is in history, but if you do a straight history, the audience changes considerably. And we're talking about a situation whereas prior to 1986 there was no popularization of the Vietnam War whatsoever . . . you have to make compromises doing this sort of thing, and one of the major compromises involved in dealing with a major comics company such as Marvel is that there are certain rules that I have to follow, mostly dealing with the Comics Code.

In response to a follow-up regarding how often his scripts were [censored] due to the Code, Murray said:

Very seldom, but mostly that's a question of self-censorship rather than . . . by the Comics Code. I know what the rules are and I try not to go beyond them. The one problem I have with dealing with the Comics Code under Marvel right now is language usage. It's come to the point where I can't even pseudo-swear, if you get what I mean. I can't say "freaking, everybody knows it means "fucking"-

despite the fact that they were able to use "freaking" early on, a point brought up by the interviewer Andrew Dagilis, to which Murray said

Yes, but they made us change it, you see. With the changes in management at Marvel there have been changes in what we can and can't do.

This would have been in reference to Jim Shooter leaving Marvel and, more importantly, to Larry Hama leaving The 'Nam as its editor.

More tomorrow,

Saturday, November 13, 2010

the 'Nam vol.1: CGS book of the month club

I've neglected the blog here for a few weeks, but I hope to get back on track in this next week. We'll see. anyway. Over at the Comic Geek Speak podcast they released another one of their Book of the Month Club episodes, this one on Marvel's first volume of The 'Nam.

This was one of the first series I started to collect on a regular basis, and managed to compile a full run (except for the final Punisher special, ugh). Surprisingly, despite the fact that the initial thought was to have the series run in real time, with characters rotating back to "the world" after their 12-month tour, this first volume collects only the first 10 issues. I decided to re-read my original issues for this discussion, and was surprised how well they did hold up years later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. I also re-read the Comics Journal issue from 1990 that examined both this and Don Lomax's comics Vietnam Journal from Apple Comics. It was an interesting issue, including interviews with Lomax and Doug Murray, who was the writer on the 'Nam for its first 50 or so issues, with a couple of breaks due to editorial differences. My next few posts will discuss this book and include a number of quotes from that TCJ issue. To begin, here's my brief overview of the controversy that was going on in the letters' pages of The Comics Journal regarding Marvel's Vietnam book.

The 'Nam was taking some serious flak from readers of the Comics Journal, which probably helped inspire Gary Groth to have a Vietnam in Comics issue. The book was getting criticism from people who felt it was too juvenile, unwilling to tackle the racism and drug issues, nor able to discuss the horrors and atrocities that occurred. Also, the characterizations of later characters (particularly those after the initial year of issues) was derided as newer characters had a more gung-ho, Rambo-esque quality to them (I'm going by the commentary in this issue of TCJ, but am interested to read on after the first 10 issues and compare these initial characters to later ones). There was also the issue of all the "action" the soldiers in the book saw.

These are certainly worthwhile discussion points, and ones that the interviewer - Andrew Dagilis - brought up in his discussion with Doug Murray. Obviously, this was a Code-approved book, which meant much of what was criticized could not be brought up in the book, a luxury Don Lomax had in doing his Vietnam Journal comic for Apple comics without the need of code approval. But, where is the line? What should be allowed in what was, at least initially, a comic for adults? I think a major problem, using hindsight, is that The 'Nam should have been an Epic comic where adult situations necessary for a more realistic portrayal could have been tackled. But - and this is purely conjecture on my part - I don't know that anyone at Marvel expected The 'Nam to do well. Most likely, they expected it to fail, and threw it under the Marvel imprint. Surprisingly, it became a top 5 book, and was selling roughly 250,000 copies a month. (yeah, not too shabby).

And when it became popular, it became even harder to work in any of the grim reality that was true of the Vietnam conflict. Ironic. There also was an edict that Murray and company try to gear the book more toward a younger demographic (early teens) in order to pull in new readers. From our vantage point of the readers at the time, it would no doubt seem that Doug Murray should be the one receiving all blame for the juvenilization of the war through this comic. But, from the interview in TCJ I have, it's obvious he was trying to do the best with what he was given. Editorial had a stringent hold on the book, and the Comics Code loomed heavily above their heads. But Murray felt it necessary to do his best within these guidelines to portray as true a tale as possible in the book. Dagilis asks him a number of times, might it not be better to drop the book and try to clone it at a company that might allow him freer reign with the subject matter. Murray doesn't agree. Despite many arguments with editorial (at the time) he feels it best to continue on with his book and work in things at the edges whenever possible.

