Thursday, February 27, 2014

Back Matter #3 - The Surrogates & Concrete Celebrates Earth Day

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here
-Thanks

BACK MATTER #3

           
            There are two kinds of science fiction - straight-ahead, bull in the china shop adventures that start in fifth gear and just accelerate from there and the more cerebral idea-centered ones, which do not necessarily lack for adventure or suspense.  Whereas the first type is wildly entertaining and doesn’t ask a lot of its readers, the second type uses a science fiction milieu or idea to speak to the present and requires its audience to think.  These latter science fiction tales rely much more on character and emotion rather than plot and will often dredge up questions about humankind and the world that people generally wish to avoid but cannot.  And although each type has its merits, I am thankful that TopShelf’s first foray into mainstream science fiction, The Surrogates, falls into that latter category. 
            With the opening page writer Robert Venditti and artist Brett Weldele drop us right into the middle of the Central Georgia Metropolis, 2054, a time when 92% of the American population now own surrogates – manufactured bodies that move and act like the human body without its inherent fatigue and physical shortcomings.  Thanks to a patented VR Link headset the owners are able to control and experience all that the surrogate experiences, living a more exciting and more fulfilling life than might have been afforded these people prior to this technology.  Having radically changed the societal landscape like nothing else of the past half century, this technological advance has set mankind on the course to making the world a better place in which to live.  Workplace discrimination – gone (women can buy male surrogates and be judged on their ability not their gender), social rejection – forgotten (just purchase a physically attractive  model), occupational hazards – a thing of the past (the movement to all-surrogate police forces did away with this and other professions’ inherent dangers).  These, along with many other benefits including mobility for the physically challenged and the decline of smoking-related illnesses are all attributable to the buffer offered by the widespread use of surrogates.  But at what cost did humanity accept this brave new world full of promise and vicarious pleasures?
            For fifteen years things have been peaceful, but in the past two days that has all quietly begun to unravel.  Someone is targeting surrogates, completely frying the internal circuitry of two random surrogates one night and then taking out two guards at Clark Technologies the next.  What police Lieutenant Harvey Greer and Sergeant Pete Ford hoped would be an open and shut case has become something much more.  This realization is only aggravated by the discovery of what was stolen from Clark Technologies – a developmental processor chip that would allow an Electromagnetic Pulse to target specific frequencies rather than disrupting all circuitry within the EMP’s radius.  Luckily, the software needed to put the chip into effect is still housed at a subsidiary of Clark Technologies, CDV Laboratories.  That’s where this mystery man, one glimpsed on a recording from one of the first victims’ surrogates, will strike next if he intends to wipe out the entire surrogate population of CGM as police now suspect.
            In his pursuit of this mystery man, dubbed Steeplejack, Lt. Greer begins asking himself questions about his life, questions for which he apparently does not like the answers.  When his own surrogate is destroyed by the perpetrator in a skytube altercation he foregoes a replacement and works the case himself, wanting to see if he still has what it takes while at the same time testing the waters for a new life without a surrogate as a crutch.  In the course of the investigation Greer goes to see the Prophet, Zaire Powell III, the leader of the Dread movement.  A religious fanatic who vehemently opposes surrogates as an abomination of God’s will, he incited his followers to protest against their use fifteen years earlier, setting off four deadly days of rioting throughout the city.  The bloodshed only ended when an agreement was reached ceding a small reservation of land to Powell and his followers where the Prophet could govern and preach as he wished as long as they did not return to the city.  The Lieutenant believes Powell is behind this targeting of surrogates, and Powell of course denies the allegations.  But Lt. Harvey Greer is exceedingly familiar with the first rule of any police investigation: everyone lies.  And regardless of culpability, Greer’s visit and its subsequent disclosure to the news media acts as a wake-up call for the Dreads who return to Central Georgia Metropolis in order to spread the “word of the Lord.” 
With the Dreads on the move and the continuing investigation getting closer to the truth, things are quickly coming to a head and all the scenarios look bleak.  How will the police be able to turn away the Dread mob?  Can Steeplejack get the software he wants and put his plan into action?  Will the police discover who this terrorist is, or will they be too late?  And does Lt. Greer even want to stop him now?    
            Venditti and Weldele have crafted a tautly suspenseful thriller with twists and turns that will keep readers on their toes, and they have done it in an intelligent way that does not speak down to their audience.  The ideas and problems posited by The Surrogates are as relevant and important as ones found in any science fiction tale, comic and prose alike.  And it is the humanity and the relationships, particularly those of Lieutenant Harvey Greer, that elevate this story above your typical thriller.  Greer is at a point in his life where he is now closer to the grave than the womb, and although he may be older, his use of a surrogate gives away nothing of that fact.  He can stay as young as he wants, as fit as he wants, for as long as he wants, and never have to worry that he might get hurt, become incapacitated, or – heaven forbid – embarrass himself with the way he looks.  This is the beauty of the surrogate, but Lt. Greer also discovers that this is its curse as well.  Because if people remain sealed off from the world and only enjoy its pleasures through a virtual reality interface, is that really living?
            The answer, as Lt. Greer sees it, is no.
            Throughout the series Greer is trying to snatch back the humanity he gave up so many years ago.  Early in the story he asks his wife, Margaret, if she will have dinner with him – the real him, the real her – but she doesn’t even consider it, becoming angered with the idea and with him.  Surrogates have become such a common facet of life that having to interact without that buffer and reveal one’s true self, one’s imperfect image, isn’t even a consideration for many.  It just isn’t done.  Why be plain Jane when you can be a supermodel and never have to worry about age lines and that receding hairline?  And this is exactly where our society is heading today with the escalation in breast implants, liposuction, Botox, and tanning salons.    
In the end this story is about life, and how it is lived.  In the end it’s about living life to its fullest and whether one is afforded that full life through the use of a surrogate or by standing on the edge and experiencing everything firsthand.  Which would you choose?
            I need to make note of the art from Brett Weldele here.  This is the first time I have been exposed to his work and I was very impressed.  His style was well suited to this story.  Moody and dark, his art is full of an emotion and energy that is often lacking in some artists’ work whose styles may appear slicker and more refined.  He also benefited greatly from the fact that this was a color book and not straight black and white.  The digital paint he laid over his line work added another dimension to the storytelling and enhanced the feel of the book.  Very reminiscent of what Ben Templesmith is doing with Fell from Image, a similarly dark and moody book, I look forward to future work from Weldele and hope he gets more opportunities to color his own art.
            This was TopShelf’s first mini-series and as with all of their other products it was well crafted, not just the story but also in the way it was packaged.  They didn’t do anything different with the basic format of the “single,” but it is the way they utilized that format to its fullest potential that most impressed me.  With the exception of the extra-sized final chapter, which encompasses all 32 pages, each of the chapters is 24 pages long, leaving eight extra pages to fill.  Venditti uses part of this to give us some of the back-story that would not fit neatly within the main narrative, and he does this in imaginative ways.  The first issue includes a “journal article” detailing the major benefits that have come from the surrogate movement, while subsequent issues include a news transcript from 2013, a copy of the Daile Tablet, “America’s Most Downloaded Paper,” from 2039, and a Virtual Self brochure, all of which give us background information on important aspects of the story only hinted at in the previous chapters.  Also included are pinup pieces by artists, including Steve Lieber, Becky Cloonan, Duncan Fegredo, and Greg Ruth, depicting characters and scenes from the series.  I’m a sucker for other artists’ interpretations of stories I enjoy and this fits the bill.  But perhaps the coolest aspect of these comics is the back covers, which carry Virtual Self advertisements that look as good as any marketing firm’s ads.  In fact, the very first time I read issue #1 I was left wondering for a second whether the ad on the back was real or not.  The attention to detail given this series is impressive indeed, but I should not have expected anything less from TopShelf publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock. 
           
