Sunday, April 23, 2017

Original Art Sundays, No. 242: Queers and Comics Drink and Draw

After months of working two, sometimes three, jobs and dealing with writing assignments, I'm back in the art saddle, so to speak!
These illustrations happened as a result of my attending and participating in the Queers and Comics conference in San Francisco last weekend, which was possibly the best conference I've ever attended. In addition to my contributions to the Queers and Underground Comics and Trans Cartoonists Navigating the Industry panels being well received, I got to spend some time with old and dear friends, including Trina Robbins and Roberta Gregory, and make some unexpected new ones. The Queers and Undergrounds panel was satisfying in that I thought I had little to contribute compared to some of the luminaries on the panel, like Howard Cruse and Vaughn Fricke (with whom I later had a wonderful chat), but I held my own. And after the Trans panel, some folks asked where they could buy my books, so courtesy of the Dealer's Room, I sold come copies of Surrealist Cowgirls and the draft edition of Sharp Invitations.
The first night, Thursday, had an opening ceremony I passed on to share a couple drinks with my gracious host Noel in a Castro bar. However, I did attend an opening at Strut, a community health and wellness space for Gay, Bi, and Trans men that doubles as a gallery space.The opening of the work of Salvador Hernandez culminated in a Drink & Draw. The models were bears and leather boys. 
All the poses were short.

This was done before the poses had officially begun.
I was a bit apprehensive, as it's been a while since I've done live model drawing, but the key remains constant.
Remember the basics. Build the figure from the inside out, rather than trying to do an outline drawing. Looking around between sketches, I was surprised and dismayed to find so may artists trying to do an outline. The teacher in me wanted to take over, but I held myself back.
This was one of the most relaxed and easiest sketches. The subject sat relatively still for most of five minutes, enough to get a sense of mass and proportion and a sense of place.

The first official pose involved two models. This posed some foreshortening challenges, as one subject was prone while the other kneeled. I struggled with proportion issues on the feet for a while, then made the deliberate decision to concentrate on overall mass.
It was a special challenge to map lights and darks, since the light was gallery light- very bright and even, and offering few cast shadows! Still, something as simple as a hint of a cast shadow beneath a chair can do wonders in this arena.
As the note indicates, this was a 10 minute pose.
I wasn't particularly interested in facial expressions on these, but I did want to get a reasonably accurate sense of facial features and proportions.
This was part of the penultimate pose, another duo. I found the pose intriguing and the relative size variations of the two men a fun challenge.
I found myself losing my place in mapping the relative features and seemingly simple, yet not really so, proportions of the front and back gents. To try to remedy this, I went in with a brush tip marker and did some outlining in spot color. I think the decision to stick to one additional color was wise. Had I more time, I could have done some fun things with pushing background tones in both graphite and rust tones.
It should be mentioned that, aside from this one, these pieces are all done on marginal tooth sketchbook paper with #3 and #4 graphite pencils.
I was also the only person I saw using an eraser!
Please. It's not cheating to correct as you go. It's smart.
I took out quite a few construction lines, but elected to leave some in, as they add to the overall feel and energy of a piece sometimes.
The final pose of the evening was a complex interlocking of all the models- eight, I believe. The alternated facing front and back and linked arms behind the backs of the gent next to them.
I found this pose impossible. It was a fairly long pose, 15 minutes if memory serves, but I started three times and grew increasingly displeased with my results each time.
I made a deliberate decision to edit, and concentrated on a head shot of one of the leather men.
In retrospect, while this would have benefited from some background tone, I'm pretty happy with it as it is. There's a sense of confidence and repose in the face that I find very satisfying and reassuring. It's nice to end a session on a good note. While some might find it cheating to do a head shot in a figure drawing session, the reminder that this isn't a class applies to me too. The only people I'm answerable to in making my art are me and any clients/readers I may have.
Additionally, this is a good sketch, especially for the three minutes I took for it. Since photography was verboten during the session, you'll have to take my word that this is a reasonably accurate representation of the model's face.
At one point, I got frustrated by the barrage of testosterone I was drawing. This is not to disparage the models or the venue. I just wanted variety. At that point, I started drawing another artist, a young lesbian who was sitting directly across from me.
This is the first of two drawings I did of her. The second, which I liked much better, I gave to her. She left almost immediately after I did so!
When I saw her at the conference the next day, I apologized for my presumption and said I hoped I hadn't freaked her out. She replied no, she had to leave at that time as her girlfriend was picking her up. She added that both of them loved the drawing!
I'm very sad that this conference doesn't happen again for two years. I talked with one of the organizers, Jennifer Camper, about having one in the Midwest, ideally in Minneapolis. She opined that a smaller one might be a possibility. After watching her run about madly for three days, I could see her point. I still think it's a good idea. Not that I need another project, but I plan to bring this up to some friends and see if it goes anywhere.
Next new art: the anniversary sketch.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 1