The biggest issue, for Murray (as I read it), is the fact that Murray was a novice in the comics business. After returning from Vietnam in the seventies and leaving the army, he tried his hand at writing. Being in New York, he found himself hanging around at Neal Adams's studio, where he struck up a friendship with Larry Hama. When Hama, as an editor at Marvel, was starting up his Savage Tales magazine, which would showcase b/w military stories, he called upon Murray, the only Vietnam veteran he knew who was a writer, to write him a couple of short Vietnam war stories that Mike Golden illustrated. From that, came The 'Nam, Murray's first major comics writing credit. if he'd had any experience in the comics business, things might have been different. He might have been able to use his standing to get some things pushed through editorial. Or, he might have left the book and started up another somewhere else. Thought that still seems like it might not have worked for a variety of reasons pointed out in the interview - particularly the dismal sales figures of The 'Nam's sister magazine from Marvel, Semper Fi, which showcased stunning artwork by John Severin. By the time Semper Fi was canceled with issue 9, it was only selling 13,000 copies, and I loved that book too. Could Murray have found the same success with a second Vietnam book? I doubt it. But that's all history now.
Back tomorrow with some quotes from that interview.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

CGS Super Show 2011: Apr. 30/May 1

The best podcast on comics, for me, and one of my favorite podcasts is the Comic Geek Speak one - with new shows Monday through Friday on wide-ranging topics in the comics medium with a group of friends sitting around sharing their opinions and their wealth of knowledge from reading comics for years, it's like those conversations you used to have at the comic shop, back when you hit the shop every Wednesday, predicated on the fact that there was a "good" comic shop in your area.

Coming this spring - on April 30 and May 1, 2010 - will be the third, if I remember correctly, CGS Super Show, their own little comic convention. Dan and I hit it up last year, in Reading, PA, and it was a great little show. It had some good shopping (10 comics for a buck!) and for a small show - one room and easy to make your way around - it had some big-name creators like Jamal Igle, Freddie Williams II, Mike Norton, Lee Weeks, and Walt and Louise Simonson, to name just a few. They also had some independent creators like Andy Jewett, Julian Lytle, Dave Wachter, and Shawn Pryor from PKD Media. It was a great show, and this year Dan and I will be heading down in an official capacity, bringing copies of the new collected and colored Warrior27.

As a way to raise money in anticipation of the show, and a way for the creators to thank the CGS crew for all they do, Comic Geek Speak holds a series of raffles for early ticket buyers, which includes prizes such as original comic pages, original sketches, book bundles, and whatever else the creators can come up with. On the Fly will be offering 2 prize packs for early ticket buyers, which will include one of everything we have currently published (including anything we might get done between now and the end of April). This will include individual issues, chapbooks, mini comics, and promotional items that we might have laying around. The list, at this point, includes the following:

- Warrior27: the Collection (254 pages of comics and prose, many stories newly-colored for this book)
- Warrior27: the Collection, digital copy

- Issues 1-3 (the original b/w issues, which includes a very few pieces not included in the collection, including Dan's hilarious "I Hate Brian Michael Bendis" rants)

- Issue 4 (the multimedia extravaganza, which has a traditional comic, a prose chapbook, a mini-comic that folds out to a game, a CD of a webcomic, and an oversized preview of a proposed comic series)
- In Search Of . . . part 1 - nearly 12,000 words of prose collecting the first half of my serialized novella, which had its start on the burst culture site, 50 years from now

- Life is Funny & A Stone Wall Between Us - a chapbook of my first professional comic story and first prose sale

- Passage - a mini-comic written and drawn by me

- postcards, magnets, and any other promotional items we may still have, including, possibly, copies of the Andy Lee print of our first issue's cover.

For information on the Super Show check this LINK, and to buy your tickets GO HERE. And don't forget to listen to the show.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Holding the Center - "Reading" Sam Kieth's ALIENS

It's funny how, once something is in your head, you begin to see it everywhere. It's understandable. With a new understanding, you become more aware. Anyway. That's what occurred this past week.

One of my favorite blogs is the Comics Comics blog from the guys at Picturebox. They know comics - not just what is good, but the process, the history - and the insights you can glean from the posts at the site are fantastic. Definitely worth checking out if you love comics.

