Leading Questions: “I Love You, Lois Lane. Until The End of Time.”

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 26, 2016.

Love - All-Star Superman #12

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why are the best superhero comics love stories?

I just got out of The Lobster, which is arguably a love story. Love isn’t a genre of story though. I’m not sure what exactly you’d call it, maybe a mode or a goal? But I’m certain it’s not a genre. Romantic comedies aren’t a genre, they’re just a trope laden version of comedies that also happen to be love stories. I suppose if you wanted to assign a genre to The Lobster, you’d call it a dystopian fiction, if painting in very broad strokes.

Looking at that genre, I imagine very few people would attempt to claim the best stories occupying it are love stories. There are certainly romantic elements to some classics. 1984 hinges on its ability to give you hope in the form of a romance before destroying that last glimmer forever. It’s not the romance that makes something like1984, or The Road, or Brave New World function though. If you want to argue for these stories being some of the greatest in this specific genre, you will most likely want to focus on their ability to extrapolate from and parallel recognizable conflicts and patterns. They point to present problems by expanding them, and help us understand why they need solutions.

That The Lobster, a tremendous film and oddly potent romance, features a love story isn’t key to what makes it a great dystopian fiction. Its commentary on human interaction, expectations, and the management of both brought to a terrifying extreme is what accomplishes that. While the film wants to comment on the idea of love, it’s not love that drives the film itself. That’s dystopian fiction though, and we’re here to talk about superheroes.

I have no doubt in my mind that the absolute best version of the superhero genre and the stories contained therein are defined as love stories.

There may be an initial instinct to object and point to a variety of other usual suspects. What about them being power fantasies? Are we ignoring those that speak to ideals of fairness and justice? Who will speak to elements of classic mythology made modern? How can we not speak to the tragedy underlying so many heroes?

These are all great concepts that superhero comics can and have explored to incredible results. You’re asking me about the existence of a single, core thread that can weave all of the greatest superhero comics together though, and I don’t think any of those are up to the task. They are common themes, but not the universal DNA that we can carefully parse to create this caped family tree.

To discover what that is we have to question what the central purpose is of the entire superhero genre. That’s one hell of a big question and it’s one that entire doctoral theses could be devoted to without a definitive answer. I’m going to take a stab at a grandiose, sweeping response to it though. Y’know, the kind this sort of self-entitled op-ed column is perfect for.

It’s best to look at the superhero genre by starting at the beginning or pretty close to it, at least. Pick up a copy ofAction Comics #1 created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and you’re getting pretty darn close. Flip through it and what do you see?

There’s no dramatic science fiction origin. There are no supervillains. Superman isn’t even all that powerful, unable to fly or wreck cities with his might. What you will find is a story filled with high ideals and hope. It’s the tale of a man who uses incredible abilities to right wrongs (saving an innocent woman from death row), protect the innocent (saving a woman from her abusive husband), and look after those he cares for (saving Lois Lane from a grabby gangster).

You can certainly see early strains of the power fantasy, especially coming from two young, Jewish teenagers in Cleveland, and a strong sense of social justice. At the heart of all these acts is a stronger connection though. What Siegel and Shuster dreamed up was a story in which one person would always do the right thing. It’s a tale in which a man, their idealized man, could put himself in front of knives and toss around mean-looking mooks to help others. He isn’t a person who acts for personal gain or any form of self-interest. This character, this model for the entire superhero genre acts from a genuine sense of caring, compassion, and kindness.

That’s where love comes in.

When you look at superhero comics (or cartoons or movies or whatever else), the core of these stories rest in the ideals they explore. They so often resemble children’s fare because they rest in the idea that certain morals and ethics are not only inflexible, but that following them will certainly win the day. This genre is founded in the greatest of grandiose beliefs, no matter how cliche they may appear. It might be worth looking at one of the greatest cliched lines in existence to see how that so clearly boils down to the concept of love. It’s taken from a book that folks try to draw parallels with Action Comics #1 far too often.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:13

I’m not a religious man, but that bit and all of the talk that precedes it still gets me teary eyed. It’s those broad strokes of great moralistic foundations and a belief in an undeniable power of human goodness that, while easily derided as simple, can also provide incredible inspiration. That’s the heart of the superhero genre.

Just look at two true masterpieces of the genre that are commonly referred to as being cynical or grim to see how love is still a defining characteristic of their greatness. Start with “Batman: Year One” created by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli. It’s a muddy, mean take on Gotham City before Batman is hero it needs or deserves or whatever. Batman spends most of the story getting his ass beat by cops and prostitutes, while he struggles to take down the regular mobsters who only precede far worse monsters to come. The story is told primarily from the perspective of a young Jim Gordon who has begun to have an affair while his wife prepares to give birth to their first son. It’s not exactly a nice story.

Love - Batman Year One

It’s the climax that gives away what “Year One” is really about though. I’ve written about the final pages of the comic before and how buried at the heart of all these terrible happenings is the heart of the story. Much like the story of Pandora’s Box, Miller and Mazzuchelli are not as concerned with what spirals out from the start, but what is discovered at the end. That conclusion is centered on the combined efforts of Jim Gordon and Batman to save Gordon’s infant son. They give everything they have in a desperate chase to rescue a single innocent life, and succeed. It’s not much given the incredible challenges still facing both men, but it’s enough. In those final moments as Batman rises from the mud to hand a father his still-breathing son, it’s clear this is a story of hope and it is based in the untainted love of a parent and child.

You can take a step further down that chain of “grim and gritty” style originators and discover a similar lesson in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen. This is the comic in which the most heroic protagonists are an impotent inventor and retired, disinterested superhero who both become complicit to genocide in the end. Everyone else falls into some category of sociopath, rapist, murderer, or generally awful person. It’s a book filled with the ugliest aspects of human kind.

When you step back to consider the endings of the central cast of characters, it quickly becomes clear that the difference between those with happy (or at least mildly redeemable) endings and those left to literal or metaphorical oblivion is the ability to experience love. The Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias are utterly destroyed by their view of the world and lack of meaningful connection to it. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, the two most human characters of the comic, are capable of finding meaning outside of their costumes by coming together though. They discover happiness with one another, lying together in the shadow of death after the climax ofWatchmen #12 occurs and shown preparing to start a family in its epilogue. Their love for one another becomes their salvation in the wake of disaster and continuing face of oblivion.

Love - Doctor Manhattan

It’s Doctor Manhattan that I find most interesting though. His clinical perception of humanity leaves him with little regard to the difference between life or death as he flees Earth for the cold, lifeless refuge of Mars. He finds the manipulation of sand as satisfying as any other connected series of atomic machinations. That is until he becomes aware of the origin of his ex-lover Silk Spectre. When he recognizes her parentage as the combination of two human beings with every reason to hate one another, and the further impossibility of an exact pairing of sperm and egg in a precise moment resulting in the human he sees before him, Doctor Manhattan recognizes the miracle of human life.

This realization does not lead to him to suddenly saving the day or fixing the world; Watchmen is not that kind of story. It does create something much more meaningful, however. It shifts the focus from supermen and power, the obsession of Ozymandias, to the extraordinary details of everyday people. The arc of Doctor Manhattan, a being of god-like power and knowledge, coming to recognize and cherish life, speaks to a purely logical appreciation of love. It is this insight that allows him to smile at the end of the story and proves the supposed victory of Ozymandias to be a purely pyrrhic one. Even in the moment of that victory the focus of Gibbons’ panels rests on the people of New York City coming together, a news agent hugging a boy he barely knows, revealing the depth and fortitude of people in which Ozymandias possessed no faith.

Love - Watchmen Ending

No matter how deep down the rabbit hole of the true masterpieces of the superhero genre you go, it’s impossible to divorce the genre from its roots in big ideas, sweeping statements, and optimism. Even when unfairly maligned masters like Miller and Moore are at their most cynical, you can still trace the weave of their stories back to themes of the value of human life and love.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of those masterpieces, perhaps the most perfect story in the superhero genre ever told, is a love story from beginning to end. It’s a comic that embraces its genre, examining without deconstructing, presenting the foundations at their most pure. It’s a comic that dates itself back to almost the very beginning of the genre (and comics medium), while simultaneously feeling ageless.

I’m talking about All-Star Superman, of course.

Love - Ma and Pa Kent

There is no better example of what the superhero genre contains or what it is capable of than this comic, and it’s apparent from the very first page that this is a love story. You might think of those four incredible panels beautifully summarized in eight words, “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.”, and wonder where Lois Lane is. It’s Superman’s origin though and it defines his ability to find and give love to others, as it was provided to him by both his biological and adoptive parents. In the way Frank Quitely depicts both the faces of the Els and the Kents you can see that this little baby boy is their world, even as one is destroyed on the very same page.

When you turn to begin the story with a stunning spread of Superman flying across the surface of the sun fully formed, it’s apparent where his strength and values come from. While Quitely and Grant Morrison pack in loads of Silver Age adventure topics ranging from the Bottle City of Kandor to Bizarro World, All-Star Superman is really defined by the relationships of its hero to others. You can run through a list of the supporting cast and quickly see how the emotion of love lies in the heart of each interaction.

Pa Kent: In All-Star Superman #6, Clark Kent loses his father to a heart attack while fighting the Chronovore, which robs him of the three minutes he needs to say goodbye. It is a heartbreaking moment, but one that also clarifies the love Superman feels for his parents. In the eulogy he gives for Jonathan, he speaks to the lessons his father taught him. He honors his parents with his actions returning the love they gave him to the world.

Jimmy Olsen: Superman’s relationship with Jimmy reflects a brotherly love. The two can rely upon one another and will put themselves in danger even when the other is being actively destructive. In All-Star Superman #4, Superman is turned evil by Black Kryptonite and Jimmy must put himself between his best friend and innocent lives on Earth. There’s not even a moment of hesitation in doing so, just as Superman has never hesitated so save him. At the end of the issue, both friends are okay because of their relentless dedication to one another.

Love - Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor: All-Star Superman #5 begins with a judge comparing Lex Luthor to the worst monsters of history, including Hitler, of course. Yet it is Superman in the guise of Clark Kent who goes to prison in an attempt to understand Luthor and then save his life during the course of a riot. Superman even feels love for the man who has caused his impending death, seeking an opportunity to help rather than harm him. And it is Lex’s sudden ability to see all life is connected as Superman does in All-Star Superman #12 that ends his destructive onslaught.

