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



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.    

No comments: