Thursday, March 27, 2014

[replay] Back Matter interviews #2 - Brian Hibbs

When I first started writing about comics, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Along with spotlights on specific comics, I also interviewed a handful of people working in comics.  This interview was with Brian Hibbs, owner and operator of Comix Experience in San Francisco and writer of the column, Tilting at Windmills, which examines comics from a retail perspective.  His intelligence and candor were much appreciated, despite illuminating some of the misconstrued, and biased, ideas I had going into the interview.  Enjoy.

On April Fool’s Day in 1989, Brian Hibbs, at the ripe old age of 21, opened Comix Experience in San Francisco.  With multiple nominations for the Will Eisner Spirit of Comic Retailing Award as well as being honored with the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s “Best of the Bay” award a number of times, Comix Experience is recognized as one of the stellar retail comic outlets in the country by fans and professionals alike.  This is due mainly to the staff’s love of the medium and the effort they put forth to make entering the store an “experience” for everyone.  Mr. Hibbs is also the author of the monthly column Tilting at Windmills at Newsarama (, where he shares his insights, borne of seventeen years as a successful retailer, on the comics marketplace.

A few weeks ago Mr. Hibbs agreed to answer some questions via email for Independent Propaganda.  His responses were illuminating and candid.  I want to thank him for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this interview and I hope you all enjoy what follows.

-Comic shops seem to come and go rather quickly.  I have seen a large number pass through the greater Bangor area up here in Maine over the past several years.  To what do you most attribute your own success in this business?
Largely to carrying a wide and diverse line and not trying to play favorites of one genre or style over another.  We focus pretty purely on reading, we don’t have high priced back issues, and we try to have an atmosphere that’s conducive to the “civilian” audience.

-I assume you have carried quite a number of mini-comics and self-published comics during the time Comix Experience has been open.  What cardinal sin do you often see self-publishers making that reduces their chances of success?
It is usually one of two things: biting off more than you can chew, or the base quality of the work being poor.
Many creators just aren’t suited to being a businessman as well as a creator.  That’s OK – not everyone has the talent set to go with the job.  And a lot of creators need to have their asses kicked before they’ll actually get to, you know, creating.  How many excellent series have started where the creator simply failed to produce the work on any kind of a schedule, and the audience drifted away?
Those who can, should; but those who can’t very very much shouldn’t!
As for the quality of the work, at the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters.  I don’t necessarily care if someone is technically accomplished yet, but I do very much care if they “get” the rhythm of the comics page, and that the work has wit or charm or verve or something else that will help it stand out in the sea of choices my customers have.

-How can self-publishers and mini-comic creators best help you out in selling their books?
Best thing you can do is show me a copy of what it is you want me to be buying – a cheap photocopy is perfectly fine.  However, I don’t look at .PDFs or links, and take those as a sign of unprofessionalism, or undercapitalization.

-When approaching you regarding carrying a mini-comic what is the most important thing these creators should remember?
Other than “be good,” there’s not all that much to say.  We carry minis on a 50/50 consignment basis, and we don’t get such a huge flood that I’ve needed to set up substantial policies of acceptance – pretty much if you bring it in, we’ll stock it.  (I tend not to deal with non-local minis because the shipping costs invariably eat up everyone’s profit).  However, if the work sucks, it’s not like customers are going to be buying it, and the creators aren’t going to be making any money off it, anyway.
Mm, and remember to put a cover price on your comic.  So many mini-creators absolutely space on that.

-When ordering new books from untried talent, what is it you look for to help make such a decision?
Not to sound like a broken record, but “is it any good?”.  To put things at their most basic level, I have x amount of rack space.  The amount of things available for me to stock is a multiple of x.  So you need to have something that stands out from the rack, whether it is a hilarious, but crudely drawn mini like Fart Party or a slickly produced fantasy title like Mouse Guard.  The good news is that once we get past the mechanical things like pricing or distribution, I’m just as happy to sell something from a gal in her basement as I am from a big New York publisher.

-Do you think the perception of comics as only "kiddie" fare will change with traditional book publishers such as Ballantine now creating their own graphic novel imprints?
I actually think you have that exactly backwards – the reason that traditional book publishers are getting involved is that the cultural shift began to happen years ago, and they’re finally figuring it out!

-In your opinion, will this push from these traditional publishers adversely affect specialty shops such as yours?
Shouldn’t.  A specialist will always do better than a generalist with a specialty product.  I’m reasonably confident that I’ve sold more copies of Persepolis or Black Hole than any three bookstores combined.
The only real question is will the traditional book publishers deign to work with the specialty market to any significant degree, or will they turn their noses up at the opportunities we provide?
Here’s an example: recently, one of the big publishers had Chris Ware out touring for one of his books, and the publisher’s local rep placed him at a Mystery Book store in the Bay Area.  I mean… wha--!?!? At no point were I or Comic Relief, or any of the other fine comic shops in the area approached.  I can pretty much guarantee we’d have double the attendance, and sell twice as many books for that kind of an appearance, but I’m sure we weren’t even thought of in the first place.  There’s as large and as misguided blinders in place at the traditional book publishers, as there is at a Marvel or a DC.

-Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover “events” and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?
I don’t really understand the basis of this question at all?
Look, just because you’re not personally interested in the Marvel or DC superhero universes doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of passion for those things in a significant number of consumers.  Trying to paint things as an “either/or” situation is, I think, both foolish and short-sighted.  There’s absolutely no reason that Optic Nerve can’t rest comfortably in the same store as [Marvel’s] Civil War.  In point of fact, the overwhelming majority of people who buy Optic Nerve also buy Civil War, and they enjoy both.
Further, “event” comics do seem to be bringing both the “lapsed” comics readers back, as well as drawing in actual new “civilian” readership.  Just this week we’ve seen many new-to-comics faces attracted by Spider-Man’s unmasking in Civil War #2.  Will that audience stick around if all we have to offer them is events and ‘splodey kicking?  No, of course not.  But I can assure you as a guy who runs a store intended to be a “civilian friendly” bookstore, more real and actual new-to-comics human beings come in looking for Lesbian Batwoman or Spidey Unmasked than do because there’s a new Marjane Satrapi graphic novel released.  By all means, the latter is more likely to add to Mankind’s Quest For Truth than the former, but I want to have both of those objects in my store.
More generally, I think that Marvel decided long ago that they pretty much just wanted to be Marvel comics, and they just don’t have the innate facility to do anything other than that.  Nor do I think we should expect them to necessarily be anything other than that.
DC, on the other hand, has made repeated and successful forays in breaking past the traditional superhero audience.  In many ways, I think it can be argued that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is what actually started the cultural and perceptual shift towards comics=literature.  While we had had several books that created ripples of awareness before that (Maus, Watchmen, etc.), Sandman was the first continuing long-form work to really capture the hearts and minds of the intelligentsia, (and the bookstores of America!)  Between the success of Vertigo and the noble experiments of Piranha/Paradox, I think DC has been extremely aggressive in trying to produce lasting quality work.

-This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today’s mainstream comics?
Yeah, see, I think you’re jumbling some things in your head.  The largest problem facing “mainstream” comics is fundamentally one of distribution, rather than lack of a potential audience.  There simply aren’t enough venues that sell them, and there isn’t the kind of capital on hand needed to properly fund new entrepreneurs coming in.  A modern comics store is a low six-figure proposition to open.
The reason that sales took such a massive drop off in the 90s wasn’t that there wasn’t an audience for comics – rather, it was because the number of venues selling the product dropped by something like two-thirds.  The reason that happened was that a lot of stores got caught up in trying to play a collectible futures market rather than focusing on the reading audience.  Because the collectibles future market was more of a ponzi scheme than a legitimate reflection of supply/demand, the whole thing collapsed rather spectacularly, taking thousands upon thousands of stores with it.
The difference, I think, between then and now is that the “gimmicks” being used now tend to be more “story-oriented,” rather than “collectible oriented.”  – people are buying Civil War because they’re interested in what happens, rather than trying to fatten their portfolios by speculating on a commodity.

