Sunday, May 29, 2011

FYC Replay: Crecy by Warren Ellis

Another one from the archives. I was first introduced to Warren Ellis's writing through the first Authority trade. I became a reverent fan when I finally picked up Transmetropolitan (all 10 trades at one shot) and started buying Planetary. With those two books alone, he had a fan for life. So, getting the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellis a few questions via email was a big deal for me. And he didn't even curse my name in any of our missives, which is sadly disappointing.
I hope you enjoy.


History has never been so interesting as Warren Ellis’s graphic novel, Crecy. A scathing report on French/English relations of the 14th Century, a point by point analysis of military tactics of the time, while also being a damn exciting read, Crecy is a graphic novella that runs through uncharted waters and succeeds on all accounts. If you haven’t read it yet, click inside to find out why this book belongs on your shelf.

The 411:


Written by Warren Ellis

Art by Raulo Caceres

48 pp. b/w


Avatar Press

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

1346. Almost seven hundred years in our past. An English army comprised of villagers from across the United Kingdom marches across the French countryside. They despise their neighbors to the South. Led by King Edward III, the twelve thousand men are running roughshod through the French villages, leaving burnt-out husks in their wake.

Since the Norman invasion of 1066, when a French arrow shot through the eye of King Harold II severed the English royal line, that hostility has bubbled hotly under the surface when it has not erupted into pitched battles. And now, three hundred forty years after that fateful time, England is taking the fight to their “frog-eating” neighbors. The differences between these two peoples are minor, but gestating in this xenophobic time when the people of one village perceive those in a neighboring one as subhuman, everything is magnified, creating an enmity that is both deep and unwavering.

As they have spread their swath of destruction, the English have encountered little resistance. But now, the French have amassed their army, one comprised of the aristocracy, which is in stark contrast to the common men marching with the English. The French King, Phillip, has also bought the services of six thousand Genoese crossbowmen, mercenaries who march with the highest bidder. They are pushing the English forward, gaining on them quickly, forcing Edward and his forces to choose a spot from which to engage them or be herded like sheep into the sea. The place where they make their stand is the tiny village of Crecy.

The addition of the Genoese to the French forces would seem to have tipped the scales into the Frenchmen’s favor. With their crossbows, these Italians should be able to slice apart the English with terrifying ease. Not only does the crossbow launch an arrow with far more force than the English longbow, but these soldiers are also equipped with tall shields called pavises. A descendant of the Roman Centurion’s shields, the pavise stands almost as tall as a man’s shoulder and is curved on its vertical edges so that it can stand on its own, providing its bearer hands-free protection. They can also be locked together in a makeshift wall so that hundreds of trained crossbowmen might stand safely behind this pavise wall while they draw back their bow strings. Once the arrows are set, they can then stand up and fire at will – deadly and efficient.

On the other side, the English stand tall with their longbows clad only in leather and fabric jackets padded with wool, not nearly the defensive equal of the French armor. They are also at an apparent disadvantage with their weapon of choice, the longbow, which is not made for accuracy, and when put up against an armored opponent can fare poorly as arrowheads will glance off if they do not fly true. But knowledge of the deficiencies of the longbow and an understanding of the weapon’s strengths are what could make all the difference for the English.

Years before, the King decreed that all men over the age of twelve were to practice with the longbow for two hours every Sunday after church. In these sessions, the men do not practice for accuracy but for range. Knowing they cannot pinpoint their targets due to anomalies such as the wind or inclement weather, the English strategy consists of eyeing the range of the enemy and loosing their arrows in concert, raining them down on their enemies. This strategy, along with a good helping of luck, will be needed if the English are to be victorious in Crecy, and once the battle is over, modern warfare will be changed forever.

Warren Ellis is one of the most inventive writers working in the comic field today. No subject is out of bounds for him, and the ideas he drops into his narratives are as inspired as they can be mind-numbing. Tired of the same old tripe, Ellis is a writer who works to push the medium forward and throughout his career has created very personal stories that mix genres and literary styles while continuing to entertain readers. Having cultivated a loyal audience, Ellis is an author willing to experiment with his projects, and his audience seems intent upon following wherever he leads. Crecy, a piece of historical fiction set in the 14th Century that involves a time in history of which most people have no idea, is one of his most interesting experiments to date, as well as one of the most entertaining and informative stories I’ve read in a long time.