            Back in the vault this time we find Concrete Celebrates Earth Day: 1990 in recognition of this annual observance April 22nd.  As one might expect, this is a comic with a message and it does not shy away from that fact.  Luckily, there are three very able guides waiting within: Paul Chadwick, Charles Vess, and Moebius.  When I first saw this book sixteen years ago I already knew it would be worth my money before I even took it off the rack.  How can you go wrong with these giants of the field? 
Anyone who has read any of Chadwick’s Concrete tales is familiar with his environmental stance, for which he should be admired.  Thankfully, he is also that unique artist who has a message he wants to convey but is still able to create an entertaining story while staying true to his convictions.  Comics that are fun, entertaining, and can help you learn something new.  What a novel concept.
            Within the Earth Day special are three Concrete tales, two of which were produced especially for this volume.  “Like Disneyland, Only Toxic” is a 6-page short in which Concrete is practicing an environmental speech for an upcoming event.  In any other comic – most any other story – this would feel like a forced ploy used to get across the point of the story in an unimaginative manner.  But with Concrete it works because of the background of the character.  Concrete is an anomaly and thus afforded celebrity status in this world.  He is asked to speak at many functions, on many occasions, and these have been referenced before in other stories.  Also, in his former life as Ron Lithgow Concrete was a speechwriter for Senator Douglas.  It all fits within the continuity of Chadwick’s character.  And as long as it does not fall into cliché, which is not a worry with a creator such as Chadwick, then it works perfectly. 
            The second original story is “A Billion Conscious Acts” in which the reader follows the secret wars going on underneath our feet and in our backyards every day, initiated by Concrete’s heavy footfall, which cracks open an acorn.  From there we learn how a white-footed mouse was transporting the acorn when it was suddenly snatched up by a barred owl and had to watch the tiny seed fall to the Earth as its own life was quickly slipping away.  Through the course of the next five pages we are introduced to – and learn something interesting about – weevils, filbert worms, springtails, wolf spiders, starlings, wasps, Lord Byron, and Walt Disney.  Though it could possibly sound very dry and antiseptic, for those readers with active and fertile minds this will be wonderfully appealing.  And the horror of the last page, where Chadwick uses Concrete’s decimating trail over the tiny landscape as a metaphor for the destruction of our rainforests via a quote made by Al Gore in 1988, really hits home.  The writing is on the wall, and Chadwick gets that across masterfully in this short story; it’s too bad more people are not paying attention. 
            The final Concrete short story, “Stay Tuned for Pearl Harbor,” is a reprint that was seeing the light of day in full color for the first time here.  While driving through the countryside on their way to the city Maureen, the doctor assigned to study Concrete, is daydreaming about what it might be like to experience the world in a manner other than the way we humans do right now.  What wonders could we know if we were connected to a plant’s root system?  How might we see the world if the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums were visible to us?  Would we have a better understanding of the world around us?  Could we cherish this Earth more, and would we finally do something about the destruction going on all around us?  If we could feel the pain inflicted upon the Earth when a large bulldozer scrapes across its surface, might we stop?  This daydream is coupled with Concrete’s monologue on the population boom, all of which is summed up nicely by Larry, Concrete’s assistant, when he tells his boss “You know, you could really depress me if you felt like trying, Ron.”  But what is the answer?  Why don’t we see these problems and do something about them?  This, ultimately, is what Chadwick is asking through Concrete.  It’s scary.  These stories are scary.  But they make you think and they give you information that is necessary, even if the politicians want to shy away from the truth for the “greater good.”
            In between these three Concrete tales are the contributions from Charles Vess and Moebius.  First, we have four gorgeous paintings by Vess accompanied by quotations from Henry David Thoreau.  These pieces are breathtaking.  If you are familiar with Vess’s delicate line work, but have never seen his paintings, then you are in for a real treat.  I cannot say enough good things about these pieces.  They should have been collected as a limited edition portfolio – if they were not at the time – and would be at home in any fine art museum. 
            Second, is a 23-page silent story from Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius.  Considered to be the preeminent comic artist extant, Moebius’s storytelling and beautiful artwork are on full display.  Stel and Atan, characters from other works by this master, land on what appears to be a dead planet and make their way to the ruins of a large religious monument where the remaining population walk around in a stupor, zombies lost to life.  The two make their way inside and awaken a deity that had lain dormant for what must have been eons.  This ‘touching’ brings the natives out of their stupor, and also brings the planet itself back to life.  Stel and Atan struggle back to their transport through the quick-growing foliage making its way up from within the planet itself.  They just manage to release the small ship from the dense flora and are given a fond farewell by the inhabitants, who find themselves able to fly above the brightly colored, verdant world now lying below them.  Having finished their work the two aliens return to their ship and launch back into space, off to find others that might be in need of their help.