-Judging by the dwindling audience there are things that need improvement within the comic industry.  From your point of view as a retailer, what are some major issues that need to be addressed in order for things to improve?
See, yeah, “dwindling” audience – I just don’t see that.  I see a quickly growing audience, that’s finding more and more things to enjoy every week.
That’s not to say there aren’t structural problems in the mainstream arena, of course.  I primarily would like to see Marvel and DC focus their effort into fewer, better titles for some of their franchises (I’d rather have 1 Batman comic that sold 100 copies than 6 that sell 20 copies each – while I’m “up” 20 copies on the absolute number of copies I’m selling, I’m doing 6 times the work to make that, and I’ve reduced by one-sixth the chances that a new reader won’t feel overwhelmed if they’re interested in trying the franchise)
I’d also adore it if there was some real choice in distribution.  Diamond’s effective stranglehold on the market is, I believe, stifling capitalism and innovation.

-There have been a number of new independent comic companies to come along in the past several years and a large percentage of those have gone out of business.  What do you feel has allowed companies like TopShelf, Oni and Avatar to remain successful?
If there is a common thread between those companies, I’m not sure I see it.
The way you succeed in comics, or in any endeavor, is that you find your niche, and you fill it to the best of your abilities.  Some people have the talents and wits to do so, others don’t.  General statistics (not comics-specific) are that 90% of all small businesses fail within the first five years.  I don’t think comics publishing is statistically more difficult than opening a restaurant, or a clothing store or something.
I think the question to be asked is more: why did those publishers fail.  And in virtually all cases it can be tied to too rapid over-expansion, and not having a clear idea of who their audience was, or marketing to them in any significant degree, i.e. - being poor businesspeople.

-What are some of the positive things you currently see within the comic industry?
Creatively, we’re in the middle of a “golden age” – there are so many excellent comics coming out from so many talented people that we’re absolutely spoiled for choice.  There’s also been a small boom of new stores coming in – Rocketship, Riot, Secret Headquarters, etc. – that is starting to encourage me.

-Many people, rightfully, lament the fact that most publishers do not seem to be reaching out to a younger audience.  What could they be doing in order to reach these new, young readers?
I’m not sure that there’s much more they can be doing short of inventing a time machine and figuring out a way to have prevented the general collapse of the newsstand in the first place.
Comics can’t be bought if they’re not available in the places that children are.  Most children can’t travel more than a block on their own, so, naturally, the demise of the “mom and pop” store that carried comics via the ID [Independent Distributors] killed most of the chances for kids’ eyes to see comics in the first place.
Marvel and DC each publish at least one or two “kids” comics each week, so they’re certainly producing the work.  The hard part is getting them to where the audience is – supermarket check out placement (where they are with their moms) is tall dollars.
Really though, I’ve never had any hard problem “converting” a 20-year old who hasn’t really ever read comics into a regular reader.  “Start them young” has some value, but I think getting adults to read comics really isn’t very hard.

-What do you hope the future holds for comics as an artform?
More of the creative explosion we’ve seen over the last decade.  I’m really not worried about that part at all – comics have always attracted fertile minds and deep talents.  It is a good time to be reading them now!

I want to thank Mr. Hibbs once again for his time and if you want to check out one of the “Best of the Bay” you can go online to  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Geoff Johns's Green Lantern

Since the Challenge of the Super Friends cartoon from the 70s, I have been a fan of the Flash and Green Lantern.  I can't say what it was about them:

  • maybe the bright colors of Flash's costume had something to do with it
  • and the camaraderie these two had would have spread my affection to GL
  • possibly it was a desire to be a contrarian, go against the easy choice of Superman & Batman as favorites
  • regardless, I was a fan, and that continues to this day (though I haven't read a new Flash or GL comic in a long time)

So, although I'd missed much of the Parallax stuff and what came after, when Geoff Johns set about bringing Hal Jordan back into the DC universe proper, with Green Lantern: Rebirth in 2004, I was at the comic shop to pick it up.  And I was very happy with what I found.  I remember thinking that Ethan Van Sciver, the penciller, seemed to have a bit of George Perez in him, and the story was exciting and engaging.  

But I never picked up with the regular series, despite hearing great things from people online.  With Johns's monumental run finishing up late last year, I decided to go back and see what all the fuss was about and began getting the collected editions, of both Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, through the library.  And ... I don't get the clamor of praise surrounding the series, other than what I experienced, that sense of nostalgia and pleasure in seeing an "old friend."  

Not that it's a bad comic.  But maybe my tastes have changed too much.  It feels to me, in the beginning of the series, that Johns was trying to clean up the mess that was Parallax (that's obvious, I suppose) by bringing back many of the Green Lanterns Hal Jordan had presumably killed.  It feels to me like Johns was working to exonerate Jordan's actions through two narrative avenues - 1) hammering home the fact that Jordan was possessed by the Parallax entity and thus not responsible for the heinous acts he perpetrated and 2) revealing that these Lanterns we believed Jordan had killed were actually alive, which he seems to think negates the "murders" because without a dead body how can there be a murder?  

I have big problems with both of these arguments (and I should note, here, that I have not read any interviews with Johns and cannot say that this is, in fact, what he was going for.  And, having only read just up to right before the "Sinestro Corps War," I only have a third to a half of his overall narrative to go on.  But, as a reader, this is my interpretation, which is the whole point of writing and creating fiction, for others to read and interpret it as they will, according to their own backgrounds and biases)  Anyway, I digress.

My problem with the first point is similar to the problem I have - only having listened and read analysis of Avengers vs. X-Men last year - with Cyclops.  He, too, seems to have been given a pass for any crimes committed because he was possessed by the Phoenix force.  Where's the culpability (putting aside the morality plays that many people, including myself, feel comics do well and should, currently, be doing more of)?  He was possessed, so he gets a pass on murder?  That teaches readers that there are no consequences for one's actions - not only is that a poor lesson/theme for a story, but it's also wrong-headed and just plain lazy storytelling (this last point is the one that irks me most; if you paint yourself into a corner, gets out the larger box of paints to get yourself out of it, don't fall back onto a no-thought answer).  I suppose one could argue it's a reflection of our times - CEOs, large corporations, politicians, bank managers, et al. getting caught doing something corrupt, unethical, or criminal and getting rewarded with a handsome buy-out package or a new lobbying job that pays far more than their Senate job did - but I don't buy that.  Fiction, especially heroic fiction, should be better than that.  

The second issue, similar to the first, seems to try and absolve Hal Jordan of his sins by showing the audience that there should be no recrimination for his murder spree because - surprise! - they were never dead in the first place.  But, does the lack of physical consequences negate the spirit of the crime?  Hal Jordan ostensibly killed the Lanterns.  And yet, we should forgive him and focus on him as the prime Green Lantern because "no bodies."  Again, where is the culpability?  He performed a heinous act that he believed resulted in the deaths of his comrades (yeah, okay, he was possessed), but they're back so:  reset.  Nope.  Doesn't work for me.  Sorry.

I have also found, in recent years, that the luster of Van Sciver's art has been worn to a dull haze for me.  His figures are too stiff, his panels too cluttered (despite possibly having less within them than many a Perez panel).  Van Sciver doesn't appear to have the cartooning that I admire in similarly "photorealistic" artists like Perez or Phil Jimenez or one of the artist to follow him on the series, Ivan Reis.  There's no fluidity to his figures and sometimes his exaggerated foreshortening just doesn't work.  Yet another strike against this series.  (disclaimer: this is my subjective opinion; don't bother hatin' on me if you enjoy Van Sciver's art; it's just not my cuppa, as they say)

Now, has this entire process been just a way for me to bitch about mainstream comics?  No.  And I should reiterate, I don't think these were bad comics.  If I'd felt they were bad, I would not have continued past the first collection.  Johns does know how to tell a story in comics form and zip it along.  He modified some classic aspects of the Green Lantern mythos (most notably, in these early issues, the Manhunters and the Guardians), and he is adding to it (the spectrum of rings is slowly becoming apparent as we lead up to the Sinestro Corps War).  There's action, some good page turns, some really nice family/relationship moments, and a number of nice twists and surprises.  It's all done well.

And then there's the art.  Getting past Van Sciver, the art from Carlos Pacheco and Ivan Reis is gorgeous.  And, though I haven't discussed it as much, when Dave Gibbons writes and draws some issues of Green Lantern Corps, it is wonderful.  Really some top-notch superhero art going on here.  The most interesting facet to this, for me, was discovering a Neal Adams influence in Reis's art that I did not see in the only other work of his I'd read - Blackest Night.  His mixing of Perez and Adams is lovely to look at, because he merges them nicely, shedding some of the ugliness of later Adams art (in my opinion) while opening things up a bit more than Perez does.  Really beautiful stuff.  Reis is definitely, in my opinion, the GL artist of note for this era in the way that Gil Kane was the artist of the initial era (and is arguably THE Green Lantern artist, all time.  Let's see some Gil Kane artwork, shall we?)

Overall, I'd give these books a C.  They were entertaining, for the most part, while I was reading them.  But I have no desire to re-read them again, and, at the point now where I'm a few issues from reading the Sinestro Corps War, it is beginning to feel like a chore to read.  So, I'll probably set this title aside, for now, and move on to something else to (re)discover.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interviews #1 - Antony Johnston

When I first started writing about comics, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.

Along with spotlights on specific comics, I also interviewed a handful of people working in comics.  This first interview spotlights Antony Johnston, a writer of comics and video games, among other things.  Early in his career, Johnston was a journalist, which might explain why he took such pity on me when I sent him off 20 (TWENTY!) questions.  Note that I sent them through email ... meaning he would need to type out the damn answers.  I obviously had no experience and was not thinking.  Johnston pointed the burden put upon him with such a pile of questions and did this in the kindest way possible.

For his understanding, his illumination as to my faux pas (if I may call it that and not come off as too pretentious), as well as his generosity in answering most of my questions, I was, and still am, extremely grateful to Mr. Johnston.  And for the engaging books he has written through the years - such as Wasteland, The Long Haul, and, more recently, Umbral and the Fuse - I am equally thankful.  But, enough about me.  Here's the interview, from late 2006 or early 2007.  Enjoy.

  Antony Johnston has quietly made his mark in the comic industry as a writer who will provide intelligent and entertaining tales from companies such as Oni Press and Avatar Press.  Refusing to be pigeon-holed, he has developed graphic novels in the western, horror, and international espionage genres – among others – with artists as varied as Eduardo Barreto and Brett Weldele.  His latest creation with artist Christopher Mitten from Oni Press, WASTELAND, is a dystopian future epic that is also his first ongoing series.  Like THE SANDMAN, TRANSMETROPOLITAN, and PREACHER before it, WASTELAND will have a definite ending, and judging by the first issue it will be a compelling journey for those lucky enough to seek it out.  Mr. Johnston was kind enough to answer some questions via email for Independent Propaganda upon returning home to England from the San Diego Comic-Con and I want to thank him for his thoughtful responses and generous assistance with the following interview.  I hope you enjoy.


- Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics? 

The short version is that I created an online serial, an illustrated  prose story called FRIGHTENING CURVES with artist Aman Chauhary, that  got picked up to be completed as a book by a small indie publisher.  I then did a graphic novel, ROSEMARY'S BACKPACK, with the same publisher and shortly afterward was introduced to the guys at Oni Press. 

- What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry? 

I'm from a very normal working-class background, with an average education.  I've seen the reality of working 'a real job', both in my family and my own early working life, and know that the only thing separating me from plenty of other people who grew up in the same situation is tenacity. 

The fact that I get paid to sit at home and make up stories is still kind of amazing to me, and I know how fortunate I am to be doing it.  That's what gives me that tenacity, it really is that simple. 

- Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing? 

I was a graphic designer for many years, and spent the last four years of that period writing in my spare time - role playing game stuff to start with, then moving into comics.  Being a designer gives  me a certain visual literacy which is helpful for doing comics; and  having worked in consumer newsstand magazines, an industry in which  missing deadlines is simply not an option, gave me a respect for  working to deadline that's also helpful. 

- When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this? 

Keep trying, and realise that you're not going to get Jim Lee right out of the gate.  There's not a lot else I can say that would be helpful.  Yes, many aspiring artists will flake and let you down.  But just as many aspiring writers flake and let artists down.  You just have to keep going, keep looking for someone to work with.  The day you give up and say it's not worth the hassle is the day you've proved yourself right.  Just keep going. 

- What do you feel aspiring creators can do in order to better their chances of becoming published? 

Create good stories.  Finish them (that's much more important, and rarer, than you might think).  Get them published by any means necessary, including self-publishing, and don't expect to get paid for it.  In fact, expect to lose money on it.  Then use that finished comic as your calling card with other publishers. 

That path used to be rarer, but now it's pretty much the de facto route into comics, and I think it works very well.  Think of it like a band producing a demo tape, or performing small-time gigs.  Being good is not good enough if no-one sees you in action.  You have to prove to publishers that you're committed to comics, and there's no better way to do that than to do your first few stories for no money and possibly no gain. 

- What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study? 

I'm not going to name names.  I could reel off five writers or movie directors whose work I regard as essential that would be useless to half of your audience.  It's pointless.  The important thing is to seek people out, and don't rely on the mainstream (in any media) to feed you the good stuff.  You have to go out and find it for yourself. 

Find people who produce the kind of stories you want to tell, or write about things you find interesting; and, from time to time, seek out the complete opposite.  Sometimes it's very useful to read a book or watch a movie that you absolutely hate.  Examine why you can't stand it.  Work out what's wrong with it.  These things will help you. 

- Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover “events” and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales? 

Honestly, I don't know.  Within the direct market, there isn't much else the majors *could* be doing to push sales - it's what they do, month in, month out.  And outside of the direct market, well, if anyone actually knew the catch-all answer to that one, they'd be sitting on a goldmine. 

- This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop- off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today’s mainstream comics? 

Diversity.  But was it homogeneity that killed direct market sales, or was it the direct market itself?  We'll never know, because the audience doesn’t embrace diversity.  Chicken, meet egg. 

I don't work in mainstream comics, at least in the way comics defines  the term, so I can't really speak to what is or isn't wrong with  them.  90% of the comics mainstream is of very little interest to me.  (And the other 10% is mostly Vertigo books.) 

- For you, what are the advantages of working with Oni or Avatar rather than Marvel and DC? 

Control and freedom.  They're pretty much inversely proportionate to money and fame, of course, but I can live with that. 

- Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not? 

Of course.  I was one of the people pushing hardest for OGNs for many years.  I would love to see an industry that is entirely OGN-based, and I think we'll get there eventually.  But there are financial hurdles to overcome, not to mention problems of perception with the hardcore comic audience, before we can get there. 

The OGN boom has both hurt and helped the industry (note: the industry, not the medium.  They've done nothing but help the medium).  It's undoubtedly one of the things that has helped the medium's  perception among non-hardcore readers, who simply can't understand  why anyone would read these weird, anemically thin chapters one at a  time and have to go buy a new one every month. 

On the other hand, the aforementioned financial hurdles have bitten at all publishers, large and small, because the OGN market and its sales patterns are completely different to that of serial comics.  It's a testing time for everyone. 

- From your position as an independent creator, what are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system? 

Almost everything.  The direct market is completely fucked up, on every level.  That it works very well for some publishers and retailers doesn't mean it's not, it just means those companies have worked the existing system to their advantage and done it well.  There's nothing wrong with that.  But if the direct market remains the primary means of distributing comics, it's going to implode within ten or twenty years. 

Of course, by then I should be sipping cocktails on a Pacific island somewhere, so I don't really care. 

- Your books have cut across a number of genres – from western to science fiction to horror.  Was this a conscious decision on your part or did it just happen that way? 

A bit of both.  It's conscious in the sense that of course I'm aware of it, and every time I pitch a book I'm making a decision to work in whatever genre that book happens to be.  But I don't deliberately set out to hop between genres, I just come up with story ideas and pitch them. 

I don't care about genre, I don't care about classifications or pigeonholes or any of that rubbish.  I just want to write good stories, and if I have a good idea for a story I'll do it, regardless of what genre label someone else wants to slap on it.  A good story is a good story.  If I ever stop myself writing something good just  because it's the 'wrong' genre for me - or deliberately write  something bad just because it will sell - then I may as well turn off  the computer and go stack shelves in the local supermarket, because  it wouldn't be fun any more. 

- Did you find yourself writing any differently for a veteran such as Eduardo Barreto as compared to a relative newcomer such as Christopher Mitten? 

If you looked at the scripts, you'd think not; but the mental process is very different, because with a master like Eduardo you know you're writing for someone who is a great storyteller, someone who can draw anything you want and make it look good.  With someone less experienced, you find yourself pausing every so often to make sure that you're being clear in the script, check you're not taking too many shortcuts that they might not know how to deal with.  But like I say, if you actually looked at the scripts you'd see there's very little different in style between them.  It’s all just a mental process. 

And of course, with Chris Mitten specifically it turns out he's *already* a storytelling wiz, with a clarity far beyond his years.  So I lucked out there. 