From page one, it is obvious that Ellis is leading readers into uncharted waters. The narrator, William of Stonham, breaks the literary “fourth wall” and speaks directly to his audience, relaying the story in a matter-of-fact style replete with the righteous disdain for ignorance that weaves its way into much of Ellis’s work. Told in a scathing manner, it is this vulgar superiority siphoned through the funnel of an intelligent protagonist – for as William of Stonham states, “We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don’t have the same cumulative knowledge you do.” – that is so entertaining.

With Crecy, Ellis also manages something that is fairly difficult regardless of medium. He teaches his readers something about the history of England, and specifically the battle at Crecy, while telling an exciting tale. This graphic novella is a moving history lesson that keeps readers engaged while relating various military tactics of the 14th Century. The importance of the Norman invasion, the differences in arrowheads used by the English, the tactics utilized to enhance the killing efficiency of these “primitive” weapons – these are all topics touched upon by the narrator and they flow seamlessly through the telling of this story while remaining true to the first rule of writing, which is to tell an exciting narrative, something Warren Ellis makes look easy with this latest addition to his Apparat line of books from Avatar.

Raulo Caceres, the artist on Crecy, is someone with whose work I had no previous knowledge. I bought this book on the strength of Ellis alone and was equally impressed by the incredible art from Caceres. His work shines in Crecy and complements Ellis’s story perfectly. The detail showcased by Caceres is admirable, and despite needing to delineate hundreds of soldiers marching through large forests, his panels never seem crowded or muddled. He also manages to convey the grimy nature of 14th Century Europe, an accomplishment that is subtly achieved and may not even be truly appreciated until William of Stonham interacts with the Black Prince, the son of Edward III. The figure of the prince is defined with very precise lines and a clean look, while the soldiers are more bedraggled with stubble on their chins and creases in their clothing. It’s something that readers may be aware of on a subconscious level as the proceed through the first part of the book, but when the soldiers are set against the sleek look of the prince and his father, the King, it is starkly obvious how much thought Caceres has put into his artwork for this book and adds another layer to an already excellent comic.

Crecy is one of those books that defies convention and succeeds on many levels. It is a wildly entertaining story; the dialogue alone could keep readers enthralled. It is a history lesson, relaying so much information that the audience will discover something new with subsequent readings. And it is an amazingly beautiful book. Having “discovered” Raulo Caceres with this book, I will be seeking out more from this talented artist in the future. But for comics, this is an important book, one Ellis designed exclusively for comic stores where he feels the graphic novella could be a nice middle ground between the periodical pamphlets common to these shops and the large trades that do well in bookstores. Crecy is a thoroughly satisfying read – beginning, middle, and end – that does not ask readers for a previous knowledge of characters, nor does it extend past this single tale. It is the equivalent of the bookstores’ paperback novels, an economical alternative to the large hardbacks (or trade paperbacks) that populate their shelves. But even more importantly, it’s a damn fine read and a book I would heartily recommend all fans of the medium seek it out.

An Interview with Warren Ellis:

Chris Beckett: Setting a story in Europe, 1346, isn’t exactly a common occurrence, especially for the American comic market. What was the genesis of this story for you, and was there anything specific that led you to believe it would be well-received?

Warren Ellis: Well, you know, for me, setting stuff in America in the present day is still the weird bit, for me.

I knew the story of Crecy, of course, but what made me think there was a book in it was a British TV show called Weapons That Made Britain, made by an amazing combat historian called Mike Loades. He actually got out on the field, timed the distance between the armies on horseback, tested longbows against crossbows...and the details started building up in my head. That and the creeping realisation that what the English pulled in 1346 was essentially Shock And Awe -- an astonishing display of murderous power on the very edges of what was possible. The more you look at Crecy, the more you see it resonate down through history.

And, of course, it's one of those great old English stories -- by which, of course, we mean a story about the English thrashing lots of those terrible foreign types.

Beckett: At what point did you make the decision to write Crecy in a first-person narrative, and did you have any worry that readers would not accept your main character breaking that “fourth wall” and speaking directly to them?