            This is a great book with an important message that many should take heed of.  If you see it in a comic shop or on ebay, I would recommend you pick it up.  Not only will you be entertained but you will be educated as well.       

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

THE COMIC GRID - Frank Santoro, David Lapham, and Scott Morse





THE GRID

The first image above is from Frank Santoro.  One of my favorite artists, Frank offers a correspondence course on making comics (and also did a cool contest for aspiring, or non-aspiring, artists to enter their own comics in), and it all revolves around the grid.  Basically - and I may get this wrong - Frank feels that working within the guidelines of the grid gives comic artists a solid base from which to craft their stories.  Allowing the storytelling to reveal itself within the strict panel layout can free people up and also make it easier for readers to read their comics.

Coincidentally, in dong a re-read of Stray Bullets (the next two images, written & drawn by David Lapham) to prepare for its imminent return, I found that Lapham was utilizing this same grid in his seminal series, almost two decades past.  And, yes, the storytelling in Stray Bullets is wonderful, and keeping to a strict grid allows the audience to focus on the story and not on any stylistic flourishes that might come about from a more "free-form" approach to the page.  It's interesting.

Another artist whose work I admire greatly is Scott Morse.  He, too, utilizes a set panel layout in much of his work - but his "grid" consists of three stacked panels that spread across the entire page.  Like Lapham, Morse will break up his layout when necessary, but much of the work he has both written and drawn (in the Strange Science Fantasy pages above, as well as Visitations, off the top of my head), utilizes this layout.  And, again, the expressive storytelling that is accomplished within the strict panel grid is amazing.  Good stuff all the way around.

chris

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Back Matter #2 - ACT-I-VATE's Dan Goldman & Anything Goes issue 2