Regan: Perhaps the best remembered moment in all of All-Star Superman comes in the singular interaction between Superman and a suicidal young woman named Regan in #11. It is here that he stops from his series of Herculean tasks to tell a single person, a complete stranger, that her life matters. This is the encapsulation of love for strangers and humanity as a whole that empowers Superman and makes the breadth of the emotion so clear.

Lois Lane: If there’s a central love story to All-Star Superman though, it comes in the form of Superman and Lois Lane. Ma and Pa Kent, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, Regan, Perry White, Zibarro, and so many others all have important parts, but Lois is the heart of the tale. She is there at the start preparing to take down Lex Luthor as a journalist as Superman foils Luthor’s evil plans as a superhero. Her date with Superman takes center stage in All-Star Superman #2 and #3, and she’s never far from the action from then off.

They consistently challenge one another, pushing themselves to be better and learning from the other’s perspective. It is through this relationship that it is made clear that Superman, despite outward appearances, is not perfect. He fails to reveal his secret identity to Lois until after he has received a terminal diagnosis, failing a key test of trust. In this moment of imperfection, the significance of their relationship is revealed. Lois is the person in Superman’s life who demands he strive to be better simply through her very presence.

Their shared love is one that drives them to be the best versions of themselves and provides the emotional core for almost every achievement and sacrifice made in the story. That is why in the final moments of the series, as Superman prepares to fly into the sun once more, sacrificing himself to save the world, his final words are to Lois. He kisses her one last time and says, “I love you, Lois Lane. Until the end of time.”

That is a big commitment. Love of a parent, a sibling or friend, an enemy, or even a stranger all require a massive emotional investment and a preparation for sacrifice. Each person we choose to love takes a piece of us. So to find someone that will play such a central role in your life, that their presence will affect every other relationship, and then to know you will love that person ad infinitum, that’s an almost unbelievable sort of commitment. But it’s the sort of commitment so many of us will make at some point in our lives, as we prepare to take a leap into the unknown and make someone part of our family forever. That kind of thing is what the incredible, bigger-than-life, endlessly optimistic superhero genre was made for.

Superhero comics help us believe in ideas bigger than ourselves. They can give us hope in the face of endless misery. They can give us faith in impossible ideals. And they can remind us of how powerful and world-changing of a concept love is.

That’s why when you read a truly great Superman story, it’s possible to believe you can love someone. Until the end of time.

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DC Rebirth #1: A Review

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 26, 2016.

DC-Rebirth-Watchmen-Pin

“Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” – Rorschach, Watchmen #1

I’m so goddamn tired.

When you read a comic book published by DC Comics that is ostensibly about the last 30 years of their superhero publications and how those 30 years specifically impacted the last 5 years and how the following years will all be better, the only understandable response is a sigh of exhaustion. When you read that comic book twice, it’s probably time to go to bed.

Instead I’m here writing a review of DC Rebirth #1. It is a comic book that is all about one specific publisher of superhero comics and its last 30 years of history. The thematic core of this 80 page publication is so specific and inconsequential that no one outside of a very specific subculture will care about it nor should they. This is the slightest of slight objects, a tiny violin, a limerick written in disappearing ink, a joke with no punchline.

If you do not possess an understanding of DC Comics history that would rank at least at a 200-level college course, then DC Rebirth is absolute nonsense. The story supposedly at the core of the book is of Wally West, one Flash who has not existed (at least as a white boy), seeking out Barry Allen, another Flash, so he can return to existence. This narrative is comprehensible because Wally explains who he is and who everyone he sees is and that he hasn’t existed (at least as a white boy) for the past five years in captions that run the course of the entire issue.

In this at least there is a beginning, middle, and end, even if it comes in the form of a non-stop exposition dump. But that’s not really what DC Rebirth is about. It is really a metatextual statement about DC Comics, but don’t start to give it any credit because “metatextual” has more than three syllables. Writer Geoff Johns uses a couple of Flashes to ground the story because they’re the heroes that died during DC Comics’ first big reboot, Crisis On Infinite Earths, and then jump started the last five years in another event called Flashpoint. If you know what all of those stories are and have been paying attention to all five of those years, collectively known as “The New 52”, then this will all make sense.

If you’ve had something better to do with your time than obsess over ins and outs of 30 years of stories and corporate history concerning superheroes, then this entire comic will make no goddamn sense and you can happily forget it before moving on with your life.

The statement Johns is trying to make isn’t actually all that complex; it’s only that the topic is so myopic as to require a lot of study. If you’re one of the people who can happily walk away, but still want to understand, then the thesis of DC Rebirth is this: DC Comics is really sorry for the last five years of comics it printed. It promises to publish better comics in the future that will make you less sad.

If that sounds like marketing as opposed to storytelling or art, that’s probably because it is. The closest thing to a non-DC Comics centered theme that could be made from this comic book is that superheroes ought to be heroic. One might think it would be easier to write a superhero comic where superheroes are acting heroic than throw a massive event to say they ought to be, but then one probably isn’t too familiar with DC Comics. DC Rebirth is a story obsessed with its own importance when the most important thing it has to say is something everybody knows about superheroes.

They are bright and colorful. They present strong ideals and ethics. They were made primarily for children. None of this is rocket science, but based on the midnight releases, below cost pricing, and non-stop waves of marketing hooplah, it might just cure cancer. DC Rebirth isn’t even capable of conveying its own simple ideas though because it is so obsessed with the history of DC Comics that it undercuts its own thesis.

One of the key elements to understanding DC Rebirth is an awareness of another comic published by DC Comics in 1986 called Watchmen and that series’ impact on subsequent comics also published by DC Comics. Watchmen is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the medium because it is. It’s a work of human complexity, thematic layers, and formalistic experimentation that showed the excellence to which both the comics medium and superhero genre could aspire. It also was also rather dark with rape, prison riots, genocide, child-murder, and all sorts of other terrible things involved.

DC Rebirth looks to blame Watchmen for the darkening of DC superhero comics over the past 30 years, and wants to rebuke it. However, it starts to do this by including the characters of Watchmen directly into the DC Universe. Rather than making an effort to re-establish the tone it claims to be so important, it takes the unincorporated characters who are being blamed for all of the problems it wants to move past and makes them a part of the ongoing story of DC Comics. It even goes so far as to have the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan murder Pandora, the avatar of the New 52, and insinuate he’s an evil villain who will have to be continually confronted in the future.

Not only is that counter-productive, but the entire set up reveals a gross ignorance (or oversimplification, at the very least) of the history DC Rebirth sets out to explore. Blaming the darkening of superhero comics on Watchmenand mature superhero stories published in the 1980s sweeps away enormous shifts in the comics market. Current readers were encouraged to stay in while new readers were pushed away. Publishers responded to the demands of young fans who had become grown men. Increasing price points led to a higher average age of consumer. Blaming this change on Watchmen, while not entirely false, is the simplified understanding of an 8th grader who overheard some guys talking at his comics shop and decided to repeat a key phrase like gospel.

Furthermore, the names stamped proudly on the cover reveal a level of hypocrisy to this denouncement of dark, brooding superhero comics. It was Geoff Johns after all that began the New 52 era that is being apologized for in the pages of Flashpoint. The same comic in which he dreamed up an alternate Earth where Superman was a test subject, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were destroying the planet, and Bruce Wayne’s dad is now Batman and gets to murder his mom who is now The Joker. He followed this bright ray of sunshine up with the launch pad and centerpiece of The New 52: Justice League. It’s a comic where the biggest heroes of DC Comics meet do little more than fight and act shitty towards one another over the course of five years. Super villains save the planet more often than heroes do in this comic.

But none of those gratuitous, grim-dark comics were Geoff Johns fault. They all happened because of Watchmenand its creators who haven’t fucked with DC Comics in decades.

On top of all that, DC Rebirth conveniently forgets that in the oversimplified narrative where Watchmen ruined everything, there’s always another comic mentioned as well. Except that comic is currently having another over-priced sequel published with the name of its original creator slapped on work that barely resembles anything he has done before. I imagine if Alan Moore had learned to play ball and endorse “Before Watchmen” instead of denouncing DC Comics morally questionable business practices, then he too could have the same sweetheart deal as Frank Miller.

Luckily for Geoff Johns, while he can’t blame The Dark Knight Returns, he still has Watchmen as an easy target. Although this probably won’t stop him from digging up another 8 page backup story by Moore down the road to base a six-year Green Lantern epic on before denouncing the bearded, English wizard as the bane of all superhero comics.

If you can get past the rampant hypocrisy, barely there story, and reliance on immense swaths of inane knowledge,DC Rebirth still runs into the problem of not being a well-executed comic book. By invoking Watchmen in its pages and playing with those characters, it invites comparison to one of the greatest superhero comics ever produced. It doesn’t fare well when compared to a slightly above average superhero comic, though.

DC Rebirth was drawn by everybody at DC Comics. Technically, this isn’t true, but it certainly feels that way. And if we’re treating facts the same way this comic treats history, then we can get away with statements like this. Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jiminez all contributed pencils to the 64 pages of actual story in the issue. They project similar styles, but the jumps between artist every 4 to 10 pages are noticeable and prevent the issue from reading as a cohesive piece. Even in actually good comics published by DC Comics like Future Quest #1 (a story that manages to be fun without complaining about stories not being fun) this blending of similar artists creates a disruption. These shifts when not done purposefully, like with a time jump or dream sequence, point to the obvious changes and reminds readers they are looking at a comic rather than allow them to be absorbed by the story.

That these are the four men who best defined the house-style of The New 52 runs counter to everything DC Rebirthis trying to promise. It appears to be saying to readers that everything will be different, it just so happens to look the exact same as all of the stories it is denouncing.

It’s telling that the best page layouts in DC Rebirth are those pulled directly from Watchmen. The issue makes use of a standard nine-panel grid at multiple points and each time the action is clear. Most make economical use of space, although a nine-panel sequence of Batman thinking repeats moments with no purpose. This is followed by a splash in which Batman looks at The Comedian’s button. Another moment lacking cause except to remind readers that, yeah, Watchmen, because Watchmen.

DC-Rebirth-Horizontal

Frank, Reis, and the others are practiced storytellers and many of their pages are perfectly readable. Except whenever they attempt to assemble more than six panels together or try for a special effect within the grid, the results are disheartening at best. Rather than weaving pages together, panels are often jammed together at the bottom in tight vertical or horizontal patterns. At best these layouts are useless, providing no information as slices of the same sky are repeated lengthwise. At worst they pack information together so tightly that readers can absorb what is happening with a squint, but will be incapable of feeling much impact through their creased eyelids.

DC-Rebirth-Vertical

None of these men are on the same level of draftsmanship as Dave Gibbons either. Basic elements of composition are routinely lost in continual close ups and extra-stylized and unnecessarily posed panels. Figures are contorted into shapes an artist can routinely draw and emotions are broad in case readers might forget what sadness looks like.

DC-Rebirth-Linda-West

Consider a face not presented head on or in profile. Apparently heads sort of look like eggs and so this face will look like an egg with some features applied to it.

DC-Rebirth-Flash-Butt

Or what about the asses of the Flashes in their climactic reunion? Apparently the speed force shapes the gluteus maximus to resemble a lightning bolt rather than a recognizable component of human anatomy (no matter how muscular).

None of this really matters though because looking for artistic meaning in DC Rebirth is a fool’s errand, and I just so happen to be a fool. The real purpose of the comic is made clear after the conclusion when a series of page-sized advertisements for upcoming DC Comics series are revealed. Because like I said 1,486 words ago this entire story feels more like marketing than anything else. DC Rebirth is an extended advertisement in the form of a story that’s about the sort of thing only the small audience it’s trying to hock its wares to could possibly care about.

This comic isn’t here to make you understand something or care about anything. It knows what its intended audience wants and is here to give it to them. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that the foundations of this narrative are hypocritical in nature and insincere on a basic visual level. It understands some people like Ted Kord, so it’s going to give them Ted Kord grinning like an idiot. It understands some people like Flashes, so here’s TWO Flashes and they’re hugging. It understands some people like Green Arrow and Black Canary fucking, so here’s those two in separate beds wishing they were fucking.

And it’s all in the hope that someone will buy this shit because that’s what they claim to want. Just buy it. Just give them $2.99 every two weeks and they’ll make you happy. They swear it’s for real this time, baby.

Calling DC Rebirth a superhero story is dismissive of superhero stories, and that’s a category with a very low bar for entry. It’s an advertisement that you’re supposed to buy for $2.99 so you can get excited for a lot of other comics that will also cost $2.99. This is the DC Comics consumer-machine at work and it appears to be working for the first time in 5 years based on the way people who like Ted Kord, lots of Flashes, and Green Arrow and Black Canary fucking are eating it up.

On its surface there’s the CCO of DC Entertainment making a superficial marketing pitch that may actually reflect his deepest held beliefs. He’s asking you to buy into the idea that these comics will be good again and that everything is really the fault of some comic published 30 years ago. The man wants you to believe the lesson ofWatchmen was that superheroes should be grim and gritty, but you and him are too smart to be fooled by that now.

Except that was never the point of Watchmen. If there was a lesson to be taken from that comic 30 years ago, it was that superhero comics could be good. It’s too bad nobody involved with DC Rebirth bothered to learn that one.

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Leading Questions: Looking Up at the Shoulders of Giants

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 19, 2016.

New-Frontier-Darwyn-Cooke

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

When an artist with a singular aesthetic arrives on the scene, comes to dominate the scene, the discussion of their art changes. People come to just think of it as “Kirby,” “Allred,” and, yes, “Cooke.” How do we talk about Darwyn Cooke’s art without falling back on meaningless descriptions such as “retro”?

Before I dive into your question this week, I want to take a brief moment to reflect how lucky we are to live in a world where you can ask it. In all seriousness, that we can banter about the work of someone like Jack Kirby fills me with joy. Anyone who knows me well knows that I adore “The King”, both as an artist and a human being. He was a genuine good guy whose output and impact on the comics medium is unmatched in the Western hemisphere. We’re still regularly talking about him twenty years after he left this earth, and I don’t see that changing at all in the future.

But we’re even luckier to be reading comics from modern greats as well. It’s unfortunate that sometimes it takes the passing of a giant like Darwyn Cooke to remind us of this. While Kirby built an incredible foundation of work within the medium, artists have only continued to build on what he did. We can look around at the artist alley of big conventions in San Diego, New York, and Chicago to see immense talents like those you mentioned, and others like Mike Mignola, Stan Sakai, and Jim Steranko all still with us. That makes me feel incredibly lucky.

Maybe all of that sounds like the most maudlin of spiels, but I don’t really care. Artists like Kirby, Cooke, and Allred have given so much to comics, and had a dramatic impact on countless lives as a result. It doesn’t matter when these creators came around or whether they’re still with us today, they deserve all of the respect and recognition we can give them.

Part of that comes in the form of writing about comics in criticism, columns, reviews, or any other format. It can be the smallest of bite-sized comments about a specific issue or a significant text based in scholarly research, either way it’s creating a record of response to the art form. There’s plenty of people talking about comics as a medium today. Despite it’s relative niche spot in culture, you can find loads of websites (most run purely on goodwill and passion), and more books being published and classes being taught every year.

However, there’s not a whole lot of training or formal education present in the discussion of comics art. While we all learn about concepts of narrative, character, theme, and the broad strokes of writing from our basic K-12 education, there’s often not much space reserved for art. What there is often becomes optional by high school and is focused on classical forms and projects in earlier grades. The concept of learning how to read artwork or appreciate aspects of design and composition, especially those that apply to comics, is unlikely at best. As a result we see a false divide between writing and art as two separate aspects of comics, and an overwhelming focus on the former over the latter.

That doesn’t make it right though, and it does a disservice to the creators you mentioned in your question who helped to make comics what it is today.

New-Frontier-The-Losers

I think that a big part of the reason why people don’t write as much or as well about comics art as they could doesn’t just boil down to no one teaching them how though. I think a big part of it is also being scared to try and fail. Look at the comments on any film review and it’s apparent that pretty much everyone thinks they have an excellent grasp on story. We talk about it so often that everyone thinks they’re an expert, no matter how much evidence to the contrary there might be. Artwork isn’t the same way and that leads to a hesitance in speaking about it because no one likes being wrong.

That fear is misguided though. I’ve been paid to professionally write about, review, and edit comics for about two years now, yet I have no doubt that if you just looked at what I’ve published in the last month you could find plenty of statements about art with which to quarrel. I’m sure I’ve gotten something wrong recently. It’s not because I don’t try to write clearly or because I don’t research comics like a madman or because I don’t understand my own taste. It’s because discussing art, any form of art, can be difficult. That’s why we keep learning and writing, so we can get better at it. You learn from your mistakes, which is exactly why I’d recommend to those who write about comics to try and fail.

When someone looks at Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier and describes it as having a “retro style” and leaves it at that, they’re playing it safe. “Retro” is a broad word that means a lot of different things, but mostly just means old fashioned. While aspects of DC: The New Frontier could certainly be described as “old fashioned”, it’s a very broad brush to paint with for so complex a work. Maybe the first word that pops into your mind is “retro”, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best description or analysis of the comic. It’s a starting point.

Writing “retro” and moving on for an artist like Cooke, or doing the same with “bold” for Kirby or “cartoonish” for Allred isn’t trying. It’s lazy. I won’t say those adjectives are wrong, but they are definitely not helpful. It’s okay to look at the output of someone like a Cooke or a Kirby or an Allred and feel like you don’t possess the tools to do their work justice. You’re probably right. I still don’t feel like I possess the best toolbox in the world to do so. But the solution isn’t to take out your hammer and treat everything like a nail. You’ve got to start finding new tools and learning how to use them.

That’s why you don’t stop with “retro” and move on. You question what you mean by retro, and start to dig into your own head. You go to the library or Google and pull down books that have this sort of “retro” art style, and add some new ideas to the mix. Then you start to write about Darwyn Cooke and give it everything you’ve got, not just what you know you already had. Artists like those we’re discussing deserve to be discussed and understood, and that can only happen if we actually work on our understanding.

That’s probably a lot less intimidating when talking about your run-of-the-mill comics though. Want to chat about a recent issue of Marvel’s infinite stream of Avengers titles? Unless you’re tackling Ultimates #6, what’s on the page probably won’t seem overwhelming to you. Yet when we talk about legends (living or passed), the bar seems that much higher. When you look at the work of Kirby or Cooke, you know it’s great. Detailing why and how that is is something of a challenge though. They’re the iconic makers of comics and it helps to have some starting points to consider just how to consider their work.

So for what it’s worth, I’m going to throw out a few brief ideas on how to start discussing comics art, no matter how imposing it may seem. I don’t want to write a manual, but if I’m going to tell people to try and fail, I ought to at least not walk away without providing one or two pieces of advice.

New-Frontier-Hal-Jordan

A great starting point is to consider what you are reminded of when you look at art. Do you recognize a panel layout, a style, or a pose? The story of art is one of generations and peers, where everything that came before and everything is currently happening is impacting everything else. Artists do not operate in a vacuum; they are consumers as well as creators. You cannot look at the work of Darwyn Cooke or Mike Allred and not detect the DNA of Jack Kirby (although this is true of almost all superhero comics to some degree).

This doesn’t mean you should try to describe artists in terms of other artists either. Discerning what influenced someone’s work can help you detect the focus and goals within it. You can’t break down art like a chemistry experiment with different amounts of specific influences. Ultimately each artist is creating something that is completely their own, even in an homage. Yet knowing how they got to their own creation is helpful in discussing it.

Perhaps the most obvious piece of advice when it comes to discussing comics art is to simply describe what you see. That doesn’t mean to create a carbon copy of what is on the page with your words, but to detect what is notable to you. When you look at something like Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, what leaps out at you?

For me it’s the simplicity of his line work. The way in which he uses only a few precise strokes to craft a recognizable and easily distinguished face that is capable of conveying a wide array of emotion with only slight adjustments. There’s never any doubt how his characters feel and that emotion is rendered as simply as possible. This beautiful simplicity is carried into his broader designs and the layout of the very pages. The manner in which he depicts a dinosaur or fighter jet resemble the fundamentals of these concepts. He distills each object and setting into its essence without being so minimal that they have no character to them. The very layout of the comic projects this as well based on a 3-panel grid in which most panels are projected wide across the page to allow readers to be immersed in carefully chosen moments.

Once you recognize what stands out to you in the artwork and where it comes from, you have a better ability to relate the most important aspect of all: how it impacts you. Everyone sees something different when they look at a page of comics art. Everyone feels something different too. There’s no such thing as an objective review or analysis; your relationship with the art is important. Your ability to help others understand that relationship is based in how well you can discuss the art itself though.