Ellis: No, not at all. "Fourth wall" is a long-established mainstream narrative technique, frequent in theatre, famous in cinema and far from completely unknown in comics.

Beckett: With Crecy being a graphic novella and not something readily found within bookstores due to its slim format, what was your objective in creating this book in the format you chose?

Ellis: I have this notion that the graphic novella format can be considered a comics-store-exclusive format. It doesn't work in bookstores. It is, however, perfect for comics stores. It's a permanent-shelf-life item, like a graphic novel, but comics stores experience no competition on it, and there's no trade to wait for. I tend towards the short-form anyway, and 44-48 pages is, for me, the perfect length for the expression of some ideas. I'd like to see the notion of the graphic novella catch on as a specific format, one that we give just to Direct Market comics stores.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

This speaks for itself


Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 3

A re-run of part 3 of my series over at In the Mouth of Dorkness. Enjoy.

Comics – Creator or Character Part III: You mean actual people write and draw these things?


Like most kids, when I discovered comics, I gravitated to those characters with which I was already familiar. For me, that included the Flash, G.I. Joe, Star Wars (from Marvel), and the Fantastic Four. And from there, it snowballed, with more titles being added to my pile every week. It was all about these colorful characters and the newness of this storytelling medium that combines words and art. But eventually, we all grow up and discover that there are actual creators behind the stories we love.


The first comic I remember picking up because of the cover art – both the content and the style – was Legends #1.

I didn’t know who that figure in the background was. And the only characters I really recognized were Captain Marvel, known to me better as Shazam, and the Flash. It was the Flash that caught my eye because I’m pretty sure I was aware of his demise at this point. But it was the art that hooked me and made me want to look inside. And was I in for a treat, because the book was indeed drawn by the same artist – John Byrne. Though, I do know that it was years (at least, it seemed like years) until I realized that Byrne had drawn the cover.

Thankfully, the story inside was as enjoyable as that piece of art was tantalizing, and I was haunting my local bookstore for subsequent issues, waiting what seemed like an interminable months-long trial for that final, late issue. I still pull out Legends every once in a while to re-read and reminisce about what it was like to be young and discovering these new and exciting characters on an almost weekly basis.


It was around this point, maybe a bit earlier, that I was also introduced to the work of George Pérez. I was ordering back issues from those ads in the comics, mostly from Mile High Comics, and perusing the catalogs that were included with each order. Through the examination of these catalogs, I discovered that the Flash – MY FLASH! – had died in issue #8 of a series titled Crisis on Infinite Earths.

So, of course, I ordered that issue, plus all the others that were available. When I got that shipment and had a chance to see this book, I knew then and there that Pérez was my guy.

To this day, he’s still my artist of choice, even with all the other talented creators that have come along since then. There’s something about the way he draws characters – all the detail, and his exceptional attention to the body language of these characters – that speaks to me. I’m sure a lot of it is nostalgia, but there’s also his high level of craft at work, as well. Pérez is a master storyteller who is able to give readers their money’s worth with all the minutiae he packs into the panels, while never making things cluttered. His work is clear, crisp, and beautiful, and he has continued to grow as an artist during these decades that he’s been working professionally. And for that, as much as for anything else, he remains at the top of my list.


These examinations of the back issue catalogs also introduced me to another influential creator – whose work I have avidly collected since that time – Alan Moore.

Arguably the greatest writer the comic medium has ever seen, his work is imbued with an intelligence and a poetry rarely seen in comics. This first collection of his Swamp Thing work was my introduction to the estimable scribe from Northampton. And the first story in there, the brilliant “Anatomy Lesson,” which completely re-imagined the reality of Alec Holland’s relationship to the Swamp Thing without invalidating any of the stories that had come before, opened my eyes and showed me that comics could be so much more.


Once these creators were on my radar, I began to seek out other work they’d done – Pérez on New Teen Titans and Wonder Woman, Byrne on Superman and the Fantastic Four, Moore on Miracleman, V for Vendetta, the Killing Joke, and Watchmen. It was a magical time, and I still have longboxes dedicated to these creators.

I pored through my back issue catalogs, hunting for their names next to any entry. It was an obsession, as comic collecting so often becomes, and it afforded me an opportunity to read some of the best comics produced in the past thirty years, bar none. The characters were cool, but it was the creators that made these comic books so enjoyable for me.