Finally. Illness, working two jobs, conference prep, and at last, here is the rundown for 2016.
16. BRIK
15. Agony
14. Dr. Strange
13. The Drawing Lesson
12. The Children of Captain Grant
11. Backstagers
10. Bombshells
9.  The Complete Wimmen's Comix
8.  Paper Girls
7.  Art Ops 
6.  Electric Sublime
5.  Black Widow
4.  Scarlet Witch
3.  Dr. Fate
2.  Faith

And here is the number one comic of last year.
Gene Ha's MAE is a delight that is, at once, all the things I like in a good comic. It's creator owned, originally self-published (through a Kickstarter campaign that included a lovely retrospective of Gene's 25+ year career in comics and illustration), currently in a successful run from one of the bigger publishers, Dark Horse, has a strong female protagonist, and is an exciting delight to read and to see!
From Gene's web page: "Once upon a time in Indiana… a 13 year-old girl named Abbie Fortell disappeared. Her younger sister, Mae was left behind to finish school, take care of her ailing father, and build a life without her sister. Eight years later Abbie has returned, claiming she’s found a doorway to a world of adventure and monsters. These tales are hard to believe — at least until the monsters show up too…"
The Kickstarter was followed by the first story arc of 6 Dark Horse issues, which concluded in November of 2016. The next arc is due in spring, and as Gene is scheduled to grace MNCBA's Spring Con (hooray!), may be available in time to have a chat with him about it.
Full disclosure: Gene has been a casual friend (and serious supporter of mine on Facebook) ever since I modeled for the character of Irma Geddon, who Gene drew as part of Alan Moore's Top 10 series in the America's Best Comics imprint from DC.
Ahem. Back to the book.
The book has just shone in every page. Gene has always been an articulate, well-spoken and just plain fun guy. That exuberance for life is the core of MAE
My only sadness concerning the book, and it's a minor one, is that the last issue of the first run was penciled and inked by someone other than Gene, Pauline Ganucheau. Her credentials, ranging from Star Trek to The Magic World of Gumball, are quite impressive. She's clearly a professional, and does a wonderful job, but she ain't Gene. I read issue 6 without looking at the credits, and from page one, it seemed the art was - well, just not the same. Oh, it worked fine, but I really hope Gene returns to full creative chores with the next story arc.
MAE is good, smart storytelling, integrated with compelling, imaginative and beautifully rendered art. I hope we're all still talking about new issues as they come out a year, two years, five years from now, and more.
Next: back to my art, I think... hmm...

Best Comics of 2016: No. 5 - 2

Only two posts to finally end this year's list. I know it's VERY late, but I want to post anyway.
5. Black Widow
There were a LOT of impressive books with female leads in 2016, and a surprising number from Marvel. It should be apparent by now that I tend to prefer DC books, so this year was a surprise to me in that respect. Writer Mark Waid and artist Chris Samnee have given Black Widow a feel that echoes the best aspects of the early Wally Wood Daredevil run, yet has a contemporary sensibility. Like the Scarlet Witch book (see below), this title is at least partially inspired by the lead character's presence in Marvel movies (sidebar: Captain America: Civil War was a good Avengers movie, but it wasn't really a Captain America movie to me).
Movie crossover? Tense Tony Stark lays down the law!

In Black Widow, a noir sensibility, coupled with an affection for action and spy movie tropes, gives the book visual eloquence and urgency. The first issue, a nearly wordless chase story, is one of the most fun single issues in a long time. Once the running stops, there's the good old heroine's journey to propel the storyline. In this case, the backstory of Natasha revisiting her childhood training camp is tense and heartbreaking.
As the story develops, we work around to the on-again, off-again romance with Winter Soldier. While there were rumblings in the fan press that good old Bucky would finally be revealed as bisexual, there's nothing overt (and very little that's covert) in the actual book to support that premise.
However, it does make me wonder about the distinctions between romance in books with male heroes and those with female heroes. Marvel's been very good about diversity this year, not just in terms of inclusion, but inclusion that fits the stories and characters, with a few minor exceptions (the gay Iceman fiasco comes to mind).
Even with that, the book remains a solid read. I've fallen a bit behind, but I continue to pick it up, and eagerly anticipate a binge on the title again soon.
4. Scarlet Witch
James Robinson has written some of the best superhero comics ever done, like Starman, and authored a few that are awkward, like Justice League: Golden Age. I've long championed his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film script, seeing it more as a Starman pastiche than as a Moore adaptation. I liked what he was doing with Squadron Supreme, but was quickly turned off by the vehement tone of the book. His C-3PO one-shot was brilliant.
In short, Robinson is back near the top of his game. In Scarlet Witch, he revisits and tries to clean up the backstory of Wanda Maximoff, whose tale has developed an alarming number of Marvel convolutions over the years.
As is the case in Black Widow, we have a journey into the heroine's childhood. But in this case, the journey is plagued by rocks on the road in the form of old nemeses, mentoring ghost witches, and revelations of and unknown family tree (once again, Wanda discovers she's not who she thought she was).
This book is visually alarming, in a good way. Wanda's new costume is brilliant. The covers, and some of the interiors, have arresting and compelling designs, often reminiscent of Coles Phillips' classic fadeaway paintings! Vanessa Del Rey is providing moody art that's still readable and tells a story, and Jordie Bellaire's coloring is a exquisite complement to both art and script.
Although it's working fairly well in Black Widow, I'm grateful there's little romance in this book. Not that the character doesn't deserve happiness, but it's refreshing to see a woman-centered book that isn't about romance.

