Sunday, August 7, 2011

FYC Replay: Cold Heat with Frank Santoro

This book was a complete surprise to me. I had contacted some publishers prior to going to the MoCCA Festival in 2007 and Dan Nadel at Picturebox replied and told me to stop by. He handed me the first four issues of COLD HEAT, along with a couple other books, and we talked comics for a bit. I didn't think much of the art inside as I glanced through it, but when I finally got the chance to read these books weeks later, I was completely blown away. Frank Santoro (along with Ben Jones) have created a frenetic kick-ass comic that speaks directly to me. Since doing this spotlight for the Pulse, I've had the chance to speak with Frank and hear him speak at SPX and other venues on comics, and the man is really a genius. The thought he puts into his comics and his art is amazing and I would urge you all to check out his posts at The Comics Journal or at the now-defunct Comics Comics site. They are well worth your time.
I've rambled on enough, though, so here's my piece on Cold Heat for the Pulse from early 2008.

For Your Consideration: Cold Heat
By Chris Beckett
FRONT PAGE: When I came home from the MoCCA art festival last year, one of the books I brought with me was Cold Heat, and when I finally got to read these first four issues, it was the book that impressed me the most from my NYC trip. Amazing and surreal, BJ (Ben Jones) and Frank Santoro set the bar high and manage to reach new heights with Cold Heat. You need to check this out; it’s like nothing else on the comic racks.
The 411:
Cold Heat 1-4
Storytellers: BJ and Frank Santoro
24 pages, two-color
What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):
Being a teenager is tough and when your life starts to collapse in from all sides that difficulty becomes exponentially greater. Cassandra Bennet – known to friends and family as Castle – is in the middle of a crisis time, though she’s not yet aware of that. It begins when she breaks up with the man she’s been seeing, the CEO of Comptek where Castle has been an intern. Never really more than a physical relationship, Castle walks away when Comptek is bought out and everyone, including the CEO, is laid off. Though the CEO now has plenty of time to do nothing, Castle still has school to think about. Now jobless and single, she walks home, bothered by the fact that she forgot her CD player.
Arriving home, Castle’s father greets her with the news that her “boyfriend” killed himself. Momentarily flustered, things become clearer when her dad explains that Joel Cannon, the lead singer of her favorite band Chocolate Gun, has committed suicide. Teenagers seem to feel music more strongly than others, and Castle is no exception. This revelation of her hero’s death sends her running to her room. As the news of Cannon’s suicide spreads, Bob Blainerd, one of Castle’s classmates, decides to have a Chocolate Gun ceremony. Everyone will be there, there’ll be drugs, and Castle quickly agrees to attend.
Castle arrives at the party and quickly eases into the moment. The party is an opportunity for these kids to vent their frustration at losing their favorite singer, a place where they can let loose all the pent up energy coursing through their bodies and find relief in a glass of alcohol or deep conversation.
One attendee who gets a wide berth from the others is Terry Wastmor. The son of a powerful Congressman, he wears his privilege on his sleeve and, in a drunken stupor, tries to take advantage of one of the girls at the party. The girl fights him off and leaves Terry dumbstruck outside the house where he lies down to sleep. Castle finds him and covers him with a jacket, leaving him to find whatever solace he might discover in his dreams.
But when Terry is found dead in the morning, things go from bad to worse as the police start their investigation, seeking to speak with everyone that was at the party. Terry’s father is incensed that his son died like some junkie, preferring to believe that one of the kids passed Terry some bad dope, absolving himself and his privileged boy from any responsibility. Eventually, the police will get around to speaking with Castle, and with the state of mind she was in after Cannon’s death and all the drugs at the party, she can’t be sure she didn’t kill Terry. Can things get any worse for her? If not that, they will certainly become more complicated.