The 80s was a new golden age for comics. You had the British invasion at DC, led by Moore – though the door to American comics was opened by creators such as Chris Claremont, John Bolton, and Barry Windsor-Smith – with the likes of Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Chris Weston, Warren Ellis, and Neil Gaiman following him – a movement that birthed such seminal works as the Sandman, the Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Preacher. While at Marvel, landmark runs on the Fantastic Four, Thor, and Daredevil, were being created by luminaries John Byrne, Walter Simonson, and Frank Miller. It was a great time to be a comic fan, to be on the ground floor of important works that would influence writers and artists for years to come.

Creators were ascendant during the 80s, and it would result in a new way of approaching comics –for the creators more than the companies – which would give us readers some of the best work within the medium.

But that’s something to delve into next time.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

FYC Replay: Chance in Hell by Gilbert Hernandez

Another of my columns from late 2007. This one was a big deal for me because I am such a fan of Love & Rockets. Though I came to the book late (not until the oversized omnibi of Jaime's & Beto's work were published by Fantagraphics), I quickly became a huge fan, especially of Beto's Palomar stories. The way he and his brother use the comic page to tell a story - it's really like no one else - and their cartooning is second to none. Pared down, beautiful drawings with poignant and moving narratives. Los Bros Hernandez are deservedly revered, and they exemplify the best of what is possible in the comics medium.

FRONT PAGE: Since 1982, Gilbert Hernandez – along with brothers Jaime and Mario – has been creating beautifully human stories with a wide cast of characters in the comic Love & Rockets. His latest book, Chance in Hell, is his second long-form graphic novel, and the first to be published by Fantagraphics, the publishing home of L & R. A challenging book replete with the distinctive characters and lush brushwork that are Hernandez’s trademarks, this book is an important step in the evolution of one of the seminal cartoonists working today.

The 411:

Chance in Hell

Art & Story by Gilbert Hernandez

120 pages, black and white

HC: $16.95

Fantagraphics Books

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

Empress is a little girl living in the wastes outside of the city. A place where the refuse of society are left to make their way the best they can, most everyone inhabiting this cesspool were orphaned years ago, left by parents who didn’t care enough to keep them, and Empress is no exception. Scavenging for food in the mountains of trash that spot the barren landscape, the young girl is also a target as the older boys and men prey upon her innocence, raping her as payment for temporary shelter.

Eventually, Empress finds someone she can trust. Both Soldier, a roving vigilante with a semi-automatic weapon, as well as the leader of one of the many packs of boys running around take it upon themselves to watch over her. They do this not for their own selfish gains, but out of an inherent morality and sensitivity to her helplessness.

This is a unique attitude. For the most part, the people consigned to these wastes care little for anyone outside their own spheres. Meanwhile, those in the city complain of the stench emanating from this sad piece of geography. It is an unpleasant existence, full of pain and hunger and bloodshed. Despite all this, Empress still retains a sense of hope, proclaiming to any man within earshot the two words, “my daddy,” searching for that which she has been denied.

In a cruel twist of fate, when Empress walks off from the boy who pledged to protect her, he panics. Running back to their makeshift shelter, he crosses paths with Soldier, who joins him. Arriving upon a scene they misinterpret – believing the boy standing over Empress was forcing himself upon her – Soldier raises his gun and pulls the trigger, leading to a bloodbath that not only sees the death of this boy, but also of Soldier and three more including the one who was looking out for Empress.

Empress is the only one left unharmed, and she is snatched up by a man that had been wandering around and spoken to her earlier. A literature professor from the city, he grew up close to where the carnage ensued and is one of the few that actually survived the wastes and made something of himself. His reason for taking Empress is to offer her the opportunities he has been afforded. And so, the young girl takes up residence with the professor where she learns more than could have ever been expected out in the wastes. But some of the lessons acquired will lead to tragedy later in her life, something to which Empress has become readily accustomed.

Gilbert Hernandez is a master storyteller, and within the comics medium, his work – along with that of his brothers, Jaime and Mario – has paved the way for more adventurous writers and artists to bring their own visions to the printed page. Eschewing any accepted “rules” of writing, his work feels organic in a manner that very few artists’ do. Like life, his tales are sprinkled with random bits of kindness or pain punctuating generally quiet narratives. Hernandez’s stories wend their way through the pages of his comics with scenes ending in the middle of a page and transitions that are unexpected, but these detours from convention are always in service to the story, allowing it to progress naturally toward its end.