Anyway. Frank Santoro - whose books Storeyville and Cold Heat (with Ben Jones) are two of my recent favorites; great, personal comics that don't look like anything else on the stands - likes to write about process over at the Comics Comics site, and recently he's been discussing the "center" of the comic page. How (if I may paraphrase), if you utilize a 6-panel or similar grid, then the center is being given up to the gutters, and the prime portion of real estate on that page, the involuntary focus of the page, is lost.

Santoro goes into this in more depth in his two recent Comics Class posts - Class #1 and Class #2 - and does a far more informed job than I of discussing the importance of the center. It's intriguing and I would recommend hitting the links, and then put Comics Comics into your RSS feed.

This relates to my "Halloween month" revisiting of Mark Verheiden's initial ALIENS trilogy from Dark Horse in the late 80s/early 90s. I hadn't read them in years, and after watching Ridley Scott's director's cut of the original ALIEN, I was excited to dive into the longbox. I'll write about the stories therein later. But what I found interesting was a particular page of art from the third series, subtitled Earth War and drawn by Sam Kieth. The page in question is this one:

This is a complex layout, considering the reading of the panel does not follow the traditional left-to-right/up-and-down path. It goes down the left side of the page, and then jumps back up to read down the right side, despite the lack of dialogue in that final panel.

It made me think of debates I hear on some of my comic podcasts, where they lament the fact that there is no more centralized office where new artists get to learn about comic storytelling from masters of the form, similar to the mythical stories we hear of the Marvel bullpen where artists like George Perez interned with Rich Buckler while learning from others working in the same space. Some artists today want to create these elaborate page layouts, but then we, as readers, don't know how to follow the action on the page.

But Sam Kieth's layout for this page works perfectly, and he is ably assisted by Jim Massara who did the lettering for this series. You can follow the action with my rudimentary photoshop arrows below:

In the first panel, we have a marine reaching into a hole where a second marine has fallen. Our eyes follow the word balloons as they wrap around the first marine's head, following the final balloon as it stretches out into the second panel below, leading us directly to this marine's head in that second panel which is blown through by the alien. The trajectory of the alien's inner mouth (what is that called?) and the blood and brain matter sends our eyes away from the center of the page down to the bottom left corner. The blood spatters all the way to the edge of this panel and our eye falls into the bottom left panel, which has the second marine turning away from the spattering blood and brains - which tie this panel in with the previous one above it. Our eyes then naturally cross over to the panel beside this one - and it is important to note that these two panels at the bottom left of the page are as wide as the second panel right above it, the single gutter going up the right side of these panels effectively demarcating the left and right of the page. In this fourth panel, our eyes are raised up toward the top of the image by the retreating bit of food the alien took with it and the word balloon that falls out of the upper boundary of this panel. And this leads our eye over to the final, tall panel on the right and to the alien hanging above the marines. The dripping blood from the alien's mouth then leads our eye back down to the bottom of this panel and the two marines looking up into its hideous maw.

I was really impressed with how this page was laid out. I know I have encountered some difficulty in reading recent comics, mainly because enough thought has not been put into the layout of the page.

This is what I appreciate from Frank Santoro and other artists like him, and like Sam Kieth in this example. I also found it interesting to note that Kieth, whether conscious or not, refused to give up the center of this particular page. You'll notice that the dividing line between the right and left of the page is off-center, nudged toward the right. And it is telling that the main focus of this page - the alien's attack on the marines - is found within the center, as noted below.

These are things I didn't think about when I was just reading comics. But now that I'm trying to write comics, I examine the books more closely than I ever did. And having teachers like Santoro to show the way at Comic Comics is certainly a help.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

FYC Replay: Me & Edith Head with Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber

Here's another installment in the archiving of my Pulse columns, For Your Consideration. In this one, I had the opportunity to interview, by email, Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber. They were very gracious in taking the time to answer my questions, and when I had the opportunity to meet them in person at the Small Press Expo in 2009, they were just as gracious. The interview is a couple of years old, so the "upcoming projects" question includes work long since completed - except for Mr. Lieber's mention of Greg Rucka's scripts for the third Whiteout miniseries, "Thaw." That has yet to see publication, but I did see the original pages for that first issue - penciled, inked, and lettered - at SPX 2009. I'm not sure when it will find its way onto Oni Press's publication schedule, but when it does, you will not be disappointed. For now, though, enjoy this look at one of the best mini-comics you'll find out there.