New-Frontier-Martian-Manhunter

So looking at DC: The New Frontier one last time, here’s what I can say (in short). It’s clear to me that Cooke is calling on early comics influences and his time in advertising. You can see the bold heroism of Kirby’s forms and the crystalline distillation of concepts found in classic ad work. It calls back to the look and feel of the 1960s. His line and character work bear this out too. He is interested in showing characters who clearly represent their identities, so those identities can be borne across the page. Hal Jordan’s steel-jawed resolve is apparent, as is Martian Manhunter’s thoughtful, slump shouldered pondering of Earth. Even more quiet characters like J’onn feel important and big thanks to his design of the page though, showing them in great, wide panels.

And all of this hits me with the feeling of importance. When I read DC: The New Frontier, I see characters who are both aspirational and reflective. They show me traits that I admire in incredible moments and contain humanity in the slightest of changes. I see myself and my best self in Cooke’s artwork. So as he tells a story of an impossible threat and the ability of courageous, determined people to overcome it, I find their strength in me. His ability to pull me into his stories allows this comic to paint an incredible portrait of hope for the future that makes my heart sing. That’s what Darwyn Cooke’s art in this comic does for me.

And I think that’s a better description than “retro”.

So my parting advice would be this: As you read comics and turn around to discuss them with your friends or write about them on the internet, don’t be dissuaded or discouraged by self-doubt. You know what you are looking at and you know how it makes you feel. You can always speak to those things and learn about both artwork and yourself in turn. Only by trying to discuss art and studying it can you improve.

Doing that will not only allow you to better understand art and yourself, but to celebrate the artists who inspire you to do all of this in the first place.

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EXCLUSIVE: B. Clay Moore On Valiant’s “Savage”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on May 17, 2016.

Savage B Clay Moore Interview

A brand new character was announced at the Valiant Summit in New York City today. This fall writer B. Clay Moore and artists Clayton Henry and Lewis LaRosa will be introduce the world to Savage, a boy raised on a mysterious island of dinosaurs, in a prestige-format 4-issue mini-series. It’s an exciting new project that will expand both the world and cast of the Valiant universe.

ComicBook.Com writer Chase Magnett was able to speak with Moore before the official announcement about his inspirations and goals for the series, his experience working with Valiant, and the dual stories being drawn by Clayton Henry and Lewis LaRosa. Check out the official solicitation for Savage #1 and the full interview with B. Clay Moore below.

SAVAGE #1 (of 4)

Written by B. CLAY MOORE

Art by CLAYTON HENRY and LEWIS LAROSA

Cover by LEWIS LAROSA

A VALIANT PRESTIGE FORMAT LIMITED SERIES

COMING IN NOVEMBER

Fifteen years ago, the world’s most famous soccer star and his former supermodel wife –pregnant with their unborn child – disappeared without a trace. The world believes they are dead… But, in reality, their private jet crash-landed on a mysterious, unknown island ruled by by prehistoric creatures from another time…

This is the story of how they lost their humanity.

This fall, acclaimed writer B. Clay Moore (Hawaiian Dick) and explosive artists Clayton Henry (HARBINGER WARS) and Lewis LaRosa (BLOODSHOT REBORN) present a relentless epic of survival in a cold-blooded land ruled by instinct alone as SAVAGE makes his brutal entrance into the Valiant Universe!

This is your first big project with Valiant and you have the opportunity to introduce a new character to the growing universe. How did this opportunity come about after getting to work on Bloodshot for one issue a few years ago?

B. Clay Moore: I’ve known [Valiant Editor-in-Chief] Warren Simons since we worked together on something at Marvel years ago. We’ve stayed in touch and now and then discussed the possibility of doing something more at Valiant. Warren is well aware that I’d initially made my mark doing creator-owned work, and approached me with the idea of creating something brand new for the Valiant Universe.

My favorite part of developing new comics is the character creation and world-building, so the opportunity to introduce a new element to an existing (and ever evolving) comic book universe was right up my alley.

There are a lot of interesting hooks to Savage, from his parentage to his separation from the modern world to his relative youth. What attracted you to the character of Savage initially?

Moore: As a writer, I always try to approach a character by assessing how his or her environment shapes his or her story. This story is sort of the ultimate example of that. What would happen if a child of privilege had that privilege stripped away at an early age, and his character was forged by the combination of the character of his parents, and the harshest environment imaginable? And, ultimately, what happens when that character is introduced to new environments?

Savage plays on some familiar tropes dating back to pulp heroes like Tarzan. What sets your story apart from what has come before?

Moore: Well, there are really only a handful or archetypes in comics or any genre-oriented entertainment, so the key is finding original beats within the familiar. Even Tarzan had his antecedents, after all.

For me, focusing on what makes this particular character tick, in a fairly unique environment, and just letting the story push his development forward, has resulted in what I think is a brand new take on those familiar tropes. I rarely think about what’s gone on before, to be honest. I just trust that this character is leading us in new and interesting directions.

Savage B Clay Moore Sketch

In addition to creating this brand new character, you’re also going to be exploring a new setting in the Valiant Universe: an island populated by dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. How would you characterize this setting and its place in the Valiant universe moving forward?

Moore: The island is a fantastic playground. It opens the door to so many options that the challenge becomes how to restrict your imagination to the elements most important to the story. There’s also something inherently frightening about a place where literally anything can happen. In a sense, simply knowing that the island exists within the Valiant Universe means there’s an unpredictable x-factor lurking out there somewhere, always capable of impacting that universe in completely unexpected ways.

Now imagine growing up inside that x-factor.

This first story will be focused on introducing Savage… Are there any plans to incorporate him – or other elements of his realm – into the Valiant universe at large eventually?

Moore: I like to think the idea was to create a character that would add a new wrinkle to the existing universe. I definitely hope to see him incorporated sooner than later. And, obviously, I’d love to help guide his development from here.

What can readers expect from Clayton Henry and Lewis LaRosa’s depiction of the Faraway’s prehistoric inhabitants? What do you most look forward to seeing once you have finished pages of Savage in hand?

Moore: It means a lot to me that Valiant has included these guys in the creation of SAVAGE. Lewis is a huge fan of the elements we’re using to tell this story, and when an artist as talented as he is is enthusiastic about a story, the results can be stunning. Clayton seems to be growing by leaps and bounds with each story he tells, and I can see why he’s become such a vital part of the Valiant creative pool. There’s nothing more exciting than working with talented, invested collaborators, and that will definitely show in the finished product.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell potential readers and Valiant fans about Savage and this new piece of Valiant’s mythology?

Moore: Just that I feel honored to have been entrusted with the task of adding a new character to such a vibrant existing universe. My hope is that the ripples of his creation extend beyond this book and into the larger Valiant Universe.

Beyond that, I’ve never seen fans with as much devotion to a company and positive energy as the Valiant fans I’ve met over the past couple of years. I can’t wait to see their reaction to what we’re doing once the book hits shelves.

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Leading Questions: A Dying Medium Brings New Life in Wednesday Comics

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 12, 2016.

Wednesday-Comics-Cover

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why is Wednesday Comics the best creative endeavor at the Big Two this century?

I won’t kid you, Mark. When I first received this question I panicked a little bit, which is probably why I’m writing this column the night before it goes live. It’s not that I dislike Wednesday Comics, to the contrary I really love it, but that I don’t have much access to or memory of the series.

There’s an enormous hardcover measuring in the full 14” x 20” broadsheet dimension back at my home (about 1,100 miles from my current location). It is a book too large for either my standard library shelves designed for typically sized comic books (about 10” tall) or the oversized top shelf on each unit made for over-sized artist’s editions and absolutes (about 16” tall). Instead it rests on its back on top of one shelf with its spine pointed outward flashing “Wednesday Comics” in big white letters against a bold, red background. It’s a piece that I really cherish in my library, which is one reason I didn’t drag it halfway across the country.

You also cannot find Wednesday Comics in a digital format. There’s nothing on Comixology. DC Comics also hasn’t made much effort to adapt older or unique entries in their publication history to the digital format. WhileWednesday Comics would certainly require some consideration in how it could be read on a computer, tablet, or phone, I think it would be worth considering simply to make sure it’s accessible to a wider range of readers. Unfortunately, the people in charge of these decisions don’t appear to share my opinions (or else we’d have more than one issue of Solo on Comixology as well).

So there was no way for me to pull down this gargantuan hardcover and flip through it to refresh my generally pleasant, but imprecise memories. Wednesday Comics was collected in this format, after originally being published on newsprint on a weekly basis, back in 2010. I read it once then in a single go and again a couple of years later between graduation and starting my current career. That leaves me with about 4 years of long hours, plenty of parties, and a whole bunch of comics to recall this anthology through.

Rather than ask for more time or have you risk shipping the original newsprint across the entire damn country (thanks for the offer btw), I chose to sit on it for a couple of days. I left Wednesday Comics sitting at the back of my head trying to recall various creators, strips, and plot lines from the series. And what I found was an answer as to why Wednesday Comics is undoubtedly the best creative endeavor from the Big Two since the year 2000.

Wednesday-Comics-Paul-Pope-Adam-Strange

For anyone unfamiliar with Wednesday Comics, it is a weekly anthology series published over the summer of 2009. There were 16 pages to each installment printed on newspaper broadsheets. Each individual page featured one of fifteen chapters featuring a popular DC Comics property conceived of by a unique creative team. It was a truly unique concept and one that has seen nothing comparable arrive in the 7 years since its debut or in multiple decades before.

It’s the uniqueness of Wednesday Comics format, along with the incredible diversity of talent selected to work within said format, that makes up the reasons why this project ought to be revered amongst everything offered by the Big Two in our lifetime. 15 issues of 15 stories each in single, ginormous page installments pushed creators, genre, and the medium to some very potent places.

Let’s start by looking at the creative lineup before digging into the format itself. Almost without exception, each creative team on Wednesday Comics brings something unique to the table. They are all writers, artists, and cartoonists who were well respected in 2009 and continue to play a significant role in American comics today. More importantly, each team fills a somewhat different role in terms of style, storytelling, and theme. It’s a true buffet of the range to be found amongst the elite of the industry.

I’m not going to be able to go through every creator who worked on Wednesday Comics, but that shouldn’t imply that any of them don’t deserve a fair slice of the credit or acclaim. While I may not be a fan of every story, I think it’s fair to say that every story in the collection is for someone. It’s the range of appeal and approaches that makes the collection excellent. No comic is for everyone and that’s a good thing, and all of these comics show a certain degree of craftsmanship no matter your taste. But for now, I’ll just focus on some of the variety on display.

Look at kinetic, European stylings of the inimitable Paul Pope and Jose Villarrubia on “Strange Adventures”. Their brand of weirdness maps out the planet of Rann and packs a punch in each battle of laser guns. Then look at “Supergirl” by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, which features some of the purest, most fun stylings in modern superhero comics. It’s an absolute delight to see them play with superpowers and puppies, crafting a story that’s really enjoyable for all ages.