3. Dr. Fate
Well, this does seem to be the year for magic, doesn't it? Between Dr. Strange, Scarlet Witch and this book, magic has regained its position near the top of the comics pile, and rightly so. In the case of Dr. Fate, the magic draws from the Kimetic, or ancient Egyptian, belief system. Since the character was created by Gardner Fox in 1940, with an origin story modeled in part on the 1922 expedition of Howard Carter that unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen, this is no surprise. The surprise is that the character has never strayed far from its origins.
This incarnation of Dr. Fate, so to speak, brings the ancient connection home in a very different way. The helmet of Nabu, the source of power that possesses its hosts over time, is assumed by a young and somewhat naive college student, Khalid Nassour. The book alternates between his attempts to save the world from a flood caused by the ancient gods (which reminded me of the Peter Weir film The Last Wave), and (shades of early Spider-Man) trying to hold his life together and keep his secret.
Oh, yeah, and Kent Nelson, a long lost uncle as it turns out, puts in an appearance.
Slice panel showing
the head behind the mask. Brilliant.

I love the art on this! Paul Levitz's writing is as solid as it ever was here, with some brilliant characterizations, particularly Khalid's parents. But Ibrahim Moustafa's art is spot on. Stylized and angular, yet approachable in a good way, every issue of this now concluded (sob!) series shines. The layouts have nuances that reinforce plot points, in addition to being attractive and compelling, as in the cutaway panel in this page from issue 6.
I really hope to see this interpretation of Dr. Fate again. Like last year's run on Martian Manhunter, it put new life into a very old character.

2. Faith
I've commented a bit on the social aspects of this book in a fairly recent post, so I'm going to concentrate here in the superhero aspects.
To be a good superhero book, the book must be:
  • Rendered consistently with the writing
  • Written in a style that suits the character's demeanor and history
  • Be plausible. Not realistic, but plausible. There's a quantifiable difference.
  • Evoke an emotional response consistent with the intent of the creator(s). Admittedly, this one has a more arbitrary aspect than the others.
In that spirit, Faith succeeds with  a few reservations. The art is consistent and worthwhile superhero art. If I had to make an artistic analogy to Franics Portela's work on the series, it would be much of Dave Gibbons' work: clean and accurate, without a ton of flourishes, and with solid storytelling in panel and angle choices.
The writing by Jody Hauser really grabs me, so much so that I'm tempted to give her TV series Orphan Black another chance. I watched the first episode and it left me cold. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was a mistake. Hauser has been doing strong work on Faith. There are a few times when I wish Faith was not such a popular culture geek. As much as I liked the issues dealing with the Comic Con villain, it felt a bit played out after a while- could have been one issue instead of two and I would have been fine with it.
One aspect of the writing I do enjoy is Faith's relationship with Archer, of Archer & Armstrong. As has been noted in so many superhero books, it only makes sense that a superhero would enter into relationship with another superhero: unique commonalities and all that. I didn't have much use for most of the Valiant line the first time around, largely due to my reverence for the original Magnus, Robot Fighter and ensuing resistance to the reboot. But I did enjoy the original A & A run, both the Barry Smith and Mike Baron issues.
One aspect of the writing I do enjoy is Faith's relationship with Archer, of Archer & Armstrong. As has been noted in so many superhero books, it only makes sense that a superhero would enter into relationship with another superhero: unique commonalities and all that. I didn't have much use for most of the Valiant line the first time around, largely due to my reverence for the original Magnus, Robot Fighter and ensuing resistance to the reboot. But I did enjoy the original A & A run, both the Barry Smith and Mike Baron issues.
I've not been inclined to follow any of the other crossover titles with Faith in them. I tried one issue of the team book Harbingers, and I was disinterested throughout.  If Faith has significant appearances in future issues of Archer & Armstrong, I'll probably pick those up.
Faith remains a worthwhile book, though I'm a couple issues behind in current reading. I'm likely to stick with the book for a while.
Next: the number one comic of 2016 (at last!).

Best Comics of 2016, Nos. 11 - 6

An extra heavy period at the day gig slowed my writing, so I'm going back to the model I used last year: multiple books in every post. I will expedite matters, since I had originally planned on being done with these on the 16th of January. This is time-sensitive material, after all. In response, I am writing all the entries in three posts before making them public.
11. Backstagers
Despite all the backlash snobbery of the 90s, comics can be for kids. It takes nothing away from comics to have some dedicated to younger audiences. Regardless of the target audience, quality will out.
The Boom Box line has been producing  genuinely smart kids' comics for a while now. Their biggest success, Goldie Vance, has been on my radar for a while, and in addition to the title we're discussing now, I'm reading the trade of Help Us, Great Warrior, which is wonderful fun.
Backstagers is a very clever and humane comic about young adult theater. The book goes behind the scenes of a high school play, and discovers a world of magic, wonder and danger in the nether regions of the props archives. If you have to have labels, think of elements of Narnia combined with A Chorus Line. A profoundly inadequate description, to be sure, but it serves to get the conversation rolling.
Stars Kevin and Blake
at their self-congratulatory