As with any good writer, Hernandez understands that the best drama comes from interesting characters. He does not try to force any tensions into his narratives, but instead exults in the very human moments that all of us experience on a daily basis. Eschewing the over-the-top plotting that hampers so many comics, his stories come alive with a vibrancy and honesty that is all too often lacking in much of today’s fiction – whether it be prose or comics.

Hernandez’s writing is matched equally by his artwork. With a pared-down style that is smooth and lush, he has perfected an ideal that allows him to convey his stories to a wide audience. His clean, unfettered artwork allows readers to project themselves onto the characters, affording them an opportunity to fall into his stories in a manner that a more rigid and photo-realistic style could not. In this way, he engages his audience early, and holds their attention with the subtle artistry of his writing. Hernandez’s fluid storytelling is aided greatly by his elegant art style, which evokes more emotion through a single sweep of his brush than a thousand cross-hatchings on the most rendered image.

Chance in Hell is a visually stunning book that challenges its readers with a story that does not fit neatly into any genre. A book that forces readers to think and ask questions, this is a disturbingly tragic story that is still able to engage its readers. It is a book that dares to walk over the edge of what is expected, and with an able guide such as Gilbert Hernandez, one can be sure of landing softly as the ground swiftly approaches.

An Interview with Gilbert Hernandez:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and has kept you motivated for the last twenty-five years?

Gilbert Hernandez: I was born with a comic book in my hand. My older brother Mario collected comics since I could remember. Our mother collected comics when she was a kid, so she thought it was ok for us to read them. I can't imagine life without comics. That's the first reason I do them myself, the other reason is the medium lends to self expression like no other for me.

Beckett: Where did the inspiration for Chance in Hell come from?

Hernandez: I'd been wanting to do graphic novels for years, but the intense workload of serializing stories in Love and Rockets didn't allow me much time for outside projects. I've ended the serials in L&R, giving me room to experiment more. Chance in Hell is the first long, self contained story I've been left alone to do. Being the first in a series of books, I wanted it to grab the readers and have them wanting more. The jury's still out on that one.

The story itself was something I wanted to do for years, but I never felt I was ready for it. A story where almost nothing good happens yet the reader is still engaged. An anti-feel good story, but where you can still care.

Beckett: The way in which you tell a story seems so effortless, sometimes flowing along in what feels like a random manner – just like life. When working on a story, particularly a longer work like Chance in Hell, what is your creative process like?

Hernandez: I work almost entirely intuitively, feeling the story out as I'm writing and sketching it at the same time. I rarely have an ending for any story I do, but one always comes by the time I need it. It's murder with proposals, though.

Beckett: The storytelling for Chance in Hell is decidedly different from the stories typically found within Love & Rockets. You allow the imagery to move the narrative along, and that final page seems to come out of nowhere, leaving it open for more than one interpretation. Were you conscious of this as you worked on the book, and what did you hope to accomplish with Chance in Hell?

Hernandez: My goal as an artist is always to entertain the adult reader, hopefully to stimulate and amuse and satisfy him with a work that is worth his time and money.

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

Hernandez: The 2nd book in the series is called The Troublemakers, a tale of low trash grifters that are their own worst enemies.

The new format of L&R will be a 100 page annual. This way the reader can enjoy a more satisfying read without having to remember what happened last issue.

Speak of the Devil is a 6 issue mini series from Dark Horse that is about a girl peeping tom and how her escapades evolve into some pretty serious violence. This will be my first real horror story and will test the readers' tolerance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 2

For new comics Wednesday, here's a re-run of the second installment in my series over at In the Mouth of Dorkness, which looks at whether comic readers should make buying decisions based on character or creator loyalty.
Enjoy, and, if you have the time, check out Brad and Matt's cool blog on everything dork. It's really worth your time.

Comics – Creator or Character Part II: A Personal Journey (Beginnings)

A Brief Recap:

In the first installment of this series I posed the question: Should we as comic buyers follow creators or characters when making our purchasing choices? I want to provide a fairly comprehensive examination of this issue – I can be a wordy bitch – but do it through the prism of my own personal comic collecting journey. And, in the end, I will have a definite side of the argument upon which I fall.