Consider what Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred accomplish in “Metamorpho” as they experiment with the page. Both are comics creators devoted to pushing the medium forward in a variety of formalist methods and it shows in this story as they toy with panels and layouts. In the meanwhile Adam and Joe Kubert remind readers of what direct, EC Comics-style storytelling is capable of in “Sgt. Rock”. They lay the story out guiding readers clearly between each panel and focusing on draftsmanship above all else to deliver a very effective story.

The thing to remember about this diversity of comics storytelling is that for many readers, it might be their first exposure to many of these styles. A fan of DC Comics may be unaware of what Paul Pope is doing in comics today or the proud tradition behind Kubert’s work. Wednesday Comics cracks a door to explore any of these creators bibliographies and the wide range of comics similar to theirs that go far beyond the publishing houses of the Big Two.

In fact, the only black eye on this collection of 31 creators is mediocre writer and known serial harasser Eddie Berganza on “Teen Titans”. Sean Galloway’s pop art influenced teenagers still look like a lot of fun, updating the original team to a more modern visual sensibility. He helps to cover up a story that is rote in every way and bring some life to pages that otherwise might have suffered both for the quality of the writer’s skill and later for his (absolutely) earned reputation within the industry.

Wednesday-Comics-Palmiotti-Conner-Supergirl

While the quality of the creators involved cannot be understated, I think it’s the format of Wednesday Comics itself that really makes the case for it being “the best creative endeavor” from Marvel or DC Comics in the past 16 years. That’s a high bar, even with the “Big Two” modifier, that requires something truly special and it’s the construction of this series that really puts it over the top.

DC Editorial Art Director Mark Chiarello deserves a lot of credit for conceiving of the project and convincing DC Comics to actually publish it in this format. He curated the creators involved approaching them to ask what properties they would like to use to tell a story, then providing them this unique format.

While the restrictions of 15 chapter stories with each chapter confined to a 14” x 20” page may seem overly restrictive, it’s the restrictive quality of Wednesday Comics that pushed creators to provide the quality of output they delivered.

First of all, consider the old idiom that brevity is the soul of wit. I think it’s the soul of a lot more than that. Doing anything well in a succinct fashion requires a certain level of mastery. This isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of maxi-series and epic comics runs, but it’s much easier to see the flaws or successes in a short comic than a massive one. Someone like Walt Simonson who wrote “The Demon and Catwoman” in Wednesday Comics is renowned for his lengthy runs on superb comics like Thor, Manhunter, and Orion. Here he packs his skills into a similar amount of space as a typical issue of comics and along with artist Brian Stelfreeze proves why he is a living legend in comics.

Not only were creators required to fit their entire story into only 15 short installments, but each installment was required to function on its own. Each page must feature a beginning, middle, and end in addition to the overall arc of the story spread across 15 weeks. This narrative pressure reveals an understanding of not only how to plot a comic, but how to structure that plot in a clear fashion.

The next thing to consider is how this compact structure allows readers to access such a wide range of comics storytelling in both a short amount of time and effective manner. Lifting either the original newsprint or the hardcover collection of Wednesday Comics is a joy. Whatever mood you are in, there’s a story in those pages for you at that moment. Considering the low price point of the original folded sheets, readers needed to only find one or two things to catch their eye in order to make the investment worthwhile.

In addition to being an anthology that can really find a home with anyone, it also works as a wonderful survey for readers. It offers a great deal in terms of content and styles of comics and asks for a very small investment of time. Each page can be read very quickly, but includes a complete section of a story offered by excellent creative talent. While you may not be able to convince someone to investigate the art of Ryan Sook by diving into “Seven Soldier: Zatanna”, they can easily check out his work in a page of “Kamandi” in Wednesday Comics.

The last thing to look at is the space of the page itself. Artists are given much more space to explore than in almost any other comics format. What they accomplish with that space varies wildly from the weaving panels of “Metamorpho” to the long brooding silences of Eduardo Risso’s panels in “Batman”. They create effects requiring much more space than a standard comics page, and present some concepts and imagery by which even grizzled, veteran readers may be surprised.

There is something about the very dimensions of the pages themselves too. Each is so large that it demands attention and a certain degree of respect, in spite of the recyclable material it was originally printed on. It’s easy to crumple and toss away the cheap newsprint pages, yet the artwork printed on them provide a transitory value. Seeing the artwork of someone like Paul Pope writ large across paper larger than your torso draws the eye in and encourages it to explore. It is the quality of the comics being printed that provides value to the paper and the size of the paper that helps this art be seen properly. These pages simultaneously embrace the disposable nature of comics while presenting this artwork in a manner that makes it truly seem to matter, if only for a few brief moments.

Kamandi-Sook-Gibbons-Kamandi

Even after four years, with a little bit of thought, the achievements of Wednesday Comics spring back to life in my mind. I found this collection when I was just beginning to construct my comics library and it still holds a proud place in that room, as well as in my memory. Like I said earlier, not every story was a home run, but there were none without merit.

It’s the diversity of the creators, subjects, and format that lends Wednesday Comics its endurance as a creative experiment. Not only did the series capture the best goals of an anthology, but it challenged its creators to explore the comics forms in ways many had never considered. Within each giant sheet of paper there are not only talented men and women at work, but the strain of new ideas and old skills being put to work. It’s a compelling collection both on its surface as a batch of unique tales featuring DC Comics’ best characters and on a deeper artistic level with creators straining to tell stories succinctly in a form that had almost disappeared entirely.

Now I’m just looking forward to getting home and exploring Wednesday Comics again. It’s a comic that certainly deserves to be remembered and reread.

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Interview: Dean Haspiel Talks About “The Red Hook” and His Love For Brooklyn

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on May 9, 2016.

Dean Haspiel The Red Hook

Earlier this year ComicBook.Com had a chance to speak with several creators from LINE Webtoon about their exciting new roster of digital comics. The company is rapidly expanding in a wide range of directions with some very talented writers and artists. We had a chance to catch up with cartoonist Dean Haspiel to discuss one of those directions: a shared superhero universe.

Haspiel is the backbone of the “New Brooklyn” concept, an alternate universe in which Brooklyn has separated from the city of New York and taken on its own roster of colorful heroes and villains. He has debuted the first of six series set in New Brooklyn called “The Red Hook” following a villain turned hero after gaining immense new powers. Haspiel shared his thoughts on Brooklyn, superheroes, and how to best tell stories on the web with us below.

Creating a new shared universe, especially one with a unique history like New Brooklyn, is no minor feat. How did you approach the development of this world?

When I first invented The Red Hook in 2012, I didn’t know he was going to be living within a sentient Brooklyn whose heart got broken by an indifferent society, so much so that it physically secedes into becoming its own country apart from America. That idea came after I worked out the origin of The Red Hook and how and why he goes from being a super-thief to a superhero against his will, or he will die. I wanted to create a hook that would let my characters share a unique universe with the late Seth Kushner’s and Shamus Beyale’s Brooklynite characters before Seth passed away.

Seth liked my idea of a living Brooklyn that’s fed up with the rest of the world and sparks a cosmic pandemic of guardians to protect its borders. But, as everybody knows, “with great power comes great responsibility” — and, in this case, a borough of villains. And, with that in mind, we needed an avatar that spoke for Brooklyn. So, I co-created The Purple Heart with Vito Delsante and Ricardo Venancio to get to the root of what happened to Brooklyn herself and where we’re going with New Brooklyn while telling curious stories about superheroes and their struggles. We were able to birth and merge our initial ideas while sharing a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

There’s something about New York, specifically Brooklyn, that seems to make artists dream of superheroes, inspiring many of the greats. Any thoughts on what it is about the neighborhood that has made it so important to the genre?

Haspiel: I think what makes Brooklyn a force for manifesting superheroes comes from the fact that blue collar workers like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, and a slew of other progenitors of the comix form, hailed from Kings County. Kinda like Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, they got there first and Brooklyn is where the genesis of many famous cartoonists created extraordinary characters to deal with extremely tough times dating as far back as Captain America punching out Adolph Hitler.

Lots of heroes were spawned from war and economic strife. In fact, The Red Hook and New Brooklyn is partially a response to my getting the proverbial boot from my own studio soon so that land developers can attempt to revamp a few more artist-friendly neighborhoods into expensive condominiums and co-worker hubs for those who won’t blink at a $12 shot of bourbon. Rapidly dying are the affordable underground happenings that made NYC rich with experimentation.

While New Brooklyn has a very different history and a slightly different location, it is still very much set in Brooklyn. What made you fall in love with Brooklyn and want to set your story there?

Haspiel: I moved to Brooklyn 19-years ago after a break-up with my then girlfriend. I couldn’t afford to stay in my native Manhattan and an old high school pal alerted me to an available apartment in Carroll Gardens. My mother and late brother lived in that neighborhood for a little while, so I was familiar, but it still felt like I was moving to the suburbs. Growing up in Manhattan, I thought I knew everything I had to know about NYC until I spent a solid year in Brooklyn and discovered what I didn’t know.

My exodus from Manhattan to Brooklyn became the basis for my graphic memoir, “Beef With Tomato” (published by Alternative Comics). I think I fell in love with how Brooklyn kept things “street.” There were hardly any pretensions when I landed. What Manhattan abandoned for brighter lights and bigger signs and whiter noise, Brooklyn brandished in their water towers and stoops and trees and people. I felt a better sense of community in Brooklyn, even when I was getting the stink eye from indigenous locals. Hipsters came later. But, in the late ’90s, I had to earn my way in. Brooklyn hazes you for your self-worth, especially in Red Hook. Ironically, since my Manhattan escape, Brooklyn has become more expensive. I can’t win. Nobody put a gun to my head but I’ve given my life’s blood and art to NYC and it sometimes treats me like an infection just because I’m economically (and esthetically) allergic to champagne and caviar while my veins proudly pump 70% cheap Chinese food takeout and 30% discounted peanut butter. Give me royalty checks or give me grape jelly.

In The Red Hook you have the opportunity to share your perspective on Brooklyn. How are you approaching the visuals to distinguish and interpret the city?

Haspiel: Most of the origin story of The Red Hook takes place up-close-and-personal between other heroes and villains but I got to set the stage in various parts of Brooklyn I truck in, including the Red Hook waterfront, The Brooklyn Bridge, the Gowanus canal, and DUMBO. Rooftops and water towers are an essential backdrop to the theater of the New Brooklyn abstract. Stylistically, I’m honing my seasoned cross-between the Golden Age of comics and gritty black & white comics from the 1980s with a healthy handful of Silver Age comics for cosmic candor.