Warren Ellis put it best when he stated, “I’ve always been faintly disgusted by Steve Lieber's level of talent. Now it appears I have to have his wife killed too.” Me and Edith Head is a brilliant lesson in economy. With only fifteen pages, Ryan and Lieber manage to create a complete and fulfilling narrative that will resonate long after you put it down.

The 411:
Me and Edith Head
Written by Sara Ryan
Drawn by Steve Lieber
15pp. b/w
Cold Water Press

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

Wiser people than I have stated what many know to be true already, but it still bears repeating. Me and Edith Head is one of those gems all fans of the medium should seek out. Originally published in the September/October 2001 issue of Cicada magazine, it stars Katrina Lansdale, a character from Sara Ryan’s first novel Empress of the World. When that issue of Cicada went out of print, Ryan and Lieber decided to publish Edith Head as a 15-page chapbook in 2002 through their own publishing company Cold Water Press, and it was nominated for an Eisner award in the “Best Short Story” category that year.

Katrina is a character easily recognizable to many readers. A high school student dealing with the pressures inherent during that period of our lives, she must also contend with being one of those girls hovering just outside the cliques so ingrained within high school society. Compounding these difficulties, Katrina’s parents are quickly heading toward divorce, something that appears to have been a long time coming. She needs an outlet and auditions for the school play, a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hoping for the part of Titania, Katrina is instead delegated the task of costume designer.

Katrina is disappointed with the position and sees little hope of enjoying her time with the play. But something surprising happens. Katrina discovers a talent for the fashion needs of the company, and with the help of some books on Edith Head – an Oscar-winning costume designer – she discovers an inner confidence of which she was unaware. Growing up is difficult, but sometimes when one’s mind is diverted, it can happen without thinking.

This is an incredible little book. With only fifteen pages, Ryan and Lieber present a fully-fleshed out narrative in which the audience is witness to Katrina’s growth from a troubled teen to a confident young woman. This slim book packs more story into it than any collection from the “Big Two,” with very few exceptions. Ryan and Lieber hit all the high notes of the story, utilizing the comic page to its fullest, while eschewing the padded storytelling practice of decompression so common in many of today’s comics. This husband and wife team also exhibits an understanding of comics as a melding of words and pictures, allowing the images to tell the story in a way most creators never conceive.

One page in particular, in which the audience watches Katrina’s bedroom go from a typical teenage sty to a clean, well-ordered space as snippets of her parents’ dialogue illuminate their decaying relationship, is a prime example of how well thought out and well executed a comic this is. Throughout the story, Ryan’s dialogue is spot-on, and she expands much of the narrative with the unspoken statements lying beneath the characters’ words. And Lieber’s art is as superb as fans have come to expect. He is one of the best artists working in comics today with panels that are fully realized without being cluttered, allowing him to tell any type of story with a craft unmatched by many in the industry. Though not flashy, Lieber’s style is full of substance, and any book drawn by him is always a pleasure to read.

If you’re lucky enough to be attending a convention where Steve Lieber and Sara Ryan are in attendance, seek him out and buy this book. If not, go to Sara's website where you can order it through paypal. You’ll thank me.

An Interview with Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber:

Chris Beckett: What reaction have you gotten from fans at conventions regarding Edith Head and other mini comics you have available?

Steve: The responses have varied from wildly enthusiastic appreciation to indifference to an odd, condescending sort of -- I don't know-- pity, maybe? I'm glad to say that the good reactions have been the most common. The minis I've illustrated are all terrific stories. Edith was nominated for an Eisner; Sean Stewart's Family Reunion was reprinted in The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics & Manga. And Sara's first Flytrap story was wonderful. I'm hugely excited that she and Ron Chan are keeping the series going.

The few negative reactions I think just spring from people who haven't grasped that an artist might enjoy telling more than one kind of story. I'm just guessing here, but I get the feeling that the thinking is something like: "You drew Batman and Civil War: Frontline and Whiteout, and here you are with these little xeroxed booklet thingies about characters I've never heard of? What happened?” What happened is that I love drawing both big action stories about larger than life heroes, and smaller, more intimate stories about real people. Mini-comics are a great venue for the latter.

Beckett: With the experience you have in the comics medium, how much input into the story did you have?

Steve: Not much really. Sara's a natural visual storyteller. There might have been a few panels where I'd offer a suggestion to make things flow more easily, but she grasped the underlying mechanisms of comics from the start, and instantly knew how to make her points visually, manipulate time, play word against image -- all the things that a comic writer needs to know intuitively to make the medium work.