So, let’s begin.


I came to comics rather late – born in 1972, I was 12 when I finally discovered and began collecting comics. My parents are both teachers and I don’t imagine they thought too highly of the “throwaway juvenilia.” A few years later though, my mother was happy to think I was spending money on Green Lantern and Spider-Man rather than Boone’s Farm and Seagram’s Wine Coolers (both of these ideas obviously caught up in the personal, and unfounded, biases of my mother, but I digress).

This didn’t mean that I was unaware of superheroes. I’d watched the Super Friends cartoons, taken naps so I could stay up late and watch the live-action Spider-Man series from the 70s, and was aware of the Incredible Hulk television show, though I think the only time I saw Lou Ferrigno in full costume at that point would have been when he was a guest on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

So, I was fully aware of these colorful characters from Marvel and DC comics, though I did not realize that they had come from comic books, at least as best I can remember.

But, I had a younger cousin who collected comics. He was heavy into Marvel, and he was lucky to be getting Marvel comics during their new “golden age” of the early 80s. He was a big X-Men fan – and had many of the early Marc Silvestri issues, plus the first issues from Jim Lee – I distinctly remember seeing the “Frog” cover from Walt Simonson’s seminal run on Thor, and I was enamored with my cousin’s Fantastic Four collection, all-John Byrne, all the time.

But I was daunted, despite reading many of the comics in my cousin’s collection, by the high issue numbers. Already, even before getting into the hobby, I was thinking about continuity and the fact that there was so much history I had missed that might prohibit me from fully enjoying new issues – foolish, yes, but a very real problem at the time.

But, there was only so long I could go on reading my cousin’s books before starting my own collection to have at my disposal whenever I wanted. And, eventually, I walked downtown to the local bookstore and bought my first comics books, beginning what has become a lifelong hobby.

I began with books that did not have any cumbersome histories.


Like most kids who pick up comic books for the first time, I gravitated toward those books that included characters with which I already had a familiarity. It’s only natural. Having witnessed their exploits on television or picked up the Halloween costume because it just looked cool, one would naturally be attracted to a comic with the same characters. And, for me, the G.I. Joe cartoon and A-Team television show were where it was at.

And though I read these voraciously, I don’t believe I had any real idea – or, more accurately, did not consider – that there were people writing and drawing these comics. Certainly, I didn’t believe these came “out of nowhere,” but I was looking to the characters, or the art, to make my choices. I wanted something that looked cool or looked familiar – Star Wars comics, anyone? Hell, yeah!

My collecting grew. I very quickly entered the Marvel universe proper with Secret Wars #4

Who could resist that cover? And the story inside was equally awesome (to my uninitiated sensibilities).

This led to me dipping my toe into the DC universe and overlooking the weighty history inherent with my favorite superhero of all-time (thanks to my enjoyment of the Challenge of the Super Friends), the Flash, as drawn by the incomparable Carmine Infantino.

And, at that point, all bets were off.

At twelve years old, I did not yet have the experience or the maturity to be able to make reading choices based upon the artistic value of these comics. It was all too new for me to be able to distinguish what was good from what was bad, or sub-par if you like. I was immersed in a miasma of 4-color spandex that bombarded my senses while speaking to my love of fantasy and science fiction.

I. Was. Hooked.

How does this relate to readers today?:

Things have changed a lot over the course of the past thirty years in comic publishing. Comic books are not as readily available to children, with the dramatic scaling back of newsstand distribution and the growth of the graphic novel in bookstores. Slowly, comics are becoming available online, but is a kid going to choose that over the latest World of Warcraft?

Which leads to another truth, the fact that there is so much more competition for a child’s attention now – Netflix, 500+ channels, the internet – and this has a lot to do with the lower sales numbers all of the comic companies are experiencing.

But still, children today find their gateway to comics through other mediums, similar to the manner in which I discovered the Flash through the Super Friends cartoon. With cartoons like Batman: the Brave & the Bold or the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Justice League underwear, kids’ water bottles, Green Lantern shirts at Hot Topic, Halloween costumes, coloring books, and myriad other pieces of merchandise, along with the plethora of comic book movies hitting the multiplexes, it’s inevitable that kids will be exposed to these heroes and will be excited by their larger-than-life exploits. And some will seek out the comics that birthed these heroes. And the cycle will begin for them as it did for me.