You’re sharing this vision of New Brooklyn with other artists and creators too. What sort of work went into planning the design of the stories and universe?

Haspiel: Luckily, I only had to look as far as my studio mates. Seth Kushner and I had threatened to publish a two-man anthology featuring our superheroes before the offer to do a webcomic for LINE Webtoon came to me from Tom Akel. I could have just published my Red Hook idea solo but I wanted to honor my commitment to Seth and that meant creating a universe that would excite new readers. A lot of superhero stories happen in NYC (just throw a rock at Marvel Comics) and I didn’t feel that setting our stories in Brooklyn was going to turn enough heads. In coming up with a sentient Brooklyn who literally secedes, I needed a character to explain some of how that happened and why. So, I invited studio mate, Vito Delsante to create The Purple Heart with me.

Vito is a veteran of the kinds of Silver Age comics I like to read and make, so he was great to bounce ideas off of and he made The Purple Heart his own. Obviously, I’m privy to the scripts and art and Vito is doing a great job building a mystery behind the analogy of “New Brooklyn,” while Ricardo Venancio is drawing beautifully eerie yet heroic art. Unfortunately, Seth passed away before he could finish expanding his Brooklynite story and his co-creator/artist, Shamus Beyale (who was recently nominated for an Eisner Award for his work on John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown, along with artist Christa Cassano) did an amazing job writing what Seth couldn’t, adding his own superhero cum New Brooklyn sensibilities. Shamus’ art is phenomenal, too. It’s heartbreaking to know that Seth will never see what we eventually put together but we’re honored to be able to bring to fruition his posthumous superhero and perpetuate his legacy.

As the other series, The Brooklynite and The Purple Heart, begin are there plans to crossover characters and events immediately or will the shared aspect be more subtle?

Haspiel: The three different New Brooklyn comics will hint at each others characters but we wanted to focus on their individual origin stories and how the great secession impacted their lives. Plans of future stories are already in development, including a few new characters and a possible team situation.

Focusing on The Red Hook, the first few strips establish it as a superhero comic, but also incorporate elements of crime and romance. What’s your personal thesis for approaching this character and his story?

Haspiel: All good superhero stories express a healthy mix of science-fiction, romance, and crime, don’t they? That’s what makes superhero comics stand part from singular genres. If you’ve ever read any of my Billy Dogma comix or the occasional superhero stuff I’ve done for Marvel, DC and Archie/Dark Circle, you’ll know that I’ve never been good at sticking to the trappings of a particular genre. Listening to Prince, Throbbing Gristle, The Clash, J.G. Thirlwell, Moby, Swans, Death Grips, The Chemical Brothers, and Run The Jewels while watching horror movies, spaghetti westerns, and AMC/HBO shows, has a way of influencing a mind and body. Like life, I’m influenced by a cacophony of diverse cultures, ideas and ambiance. I’m hard to peg. Dub me a one-stop-shop; a Renaissance cartoonist.

There’s a diversity of style and reference in the first few strips too, with some Kirby crackle and emphasis on simple, but iconic costumes. How has your approach as an artist on The Red Hook varied from past projects?

Haspiel: I’m a card-carrying student the likes of Kirby, Toth, Eisner, C.C. Beck, Ditko, Kane, Miller, Chaykin, Simonson, Sienkiewicz, Romita Jr, and Frank Quitely. But, knowing I had to produce a chapter a week (equivalent of 4-7 pages of traditional comics), I developed a shorthand for coloring and inking that would allow me to step up my production game to deliver three chapters a month ahead of schedule. I’m currently three months ahead. I figured out a way to color code the world of New Brooklyn while showcasing the various superheroes and villains.

I abandoned slick, Joe Sinnott-esque inking that I’ve been practicing (and cherish) for years for a grittier line and broken art/dry brush style. I shelved my two-ply Bristol board for crappy sketch pad paper so as to remove the precious aspect of drawing. If I messed up a drawing I would simply toss it and start over. So far, that’s only happened twice. I needed to move faster and not be controlled by the craft while making both a traditional print comic (to be published later) and concurrently delivering a vertical scroll for digital consumption. It’s been a challenging learning curve and both versions yield very different reading experiences.

The Line Webtoon format has you designing the comic to read in a continual downward scroll. How has that affected your approach to storytelling and layouts?

Haspiel: For the vertical scroll, I had to eliminate two-page spreads and my beloved inset panels. A lot of the action is designed to go from top panel to bottom panel. I’m employing more tall rectangles than usual. Where I used to innovate the blank canvas of the comic book page, I’m now concerned with bare bones narrative clarity. It’s a wholly different but satisfying way of absorbing story and it’s free.

Dean Haspiel Sketch

The Red Hook is only a few installments into its run so far. Looking ahead what has you most excited about the stories to come?

Haspiel: The Red Hook is going to go through a life-changing shock while a rival takes revenge. A mysterious vigilante is going to show up when least expected and then planet earth is going to be threatened by a sick superhero. I’ve attached a sneak-peek sketch of the mysterious vigilante exclusively for Comicbook.com readers. And, of course, I can’t wait for New Brooklyn fans to read & see The Brooklynite and The Purple Heart when they finally launch later this summer and fall.

Chase Magnett is a freelance journalist, critic, and editor working with comics, film, and television. He has been hooked on comics since he picked an issue of Suicide Squad out of a back issue bin fifteen years ago. When Chase is not working with comics in some way he spends his time rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and grilling. He currently contributes to ComicBook.com and other outlets.

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Guarding the Galaxy: Venom: Space Knight #6

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 6, 2016.

Venom-Space-Knight-6-Cover

Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett has been working his way through Marvel Comic’s biggest franchises since the publisher relaunched (don’t dare use the word “reboot” anywhere Tom Brevoort can see it) their superhero line in the wake of Secret Wars. From the X-Men to the Avengers to the Inhumans, he has tackled five comics in a single week to check up on these big teams along with their individual members. There was at least one big gap left in his series of expeditions though: the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the last few years the Guardians of the Galaxy have gone from Marvel’s unloved 80s space series and a second-rate knock off of the Suicide Squad to one of the most precious properties in publication thanks to the surprising success of a single movie. Instead of having only one or two series, if any, in publication, now the team has a reliable ongoing and a solo series for almost every one of its members. That’s not to mention other tangential titles that can’t be squeezed into this week. So has the success of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy translated into some quality comics? Let’s find out…

Venom: Space Knight #6

Written by Robbie Thompson

Art and Colors by Ariel Olivetti

Letters by Joe Caramagna

Venom: Space Knight #6 is a paint-by-numbers superhero comic. You know this story. You know this exact story and you’ve read it hundreds of times before. The hero is in a tight spot, but has a plan. A well-timed reversal gives him an opportunity and colorful allies come to the rescue. There’s a climactic battle where the day is saved, but the bad guy gets away. Parents were rolling their eyes at this stuff in theaters during the 1940s. What’s really unforgivable is that there’s nothing more than superficial tweaks to this formula.

Artist Ariel Olivetti’s style is certainly unique within superhero comic. A blend of digital rendering and painting, it creates an effect that appears to be aiming for realism, but hits closer to mech-centric anime cartooning. While not easy to put your finger on, his dedication to this highly rendered form is interesting. The mechs on display inVenom: Space Knight #6 are worth admiring in their detail, even when replicated from the same 3-D model. That format does pull focus from the painterly style of characters when set in the same panel though, as the two approaches fail to cohere in a single moment.

Venom-Space-Knight-6-Mechs

The action and chases of Venom: Space Knight #6 are less static than earlier issues. Characters appear to actually move here and their bodies are not too rigid on the page. While an inability to establish clear geography still slows the pacing of action sequences, explosions and punches land with enough impact to not be ignored (except by most of the characters). The better those moments function the less time there is to be distracted by the constant grimacing of human faces. The monotony of expression on display is only altered by Venom, a character so prone to morphing that he cannot help but be overtly expressive in Olivetti’s hands.

While the mixed strengths and flaws of Olivetti’s work establish it as interesting, the same cannot be said of the scripting. The hackneyed plot that forms the skeleton of the issue is only reinforced in dialogue. Characters spend much of their time explaining the plot to one another. When not doing this, one-liners are utilized in all too familiar ways. A potential love interest stakes a claim on Flash Thompson in the same manner as another alien did inGuardians of the Galaxy #7 at the start of this series. Not only has everything here been done before, down to the last-minute escape complete with cursing of the hero, but there’s no attempt to obscure that fact.

Venom-Space-Knight-6-Panda

There is a sub-plot regarding Venom’s urge to be a hero and comparing his backsliding towards violence with alcoholism. It is handled with the same subtlety found in an episode of Duck Dynasty. Venom does something wrong, someone points it out, and then he apologizes. The final page is meant to be a foreboding look at the future, but the story the precedes it lacks the gravitas to provide any meaning to this moment.

Venom: Space Knight #6 is defined by an anatomically unremarkable skeleton of a story wrapped in Olivetti’s flesh. The result is something that might appear briefly intriguing at times only to reveal its lack of substance. There is no strength or driving force to this comic beyond filling the lack of a Venom in space comic. And was that really a void anyone noticed or needed to be filled to begin with?


Guardians Wrap Up

If nothing else, it’s clear why movie tickets don’t translate into comics sales. The popularity of the Guardians of the Galaxy film may have assured a place in the Marvel Universe for all of these titles, but it certainly didn’t guarantee they’d match the levels of action, fun, or wit found on the screen. This batch of books reads like an office worker going through the motions after two decades. They understand what it technically means to be a superhero comic, but bring no joy or life to that understanding.

With the notable exception of Rocket Raccoon and Groot #4, these series appear to be functioning in the same way coma patients function. They are technically alive and certainly have a body full of operating organs, but why would you want to spend any time with them? Marvel might be making money on these, but they probably aren’t earning any new fans. It’s a sad lot that suggest maybe the only thing they should have double downed on from the cinematic success were the non-humanoid members of the team.

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Civil War Crimes: Civil War #7

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 5, 2016.

Civil War #7 Cover

Chase Magnett: The best part of Civil War #7 is knowing we are almost done. It has been a long trail over the past seven weeks as we’ve walked this long beach of comics criticism. Sometimes there were only one set of footsteps in the sand, as we were forced to carry each other.

That’s a dumb metaphor and schlocky writing, but it’s exactly what this comic deserves.

Civil War #7 works as an effective end cap to the entire mini-series in that its uniting theme appears to be: shit happens. I don’t mean that in a nihilistic, careless universe sense though. I mean that in the most literal terms possible. Shit happens. Mark Millar writes it. Steve McNiven draws it. Morry Hollowell colors it. A whole slue of guys ink it. There’s no reason for anything of the actions, reactions, or events on these pages though. Each moment exists in a vacuum where it might appear to be cool, at least cool as deemed by someone who genuinely hates their audience. Connection and cause are unimportant when confronted with loads of superheroes in each panel, careless violence, and unearned sentimentality.

Hercules murders the hell out of Thor, Cloak dumps everyone a quarter mile above New York City, Namor shows up, Cap gets tackled by firefighters. If you showed any of these moments to a reader without context, they would feel they have importance. After having read the six previous issues of Civil War, it’s apparent they lack it altogether. Just like your discussion of Cap and Punisher’s confrontation in Civil War #6, there are opportunities to say something, but it’s all just hollow noise.

Mark, you’ve done a great job focusing on specific details in your reviews and narrowing down the conversation to the micro-elements. What in Civil War #7 jumps out at you as worth discussing? I don’t think we’ll get much further than despondency in covering the broad strokes.

Mark Stack: Let me answer that question with another question: Was there anything cool in this issue?

There’s a reason we see superheroes fighting each other so much. There’s a reason why people still like to see it. When one of your favorite characters goes up against another one of your favorite characters, both coming out of their own titles where the rules of the universe are that they never lose, that’s cool. There’s also the element of seeing the true clash of ideologies between well-defined characters. Batman versus Superman is a clash of ideals, methods, etc. Who will be proven right? Will these characters reach an agreement?

This series is ostensibly about splitting superheroes across lines of pro-regulation and anti-regulation. There is a lot of lip-service paid to the idea that we’re going to see a debate with valid arguments on both sides which never really coalesces. “Heroes should be volunteers” doesn’t mean shit when Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, says it.

The end of this issue has Captain America quite suddenly seeing the error of his ways and promptly turning himself in. Tony Stark places a trained and regulated superhero team in all 50 states, has been appointed head of SHIELD so that he can personally safeguard the identities of the superhero community, and things are actually looking better. There’s an argument that could be made, that isn’t made here, that the ends don’t justify the means. They certainly don’t as recruiting supervillains, cloning Thor, and creating an extra-dimensional GITMO are pretty fucking horrifying things for Stark and his cohorts to have done. But they’re portrayed as being in the right at the end of this issue. There was never truly a clash of ideas.

Hercules shows up to kill the Thor Clone, Namor and his invading foreign military appear out of nowhere to deliver a catchphrase, and Spider-Man kicks a man for daring to call him anything less than “spectacular.”

Civil War #7 Spider-Man

But these moments aren’t really cool, are they? The Thor clone was never really a villain or a character, the hero he murdered isn’t characterized much in this series, and there’s just not a whole lot of build-up to his send-off. That big splash of Herc caving in his skull certainly looks cool.

Namor showing up comes out of nowhere even though it was set-up in the previous issue. There’s not much page space devoted to giving readers the impression that Cap’s forces are losing and need help. Cap gets ganged up on for a page and then Atlanteans jump in out of nowhere on the next page with no indication of where they came from. They’re not even near water. Even if that was cool, it’s undone on the very next page when Thor and the Initiative forces come in out of nowhere on a page with that same panel configuration flipped upside down.

Those Spider-Man panels where Mister Fantastic calls him “amazing” and Spider-Man kicks him while saying “spectacular”? That’s more cute than cool, to be honest.

So, Chase, was there actually anything cool in this issue?

Magnett: Simply put, no. There’s nothing cool in this issue, but there are plenty of things that certainly could have been.

The concept of a brother-in-arms avenging his lost comrade and saving his legacy. That’s cool.

The idea of a long-lost army returning to change the tide. That’s cool.

The image of a hero redeeming himself and fighting for what’s right once again. That’s so damn cool.

These are all ends that Millar and McNiven pack into the pages of Civil War #7, but they never bothered realizing that before you reach the end you have to have some sort of means. In the same way they ignore the truly atrocious actions of the pro-registration heroes to reach the final pages of this series, they don’t even bother putting in the work to achieve their big moments throughout the finale. All of those moments are there, but none of them have any meaning. There’s no cause for readers to actually care about what is happening in each of those moments that is provided by the pages of Civil War.

Civil War #7 Thor

If someone wants to call Hercules defeat of Thor, or the appearance of Namor, or Spider-Man whooping Mister Fantastic cool, I won’t tell them they’re wrong. However, I will tell them that there’s nothing in this comic book that makes these moments cool. If you enjoy those bits and pieces it’s because you’re adding your own outside context and importance to these characters, essentially crafting the story in your head, to make any of this matter. The work isn’t being done by the creators of Civil War and that’s the problem.

Whether you want to talk about how cool the action or concepts are, none of the work is on the page. This isn’t even the level of skipping steps like you might in high school math, where a few minor leaps in logic aren’t written down. What is occurring here is like jotting down the final answer to a very complex equation in calculus because you saw the answer guide. You might know what comes at the end, but it is utterly meaningless.

Looking over the final pages of Civil War it’s hard to defend the series. It’s not the worst thing Marvel has published in the past couple of decades, but there’s absolutely no reason I can find to revisit it. Yet it has persisted as one of their most proud publications, one that is pushed at new readers as essential and has a major motion picture based upon it coming out this week.

I have only question in response to that: Why?

Stack: I’m gonna level with you. I don’t really like Justin Bieber’s music. Not in that dismissive “ah, I don’t like that girly stuff” way. It’s just not my thing, y’know? But when I hear a Justin Bieber song now, I kind of smile because I’m reminded of losing my virginity to someone who was basically a stranger at that point while his music was playing.

That same sort of principle applies here, I think. Civil War underwent some delays so it went longer than it was intended to. It was what was going on in the Marvel Universe for a while and a whole bunch of comics were left in the lurch, tying into the main series and expanding upon it. Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man, and books likeFrontline were good in and around the events of Civil War. There are good comics with that event’s banner on it and, even though they aren’t the main series, they can still push people to remember how good they thought Civil War was.

And a lot of good comics came out of this event. Captain America killed off Steve Rogers and that book took off and cemented Bucky Barnes as a major character in the modern Marvel Universe. Invincible Iron Man let Matt Fraction establish his popularity with readers on a long run with the book that was only marginally, 100%, completelyderailed by Fear Itself nearly killing his career. Amazing Spider-Man also completely shit the bed so maybe that deflected some attention away from the conclusion of Civil War.

Maybe it’s that Civil War isn’t ignorable. Marvel’s events all build on each other in a certain way. Each event creates a new status quo that is then the source of the next event or challenged within it. There’s no Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, or Siege without Civil War.

This is essentially a really long way for me to say that it got grandfathered-in because Marvel is actually pretty big on maintaining line-wide continuity. Good or bad, this event was important. And important is all that really matters when it comes to events. Crisis on Infinite Earths is remembered more than our precious Cosmic Odyssey, y’know?

Magnett: Isn’t this just an example of the tail wagging the dog then? We’re asking why Civil War matters and why we should care, and the response is simply that Civil War matters and we should care. We’ve spent almost two months digging to find opportunities for merit, but failing to actually discover any real merit.

Reflecting on this issue, the big finale packed with characters and conclusions to a variety of storylines (storylines being defined in the loosest of terms), it’s difficult to point out much that’s worth passing on. McNiven’s art could be deemed interesting in that it reflects a style emblematic of an entire period for a wide swath of comics. That’s a historical signifier though. Look at these layouts, panels, and faces, and try to tell me this is something unique or telling. It’s certainly telling that McNiven likes to draw dude’s faces one way and lady’s asses another, but that ain’t much in the scheme of things.

Civil War #7 Namor

The popularity and acclaim of these blunt, broad strokes crafted (crafted being defined in the loosest of terms) by Millar is informative of the audience for Civil War. There’s the feeling of importance, the illusion of scope, and the reference of ideas, but none of those things actually exists within the story. It tells us of a need within Marvel readership for legitimacy. The thing itself is actually a hollowed out shell of chaos, that crumbles once you start to poke at it.

You mention how understanding the Marvel universe at large of the past decade is reliant on Civil War. That’s true, just as true as it is of Identity Crisis and DC Comics. That doesn’t mean there’s anything of merit to be found though. Moving from this to that shit with Skrulls to that shit with Asgardians to that other shit with Asgardians, it all blurs together in the same maelstrom of same-looking art and same-reading words. There’s nothing here. I don’t know if there ever was, even back in 2006.

Is Civil War really just one big cry for us all to embrace that #Quit(Marvel)Comics lifestyle?

Stack: I don’t know if it is. It’s certainly a call to ignore event comics because you don’t actually have to read them to get the effect. The best Marvel event comic, Siege, was only four issues and was able to tell a concise story perhaps because it received the lessons from Civil War and focused more on telling a clear story with obvious motivations and moments that had been properly built up to.

You spoke of legitimacy and this book potentially being the catalyst to “legitimize” Marvel Comics. I can certainly wrap my head around that idea with this being the one where superheroes acknowledge that the sure do get a lot of people killed sometimes and the world changing as a result. It’s comparable to the aforementioned Identity Crisiswhich introduced a whole lot of ickiness to the world of children’s characters on a grand scale. Stuff that it became hard to walk back.

Identity Crisis still sells. I’ve seen two people say they like it previously. I didn’t ask them why and, not that I’d deserve it, I don’t think their explanation would satisfy me. The same can probably be said of this comic.

Civil War is about the fallout of a massacre but what is there to say about a massacre? Things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

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Leading Questions: Reading the Lettering On the Wall

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 5, 2016.

Lettering-Todd-Klein-Sandman

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

I was proofing the lettering with Sally Cantarino on our upcoming comic and the importance of lettering as a storytelling tool really hit me. More than just putting words on the page, the placement of balloons and captions really guide the eye through a page. Who are some of your favorite letterers working currently?

I’m disappointed in myself. That’s not because I couldn’t think of any letterers to answer this question with, but because I had to think about it for a moment

For me when you ask someone what their favorite thing is of any subject or grouping, it’s not the thing that they ponder over for hours or create a categorical argument for correctness about, it’s the thing they fire from the gut the moment they hear the question completed. Deep down you know what your favorites are and you don’t have to think about them. They may not be the best or the most refined of whatever it is being discussed, but they’re what you know you love without even thinking about it.

If you’d asked me about so many other different groups of creators in comics, I know I could have fired right back at you with an answer. No need for thought or words to filter through my brain, it would have gone straight from ear to mouth.

Writer? Brian K. Vaughn. The range and consistent quality of his comics work has kept me enthralled since I entered high school, and never has he left me feeling underwhelmed. Each new phase of his career is a delight to behold. He’s also a genuinely great person who has had a small, but notable impact on my own life.

Artist? Frank Quitely. Again, here is someone whose work I always enjoy. He has shaped how I look at superheroes and the comics page. No matter how long I have to wait for new pages to arrive, I know they will always be worth the delay, whether it’s the unassailable action of Jupiter’s Legacy or the medium-bending efforts of Pax Americana.

Colorist? Nathan Fairbairn. This man is perhaps the single most undervalued person working in American comics today, as revealed by his being the best coloring work of the past couple years without a single Eisner nomination. He brought new life to Scott Pilgrim (a book I love) and made Pax Americana tick like the clockwork metaphors it created. His recent career is the case for colorists being treated like a more integral component of any comics-creating team.

I could go on, touching on editors and inkers, but I think the point is made. Each of these positions within a collaborative comics team holds a favorite spot in my heart. So why did I pause and then stutter when you asked me about letterers?

Without trying to excuse myself, I think part of it comes in that if a letterer is doing their job well, oftentimes you won’t notice it at all. Like good lighting or sound design in a film, it’s far easier to pick up on mistakes than it is to notice the small things that might show a truly refined hand. Placing word balloons, captions, and other text on the page must do certain things. It should follow the reading order and track with the reader’s eye and design of the page. It should minimize its impact on the art itself, never obscuring important details or getting in the way of a certain moment. It should simply be legible and never leave any doubt as to who is speaking (or thinking). Achieving these goals, which are far more difficult than most comics readers know, doesn’t just benefit a comic, it is absolutely necessary for a comic to function.

Yet when you’re reading the page of a run-of-the-mill superhero comic or even a well produced indie pamphlet, there’s no call to appreciate the letterer for doing their job well. Simply reading the book you will not notice their efforts because that is often the goal. Unless there’s a special call for lettering effects or a tricky page design, things often dreamed up at the scripting stage, good lettering ought to let your eyes pass along as smoothly as a cruise liner cutting through placid ocean waters.

This isn’t to say that the craft of lettering shouldn’t be admired or respected, only that it is something it takes greater time, attention to detail, and understanding of the comics form to achieve. Once you start to realize what bad lettering is, it’s hard to miss it and it makes you that much more grateful for good letterers. The same thing applies to the design of letters themselves. Ask an advertising or visual media student about kerning and prepare to have how you look at the world ruined forever.

So it took me a moment to think about who my favorite letterers are, the people who when I see their names on a comic book make my heart leap. They do exist, but I clearly don’t think about them nearly enough. Their work does elevate the comics I enjoy and I think I owe it to myself to pay more attention to their names in the future and not take for granted the contributions I enjoy. That’s generally a good lesson all around when consuming art and media, as recognizing who and what you enjoy can only benefit your taste and ability to select what to consume in the long run.

Now that I’ve worked through all of that, I suppose I owe you a few answers to the question you asked me.

Lettering-Joe-Caramagna-Daredevil

The first name I want to throw out is someone who anyone that has read Marvel Comics in the past decade has almost certainly encountered: Joe Caramagna. I’m an admirer of the man’s work just based on his enormous output. As a big Kirby fan, I have lots of respect for people in comics who not only do their work well, but who create that work at a fevered pitch. Caramagna’s name plasters Marvel Comics like wallpaper and everything credited to him is damn good lettering.

The baseline for Caramagna’s work is that imperceptible addition of just what the comic needs that I mentioned earlier. He puts the words in the best possible places on each page so the comic reads just as it should. Yet when he’s on a comic that aspires for more, he is always an essential part of the team aiming to elevate genre fare to the next level.

I’ve written in-depth analyses of the Mark Waid and Chris Samnee Daredevil a couple of times here, and both times Caramagna’s name has come up. He looks at the story and everything important about it, the art and how it is designed to function within both medium and genre, then makes very specific choices about his lettering. In both instances, his efforts are additive, creating clear effects on tone, style, and theme. It’s in Daredevil that I first noticed his name and now I never miss it.

Lettering-Todd-Klein-Suicide-Squad

The second letterer to come to mind is both the first person to ever make me notice the art of lettering and the seemingly default winner for the Eisner category each year: Todd Klein. Klein is best known for his work onSandman, work that holds up better after almost 30 years than every other aspect of the comic. He created a mood with each balloon in these stories and helped readers clearly identify amorphous characters both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Picking up where he left off in Sandman: Overture, Klein showed the world that he was still on top of his game and capable of crafting some of the most effective and recognizable lettering in all of comics, ever.

While Sandman and other premiere series may be what Klein is best known for, it’s his work on Suicide Squad that has won him an eternal place in my heart. Suicide Squad was a series with none of the flashy elements or calls for praise that Sandman had, yet Klein still brought his A-game. It’s here that you can tell he is someone with a deft understanding of how the comics form functions as he gracefully guides readers through each page. Whispers, shouts, and banter all read with the exact effect desired by co-writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale. Klein was a master in the 80s and he’s still a master today, a rare case of longevity in craftsmanship for American comics.

Lettering-Michel-Fiffe-COPRA

Speaking of Suicide Squad, my last pick for a current favorite rests in the hand-lettering of a certain series inspired by that under-loved diamond of DC Comics. I’m referring to Michel Fiffe’s work on COPRA. None of what I’m about to say is meant to understate the technical prowess of Fiffe’s lettering. He understands the comics page better than almost any of his peers, and his lettering backs that up. It is always exactly where it needs to be, every bit as integral to the page as his colors or inks.

What I really love about Fiffe’s work though is its personal quality. You know when you read a speech bubble or caption or letters column that you are reading the words of Michel Fiffe. They are clearly handwritten without appearing amateurish or low-budget. He has perfected a style that leaves his own influence intact while creating a font every bit as legible and well-distributed as those you might purchase online. Like everything in COPRA, it is his, and that helps to form a direct connection between artist and reader. Those letters are made with love.

And here’s the thing, that’s not a list of the best letterers working comics today. It certainly features many of the greats, but it’s far from being comprehensive or ranked in any way. Those are just a few letterers who leap out from my head only a few moments after hearing this question. They’re guys whose work I love and have some level of personal affection for.

While I’d like to encourage people reading this column to check out all of their work, I’d also like them to ask themselves this very same question. It’s okay if it takes a moment or two to come up with an answer. I bet once you start thinking about it, it won’t be easy to stop. Whether or not you’ve been conscious of it, if you’re a comics reader lettering has been having an impact on you all along. You do have favorites, even if you might not remember their names.

It’s worth taking a little more time to stop and recognize the contributions of these very talented artists. I’m certainly glad you asked me to take the time.

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Guarding the Galaxy: Drax #6

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 5, 2016.

Drax-6-Cover

Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett has been working his way through Marvel Comic’s biggest franchises since the publisher relaunched (don’t dare use the word “reboot” anywhere Tom Brevoort can see it) their superhero line in the wake of Secret Wars. From the X-Men to the Avengers to the Inhumans, he has tackled five comics in a single week to check up on these big teams along with their individual members. There was at least one big gap left in his series of expeditions though: the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the last few years the Guardians of the Galaxy have gone from Marvel’s unloved 80s space series and a second-rate knock off of the Suicide Squad to one of the most precious properties in publication thanks to the surprising success of a single movie. Instead of having only one or two series, if any, in publication, now the team has a reliable ongoing and a solo series for almost every one of its members. That’s not to mention other tangential titles that can’t be squeezed into this week. So has the success of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy translated into some quality comics? Let’s find out…

Drax #6

Written by CM Punk and Cullen Bunn

Art by Scott Hepburn and Scott Hanna

Colors by Matt Milla and Rachelle Rosenberg

Letters by Clayton Cowles

Drax #6 certainly reads like a comic influenced by a professional wrestler. It knows who its faces and heels are and makes damn sure its audience does too. There’s no degree of subtlely acceptable within this narrative; the action and words on the page are designed to deliver the text, all of the text, and nothing more. That sort of blunt force comic book works well with a firm grasp on craft and genre, like in Rocket Raccoon and Groot, but here it results in something middling.

Artists Scott Hepburn and Scott Hanna provide workable layouts (Hepburn) and pencils (both), but they also don’t match the delivery in earlier issues of the series. Even within the pages of Drax #6 slight changes show a rush for deadlines. Gratuitous lines and increasingly blocky figures fail to capture and speed and power found in the best moments of their work. A few early pages in which Drax is fleeing across a jungle terrain are the most finely tuned in the comic. With each step forward it feels like something, albeit a very small percentage of something, is lost.

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Drax #6 spends so much time with its typically solemn leading man talking with his compatriots, villains, and other random encounters that there isn’t much time for action at all. Even in the final sequence, a long battle and chase, it feels like words come before the images. There is so much to be said that panels are worked around bubbles packed with exposition. Splash pages are utilized as an opportunity to monologue and action sequences are never given a moment to breathe. Here the wrestling influence is showing once again, but it’s something that comes at the detriment of the comics medium.

The new villain of the issue, Killer Thrill, summarizes these visual and storytelling problems perfectly. In a splash where she stands over Drax, she is shown striking a standard pose and explaining everything about herself and her plan. Not only does this bring the action to a grinding halt, but it feels unrealistic, even within the genre of superhero comics. Every bit of her action is driven by explaining her powers and being evil to an inanely silly level. No one is laughing with Killer Thrill though, they’re all just laughing at her.

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Her design leaves something to be desired as well, like most of Drax’s crew mates. There is a gothic lolita vibe in her dress and makeup, but it’s unclear how any of this relates to her character. It’s as if someone decided that high school girls were the most terrifying thing in the galaxy, but forgot to play on that joke in the comic itself. Killer Thrill’s neon pink hair stands out both for its lack of interior linework and coloring that diverges wildly from the rest of Drax #6. It is a visual focal point that serves no purpose, simply interrupting the flow of pages.

Drax #6 is a comic that does a lot of work to bury its strengths. The pencil work of Hepburn and Hanna, reminiscent of James Harren’s fast and mean qualities, is something to value. Yet every chase and action beat is buried in text and  designs feel either rushed or are focused on characters that do not appeal to their style. There’s some enjoyable violence to be found in Drax, but the series will make you dig for it.

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