- Part of the writing process is the developmental stage – either hard research as with THE LONG HAUL or the development of characters, locales, plotlines, etc. as with WASTELAND.  On average what percentage is given over to the developmental process? 

Actually, you might be surprised just how much 'hard research' goes into WASTELAND as well...  The amount of time devoted to it differs from book to book.  SPOOKED didn't require much, because so much of the story grew out of my own knowledge and musings about magic and spirituality anyway.  JULIUS took months, longer than the actual  scripting, because I had to not only 'translate' the play to the  modern age, but also then come up with situations in the new setting  that would parallel the play without being slavish to it. 

THE LONG HAUL also took months - an enormous amount of research into Old West methods of transport and communication.  Not to mention Indian history, safe cracking, styles of wardrobe, suitable locations and so on.  But that also took months to write, so it's about fifty- fifty. 

And WASTELAND is ongoing; I'm still researching it as I write, because there's always something new to research in a world so changed from our own.  The research and planning of WASTELAND takes far longer than the actual scripting. 

- Along those same lines, during this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?  

Always, without exception.  But then when I'm writing, I always wish I’d done that little bit of extra research.  It's the bane of just about every writer I know.  You want to arm yourself with as much information as possible, but eventually you have to say "enough" and get writing.  It's way too easy to convince yourself you need to read *just* one more book and *then* you'll be ready, honest...

- Your new series WASTELAND is your first ongoing series.  What has been the biggest challenge with this thus far? 

Plotting.  My stories are normally self-contained, generally the equivalent of about a six-issue miniseries.  So planning the story beats of something so large in scope and long in format is a very new and strange experience for me.  But it keeps me on my toes, and I like it.  Challenges like that stop me from getting stale. 

- With WASTELAND, is it a concern of yours to make each issue accessible to new readers?  And if so, how will you achieve this? 

To an extent.  Each issue has a "story so far" recap on the inside front page, and I think that suffices.  I assume my readers are intelligent.  I'm certainly not going to start introducing each character with "Hello, Bob, my old friend of twenty years whose wife left him to raise their only son by himself and suffers from gout!  How are you today?"

- Finally, what would you like to say about your upcoming project WASTELAND? 

I'd like to say it's the best and most personal thing I've ever  written, that Chris Mitten is producing the best work of his career,  that Ben Templesmith is doing an awesome job on the covers, and that  every single person reading this should go out and buy it right now  so that I can go buy that Pacific island.  And a cocktail. 


Antony Johnston

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Back Matter #9 - A Small Killing by Alan Moore & Oscar Zarate

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


Alan Moore is considered by many to be the greatest author in the history of comics.  WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA, SWAMP THING, and FROM HELL – these are all well-known works.  But he has also created some little-known masterpieces as well.  One of these is A SMALL KILLING, originally published in Britain by VG Graphics in 1991 and recently re-issued in a softcover and limited hardcover edition by Avatar Press in 2003.  Despite claims in ads run by DC last year that TOP TEN: THE FORTY-NINERS was Moore’s first original graphic novel (OGN), A SMALL KILLING – as pointed out in Rich Johnston’s Comic Book Resources column Lying in the Gutters – would certainly hold that distinction.  One of Moore’s first mature works after his initial retirement from mainstream superhero comics, A SMALL KILLING is a must-have for any comics aficionado, and one of the books that has helped to elevate comics beyond the pre-adolescent power fantasies so prevalent in American comics.
Timothy Hole (pronounced Holly) has landed the prime advertising job of his career.  He is to head the ad campaign for Flite soda in Russia – the newly liberated Russia of 1989.  In celebration he throws a party two nights before he is to depart for England, a return home before moving on to Russia.  Too much alcohol is drunk, too much cocaine snorted, and the head of his firm ends up dropping and smashing his framed bird egg collection.  Tim passes it off as nothing, but it sparks something inside that sends him in search of his boyhood and the innocence he left behind.
The next day is given over to last minute shopping.  One of his co-workers at the ad firm, Lynda, comes along to help out and seems to enjoy her time with Tim despite all their conversations being one-sided no matter who is speaking at the time.  All the while Tim is contemplating how he might get Lynda back to his place and he tries to open up to her about his past – his divorce, his regrets – and she nods and replies in all the right places, but the responses are detached and irrelevant.  Not unlike real life.  We’ve all felt that sting at one time or another, the feeling that what we are sharing right now with this person is the single most important thing that could be shared, and all their attention is obviously elsewhere, despite feeble protests to the contrary. 
Tim is distracted as well, not just with carnal thoughts of Lynda but also with a boy that passes them in Rockefeller Plaza, who also walks by outside the sushi restaurant where the two have lunch, who also happens to be in the elevator at Tim’s building that night.  To wind down, Tim goes out to a bar after dropping his packages at home.  The night ends with Tim smashing his car up on the freeway as he swerves to avoid that SAME KID again.  It’s surreal and he has no explanation for what is going on. 
Tim gets to the airport early and as the security officers check his luggage, he again sees this boy who looks so familiar.  The youngster is getting onto the same plane as Tim, and when he calls out for the boy to stop the customs officers pull him aside to inspect his baggage more closely.  Twenty minutes later Tim finally makes it onto the plane, but the boy is nowhere to be found. 
Except, the toilet next to Tim’s seat is “occupied” and he has no idea who went into it.  It’s the only place the boy could be.  So, Tim settles in to watch closely and catch whoever exits the toilet.  Minutes go by, and Tim tries to fathom what is happening to him, why this boy is hounding him.  Nothing comes.  And he waits.  And he watches.
And then Tim is being awoken by one of the attendants asking him to fasten his seatbelt as they have finally been given clearance to take off.  Reaching for his belt, Tim looks up and finds that the toilet is now “vacant” and he has no idea what to do next.
Once Tim’s plane sets down in London, Moore and Zarate take their protagonist on a journey through his past that will determine the path to his future.  Through flashbacks, sparked by the places he visits, the audience learns about Tim’s history – his romance with Maggie, who would become his wife, and the subsequent romance and breakup with Sylvia, the woman for whom he left his wife.  Readers are allowed to peak in at the artist Tim wanted to be when he left school, the great plans he had, the integrity and voice he wished to bring to his paintings.  Slowly, his plans continue to fall by the wayside, practicality and bills forcing him to take advertising work for a time, which leads to a permanent position at an advertising firm that becomes a jumping off point to his time in New York, and finally coming full circle to Tim’s return to England as he is about to set off on the most important ad campaign of his life.  All thoughts of the artist he once pictured himself as being forgotten. 
Witness to the breakups of his two most important relationships, the audience – as well as Tim, who is coming to understand that he is now on a journey of self-discovery – comes to realize that most of the hardships he has endured have come about due to a lack of action on his part.  Taking no responsibility for his current lot in life, he insists on blaming others for the dissatisfaction he now endures.  The commitment to his marriage was obviously tenuous at best, showcased by the ease with which he broke that sanctity, and the dissolution of his relationship with Sylvia was predicated upon his inability to take a stand or form an opinion, exemplified by the experience of her unplanned pregnancy.  Sylvia felt that neither of them was ready to be a parent, but she asked Tim’s opinion on the whole thing.  He told her it was her body to do with as she chose, and didn’t feel it was his place to make that sort of decision for her.  She explained to him that she only wished to know his feelings on the matter but still he refused, leaving her to bear the burden alone.  Something for which she could never forgive him.  His unwillingness to take any responsibility for his actions, or for his inaction, caused him to lose all he held dear and in the process lose all direction to his life, leading him to the darkened crevice in which he now finds himself.
In the present, Tim is still searching for answers to the mysterious child that had been following him in New York.  He mistakes a boy near Sylvia’s old art studio for the strange boy, and hopes that maybe he won’t have to worry about him on this side of the Atlantic.  But he does see him again in downtown London that same night.  And again when he is walking to his boyhood home in Sheffield he comes across the boy in a bar.  The boy is sitting quietly at a table and Tim orders a soda to go with the beer he has ordered for himself.  The child’s stare is eating through Tim’s soul as he sits down with him and they finally have a chance to talk, though only for a short time.  Tim eventually gets around to asking the boy the question he’s wanted to ask since he drove his car into the guard rail back in New York.
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“Yes,” is the only response he gets and then the boy is gone, leaving Tim to ponder the weight of that tiny word.
The answers to this mystery lie further in Tim’s past than even he might believe.  In his parents’ home, and in the neighborhood where he was born, home//// to the “old buildings,” all will ultimately be revealed to Tim as his memory will open up doors he had closed tightly many years prior.  The revelation will overwhelm him, and his continued existence will come into question as he fights his childhood demons, trying to reach back and find that innocent boy that became lost so long ago.  In the end, the answer lies within Timothy Hole, and nobody will be able to change his life except himself.  Through traveling back to where he was born and examining his past, Timothy Hole is finally allowed – finally able – to move ahead with his life, eschewing the encumbrances of his past that have weighed him down for so many years.
In A SMALL KILLING, the narrative slides backward while pushing the story forward in the present.  Moore and Zarate utilize flashbacks with great skill, shining a light upon Hole’s past that illuminates how he has ended up at this juncture in his life.  This is a difficult thing to do – flashbacks are often used to ill effect and fall into cliché – but Moore and Zarate pull this feat off with an ease and naturalness that belies the effort they must have put forth in order to tell such a compelling and challenging story.
Also included with this recent edition from Avatar is a prose piece on the creation of A SMALL KILLING found at the back of the book.  Produced from interviews conducted by Jaime Rodriguez and edited by Antony Johnston from corrections and additions provided by Moore, it is a compelling look behind the curtain for fans, showcasing how these two artists approached the collaborative process, what each hoped to accomplish with this story, and the little surprised encountered along the way.  This was a very good book that is able to be enjoyed on so many levels, and one I would highly recommend to anybody seeking out a great read.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Back Matter #8 - Talent #1 and Jeremiah Harm #3