The Next Step:

But eventually, we come to realize that there are actual people behind the creation of these books we love.

And we will look at that in the next installment. (that’s called a teaser; hopefully it works)


Sunday, May 15, 2011

FYC Replay: Vulcan & Vishnu with Leland Purvis

Now that CGS Super Show is over, I'm trying to really get back to this blog. One of the aims I had with it was to archive all of my columns from when I wrote for the Pulse back in 2007-2009. So, here is the next installment of For Your Consideration, looking at the wonderful, and sadly unfinished, Vulcan & Vishnu from Leland Purvis. And note that this piece, and the attendant interview, were done in late 2007.

FRONT PAGE: Following the travels and travails of two working men in search of riches, Vulcan & Vishnu is a classic adventure serial told with intelligence and obvious enjoyment by its creator, Leland Purvis. With two multi-book deals that will see Purvis’s art sprung upon an unsuspecting public later in 2008 through 2009, this is a great chance to “discover” this impressive cartoonist before everyone else does.

The 411:

Vulcan & Vishnu

Written and drawn by Leland Purvis

Webcomic available at


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

Encountering one another across a deep gorge, Vulcan and Vishnu – one with a donkey, the other a wagon – build a makeshift foot bridge, dropping the keystone into place just as their temporary staging falls away. Vishnu leads his donkey across to join his new companion, but not without a bit of trepidation as the ass halts halfway, sending his master over the side. Clinging precariously to the harness, Vishnu dangles above the deep crevasse, and there seems to be no help for him as the donkey remains glued to its spot. But Vulcan acts quickly, brandishing an apple to entice the pack animal across. Grabbing the reins once it reaches his side, Vulcan pulls his new friend up from certain death.

Understandably enraged, Vishnu wants to be done with the animal. But his new friend reasons with Vishnu, asking if he wants to be the one dragging the wagon across the bare plains ahead of them. Settling down, they hitch the ass to the cart and set off. Thus begin the travels and travails of these two explorers from a bygone era, what appears to be the late 1800s.

That night, as the two men sleep, a large earthquake shudders through the layers of earth, sending the two men running out of their tent, fearful of any cracks that might form from this upheaval. Once things settle down, they discover their donkey has gone missing and their wagon is stuck in a sinkhole. Cursing the donkey, they dig out the wagon and settle in again for a less peaceful sleep than before.

The next morning, they set out with the wagon over their shoulders. Dragging it for some time, they eventually come across the donkey, its harness lodged in some rocks. Freeing it, they hitch the animal back up to the wagon and move along at a brisker pace. Making for the only city in the area, they come across another rent in the Earth. Not as wide as that which they traversed at the outset of their adventure, they peer into this gash in the rock and see an ancient edifice they assume was buried with the eruption of an ancient volcano.

Making their way down through the Ionic columns and past the scent of death, Vulcan and Vishnu, their donkey in tow, enter the centuries-old structure cautiously. Optimism and the hope of gold spur the two men on, sending them through a mysterious and Byzantine maze of tunnels. But will they discover untold wealth or the hidden death those who came before them encountered? Only time will tell.

Leland Purvis has created a wonderful comic that is unlike anything else you’ll find today – a piece of historical fiction about the adventures of two treasure hunters that is told without words. But that doesn’t mean this is a silent story. Purvis has ingeniously chosen to utilize images and symbols to convey the words of Vulcan and Vishnu, and it is as inspired in its execution as it is simple.

Purvis’s Vulcan & Vishnu evokes the feeling of wonder from the pulp fiction of the twenties through the fifties without the larger-than-life characters and exotic settings for which they are so fondly remembered. The story of these two adventurers moves along at a brisk pace, with obstructions popping up at every turn. But these men are up for the challenge, working to think their way out of tight spots and around more pliable ones. The thought that Purvis has put into this story is very welcome to this reader, and again, the resolutions for the characters’ predicaments are as simple as they are inventive. For readers, what appear to be impossible situations are navigated skillfully by the two men and leave the audience collectively slapping their heads wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It is a breath of fresh air to see such careful though put into a story.