The characters, even the self-absorbed and cruel show stars, are wonderfully engaging.  There's a mystery and excitement to every issue.
The colors are lush and vibrant. The book is smartly laid out. One of the things that chafes me is any creative team dumbing down their work, pandering to readers. This is particularly insulting when you're treating kids this way.
When I started teaching high school age kids, I quickly learned to respect their intelligence. Yes, yes, we've heard the arguments- kids' brains aren't fully formed, they lack sufficient experience to make informed decisions. What excuses do adults use? So many so-called grown-ups make much worse decisions than kids do, and with farther reaching consequences. The kids in Backstagers understand strategies, motivations and their own desires much more clearly than many who claim to be adults. Yet they're clearly still kids.
This is one smart book. I'm sticking with it.

10. Bombshells
Some surprisingly good comics have come out of marketing gimmicks. The 1960s  Captain Action book, the 70s (and 90s revival) Micronauts and Rom, Space Knight come to mind. DC created Bombshells as a way to sell statues, glasses and posters. In fairness, it's pretty cool merchandise, but we're here to talk about the story.
Bombshells shouldn't work but it does.This WWII alternate reality pastiche of DC superheroines and villianesses recast in curious ways is full of verve, smart art and impassioned writing. I'm sure a lot of people are buying the book just to look at the girls/women. In fairness, that's on my list too. I love the evocation of classic pin-up art that dominates the book. As one who's often waxed effusive about the virtues of pin-ups as opposed to porn, the art in the series delights me.
The take on Wonder Woman, usually my favorite, is good but not great here. I like Mera!
The plotting is a bit on the nose at times. Batgirl as a baseball player- get it? She uses a bat! Look at us, we're being clever!
Even with that, the story remains engaging. I was taken aback by the Stargirl storyline.The Russian aspect, coupled with the heartfelt self-sacrifice really resonated with me.
I continue to enjoy this book. I picked up the newest issue just today. Since it's a bit gimmicky, I had my doubts about how well it would sustain, but so far it's remained worth the money.
Batgirl in action, pre-hero!

9. Wimmen's Comix
My favorite cover from the series!
One of the frustrations of comic book binding is that sometimes you bind a book that later gets reprinted. Though I accumulated all the issues of Wimmen's Comix with a bind in mind, this collection came out before I could complete the project. I'm glad.
The blurb from the Fantagraphics website:
"In the late ’60s, underground comix changed the way comics readers saw the medium — but there was an important pronoun missing from the revolution. In 1972, ten women cartoonists got together in San Francisco to rectify the situation and produce the first and longest-lasting all-woman comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix. Within two years the Wimmen’s Comix Collective had introduced cartoonists like Roberta Gregory and Melinda Gebbie to the comics-reading public, and would go on to publish some of the most talented women cartoonists in America — Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, Phoebe Gloeckner, and many others. In its twenty-year run, the women of Wimmen’s tackled subjects the guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: abortion, menstruation, masturbation, castration, lesbians, witches, murderesses, and feminists."
So much work here to love! From the welcome inclusion of It Ain't Me Babe, the first all-woman comic, through #18, so many brilliant artists are included here. 
The good: the collection is very well archived and edited. There was a slight variation in format between some issues. This is rectified by allowing luxury margins for the art. There was also a wide range of quality in the printing of the original comics. Here, the art is cleaned up and printed on decent bright paper, with very good separations for the covers and the 3D issue (glasses included, of course!). They were even nice enough to include a 2D version of the 3D issue at the end of the book!
The bad: This thing is a brick. Two hardcovers, over 700 pages on heavy paper in a slipcase, weighing in at just over 7 pounds! I've questioned the formatting, which set the list price at $100, several times. This is 18 comics, plus the Babe issue and the 2D/3D issue, for a total of 20 comics. I have several custom binds of just over 20 issues, including some underground stuff. They fit neatly into one book. Did the reformatting demand the luxury treatment? I'm not sure.
Aside from the inconvenience for people who aren't avid bibliophiles, the price point of a deluxe volume might keep some people away from this collection. If it were in paperback at half the price, would more people buy it? This ranks at #436 in Amazon's Fantragraphics sales ranking, while the cheaper and smaller (and admittedly collecting less work and having been in print longer) Inner City Romance ranks at #328. That's hardly conclusive evidence. I do note that Fantagrphics did a paperback reprint of its Usagi Yojimbo 2 book slipcased set. It continues to sell briskly, while the HC is long out of print.
There's little material aside from the comics- one essay and some photos.
Either way, I hope for a more accessible printing, even though I do so love a well-made book, which this clearly is.
There's also a strange practical incongruity. The spines are flipped. The spine that reads "The Complete Wimmen's" is on book two, while the spine that reads "Comix" is on volume one! This puts the avid owner of a comic library in the awkward position of having it wrong no matter what she does. Either the spines are in the slipcase out of order, or the books are. Grr.
But the descender on the N in "Wimmen's" links with the ascender on the X in "Comix", making such a wonderful design touch, it's almost mandatory to leave the spines in that order.
Retrospective volumes are often given the prize/curse of being "important". This is more than an important book or a reflection of decades of feminist evolution. It's a fun and compelling collection of comics.
8. Paper Girls
Brian Vaughan has been a fixture on the comics scene for some time now. His first comic work appeared 21 years ago. Despite the unrelentingly downbeat ending, I adored Ex Machina, and found his take on Doctor Strange, The Oath, refreshing and surprisingly optimistic. I may be the only person in comic readership not drooling over Saga. Frankly, I find it too cynical, and its "fresh" ideas are reminiscent of things Philip Jose Farmer was writing 50 years ago.
That said, Paper Girls cheers me.
A Vaughan comic with bleeped out
swear words!
Maybe it's the support text, the letters pages dedicated to the delightful myth of being a paper girl, echoing the supporting text in Lumberjanes. Maybe it's that these girls prove to be so capable when they're catapulted into a nightmare world that's part future dystopia and part mythological realm. Maybe it's just that, for a change, Vaughan doesn't let cynicism and snark dominate the narrative, though there's still enough of both.
This book is cleanly drawn, fast paced, complex enough to engage the mind and a roller coaster ride. Having teen girls as protagonists without pandering to the stereotype of the month is also quite refreshing! In fairness, Vaughan's work on Runaways also handled teen girls well (I didn't mean that the way it sounded - ick!)
Cliff Chiang's art is clean, energetic and on point. He composes frames seamlessly, and has a clean line that brings Geoff Darrow to mind. Yet he's very much his own artist.
I've only discussed the plot in vague terms. This is a chronic condition with me. I want to give you enough to want to read the book. The book in question has time travelers encountering their younger selves, strange monsters from another dimension, and tons of late 80s nostalgia. Is that enough to whet your appetite?