Beckett: Why did you choose to present Me and Edith Head as a comic?

Sara: There were a couple of things going on when I decided to write Edith. First, I just wanted to experiment with comics writing. Steve says that comics people are vampires, in that they turn everyone around them into comics people, too. That definitely happened to me. As I read and enjoyed more and more comics and graphic novels, I got increasingly intrigued about the possibility of writing comics myself. And at the same time, I'd just published my first novel, Empress of the World, and introduced some characters that I had -- and have -- a lot of affection for, including Katrina Lansdale. When we meet Katrina in Empress, she's very much a costume and fashion expert, but I knew she hadn't always been that way, and I wanted to tell the story of how she developed that interest and expertise. I also knew that by its nature the story would be very visual, so it just made sense to do it as a comic.

Beckett: Me and Edith Head is as fully realized a story as one could find. How challenging was it to fit it within the fifteen pages of the mini comic?

Sara: Thank you! I tend to write in a very compressed way, whether I'm writing prose or comics. More often than not, I find that I need to add or extend scenes in order for the story in my head to take coherent shape on the page.

Beckett: What was the collaborative process like for you two on Me and Edith Head, and how did it differ from other comics you have done, Steve?

Steve: We just talked about the story and she set to writing. It differed mainly in that I had the writer on-site to clarify matters where I had questions. The script said, "Katrina enters the thrift shop.” I asked how she was entering: tentatively, normally, forcefully? Sara went out of my studio, closed the door behind her and barged back in with squared shoulders and a face that was all business. So I drew that. And it's a story about a teen girl's relationship with clothing and how she dresses, so it was certainly handy for me to have her lean over my board now and then and say things like, "Ooh. She'd never wear that with a belt."

Sara: I would just add that when Steve and I collaborate, it's a little like Calvinball. We keep changing the rules, and sometimes someone has to sing the I'm Very Sorry song. But overall it's fun.

Beckett: What other current or forthcoming projects do each of you have that you might like to speak about?

Steve: I've been doing a ton of commercial and advertising art recently, so a lot of my recent work isn't available in comic’s stores. If you're in Japan, you can see an indoor parade I helped design for the Hello Kitty theme park Sanrio-Puroland. The Thunderbolts Annual I drew for Marvel comes out this month. My current comic projects are Underground - a graphic novel written by Jeff Parker, and a story for the Belgian publisher Dupuis. And of course Greg [Rucka]'s going to be writing the third and final Whiteout book, Thaw. I can't wait to get my hands on that.

Sara: My second novel, The Rules for Hearts, is just out, and I have not one, not two, but three more minicomics collaborations coming soon: "Click," with Dylan Meconis, "Einbahnstrasse Waltz" with Cat Ellis, and the third episode of Flytrap, "Over the Wall," with Ron Chan.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jaime Hernandez knows comic art

I finished reading the latest edition of Love & Rockets: New Stories last week and, as always, was amazed. Gilbert and Jaime are masters of the medium. Beautiful art, simple yet poignant narratives, characters that have evolved as their creators have grown, and stories that build on one another, though it may not be evident until years down the road. I didn't come to the L&R universe until the first oversized collection from Fantagraphics, Palomar, and after that, I was all in.

I was very anxious to receive this book, as Jaime's offerings in this third annual issue were being touted as possibly the best work of his career. Though I've read most of his L&R work, I am not as familiar with it as I would like, so I can't say one way or the other. But I can say that "Browntown," which is the centerpiece here, and "The Love Bunglers" parts one and two are incredibly moving tales. Jaime eases you into the narrative, showcasing fairly simple situations from the Chascarillo family's history. And then, he punches you in the gut with the core of his narrative, which ripples out across all of the stories involving Maggie, in particular, and Hopey by default. "Browntown" is a story that will make you uncomfortable, will make you angry, and will make you cry, all in the course of thirty pages. Jaime really is at the top of his game.

And, as a small sample, here's a detail from one of the story's pages, which showcases how effortlessly Jaime seems able to convey emotion through his artwork. In this 3-panel tier we see young Maggie come to a horrific realization. With little dialogue or its proper context, I expect you can tell what has happened.

And in the details of the first and third panels below, you can see how Jaime so perfectly captures the emotions we wear on our faces every day. Just a few lines, and a slight modification to Maggie’s mouth and eyes, and we feel what she feels.