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


With the first issue of TALENT from Boom! Studios readers are dropped into the deep end, literally.  As the story opens, flight six-five-four has finally been cleared to land at New York/Kennedy International Airport.  Passengers settle in for the descent, flight attendants check to see that everyone is ready – one attendant wishing luck to Marcus Small, who is scheduled to fight for the heavyweight boxing championship at Madison Square Garden that night – and all seems to be proceeding normally.  Until Nicholas Dane is told by an attendant that “everything is going to be fine.”  Mr. Dane is taken aback, confused, and unable to react before . . . 

. . . the plane explodes, plunging into the Atlantic.

Sixteen hours later rescue teams are finally able to brave the rough seas in order to salvage the airliner and hopefully discover what caused the fatal crash.  Divers search what remains, scattered all about the ocean floor, and discover something they could not have anticipated.  Somebody has survived.  Sixteen hours.  Underwater.  In freezing temperatures. 

Nicholas Dane.

Brought to one of the many hospitals dotting New York, Mr. Dane instantly becomes a celebrity and everybody wants a piece of him.  News reporters camp out at the hospital trying to land the story of the century.  The state’s Senators and Congresspersons call a meeting to discuss these very strange events – the threat of terrorism looming over everything today, most especially the mystery of a downed airliner – intrigued by how this miraculous survivor fits into the puzzle.  A secret and as yet unknown cabal, which makes a very brief appearance in this issue, also takes notice and sends an operative to investigate, an operative who also happens to be a member of the previously introduced Senator’s staff.  Nicholas Dane, a college professor, is now the most popular person in New York.

David Krause, the Senator’s aide who is also a double agent, visits Nicholas in the hospital.  He is very bothered by the recent turn of events.  Mr. Dane should not be alive.  And yet, here he lies as if he had been through nothing but a rough night of drinking.  During the conversation, which is heavily weighted in the Senatorial aide’s favor, Mr. Krause becomes agitated and accuses Nicholas of being a terrorist.  It’s the only reasonable explanation.  Getting in Dane’s face, yelling wildly at him, and threatening to get the truth out of him one way or another, he forces the bedridden survivor to call on the nurse and have Krause escorted from the room.  Unhappy, but unable to do much else, Krause leaves promising to have Dane transferred to a government facility in order to find out what he wants. 

Meanwhile, Dane is exhibiting traits – talents – of some of the other passengers from the opening of the book.  He has a facility for origami, something at which an Asian woman sitting in front of the boxer, Marcus Small, was adept.  He also uses the boxing skills that had gotten Small his chance at the title to take down an attacker dressed as a hospital orderly.  All the while, Dane continues to see the apparition of the stewardess who warned him right before the crash – as a television news anchor, in the laundry room of the hospital – as she continues to warn him of the impending dangers to his life.  He flees the hospital, having no idea where to go, and ends up at the home of a former girlfriend, possibly even ex-wife.  But the audience doesn’t know for sure and nothing in this first issue should be taken at face value.  All that can be said is that the man now living with this woman, who is staring at a picture of Dane and herself just before Dane himself arrives, is quite shocked to find Nicholas at their door so early in the morning.  One final question hopefully to be answered in the next issue.

This was a great first issue.  The writers, Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski, took their audience on a wild, tense ride and have set things up nicely with an interesting concept.  They could easily have drummed their audience over the head with the oddities and questions found within this tale, but happily chose restraint for the betterment of the story.  They tease out just enough of the mystery – inching out a bit here, a piece there – so that readers are kept turning the pages in a blind search for answers where only more questions lie. 

And the art from Paul Azaceta is top-notch, very reminiscent of Mike Mignola in places.  His storytelling is clear and panels are fully fleshed out without being cluttered.  Azaceta’s figures are easily recognizable from page to page and there is a diversity in the facial types that allows all the characters introduced in this first issue to be readily distinguishable.  I am not familiar with Azaceta’s work prior to this, but I will definitely keep an eye out for more from him in the future.

With Talent #1, the audience is rewarded with a fun, enjoyable story that will leave them wanting more.  This comic did not disappoint, and the only worry I have is that, in setting up this “mythology” tale (in the sense that The X-Files and  Lost are mythology shows) will the team be able to fulfill the promise laid out in this first offering.  Only time will tell.

One of the biggest hurdles with periodical comics is the fact that any issue of a series will likely be the first issue of that series for somebody, bringing with that all the baggage that comes with the previously established continuity for that book.  This continuity is one of the appeals of comics, but the problem is how does one bring that new reader up to speed with the story without hurting the flow of the narrative.  In the early 1980s it seemed as if all Marvel Comics utilized exposition in the first pages of each issue to do just that.  And although I don’t remember noticing this horrendous exposition as a child, when I have found myself going back to read many of those books now in adulthood I cringe at the terrible dialogue used to tell readers – and in the process tell characters that had “experienced” all of this already – what the heck was going on.  A better choice – one utilized by First comics, by Colleen Doran in her magnificent series  A DISTANT SOIL, and more recently found in Brian Bendis’s run on DAREDEVIL – is a recap box on the inside front cover or on the first page of the comic.  A succinct recap, giving the audience pertinent information that will allow them to understand the story better, is welcome and even necessary today with the complex backgrounds that crop up in these lengthy tales.  With JEREMIAH HARM #3 being the first issue I have read this absence of “what has gone before” was a problem for me.  I had no connection or understanding of the characters or their plight and was forced to try and figure things out instead of just being allowed to read.

The issue opens with a lanky female whose physical proportions seem to be slightly more than human, her skin color a dull shade of green, ripping through a mob that is armed with guns and large blades.  Who they are, I don’t know.  Who she is, I don’t know.  But there’s lots of blood, lots of bullets, and only the alien female left standing to bask in the glory of the kill as two bystanders off to the side bear witness to this.  One of these bystanders appears to be a member of the gang just ripped apart by this bloodthirsty woman – her hair, tentacles; her fingers three times longer than a human’s.  The other man is the hero of our book – though whether he is a hero certainly is up for debate, so let’s call him the protagonist – Jeremiah Harm.  He knows this alien, Ayoma Skyver, and is obviously an alien himself as shown not only by his familiarity with Ayoma, but also his willingness, and physical ability, to stand up to her as well – a task dozens of fit human men were unable even to consider.  Two other Earthers, both women, arrive abruptly and shoot Ayoma, knocking her off Harm whom she had pinned to the ground.  And then Jeremiah tosses her a live grenade, blowing her up as he walks off, the three Earthers in tow. 

Jeremiah is looking for somebody, Dak Moira, while the three Earthers, with whom Harm has already developed some kind of acquaintance, are looking for a way to shut down a “dome” that arrived on Earth the same time as Harm.  This motley crew that Harm has drifting in his wake make their way through a devastated city, eventually coming across Ayoma again who has difficulty dying even after Harm punches his hand through her stomach and leaves her for dead again. 