7. Art Ops
Here's a clever idea. A spy agency dedicated to keeping subjects in their respective artworks. Of course, things go wrong, like Mona Lisa escaping and getting in a family way. Oh, and the son of the lead Art operative loses an arm, which is replaced with living artwork.
Art Ops is a lot of fun, but is a bit on the nose at times. It plays with reality, suing tones that echo Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but lacks the subtlety and nuance of Morrison's work. Writer Shaun Simon brings a decent knowledge of art history to the book, but the story rarely goes much deeper than well-known and well-trod grand masters. It's a chaotic ride, but it doesn't go any place too scary once the reader adapts to the premise.
And really, it's not all that chaotic. There's an inevitability bordering on cliche to some aspects of this. The expatriated artworks take haven at the Chelsea Hotel? My, how novel. Nobody's ever used that setting as a metaphor for escape of tortured  souls before. Please.
Mike Allred's art, however, is expressive and on point. I'm on record as liking good fundamental comic art (and one of these days I'll try to define that), and Allred has long championed comparatively simple and anarchic comic art. Sometimes it works well. I  loved his work on X-Static. Sometimes it doesn't. His Fantastic Four run left me cold. Here, it's very effective, and just plain fun to look at. Rob Davis' fill-in on the penultimate issue, #11, lacked some of Allred's verve.
As alluded to above, the series is concluded at 12 issues. The first half is out in trade now. This chafes me a bit. This is a short series. Why break it into two books? Apparently marketing is more important that reader satisfaction.
Perhaps that's the crux of the biscuit. The underlying cynicism of this book is irritating, not because there's no place for cynicism in comics, but because of what it says about how the creators value art in the world. It's well worth reading, but there are other comics about art that tell better stories.
6. Electric Sublime
In contrast, here's a surreal adventure comic about art that shows a deeper understanding of art.
As far back as Frederic Pohl's novel Drunkard's Walk, and more recently the play and film The Caveman's Valentine, we have narratives dealing with the challenge of the mentally ill person who sees things as they truly are. Add Electric Sublime to that mix. While I have major issues with the whole "tortured artist" syndrome, it's used here in an interesting way, echoing the lost and lamented series Millennium. A central character is pulled from an asylum to use special abilities to solve an inexplicable puzzle- in this case, a winking Mona Lisa.
Main characters are trapped in the winking painting. In the so-called real world, mass suicides complicate matters.
Evoking many of the usual suspects of art history, this book strikes many of the same notes as Art Ops. But where the latter uses amplified guitars and buzzsaws, Electric Sublime uses a string quartet playing a Berlioz string quartet that sneaks in some Philip Glass riffs on the sly. In short, this is a much more elegant and nuanced look at art and its place in society.
Electric Sublime manages to address the whole "crazy artist" cliche while treating artists with a measure of respect. And the book is much more visually intriguing than Art Ops, using a controlled palette where necessary, and evocation of numerous styles from both comics and the "legitimate" art world. The book reminds me of artists ranging from Hannes Bok to Ben Templeton in places. And the use of the artist's pose-able wooden mannequin as a Greek chorus of sorts is quite charming.
The first mini of four books recently concluded. While there was a sense of resolution, it was clearly left open for a new series. I'd like to see more, and like to see writer Maxwell Prince and artist Martin Morazzo play with even more art history - tropes, memes, riffs, chose your visual motif. I just want more.
Klimt, anyone?
Next: entries 5 - 2.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 12: The Children of Captain Grant