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here
-Thanks

BACK MATTER #2

                        One of the boons of the internet has been a new outlet for comics’ creators to self-publish their work.  It used to be that one would write and draw their story, go to Kinko’s to make copies, and then sell them at conventions or distribute them around town.  Now people just need an internet hookup, a domain, and access to a scanner.  Webcomics are the new mini-comics.         
ACT-I-VATE was created on LiveJournal a little over two months ago by comic creators Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Josh Neufeld, Tim Hamilton, Leland Purvis, Michel Fiffe, Dan Goldman, and Nikki Cook.  An online experiment, ACT-I-VATE is a cyber studio where these comics creators get to do their own thing, scratching that itch that’s been gnawing away at the back of their mind.  Done for free, in between paying jobs and other responsibilities, each of the artists works to get a new installment uploaded once a week in order to keep the site vital.  And, with the recent addition of Dean Trippe, Chip Zdarsky, Dave Wallin, and Rami Efal, some of the burden will be dropped from those initial artists’ shoulders while still allowing the site to remain fresh with material.
            I admit most of these creators were unknown to me and I initially linked over there thanks in part to one of Warren Ellis’s Bad Signals along with the name recognition of Dean Haspiel.  But upon my arrival I was confronted with the header for Dan Goldman’s “Kelly” – clean, crisp linework with a coloring style unlike anything found in a print comic. 
So I entered, and was I ever glad I did.  “Kelly” is brilliant in its presentation of a simple premise with a dynamism and experimentation found in too few comics.  Goldman starts with a situation we all can relate to, having to rely on others just to get by, and sucks us into his narrative.  Max, our protagonist, has been trying to save enough money for his own apartment in New York – not something easily done – while crashing at his brother’s place.  This might not be such an uncomfortable situation except for the fact that his brother’s girlfriend also lives there.  Goldman hammers home the awkwardness of the situation when Max is contemplating his life just as sounds of mad, frantic sex screech through the walls like nails on a chalkboard.  Luckily, he has come across an ad for an apartment share, something he could pull off with his meager income.
Max answers the ad – from the office – just as his boss comes over to chastise him for using the Arial font instead of the correct Garamond font as called for in all client memos.  Seeing Max on the phone, his boss reprimands him as well for making a personal call on company time.  Yes, we all know that boss and we all know Max’s inner reaction.  From here things go from crazy to bizarre to mildly insane, and it’s all wildly engrossing. 
Max is leery of his potential new roommate but hopeful of the possibility to finally be on his own.  However, once he meets Kelly and gets inside the apartment Max’s radar starts buzzing again.  Maybe he should have been more leeryWhy is Kelly “excited” to see me?  (I’m not into guys)  Does Kelly really wipe his ass with paper towels?  (mental note: gotta pick up toilet paper)  Do I really want to know what his special super secret surprise is?  (I don’t think so).  Goldman plays on your expectations, presents you with scenes that will get that perverse gutter of a mind churning, and then throws you a big curveball with his revelations.  And when Max’s ex-girlfriend finally rings him up after four months it’s time to pull out the peace pipe and get conceptual.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.
This is easily one of the most entertaining comics I have come across in a long time.  Through eleven installments we have been able to learn quite a bit about the main character Max, while Kelly still remains an enigma.  His odd secretiveness and lust for a good enema are enough to make anyone uneasy, but this is only part of what we know of Kelly.  He is also a sympathetic good-hearted person, albeit with a skewed take on the world.  It’s this complexity that makes him a compelling character, and one about which we want to learn more.  Why is he like this?  Is he hiding something?  What’s going on inside that gap-toothed head of his?  Goldman pulls off this dichotomy of character with Kelly masterfully.  He can make you feel uneasy, while at the same time coaxing a smile of recognition from you.  And maybe, if you’re willing to admit it, you’re laughing along too because it’s so damn funny.  Just don’t tell your Mom.
And what can be said about the art?  This was what enticed me to click on “Kelly” in the first place.  The closest in style to what Goldman is doing might be Ben Templesmith’s work in Fell or any of the painted works from Scott Morse.  Goldman takes clean linework and overlays it with swaths and spatters of digital paint.  The end result is a feast for the eyes and adds an additional layer to the story, eliciting feelings of wonder, or surrealism, or alarm.
Goldman also utilizes other techniques to accentuate the mood of a chapter.  The most obvious example of this comes in chapters 6 and 7, when Max’s ex-girlfriend Theresa rings his cell phone.  As Max realizes who it is Goldman turns the panel on his protagonist, whose face is melting away – the ink running off the bottom of Max’s face like tears.  This is painful.  We know just from the image what he is going through.  In the following chapter Goldman continues to showcase Max’s mental state by running Theresa’s name across the backgrounds of all the panels Max is in.  After lying dormant for months, she has sprung to the forefront of Max’s mind and the psychic backlash is written all over the walls, literally.   
Comics can get so boring, especially if you remain in the superhero mainstream.  I want to be surprised, transfixed, and just blown away by what I read.  Gladly, the ACT-I-VATE site does all that.  To check it out go to http://act-i-vate.livejournal.com  and start clicking.
Back in the vault this time we have another anthology of sorts, issue #2 of Anything Goes! from Fantagraphics Books.  Published in the summer of 1986, Anything Goes! was a benefit book that caught my attention because of the list of creators involved.  Where else can you take a few minutes and enjoy a complete story – a complete experience – created by the likes of Jaime Hernandez, Sam Kieth, Alan Moore, and Art Spiegelman? 