BJ (Ben Jones) and Frank Santoro have created a surreal fiction with their collaboration on Cold Heat. Sucking readers in, this tale, of which the initial four issues are available with a graphic novel completing the story to see print this summer, incorporates so many disparate threads that it’s hard to pigeon-hole this book. Starting from a base of teen angst, these two storytellers bring in themes of corporate greed, political corruption, sexual discovery, the over-medication of our youth, and aliens as our masters – aliens that used Joel Cannon as a channel for their message. It is a smorgasbord of plot threads and thematic elements, and these two creators manage to bring it all together in a quirky reading experience that is as stimulating a read as I’ve experienced in comics. By utilizing these varied narratives, BJ and Santoro keep their readers thinking, working to make the connections being laid out by these artists while seeking the underlying story being told. It’s exciting and unexpected and will keep readers guessing.
The artwork for Cold Heat is like nothing else on the stands. A simple (or simple-looking) style using a minimum of lines to create its scenes, I imagine many people would gloss over the pages believing it the work of a neophyte artist, and they would be wrong. Once started, the drawings will pull readers in, the clean simplicity of the linework allowing the audience to project themselves more readily into the narrative. This lack of detail also gives readers a sharper glimpse into the design of each page, something lost in many of the overly rendered books found in comic shops today. The smooth curve of Santoro’s line and the way he and BJ design some of their panels imbues the imagery with an expressiveness not easily achieved in this two-dimensional artform.
The two-color palette utilized in Cold Heat also adds a lot to the art and to the story. The blue and pink hues with which BJ and Santoro color the comic can highlight pieces of a picture or a significant image within a panel, and when they merge the two colors it creates that odd psychedelic effect everyone has experienced when looking at a blue and red pillow or some other like-colored image. The varying tones they utilize also soften some moments while accentuating the seriousness of others. It is yet another piece of the puzzle that allows Cold Heat to stand out next to all the other comics being offered on a monthly basis.
BJ and Frank Santoro are also able to merge the color scheme with the swirling looser lines to convey the mental state of the characters. When Castle returns home from the Chocolate Gun party and crashes on her bed, the first panel of the page makes it appear as if she is floating on her pink bed in a rippling blue pond, set adrift by the events crashing in upon her. On the following page, the final panel has Castle once more lying on her bed as it bobs along on a pink pond, while swirling around her are the faces of those that attended the party. It’s a wonderful use of the comic page and a fine example of the unique quality of comics to communicate emotion that is so often cheaply achieved in movies through a manipulative score.
I picked up Cold Heat at last year’s MoCCA art festival and must admit that upon first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I got home and finally dove into my stack o’ stuff from the festival, Cold Heat was the book that affected me the most. This is an incredibly engaging series deserving of more attention. Once you begin reading you’ll be surprised at how quickly it sucks you into its world of aliens, music, teen angst, and political corruption. This is one of those books that aims higher than most and achieves its aims. Hopefully, in book form it will find the audience it so richly deserves. While you’re waiting for that, go over to Picture Box and check out these first four issues. It’ll be well worth your time.
An Interview with Frank Santoro:
Chris Beckett: Why comics? What attracted you to this storytelling medium?
Frank Santoro: Besides the typical "I always read comics" answer --it was really the mentoring I received as a teen from my friend Bill Boichel, who runs a comics shop here in Pittsburgh called Copacetic Comics. His store in the 80s was bigger and had couches & you could just hang out and read. His knowledge of comics was seemingly unlimited and he had really great taste. Plus he was excited, so excited, about the form and it was infectious. He still is. Bill is also a filmmaker and he was able to draw parallels & really educate me about the inherent differences & unique qualities of comics. And then he rounded up the kids who hung out at the store and got us to put together our own anthology which he published and then sold at the store. That was a huge deal for a bunch of 15 and 16 year old kids. Plus Bill had a better knowledge of art history than my teachers at my high school. He turned me on to "fine artists" like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and the German Expressionists and then would pull out a Michael Kaluta comic or a Jeff Jones comic and say "Look, Jeff Jones is really into Gustav Klimt too, you can see it.” I was really lucky. Bill was a more than willing teacher and I was just like a sponge, soaking it up. Thanks to him, I never saw a difference between "art" and "comics." I still don't.