I used to love those live action Disney movies when I was a wee tad. Now they seem a bit of a cornball, but they still stand up well for the most part. Many of them, like The Incredible Journey, The Miracle of the White Stallions and The Three Lives of Thomasina are about survival and search against impossible odds.
And thanks to Dell/Gold Key, a lot of them got their own comics too! Many were illustrated by Dan Speigle. I didn't realize it at the time, but his art influenced me almost as much as that of Curt Swan.
This book is an adaptation of a film of a Jules Verne novel, one of a very LONG series of adventure books he wrote. Though Disney played fast and loose with the novel, the resulting film (and comic, and I think there was a paperback novelization as well) was very engaging and exciting.
I had forgotten all about it, until I was reading the recent reprint of the French adaptation of the original novel, The Children of Captain Grant. As I was reading it, I found the pacing a bit off-putting, as it has that Victorian air about it that can slow the telling of a story in its deliberation. But I found the story itself oddly familiar. It wasn't until I did some background research for this piece that I made the connection back to this earlier adaptation from my childhood- a "well, duh!" moment.
I may have been misled by the subgenre in which the graphic novel is recast.
The story is retold using the furry motif.
All the characters are humanized animals- or if you prefer, anthropomorphized  humans. There's no real reason given for this. It's just assumed that that's the world in which these characters endure. The same as ours, except that everyone has fur, or feathers, or scales, or fins or some such.
Longtime readers will know of my affinity for such stories, both in consuming and in creating. From my early exposure to Barks' Duck books to my apprenticeship on Reed Waller's Omaha the Cat Dancer (a short chapter in my life that I never tire of bringing up), funny animals have been an integral part of my worlds. And I've seen all stripe (so to speak) of art in these books, ranging from the crude to the energetic and elegant (Katherine Collins' Neil the Horse comes to mind). There are some funny animal stories (to use Reed's preferred term) that take the art more seriously than others- the mechanical precision of Martin Wagner's Hepcats comes to mind here.
But I don't think I've ever seen as lushly painted a furry book as this, with the possible exceptions of Blacksad and the Grandville stories.
Every page explodes with meticulously controlled color. Landscapes, ships, architecture, different cultures, all exquisitely rendered.
Once again, I'll rely on the publisher (in this case, Super Genius) to provide a plot overview: "In this adaptation of the classic novel, the entire cast of characters has been transformed into anthropomorphic animal! It begins with a message-actually three water-damaged messages-found in a bottle removed from the belly of a shark. Written in three different languages the messages reveal that the long-missing Captain Grant was shipwrecked and is being held hostage. The only clue from the messages that might be of any help, will lead Lord Glenarvan and Captain Grant’s children on an adventure literally around the world!"
The story has the requisite elements: quirky characters, burgeoning romance, yearning for a lost parent, and so much adventure and derring-do you could plotz.
Though published in the US in 2016, this book was originally published in three volumes in France between 2009 and 2013. Its creator, Alexis Nesme, is well established as a children's comic illustrator in France. Here's an interview with him (in French- I can make out about half of it, not enough to provide an accurate translation, so I'll leave you to your own devices).

This book was a bit of a slog at times. My tolerance for quaint period writing is not high, so it took me a while to get through it. But that's a failing in me, not in the work. It was worth the effort. This book is exciting, lush and ultimately very satisfying.
Next: Best Comics No. 11, behind the scenes...

Friday, January 6, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 13: the Drawing Lesson