            Like most benefit books, pin-up pieces by noted artists are included and this comic happened to showcase the works of two giants in the field.  First there is the cover from Frank Miller.  Beautifully colored by painter Lynn Varley who brought a sophistication to comics coloring that would not become more widespread until years later, this piece contains all the hallmarks of Miller’s work in his signature “Dark Knight” style.  Ninja, Japanese swordsmen, futuristic warriors, arrows and bullets flying across the canvas, this is the frenetic artwork fans had come to expect from this wunderkind and he didn’t disappoint.  And inside we find three plates from Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott, who had not worked together for fifteen years before this collaboration.  Together, the pieces comprise a short story.  Although Kirby’s art is not for everyone, and this story sadly does not contain the dynamic power for which he is known, Kirby was still a giant in the field.  Despite lacking his trademark energy this contribution does have one of the more surreal pieces I’ve ever seen drawn by Kirby – a Martian egghead one man band.  After almost fifty years in comics he was still able to give us something new from his fertile mind.
            Jaime Hernandez, co-creator of the incredible anthology Love & Rockets, is also present here.  Providing a new 4-page “Locas” short featuring Hopey and Maggie, this is a good introduction to the beauty of Hernandez’s comics.  Not only is his art clean and smooth, the envy of other artists, but he also infuses his stories with all the humor, sadness, and drama that can be found in everyday life.  Despite being set in California with a predominantly Spanish population – drawing upon his own life experiences – anyone can relate to Hernandez’s stories because the emotions and the situations are so true to life.  More people should be checking out the work put forth by him and his brothers, Gilbert and Mario.
            Next we have a Sam Kieth 2-pager titled “And Speaking Of Those Abstract Pretentious Stories That Make You Feel Stupid If You Don’t Get Them. . .”  One of his earliest works, you can already see his soft, fluid art style coming forth.  We are also treated to his distinctly surreal viewpoint evident in much of his later work such as The Maxx.  This particular tale is about a man and a woman very much in love.  But, as the man comes to idealize the woman his feelings fall into depraved, sexually perverse territory.  Unwilling to treat her as a whore, he hides his feelings in a box buried in the backyard.  Eventually, the woman finds the box and the spawn found within is something that could only come from the fevered mind of Kieth.
            Two pieces near the back of the book are “Chrysalis,” an adaptation of a Jack Cronin fantasy poem by Dennis Fujitake, and a 1973 strip from Art Spiegelman titled “Walt Disney Lives.”  The former deals with being an outcast and eventually leaving behind those that scorn you.  The artwork is reminiscent of Moebius and Bilal and will have me looking for other work by Fujitake.  The latter is a cautionary fever-dream from comix master Spiegelman.  What if Walt Disney were revived from cryogenic hibernation and decided to purify the world and lead it into a new millennium?  Here is the answer.  Anything more I might say could not do this short story justice.  If you are familiar with Spiegelman’s more political work then you know what to expect.
            And that brings us back around to the centerpiece of this book, “In Pictopia,” written by Alan Moore and drawn by Don Simpson.  Like most of Moore’s best work this story can be read on a couple of different levels.  On the surface this is a day in the life tale relating Nocturno the Necromancer’s experience in the surreal city of Pictopia.  Here is a place where all the types of characters we have ever read about in comic books and comic strips live side by side.  Superheroes, funny animals, adventure heroes, western characters, and one who looks very much like the Yellow Kid – the very first comic strip character – along with countless others.  They’re all here living together, though not necessarily in harmony.  The brightly clad superheroes, overly-muscled and excessively scowled, are pushing out all the older characters including outdated models of some of the spandex set, and nobody seems able to do anything about it.  In the end, Nocturno goes looking for his friend Flexible Flynn, a Plastic Man variant, and discovers an ubermensch with rippling muscles and a sinister look wearing Flynn’s costume.  Alarmed, Nocturno runs out into the street and heads toward Funnytown, a small section on the outskirts where the funny animals dwell.  He knows there he can find the consolation he so desperately needs after this jarring experience.  But when he gets there he finds it all dozed under, any consolation he might have found now a faded memory.
            Of course, having been written in 1986 when the effects of the ‘grim and gritty’ movement were about to lay hold of the comic book marketplace, this tale can also be read as a lament of where the industry was heading.  Moore has stated many times his disdain for the hyper-realistic, relevant anti-hero movement that was spawned by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and his and Dave Gibbons’s own Watchmen.  The problem that arose after these two seminal works were published was that everyone wanted to replicate the glossy sheen of these stories but didn’t dig any deeper to find the core relevance in these landmark creations.  “In Pictopia” is one of Moore’s most poignant discourses on this subject and serves as an illuminating counterpoint to this dark era as well as a beautiful love letter to comics’ rich history, all in only 13 pages.
            I would be remiss if I did not mention Don Simpson’s contribution to this piece as well.  The facility he showed in mimicking varying artists’ styles added very much to the story’s ability to work on multiple levels.  The goofy dog, the Phantom, the Lone Ranger, and the hyper-real superheroes are all recognizable as being of their time.  Without his attention to detail this could not have worked as well.  Once again, Moore managed to bring out the best in his artist.
            And there we are, two more comics I hope you’ll check out.  As always, let me know what you think.  I’m always interested in hearing any opinions or recommendations you might have.  And we’ll see you here again in two weeks. 