Purvis’s clear artwork and precise storytelling are ideal for this type of wordless story and complements the tale he is creating wonderfully. Not unlike the tale being crafted, Purvis’s style evokes a golden age feel coupled with the refinement of a contemporary artist. He wastes little time in endless cross-hatching, preferring to delineate a clean, lush setting with characters that have a weight to them. These two adventurers, along with those people readers encounter in the latest installment, are three-dimensional characters that look as if they could be living up the street from you – if your street were lost in the barren plains where Vulcan and Vishnu find themselves.

Purvis also understands upon which details to focus. Having to carry readers through the narrative without the help of any spoken dialogue or captions, he needs to show the steady progression of activity through the images, and under the hand of a lesser artist it would soon become a succession of full to medium shots focused on the protagonists. But Purvis realizes that all the action is not taking place within this small window, and moves the “camera” around, finding just the right shot to convey the action, whether it be a close-up of a foot, a wide shot within the sunken edifice, or some other detail that allows readers not only to understand the story better, but also alleviates any tedium that might arise from a continuous parade of similar shots. Vulcan & Vishnu is a great lesson in how to tell a story with pictures.

Vulcan & Vishnu is one of the first webcomics I discovered and have continued to follow regularly. I had been aware of Leland Purvis’s art from some work he did with Jim Ottaviani, but before Vulcan & Vishnu, I had never taken the opportunity to read anything of his. The story of these two travelers is about halfway through its run at Act-i-vate, and if the first few hundred panels are any indication, this is going to be one helluva fun ride. I would recommend you to check it out. It’s new, it’s different, it’s great, and it’s free. How can you go wrong?

An Interview with Leland Purvis:

Chris Beckett: What is it about comics that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Leland Purvis: Originally, it was the drawing. I’ve been drawing since as early as I can remember. I think all kids draw but most stop after a while. When I realized doing comics was a way to integrate my continuing love of drawing and art with telling stories, it was clear that comics were going to be the thing for me.

Beckett: Why did you choose to make Vulcan & Vishnu a silent comic?

Purvis: I don’t think of it as silent, because the boys do talk to each other. But I don’t use any text. My thought with Vulcan & Vishnu as a webcomic was to explore it as a new medium. Digital rather than print. So I was thinking from the beginning about turning it into a pod-cast when it’s done. That’s why all the panels are the same dimensions. But at international postage-stamp size, I knew there was going to be no way to read any lettering once it was reduced for iPod reading. So it’s all pictures. And when they talk, they talk in pictures rather than words.

Beckett: Following on that, having produced Vulcan & Vishnu for a number of months, what is it you gain as a storyteller – or, more generally, what do you like about creating a silent comic?

Purvis: It does make for occasional problem-solving. If I want one guy to say something to the other, how am I going to make it clear? Text really does operate as a shorthand for meaning. So trying to get all the meaning across without taking up tons of room with visual explanations can be challenging and interesting.

Beckett: Is Vulcan & Vishnu planned to be released in print form at some point? And , if so, with all of the panels being the same size are you going to be able to play at all with page design in the print format or is this how the story was always envisioned?

Purvis: I would love for it to see print. But it does present certain logistical problems. It was designed to take in one panel at a time, and not with page-turn reveals in mind. It’s going to be between 700 and 800 panel-pages when it’s done, and a book at 800 pages, one per page just isn’t very practical. I could reformat a print version at 4-to-a-page, but it wouldn’t read the same. Who knows? Maybe Pixar will call and say they want to turn Chapter One into one of those pre-feature shorts they do…

Beckett: What other projects are you working on and when can fans expect to see them?

Purvis: I’m swamped with work right now. I’ve got a couple of contracts which will amount to five graphic novels. Three for First:Second, and two for Simon&Schuster. They’re all historical fiction, ranging from before the Revolutionary War, before the Civil War and into World War II. It will be late 2008 and into 2009 before this stuff starts hitting the stands. But there’s going to be a lot of material out there before too long.

Also, I’ve got some other irons in the fire, short stories I want to try and get out there and I’m developing an idea for the next webcomic after Vulcan & Vishnu.

And I’m also reminding myself how to paint. So, I’m staying busy.