Beckett: There are a lot of plot threads introduced in these four issues of Cold Heat, and it all flows along naturally as if it is being made up as you go along rather than a story that's been meticulously outlined – similar in feel to much of Gilbert Hernandez's work. I'm curious how much planning has gone into this series and how much "open space" you've given yourselves with the story, and whether this is a conscious choice on your parts or just the way you tell a story?
Frank Santoro: I'm a big fan of the "things are not what they seem" narrative school. Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson. They all wove unexpected twists and turns into the fabric of their extraordinary stories. I think comics, as a medium, inherited this approach from the pulp magazines that championed this school. Crime, Horror, Sci-Fi Fantasy and even Romance comics have utilized this "style" and I think comics just have it built into the engine, so to speak, it's so prevalent. I think Ben and I are simply exploiting this and using the standard 24 pages per issue rhythm to build tension and play with expectations. But, as most readers have probably guessed, we're not actually writing the stories --the aliens are.

Beckett: Please pardon my limited artistic lexicon, but many people might describe the rendering style in this series as simple. This cleaner style can often be more engaging than some of the overly rendered work found on comic racks, and I was wondering how you developed this style and what you feel it brings to a story like Cold Heat?
Frank Santoro: As Alex Toth said, "Make it so simple, you can't cheat.” I think a lot of drawing --in "fine" art, in the illustration world, in comics, everywhere --relies on using detail, shading, cross hatching and other weird marks (think Rob Liefeld) to cover up weakness in the essential lines that define shape. If you look at Roy Crane or Jaime Hernandez or Frank Quitely they don't cheat, they can't. It's right there. There's nothing obscuring the strength of the lines. And that's what
I'm going for. I learned how to draw by focusing on "contour line" drawing, which uses no shading or cross hatching. It's all about the lines. It looks simple, but really, it's hard to pull off. It's also just personal taste, I like more "open" styles of drawing rather than detail heavy ones.
Beckett: The soft red and blue palette used in Cold Heat is very distinguishing. What was the thought process behind using these colors and, from a creator's point of view, what did you hope to achieve through the use of this spare palette?
Frank Santoro: I wanted to use a contemporary palette, something that looked liked it was made today. I also wanted to distinguish it from other comics out there. There are a lot of muted colors in comics nowadays because those colors are easier to create with Photoshop and the full color digital process than they were in the old four color process days. (see my article on color in ComicsComics#2) Beyond that, I wanted to bring it back to the bright, "Pop" colors that comics were known for until about the mid 90s. And I also wanted to use color symbolically. Generally, in Cold Heat, the scarier stuff is BLUE and the more light hearted passages are PINK. Most comics today overdo it with the color. I don't use Photoshop; I make all my color separations by hand. (If you YouTube "Making Cold Heat" you'll see what I mean) Also the pink and blue color scheme has an "electric" feel to it that lends itself to the over-the-top story that Ben and I are trying to tell.

Beckett: The cover design for the series is very distinctive as well and really stands out in my opinion. Do you have any background in design work, or is it just a matter of your aesthetic sensibilities coming to the fore when creating these covers?
Frank Santoro: The covers are where Ben and I really "jam," moreso than on the inside pages where our back and forth is more centered around the layouts. Ben also had a really specific idea about making something that looked, quote, "so retarded" for the first issue that it would just scream to be picked up, something that looked totally different from everything else on the racks. Basically, the covers are drawn by me and "remixed" by Ben. I feel like I have a decent design sense, but Ben is just a killer designer, he puts me to shame. Also Dan Nadel suggested we use the super glossy cover stock to set us apart from most other alternative comics covers which, to me, are stuck in this mopey, quiet rut. And I thought that was an awesome choice. So many alternative comics people told us they hated the glossy cover stock and that sort of told us we made the right choice. It seems like to me most alternative comics covers these days are soft and muted, they usually have a matte cover stock, and look like wallpaper. What happened to loud and fast?

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?
Frank Santoro: Um, I'm working on some more Cold Heat side projects with other artists. Jon Vermilyea is doing another one because his first Cold Heat Special was so fantastic --and I'm talking with a couple other folks who shall remain nameless. These are turning out to be really fun. I'm writing the Specials based on conversations I have with Ben and then I'm laying out the pages for the guest artist to draw. Besides that, I'm just focusing on putting the final touches on the
Cold Heat collection that is due out this summer. Oh, and I've got two pages in the new oversized Kramer’s Ergot. Just me, solo.

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