            Lost in the Back Matter.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Back Matter Beginnings - an introduction

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here
-Thanks

BACK  MATTER

BY CHRIS BECKETT


Welcome to the first installment of Back Matter on Independent Propaganda.  I’ve been collecting comics for over twenty years and have watched my comic buying habits change drastically as my tastes have matured.  Like many, I was inducted into this hobby through the superhero titles of Marvel and DC, snatching whatever comics landed on the newsstand at my small-town bookstore.  And not unlike most of my sci-fi paperbacks from this same period, many of these uninspired stories are best left in the dustbins of memory.  Luckily, my collecting didn’t end there.

Upon discovering the direct market a whole new world of comics was opened up to me.  Here were stories that defied convention – edgy, literate tales full of passion with a relevance not found in the superhero mainstream.  As my taste in novels had branched out to the realms of contemporary, classic, and non-fiction, so too did my comic tastes now encompass other, more typically mainstream genres.  I gravitated to finite series and Original Graphic Novels, looking for stories with believable characters by authors that had something important to say.  It’s no coincidence that the list of creators I collect is made up of writers or writer/artists (drastically different from an artist/writer).

With this column my hope is to make you aware of comics that, in my opinion, tell a great story.  In each bi-monthly installment I will be spotlighting a recently published or readily available comic – a single, collection, or OGN – as well as a hidden gem, an older more obscure book that might not be so easy to find but would be worth the effort.  This time around I have two books from the late ‘90s, Visitations by Scott Morse and an issue of Negative Burn.  Though the latter is long out of print, the former was reprinted by Oni Press a couple of years ago and can be ordered directly from them if your local store doesn’t have a copy.  I hope you enjoy.

In his introduction to the original Image publication of Visitations Morse states that he is “a sucker for the unexplained.”  With that in mind he wanted to create a tale in that vein that also “[kept] a feeling of human emotion to it.”  Simply put, Morse wished to create a short drama that was not a typical ghost story and would resonate with his audience emotionally.  Despite his relative inexperience at the time Morse manages to pull this off utilizing skills that were emerging rapidly and which would be brought to bear on his later works.

On a Tuesday afternoon a lonely woman enters a church seeking solitude and is surprised to find the minister there.  After a quick dialogue where she lets slip that she does not believe in God, the woman excuses herself and turns to leave.  But the gauntlet has been thrown and Pastor Samuel stops her, asking for a chance to prove God’s existence by randomly choosing three stories from the newspaper and finding His hand in each of them.  Despite her wish to be alone she acquiesces and takes a seat in a pew.

The first story Pastor Samuel finds involves a young man who appears to be a likable self-assured guy.  He has an easy time talking with his waitress and his charm and charisma are evident.  But lying beneath the surface is a monster.  He kidnapped a young girl and has been holding her in the trunk of his car for weeks.  Taking the abducted child to the beach the two are confronted by a murky image standing in the fog.  When the kidnapper walks into the lake to confront this person he falls dead in the water.  The figure disappears and the girl is left wondering what happened.  When asked by authorities, she tells them an angel saved her. 