Meanwhile, Dak Moira and his companion, Brune, are introduced to the audience while they walk calmly through the streets of the same city, remarking at how pathetic Earthers are when “faced [with] extinction.”  These two are in search of a “shard,” which seems to be the key to this entire expedition.  Previously when Brune – a gaseous being – dispersed, he felt a strange energy signature housed within a donut shop.  The two alien conquerors head into the shop and Dak has Brune destroy the shop and the area surrounding it.  What is left beneath the shattered surface is a staircase leading into the heart of the planet with strange etchings carved into each step.  Dak is expectant, knowing the shard must lie at the bottom of the stair, but Brune has an aversion, possibly religious, to the markings and doesn’t wish to go down the stairs.  But Dak is persuasive and uses Ayoma’s return – again – to help encourage Brune to follow him.  And almost immediately after, Jeremiah Harm shows up and begins his own descent of this mysterious staircase.  Walking down into issue 4 where the story will be continued.

Bannered as a book from the creators of DC’s 52 and Marvel’s ANNIHILATION, JEREMIAH HARM #3 was written by Keith Giffen and Alan Grant and penciled by Rael Lyra.  This was an interesting book, though not one I would normally buy.  I understand tagging it with current major works from the Big Two (Marvel and DC), but I believe it would behoove Boom! Studios also to tag it as being from the creator of JUDGE DREDD, as I see this book being more for the fan of Dredd rather than of the high-profile superhero books mentioned on the cover.  That said, if you are a fan of bloody battles and tough aliens, this might be a book for you.  It had some good parts, and some wry dialogue with black humor abundant, particularly from Harm.  But for me, the story didn’t really seem to move.  What took place within these 22 pages could easily have been done in half that page count, if not less.  But that would have meant less blood and less violence, and if that is the demographic the creators are going for then it works.  I just felt like so much more could have been said within the book.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Back Matter #7 - Queen & Country and Escapo

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


As a teenager Greg Rucka found himself floating free, unattached to any of the familiar high school cliques, and it was remarkably bad, as all who have traversed that gauntlet of adolescence know full well.  One bright light in that miasma of homework and locker combinations and pimples was a British television series his local PBS station was running, The Sandbaggers.  A severe take on the British Secret Service revolving around a small team of operatives and their controller, one of the few sandbaggers to survive long enough for such a promotion, it lasted for only twenty episodes spread out over three seasons.  Despite a lack of funding apparent in the cardboard sets and dated costumes, there was a passion and intelligence underlying the whole thing that shone through the meager trappings of the production.  The dialogue was witty, the plots complex, and it captivated Rucka from the opening scene. 

At this time, Rucka first began writing creatively and it was only natural for him to write a spy story.  Rucka continued to write, working at his craft, until he eventually sold his first novel, Keeper, starring private detective Atticus Kodiak.  He has since written a number of novels, including five more starring Kodiak.  This experience landed him work scripting his first comic series for Oni Press, Whiteout, illustrated by the talented Steve Lieber.  Things being cyclical, Rucka eventually made his way back to the inspiration that began this long trek of his and developed a series for Oni focusing on the British Secret Intelligence Service and its Special Section known as “minders,” Queen & Country.  Sound familiar?  Queen & Country is Rucka’s homage to the series that started him on the road he now walks, and walks quite well.  With the series making its return from a too-long hiatus, while Rucka worked on the two Queen & Country novels – A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars – I thought it appropriate to go back and look at where it all began for the British SIS, the Minders, and the main focus of the series Tara Chace.

Former Russian General Igor Grigorivich Markovsky, now part of the Russian mob, is buying guns from the Kosovo Liberation Army and selling them to the Chechens.  As a favor to the CIA, and without proper authorization, Paul Crocker the Director of Operations who commands the Special Section has sent Minder Two, Tara Chace, into Kosovo to assassinate Markovsky.  She has one gun, one egress plan and no backup.  Simple. 

The intelligence business being what it is, it takes little time for Crocker’s superiors to get wind of what he is doing off the books.  D. Ops (Crocker) is upbraided by his immediate superior, Donald Weldon, as he attempts to explain the benefits for British intelligence, keyhole support and analysis from the CIA for Britain’s current operations in North Africa and Asia, not to mention the fact that the CIA will finally owe SIS a favor.  That gives little consolation to Weldon and will likely not appease those higher in the chain of command if things go badly. 

Back in Kosovo Chace makes the shot, taking down General Markovsky, but her egress does not go as smoothly.  With soldiers everywhere and Chace obviously not a native, she needs to move quickly.  Unfortunately, she does not move fast enough as a Croatian soldier comes across her on one of the many deserted streets and begins shouting, alerting others to her presence.  Chace runs but is clipped in the leg by a stray bullet.  Fortunately, she finds an area crowded with women and children doing laundry in the morning.  Losing herself in the crowd, Minder Two manages to procure an abaya, a traditional overgarment worn by some Muslim women, and makes her way through the streets to a parked car.  Hotwiring it she drives off just as a U.N. soldier, having noticed the blood at the base of her pants, attempts to stop her.  Now mobile, Chace manages to pass through a checkpoint – utilizing a well-placed nude photograph of herself within her forged passport – and makes her way to the British station in Istanbul where she is flown out of country.

For most comic stories that would be the end of it, but this only encompasses the first issue of the initial four-issue arc.  In the novels and comics written by Greg Rucka it is fairly common to find oneself reaching the climax for the initial impetus of the story at hand and realize that over half the book, or half the comic, is left to read.  With Tara Chace home, the real story begins as the Russian mob retaliate, firing a rocket at the fifth floor of the British SIS building.  The fifth floor houses the Foreign Office of British Intelligence, the one out of which the Special Section and Minder Two work.  The motive for the attack is obvious, and the stakes are raised when it is learned that a one million dollar bounty has been placed on the head of Tara Chace by the Russian mob.  Being a domestic affair, this is an investigation that falls under the purview of MI5 rather than MI6, where Crocker and his Minders reside.  Despite that fact, Crocker wants retaliation, swift and final.  He knows that David Kinney, the director of Security Services within the United Kingdom, will wish to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for the attack.  That isn’t good enough.  He tells his Special Section as much and also relays his thoughts on the matter to his superiors – Weldon and the head of the SIS, Sir Wilson Stanton Davies.  They are surprised at Crocker’s apolitical stance and argue against his plan vehemently, telling Crocker to work with Kinney and allow MI5 to do its job. 

From here the tension ratchets up exponentially.  The bounty on Chace’s head has the Russian mob stalking London, waiting for Chace to show herself so they can take her out permanently.  With that in mind, Crocker arms the Minders, something expressly forbidden by policy.  He is soon ordered by the Deputy Chief to have them return their weapons to materiel.  Crocker then goes to Angela Cheng, CIA liaison in London, looking for help.  Playing on any guilt she may have at initiating this whole debacle when she asked for help in getting at Markovsky he is disappointed with her response.  The international scandal that would come from a United States sanctioned assassination of Russians on UK soil would be nothing short of disastrous, whether done by CIA operatives or with CIA weapons.  Ultimately, Crocker arms his Minders with pellet guns picked up at a toy shop as Kinney orders Crocker to have Chace draw out the Russians.  But how can they hope to survive against armed thugs when all they have are toy guns?  And if they do survive, what will happen to the Russians?  The answers will surprise you.  Guaranteed.

Rucka is just a damn fine writer.  His characters are believable well-rounded people whose motivations and desires drive the narrative, and he is not afraid of putting them into impossible situations from which there can be no easy extraction.  A lesser writer would not take the chances Rucka does, and Queen & Country would be far less enjoyable for it.  The political machinations, two-timing, and backstabbing that everyone inherently knows goes on behind the scenes of our political world is front and center in this series, and the only status quo for Queen & Country is that there is no status quo.  In future collections people die - there have already been three or four agents in the position of Minder Three - people move on - Angela Cheng is no longer the CIA liaison in London - and decisions and actions have consequences, real consequences.  This is as intelligent a book as one can find on the comic stands today and the only negative aspect of this series is that it does not get published more often.  One never knows what problems will be lurking around the next corner for Tara Chace, nor what decisions she will be forced to make in the heat of battle.  Luckily for fans, they have Greg Rucka steering the ship, and a better captain would be hard to find.