The 1990s were a heyday of new titles. Between the zine explosion and new publishers not only trying, but getting distribution of, new and innovative titles, some great work came out of that era. One of the most ambitious of these publishers, Sirius, gave us titles as wildly divergent as Dawn, Dogwitch, Poison Elves, and the delightful Akiko on the Planet Smoo.
While creator Mark Crilley moved on to other projects after more than 50 issues of Akiko, his work remained fresh and innovative. I didn't keep with his post-Akiko work, but did note in passing that he had begun to produce How to Draw... volumes, mostly on manga.
When I happened on The Drawing Lesson in a search of recent public library volumes, I was intrigued but skeptical. I've seen numerous volumes on the subject, some of which, like the Christoper Hart books, are simply awful. But given that it was Crilley, I vowed to give it a chance.
The book describes itself as "a graphic novel that teaches you how to draw." Usually such books have a thin plot that serves as a framing device for lessons. A classic example that works fairly well is David Chelsea's volume on comic book perspective drawing. This book also employs a such a device, but it's a bit meatier than most.
In The Drawing Lesson, Crilley tells of David, a young boy who wants to draw, but is reluctant to do the work of mastering the basics to get there. As a teacher and as a student, believe me, I've been there. Following a chance encounter with a woman named Becky, he begins to pester her until she agrees to give him his devoirs in drawing.
In her review of this book, Joanna Draper Carlson points out the myopic male privilege young David exercises in his demands on Becky. I agree to a point. He is demanding of her time and energy, and resistant to her teachings, but I saw that more as a function of youth than of sexism (though the latter is also a clearly valid point). Also, Becky is not shy about sticking up for herself, and understands what it means to be so young and so eager to get somewhere that you forget to take the whole trip!
A very good Becky lesson!
This is the real strength of the book. Yes, the lessons are solid and work well. But Crilley never loses sight of his characters. They become plausible and empathetic very quickly. The story twines about both David's growth as an artist and his fledgling friendship with Becky, also touching rather elegantly on the special bond between teacher and student, a bond different than any other I've experienced in life- deep and profound, but always at a necessary distance, and often transitory by necessity.
The lessons are not perfect. For instance, in the above spread, Crilley overlooks the cast light halo that often appears at the base of an object's cast shadow. But he's quick to point out that everything is not contained in David's lessons, which serve only as a foothold for fundamental skills and for the confidence to grow as an artist.
Crilley recognizes the place of art in life, while also observing life with a compassionate eye. This book is an elegant and effective approach to drawing, one I'm adding to my own overcrowded reference shelf on the topic.
Next: No. 12, kids on a search in their animal natures...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 14: Dr. Strange

I've admired Dr. Strange for decades. The movie made me so happy, despite the Ancient One controversy. While the comics were clearly calculated to cash in on the film, I was eager to see the Doctor in an ongoing title of his own, which he's not had since his last book ended in 1996. 21 years without his own title and still a major player. Now that's magic!
The ads showing the cover of the new book did not give me hope.
An axe and a belt of skulls? What is this, Strange the Barbarian? Sheesh.
Well, turned out I was wrong to doubt the good Doctor.
Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo have given us an opening story arc about magic itself being under siege. This gives them a chance to play fast and loose with Marvel's mystic universe (while remaining surprisingly consistent with established canon) and give some fun little bits, like a neutral territory magic bar where mages can hang out and unwind.
Strange became Sorcerer Supreme again a few years ago in an issue of the Avengers, after Brother Voodoo died in battle (another black superhero lost!). His faltering skills, as chronicled in the miniseries The Oath, appear to have been fully restored along with his mantle.
The core of the first arc, the duel between magic and technology, is not new territory for Dr. Strange. Many of his foes are simply anti-magic, like Silver Dagger. And the core of his involvement in the Fantastic Four arc Unthinkable is his ability to help Reed Richards come to terms with the dichotomy between science and magic. But really, there's only two primary ways a Strange story can go: either an anti-magic bad guy or a powerful magic bad guy. Other than the stories with a more introspective tone (my favorites), that's most of them. And they appear to be coming around to the latter, as Dormammuu jumps into the fray at the end of the most recent issue.
Dr. Strange is one of those characters that a lot of artists want to draw, but unlike Spidey or Bats,  his books have been sporadic, there haven't been as many opportunities. This makes the iconic artists on the title- Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Dan Adkins, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith - shine all the brighter. It's too soon to know if Bachalo's work will be held in that high regard in the long run, but there's certainly promise here. Bachalo manages to emulate the greats on Strange with imitating. It's no mean feat to innovate in the illustration of other magical realms, but Chris has done so consistently in this book.
My only quibble with Marvel's current handling of the good Doctor is that they're milking it a bit. In addition to the main title, there have been a couple one-shots, a 2-issue movie prequel, a second book, Dr. Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme (a back history book that's really pretty good in its own right), and a Dr. Strange/ Punisher crossover that I picked up, but haven't been able to bring myself to read yet. There's a Golden Book for the wee ones out this week as well. Come on, Marvel. I know you're a for-profit company, and the profit window from a movie like Dr. Strange is smaller than some of the more established characters. But there's no reason to be that calculating about it.
Really, that's the only reason this book ranks as low as it does on this year's Best list. The merchandising aspect of the title hangs like a shadow over the whole book. Despite that, the book itself remains strong, and I am likely to continue picking it up each month.
Next: Best Comics of 2016, No. 13, a lesson for us all.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, No. 15: Agony