In the next story an elderly gentleman is intent upon winning a gardening contest with his “prize” dahlias.  He has hired a migrant worker, Enrique, to assist in the garden along with setting up a statue of the Virgin Mary to look over the flowers because “Who’s gonna give the Mother of God less than a blue ribbon?”  But again, things are not as they seem as Enrique discovers his employer’s dead wife buried beneath the dahlias.  Exiting to the yard, the elderly man pulls out a revolver in order to safeguard his secret.  As he thumbs back the hammer the man looks up from the cowering gardener and spies the statue crying, its eyes wide open staring at him.  The old man falters and his heart gives out, saving Enrique. 

The final news story involves a boy who wanted to go hunting with his father.  Told he is too young and should return to bed the young boy decides to go out and play instead, not wishing to waste the morning.  Taking his dog they enter the woods and eventually come across a deer.  As they stand transfixed two shots ring out, the deer bounds away, and the boy falls into a brook, a bullet piercing his tiny chest.

Despite the woman’s contention one can see her resolution waning with the first two stories the pastor relates to her.   She goes from believing there is no God to admitting the possibility of a God, but one that is a God of vengeance.  However, in the final item from the paper God is noticeably absent, supporting her atheistic beliefs.  But with the final climax lurking just around the corner, the story takes a sharp twist that seizes the reader in the gut and assures us that God is indeed looking over everyone. 

Morse’s pacing is perfect as he utilizes three tangential stories in order to tell a larger one.  He allows the tale to unfold slowly and at its own pace, building the drama and the pressure until it reaches its final, tragic climax.  By using real, well-rounded characters with affecting stories Morse is able to pull his audience into this world completely and surprise them with an ending that feels true, like any good story should.

Something that sets Morse apart from other comic creators is his storytelling.  Where most comics include overwritten prose lacking any emotional core, Morse prefers spare dialogue and captions that resonate more with the reader and move the story along.  He prefers to hint at motivations and themes rather than pounding his audience over the head with exposition.  One technique he uses particularly well is the silent panel.  It allows the reader to witness the characters contemplating their lives and their decisions while adding more weight to the unfolding dramas.  Symbolism also plays a strong role in his narrative, as when in Visitations he has a panel of a teapot steaming without any caption, dialogue, or sound effects.  Despite this, one can almost hear the teapot singing in the background as the realization of an impending tragedy hits home.

Another trademark of Morse’s is his animation-style artwork, which he cultivated at the California Institute of Arts under the tutelage of Maurice Noble – one of animation’s most highly acclaimed art directors, whose body of work includes Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Fantasia and many Looney Tunes shorts.  Although it may make for an odd juxtaposition to readers who have not enjoyed one of his books before, I think it really works in his favor.  Having a background in animation, his clean style allows him to tackle controversial topics such as religion or teen suicide without being confrontational.  In the end, the juxtaposition adds more weight to a story already full of dramatic tension.

Hidden in the vault this time we have Negative Burn, the Eisner and Harvey Award nominated black-and-white anthology from Caliber Comics, which has been revived at Desperado Studios and can be found in the Image section of Previews.  Edited by Joe Pruett, the original series lasted 50 issues and included a list of contributors that would be the envy of any large publishing company.  Creators such as David Mack, Brian Bendis, Jeff Smith, Terry Moore, and John Cassaday cut their eyeteeth in this book, while the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, Dave Gibbons, Warren Ellis, and Brian Bolland were also creating new works for this anthology.  Despite the dominance of Dark Horse Presents in the annual awards ceremonies, for my money Negative Burn was THE anthology to read in the ‘90s.  It was a haven for creators who wanted to do their own thing without the editorial constraints of a corporate entity.  The stories were edgy, different, and entertaining, and you could always count on getting your money’s worth.

The spotlighted issue this time around is #37.  Of the half-filled run I own, this is probably my favorite issue.  At 64 pages and priced at $3.95 it was a bargain, especially compared to the “mainstream” books that only run a third of the page count.  Some highlights include “Dusty Star” by Joe Pruett and Andrew Robinson – a 5-page short story set in a science fiction/western milieu sporting great art from Robinson that reminds me of early Sienkiewicz, “The Thirst” by Darko Macan and Edvin Biukovic – a 4-pager showcasing the sympathetic side of a modern vampire, an 8-page story titled “Who Is . . . The Wretch?” by Phil Hester – a humorous tale about a failed attempt to discover exactly who the new hero in town is, and “Better Living Through Chemistry” written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Brian Michael Bendis, in which we follow a protagonist who is unknowingly being experimented on by the government in the ‘Narcotic Environment Project’.  This final story includes all the hallmarks of a great Warren Ellis story, condensed into only eight pages, and the expert use of black and shadows in Bendis’s artwork is chilling.  This by no means denigrates all the other contributions in this issue, which include an installment of “Alan Moore’s Songbook”, one-page shorts by Brian Bolland and P. Craig Russell, chapter 3 of an intriguing science fiction tale by Christopher and Kevin Moeller titled “Iron Empires”, as well as a sketchbook section from Colleen Doran.  All in all, an excellent issue that provides reading enjoyment time and time again. 


And so, we come to the end of this initial column.  I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you seek out the two books above and read them.  I’d love to hear what you think (liked it, hated it, why, why not) and I would also like to know what you’re reading and any suggestions you think should be included in this column.  If I can get hold of a copy and I enjoy it (the only rule here) then it may end up in the BACK MATTER.    

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unearthed "Treasures" - the Back Matter returns (or something like that)

Dug around through some old files and rediscovered my earliest bits of writing about comics.  I was a part of Warren Ellis' ENGINE forum at the time - where there was a critical mass of important contemporary creators for the mainstream publishers such as Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan, Kieron Gillen, and, of course, Warren Ellis (whose profile is a bit diminished due to his current prose work) - and there was a fellow on there who wanted to start his own website focused on independent comic books.  It was called Independent Propaganda.

The site was to have news and interviews on indy book and with indy creators, and he wished to eventually branch into publishing and distribution as well.  [the former aspect of the site lasted some few months, maybe six to ten, and the latter initiative crashed and burned in a hail of ire from some creators, so we'll leave everything anonymous and let you peer into the way-back machine, if you must).

Anyway.  I offered my services as a regular columnist.  I called it "Back Matter" as a nod to Warren Ellis's work with FELL, and the short essays regarding the series I was receiving through his mailing list.  Each column led with a review of a current indy book - web, self-published, or small press - and an older book from the vault.  The connecting thread was merely the reality that I enjoyed these books and wanted to share with anyone reading.  I managed to get nine columns in before the site changed things up.  At which point, I offered interviews with creators and other comics people (another seven or eight of these went up on the site).  And then, the creator of the site moved on - attempting to bump up the publishing/distribution side of things, only to fade into the mists of the interwebs.

So, over the next couple of weeks, starting tomorrow, I'll be sharing these initial forays into writing about comics - for good or ill.  I hope you enjoy.

Thanks,
chris

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Little Coincidences - writing

I am working on draft 1 of a YA novel right now, and one of the nice things I've discovered in working on such a lengthy project is the allowance for connecting threads within the narrative to form through, as the title of this post suggests, little coincidences.  Let me try to explain (as much to get things straight in my head as to have something posted here for the month of February)  

point 1:
The impetus for much of what is occurring in the main setting of the novel is formed by an accepted reality - that the world on which these disparate characters live is heading quickly toward its imminent demise and they must find a portal to an equally hospitable dimension or perish (just noticed the Superman connection here).  This has been put forth by the queen of the realm as indisputable fact, backed up by her science minister's findings ... a science minister who has been noticeably absent throughout the first 60,000 words of my manuscript.

point 2:
A few chapters back I chose to introduce a new character - an oracle of sorts - mainly because I wanted to have someone who could foreshadow a bit of what is to come, but I also wanted to write a crazed character in the style of the "mad scientist" or "nutty professor."  And, despite this character's penchant for unintelligible gibberish and the crazed look in his eyes, he is the queen's most trusted adviser, the only one who has a room within the castle proper.  As such, he is also the one who has not had much, if any, interaction with anyone outside of the queen herself.  <-- i="">And this was basically all I had for the character when he came on stage.

point 3:
I decided rather soon into the manuscript that the scientific pronouncement of impending doom for this alternate dimension was actually a ruse put forth by the queen, for reasons of her own.  Initially, I concluded that the science minister would be in on the sham.  But with the most recent chapter written - a council meeting where the science minister is, once again, absent - I thought it might be more interesting if his absenteeism were due to the fact that the queen secretly had him killed.  Ah, more intrigue.  [emoticon here]

point 4:  
And so, as I was walking back across campus this morning, at the day job, it came to me that the reason for the oracle's favored status might be because he stumbled upon the killing of the science minister and has been shut away to keep this from getting out.  This would also explain his rantings of despair and death with regard to the queen's imminent future (rather than the belief of the world's looming demise).  It would ground his oracular powers a bit, and it would make for a very interesting turn of events if ...

point 5:
... the queen's main rival discovered this through an interrogation of the oracle.  

an aside:  I've been discovering more of these coincidences that can be tethered to one another within my writing over the past year or so, which has been one of the things that keeps me going.  It feels like another step forward, as if I might be learning how to do this writing thing right. [insert new emoticon here]

chris