Paul Pope is a creative genius, melding manga with contemporary sensibilities and a smooth, lush brushstroke reminiscent of the best of Will Eisner.  Pope was one of those critically-acclaimed comic artists whose short works would pop up in Negative Burn and other places, while fans awaited his longer works from Horse Press, a small press publisher that turned out to be Pope’s own self-publishing venture.  He didn’t want it to be widely known that he was utilizing the “vanity” press to get his work out there, and so named it Horse Press in an attempt to distance himself from any negative connotations that sometimes go along with that.  And luckily for comic fans Pope did do that, otherwise there would be no THB, no Ballad of Dr. Richardson, and no Escapo, which is the subject found in the dusty recesses of the vault this time out. 

Escapo tells the story of the book’s eponymous hero, a disfigured escape artist who is the star of the center ring.  In three tales readers are able to get a feeling of what this man, Vic, goes through in his life with the circus.  The first tale shows us the inner workings of the Pinceur, one of the death machines Vic and his partner have put together in order for Escapo to cheat death in front of crowds of awestruck spectators.  A complex contraption that includes razorz, long teethy spinning mouths, an intestinannilation and a final water trap in a series of oblong containers set one atop the other, Escapo must divest himself of a strait jacket while hanging upside down above the Pinceur before making his way through the six stages that will ultimately find him in the middle of the center ring once more.  Requiring agility, quick reflexes, acute timing, and a calm manner it would be impossible for anyone but Escapo to make their way down through the many traps to the exit below.  But in this instance Escapo finds himself lost when he reaches the water trap and is unable to unlock the escape hatch because the roaring water is overpowering the minute sounds of the tumblers.  There’s no other way out, and Escapo is certain to perish when an apparition, a skeleton, comes up to him and announces that it is finally time for Escapo to meet his maker.  But the escape artist is not finished.  He first pleads with Death to let him go – a letter for his sister sits in his coat pocket back in the trailer, sealed and with a stamp but lacking an address, and he needs to get out so that it will get to her – and offers to make a wager with the specter before chancing upon the apparition’s Achilles heel, its pride.  Escapo dares Death to let him to live and in return offers to allow Death to ride his back during the next performance.  Death accepts and gives Escapo a coin to hold onto until he comes back for him, and then gives him the combination of the lock just before the water womb fills up completely. 

Escapo escapes yet again.  But this time it’s more than he is accustomed to.  The incident puts a scare into Escapo and he begs off his act for days, claiming to be sick, before his partner finally convinces him to get back on his horse, pointing out that if he does not do at least five shows a month the circus has the right to throw him to the curb.  Choosing to do an escape other than the Pinceur, Vic finds himself back in the center ring and repossessing a bit of his confidence that had been lost.  This renewed confidence also allows him to finally approach the tight rope girl, Aerobella, with whom he has become infatuated.  Writing her love poems and love letters Escapo goes to her trailer late one night to find out if she feels the same way about him.  She tells him that she needs more time and will have an answer for him in the morning.  His romanticism getting in the way, Escapo tells her that tomorrow when he does his act he will look for her on the sidelines.  If she is wearing a white scarf then it will mean yes, but if she is wearing a black scarf, no.  She agrees and he goes off, feeling confident that Aerobella will be wearing a white scarf the next day.  But will it be white, and if so will it be true?  Aerobella knows the fragile nature of Escapo’s psyche, and the guilt of saying no to someone just before they enter a death trap could be too much for one girl to bear.  The confusion is obvious on her face as she tells Escapo to go to bed, and one can imagine that she has no clue as to how she will respond.  And if that response is in the negative, how will Escapo handle it?

Pope’s characters in Escapo are very real, and very true.  Vic is not the bigger than life hero that was so casually paraded about in the Barnum and Bailey Circus of the early twentieth century, and Aerobella is a girl like any other with feelings and desires that anybody can understand.  The brilliance of this book is how Pope allows us into their minds, most especially into Escapo’s, and lets us see the human fragility that is lying there right under the surface, a human fragility that many of us are all too familiar with.  We know what it is like to be afraid, and we understand Escapo’s heartache when he confesses how he feels about the tight rope girl.  We also hurt for him when the clowns ridicule his longing for such a beautiful young girl. 
“Why’d a girl like that shower attentions on an ugly mug like you?”  “Why, a girl like that wants a boy who’s clean, an’ who looks the same on both sides!” 

Readers don’t need to be told how he feels at these insults; it is evident on his face.  Pope masterfully allows the expressions on his characters to tell the story, and refuses to beat his audience over the head with the details.  It’s these unstated sentiments, produced through his brilliant brushwork, that make Pope’s works worth seeking out.  He is a cutting edge cartoonist who is looking to create the comics of the future, and he is doing it right now.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Back Matter #6 - Cry Yourself to Sleep & Detectives Inc.

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


GOOD HUMORISTS WILL MAKE you laugh, will bring a smile to your face.  The better humorists do this while also forcing their audience to think.  Jeremy Tinder, the creator of Cry Yourself to Sleep from TopShelf comics, happily falls into this latter category.  Not only does he present readers with a humorous tale, he also deals with very real issues in his narrative.  With Jim (a minimum wage rabbit), Andy (an aspiring novelist), and Robot (a metallic philosopher), Tinder manages to tell a poignant, touching story that is both sad and funny at the same time.  Capturing the uncertainty and awkwardness everyone encounters during that transition from being a teenager to becoming an adult, he pulls readers in with unfamiliar characters treading completely familiar territory.  This little book is a wonderful read and one that will tug at the heart as you find yourself laughing out loud.

Our protagonists, three friends whose separate tales spread out over the black and white pages before weaving back together in the climax, are all experiencing heartache and rejection of one kind or another.  Jim, a yellow rabbit working at Tubby Subs as the story opens, soon finds himself unemployed when the assistant manager receives another complaint of fur in a sandwich.  Jim protests, arguing he can’t use the sanitary gloves provided because they have finger holes and he only has paws, but the boy in charge will hear none of it.  If Jim can’t follow rules, smile, or even party with the other employees after hours, then it is the assistant manager’s duty to fire him.  Jim walks home under a cloud of financial stress and “specie”-al prejudice, and his mood promptly worsens the following day when his roommate Andy mentions off-handedly that he will need Jim’s half of the rent by Thursday. 

Meanwhile, Andy is dealing with the rejection of his first novel.  Fully expecting Big Deal Publishing to accept it, he is at a loss when the rejection letter arrives.  Talking it over with a couple of friends at the local diner, they come to the conclusion that maybe Andy is a little too close to the subject matter as the concept sounds like a thinly veiled autobiography.  Andy disagrees with this assessment and finds himself starting to wonder if he should just give up this notion of being an author.  Returning to his apartment he finds Jim sitting there and is happy at the prospect of discussing his awful writing with his roommate.  Walking into the kitchen, Andy expounds on the possibility of becoming manager at the video store where he currently works.  Afraid to stop talking he does not allow Jim to give any response and is surprised and let down when he returns to the living room to find his roommate has left without warning. 

Walking to his parents’ house Jim passes Robot who shares a quick greeting but has no time to stop and chat.  He is following his new friend, a bird whose style Robot professed to like when the tiny bird shit on his metallic shoulder.  Robot is a philosopher who is intent upon learning how to become a better person.  These two new friends make their way into the country where the small bird finds a tree in which to sleep for the night.  Taking a cue from his new acquaintance Robot sits down against the tree’s trunk and shuts down for the night. 

In the morning Robot awakes first.  After calling for his friend to “wake up, wake up, wake up,” thirteen times, he finally tosses a pebble that startles the little bird from its slumber and exclaims, “Hey, you’re awake!” in animated surprise.  Asking what the bird might teach him today, Robot assists in retrieving twigs for a nest.  Wondering what might be gleaned from this activity, Robot views the repetitive twig delivery as a form of meditation used to achieve a greater understanding of one’s place in the world.  Likening this repetition and limited range of motion to video games of the late 70s and early 80s, Robot’s final thought on the whole exercise is that he could have achieved the same insights from the comfort of his own living room, but “with only slightly worse graphics.” 

Each of our characters ultimately finds some direction in their life, or at least some resolution to their immediate problems, and although Jim ends the story lying in a hospital bed with broken bones and possible spinal damage, he at least has a better outlook on life than he did when the tale opened.  Andy, who briefly flirted with giving up writing, finds himself reinvigorated by a chance encounter at the video store.  And Robot is in a better place mentally after having saved his friend Jim’s life and assisted in the building of a nest.  Like life, these three friends don’t have all the answers yet, but at least they have found themselves beginning the climb out of the dark valley into which they had fallen.