Every year, some remarkable and unexpected reprint projects present themselves. There were several in 2016, and a couple of them made the list.
The first one takes a little explanation.
In the mid 1980s, Art Speigelman was bringing out the iconic RAW anthology. At the same time I was reading these, I began listening to The Residents, Tuxedomoon and Snakefinger. The strangeness and beauty reminded me of The Doors and of the compelling aspects of Dada, to which I was first exposed late in high school. I was privileged to see Snakefinger in concert once, a remarkable experience. Simultaneously poetic and raw, aggressive and vulnerable, dark yet hopeful, Snakefinger sounded like no one else.
And the record covers were equally compelling.
I was fascinated by this image. It reminded me of the late Rory Hayes, whose horrific primitive works in early undergrounds were simultaneously innocent and brutal. When flipping through issues of RAW, I woke up and recognized it as the work of Mark Beyer. Beyer's AGONY was published as one of a series of RAW One-Shots.
AGONY is back in print in 2016, courtesy of New York Review Comics (an imprint dedicated to reprints, currently numbering nine volumes). They did a fine job, printing cleanly and binding the work well, while not jarring with the work's overall aesthetic. Several years back, there was a deluxe two-volume slipcase edition of Gary Panter's work, and I remember thinking how odd it was to have such aggressive and "street" art in such a lush format. In contrast, the new edition of AGONY has a decent dustjacket and a plain white cover.
The dustjacket cover
So what's it about?
Well, the title actually sums up the work pretty thoroughly!
Presented as a page.
In the reprint, each panel is its own page.
This is part absurdist theater, part Grand Guignol, part mean little kid. The story is so implausible as to be laughable, yet the reader can't help but feel sorry for our hapless heroes, who seem to be the only two decent people in the world, constantly beset by the vicissitudes of nature and the caprices of their fellow man. Like the best of Crumb's more outrageous works, this leaves me laughing and cringing at the same time. To quote the promo blurb from the publisher's web page: "ENJOY THE ECSTASY OF AGONY. Amy and Jordan are just like us: hoping for the best, even when things go from bad to worse. They are menaced by bears, beheaded by ghosts,  and hunted by the cops, but still they struggle on, bickering and reconciling, scraping together the rent and trying to find a decent movie. It’s the perfect solace for anxious modern minds, courtesy of one of the great innovators of American comics. Now if only Amy’s skin would grow back ..."
My only problem is a minor issue with the layout. In the new edition, each panel is presented as a  single page, while other versions have used the classic 6-panel grid shown above. I think it flows better in the earlier format, but it's such a thin volume that the new panel per page presentation may have been more strategic than aesthetic.
That minor quibble aside, there's a lot going on here. Beyer plays with time much as Dali and Bunuel did in Andalusian Dog. The story is set in February 0000. Captions include the obtuse "soon" and "two weeks later". Beyer's work alternates/intersects the violent melancholy of the relationship commentary in the Dali/Bunuel film with the adolescent puerile humor of early John Waters films, to great effect.
The lyrics to the single pictured above come to mind in summing this book up:
You can follow me and I guarantee to take you far away
But we must leave before the eve of everlasting gray
Next: Best of 2016, No. 14: Strange days indeed.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Comics of 2016: No. 16: BRIK

Here we go again with the annual series of the best comics of the year. As is my way, I will post one a day rather than posting the whole list at once, as most do.
Our opening entry is a bit of a curiosity.
Mike Benson and Adam Glass share the writing credits on the Oni Press series BRIK. The premise is innovative but direct. From the Comixology solicitation: "Drew is a bullied kid in the Yonkers neighborhood of New York City whose family faces encroaching violence from Russian gangsters. Before his beloved grandfather is killed in an attempt to muscle the family out of the neighborhood, he’s able to pass down to Drew the story of a mysterious but dangerous protector who helped their people during other troubled times. When Drew finds his grandfather kept the secret to creating a golem, is it worth the risk to summon this supernatural avenger to take on the all-too-human darkness swallowing his world? An urban fantasy tale of power and morality from writers Adam Glass (Suicide Squad, TV's Supernatural) & Mike Benson (Deadpool, Moon Knight), amazing new illustrator Harwinder Singh, and colorist Gonzalo Duarte (The Bunker, Big Trouble in Little China)!"
All that said, what's working here?
The characters are empathetic rather than sympathetic. This is good. Empathetic characters are much more plausible and interesting than sympathetic ones. There's even a bit of an attempt to make the bullies more fleshed out characters.
Many have commented on parallels to early Spider-Man. A kid stumbles into abilities that could end his torment, but said abilities prove to be as much trouble as the initial problem.
However, that's a little too easy. This story is also a chance for young Drew to embrace his Jewish heritage. I would have liked to see more of the grandfather in this respect. His function was primarily to carry the spear, as it were, tell his heir the legend and then move on. This is symptomatic of a larger problem in contemporary comics. Writers don't know how to write outside their age boxes. More on that in later installments.
Both writers here are seasoned professionals. Glass's run on Suicide Squad was strong, but not up to the high standard set by John Ostrander or Gail Simone. In contrast, I found Benson's writing on Luke Cage:Noir to be quite compelling. In BRIK, the story moves along briskly but still leaves space for meditations and introspection.
Harwidner Singh's art is quirky. He tends to flatten faces a bit, though that tendency recedes as the series continues. He composes images well, with a deliberate eye towards advancing the story.
Bottom line: BRIK is a good book, at rare times a great book. Drew's discovery of Brik's abilities has elements of pure bliss, reminiscent of Atreyu riding the Dragon in The Neverending Story. The neighborhood feels a  bit cliched at times, but for the most part, it works.
I'll be watching for more work from this team. Also, it's nice to ONI Press hanging in there!
Next: Best of 2016, no. 15, an agonizing work.