If readers are unable to connect with the characters in Cry Yourself to Sleep then I don’t know of any fiction with which they could connect.  That job you hated when you were just out of high school?  That’s here.  Overprotective Mom?  Got it.  Overbearing Dad?  Check.  The boss that made you feel small and insignificant while he sloughed off in the back room?  He’s here too.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The kid that tried to rent porn with a fake moustache?  He makes an appearance as well.  All the pain and all the humor and all the uncomfortable situations everybody finds themselves stuck with, that is what Jeremy Tinder is speaking to with his comic.  And it all works magnificently well.  His art style is reminiscent of another TopShelf alumnus, Jeffrey Brown.  A raw energetic style with an animator’s sensibility that only adds to the funny bits, because come on, who wouldn’t laugh at a short yellow rabbit cursing “fuck” at the thought of having to go to his parents for help in making the rent.  This is a great book that you should definitely check out.  It may be about a rabbit, a robot, and a frustrated novelist, but when you open the cover and start reading you’ll find yourself in there too.   

BACK IN THE VAULT this time we have the initial foray for Detectives Inc. from creator/writer Don McGregor and artist Marshall Rogers.  Originally published in 1980 by Eclipse as an original black and white graphic novel, it was also reprinted a few years later in color as a two-issue micro-series.  Best known for his work on Marvel’s Black Panther and Killraven, this was a story that had been stewing in the back of McGregor’s mind for over a decade.  As an author, he had high aspirations for the types of stories he would tell and believed the possibilities for the comic medium had barely been scratched.  With Detectives Inc., McGregor did his best to look ahead at what those possibilities could be and eschewed all “conventional wisdom” with regard to how a comic should look and what stories could be told.  Knowingly taking a big risk, McGregor dove head first off the deep end and made it work.  And it can be argued that with this book he helped to redefine the way comics were viewed.

Ted Denning is black.  Bob Rainier is white.  They are best friends, and they are also the private eyes known as Detectives Inc.  The story opens on a cool October night in the South Bronx.  Denning and Rainier have been hired by a man to bring his son home.  The father fears that his boy Randy may be involved with a recent spate of tenement torchings and he couldn’t stand to lose him to this harsh city that took his wife away from him and his son.  The two detectives are to meet Randy on a deserted rooftop in this seedy borough of New York.  But when they arrive he is not alone.  Straton Clark, a tough punk known to Rainier and Denning, is with the boy and handles the discussion, leaning on Randy the whole time.  When Randy states his allegiance to Clark, the other gang members come out of the long shadows and things quickly get out of control.  The sheer numbers distract the two private dicks long enough for Straton and Randy to take off across the rooftops.  Rainier is soon in pursuit, but it is unwise to be chasing blindly through the shadowy summits of New York City.  From behind a dark corner, the butt of a gun slams into the back of Rainier’s head, driving him into the ground and sending his own gun sprawling across the roof.  As young Randy looks on, Clark stands above the prone detective, leveling his pistol at the back of this man’s head.  Denning is immediately on the scene, the weight of his own gun heavy in his hands as he points it at the man threatening to end his partner’s life.  Clark sees the gun aimed in his direction but doesn’t believe Denning will use it because why would another black man gun down on him “for [a] white muthafucka”?  Plain and simple, Denning and Rainier are friends and Clark is a blight on the face of humanity.  Denning asks the punk to let his partner go, sick at the thought of having to use his pistol, but in the end there is nothing to be done.  And Ted Denning will have to live with that for a very long time.

Some days later Denning is still coming to grips with what happened as he and his girlfriend Vera Lawrence walk through Riverside Park on a colorful autumn afternoon.  Denning cannot shake the guilt weighing on him, but Vera is there for him, there in a way all men need but few can admit.  Meanwhile, Bob Rainier is dealing with his own personal issues as he and his very recently divorced ex-wife have dinner at a Japanese steakhouse.  Though only five months removed from the divorce, Rita has moved on completely while Bob has trouble keeping visions of them together from his mind.  Refusing to admit his unease Rainier babbles on, unwilling to accept that all those years together meant nothing to her.  But Rita has asked him here in a professional capacity.  A friend of hers, a mid-wife, is obsessing over the death of a colleague and Rita would like to know if Bob and his “colored friend” might look into it.  From there things get worse and the meal ends badly, as all meals of this nature do.  Despite that, Bob still agrees to look into it.

The two investigators go to speak with Ruth Hamilton, the mid-wife Bob’s ex mentioned.  It is her belief that the death of her friend Linda Clarke was no accident and she immediately provides them with two viable suspects.  The two men are grateful for the leads, but they need to know more about Linda’s life before they can move forward with the investigation.  Ruth tells them of her relationship with Linda, that they were lovers.  Linda touched her with “love and lust” and she took away any guilt Ruth had about loving her back.  She was important, more important than the hit-and-run statistic the police have made of her.  Ruth Hamilton needs them to find out what happened to Linda and give her some closure.  

Of course, things would be far too easy if Miss Hamilton were completely forthcoming.  Ted Denning discovers that one of Ruth and Linda’s colleagues from the clinic was also involved with Linda, Dr. Curtis Blakesley.  This opens up the possibility of not one, but two new suspects– Dr. Blakesley and Ruth herself – in what is looking more like a murder all the time.  Each suspect tells the detectives that Linda was promised to them, and the fact that Linda was indeed bisexual and enjoyed exploring her sexuality sheds no more light on who actually perpetrated the murder.  It all comes down to who is telling the truth, and whether Detectives Inc. can figure that out before somebody else gets killed.

I admit opening to the first page of this comic with a bit of hesitation.  This is the first book I have read by Don McGregor and I worried it would suffer from the stilting dialogue and poor use of exposition prevalent in a lot of work from the early 80s, especially from creators that worked for Marvel at this time.  I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case.  Certainly, there are spots where the dialogue sometimes gets preachy, but in most of these instances it falls in step with the characterization.  The story was very compelling and refused to fall into melodrama.  With this book, McGregor brought a gritty realism that I can only assume was sorely lacking within the comics medium at the time this first saw print a quarter century ago. 

In my opinion, this is an incredibly important comic.  It came at a time, shortly after publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, when creators closer to the mainstream began pushing at its boundaries.  In Detectives Inc., McGregor ran headlong through any taboo you can name, dealing with lesbianism, divorce, racism, abortion, sex, nudity, and murder in a taut, literate, and intelligent manner.  This would have been nearly impossible to pull off if his protagonists, Ted Denning and Bob Rainier, were not such well realized characters.  These two men are familiar because they deal with all the fears and insecurities everyone faces on a daily basis.  The use of violence is not something they revel in, and in fact only leads to trouble down the line when Denning is again put in a situation where he must use his gun.   Unable to discard the phantom of the boy he found it necessary to kill, Denning hesitates for just a second.  This is all the murderer needs as he runs Denning down with his car, leaving him on the edge of consciousness.  Meanwhile, Rainier is still dealing with his recent divorce throughout the entire series, often unable to focus as his mind wanders to thoughts of sexual fantasy with any woman that may be near, including his stated feelings on this subject to his ex-wife.  And if the expectation is that things will be tied up as neatly as on Law & Order or NYPD Blue then readers are in for a surprise. 

Those not turned away by the subject matter – No capes?  No cyclotrons?  No anti-matter devices? – are not only in for a treat regarding the story, but will also find McGregor and Rogers playing with the way a comic can look as well.  McGregor set the story up as a graphic novel, with the emphasis on novel, and broke the story into chapters along with a prologue and epilogue.  Each chapter is titled and opens with a few paragraphs of prose before starting into the traditional comic panels, which are beautifully drawn by Marshall Rogers.  With this being a dense work, there are a lot of panels.  And yet, Rogers manages to convey what is happening within those panels masterfully.  Nothing seems cluttered, nothing is missing, and his storytelling is as clear as any artist.  And despite utilizing many different panel arrangements – including one early two-page spread that includes 21 panels – one never has trouble following the story.  It is obvious that Rogers felt as passionately about this story as McGregor did, and it shows through in the final product. 

This was a big risk for both writer and artist.  The direct market was in its infancy, as was Eclipse Enterprises, and then, as now, superheroes were king.  The thought of trying to do anything outside of the strict boundaries of the spandex set was not at all a healthy gamble to take.  For that aspect alone, as well as for the fact that McGregor and Rogers wished to attack the taboos that had plagued mainstream comics for decades, this is an extremely important book and one worth seeking out.  McGregor realized the untapped potential of comics and challenged himself to live up to that potential.  In doing this, he also challenged readers to expect more from their comics.