Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Recommended Reading

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The latest issue of Comic Art features extensive articles on three different artists, Richard McGuire, Drew Freidman and Jim Starlin, but the coverage retains the same quality for all three: enriching. Chris Ware praises McGuire, who is later interviewed, but the real draw is that his comic "Here," which first ran in one of the digest-sized issues of RAW, gets a nice big presentation. It's one of the best strips I have ever read, telling a story you can only tell in comics. McGuire's work is scarce so I'm thankful Comic Art provides so much information and insight into a rare talent.

The Freidman article is basically a mini-biography on the greatest carciturist alive. It goes over everything from the artist's obsession with obscure film stars like Rondo Hatton, being a student of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, what New York City was like in the late-'70s/early-'80s and how to raise the ire of Woody Allen. Freidman's sense of pop culture permeates today in way it never did when he was starting out but that just makes books like Warts and All more of a revelation.

Finally, I really enjoyed my Publishers Weekly Comics Week colleague Douglas Wolk's article on Jim Starlin's Warlock run. These are some the strangest and greatest comic a mainstream company released in the 1970s and deserved the examination Wolk gives them. Anyone who is fan of the weird world of 70s Marvel (which seems to be no small group when you consider the latest "Essential" volumes) would do themselves a favor checking out this article.

All that and a little book of Seth's work. It's great stuff, buy this damn magazine.

Pride of Baghdad

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Pride of Baghdad arrives in stores today so I thought I'd republish an early review of the book I wrote.

This book could very well be known as the best thing Brian K. Vaughan has written. That’s not to say the book is flawless, though. It follows four lions that live in the Baghdad Zoo who are freed when American forces bomb the place. There’s the male lion Zill, the cub Ali, his mother Noor and the older female lion Safa, who is blind in one eye. Vaughan does a great job of infusing characterization into all their dialogue even if it takes some time adjusting to seeing incredibly realistically rendered animals, drawn by Niko Henrichon, speaking very mannered dialogue. Thankfully these characters avoid a trope of Vaughan’s writing that bothered me in Ex Machina. There characters' dialogue often became simple exchanges of trivia Vaughan looked up. Animals don’t have encyclopedias so they aren’t lecturing one another about what New York City Hall looked like in 1807. With Pride Vaughan concentrates on one of his strengths, crafting dynamic relationships between a group of characters (think of the kids in Runaways). This intersection of realistic animal characters digesting realistic human behavior did provide for one scene that I felt was problematic. In a flashback one of the lions remembers getting raped back when she lived in the wild. I understand it explains her reluctance to join the free world but I can't wrap my mind around the idea of rape in the animal kingdom, since scientists still aren’t sure how far the idea of consent and non-consent can apply to wild animals. I didn’t let it bother me for long because I understand that the larger goal in this book for Vaughan is using animals to try and to reconcile “enlightened” human ideals with primal ones.

The driving theme of the book is established early on, that of a life of freedom, which includes risk, versus a life in safe captivity. The animals in the zoo are forced into freedom due to American aggression in their homeland. It could be argued that due to circumstances they are still not free, indeed that is an idea touched on in the story. The progression of the story is built on a sequence of episodes commenting on how human society manifests itself. In some of them, such as the introduction to a wise old turtle, the lions just listen in curious bewilderment. The characterization of the lions is the saving grace for many scenes where the allusions and metaphors seem a bit wonky. With four lead characters providing different views on freedom of choice Vaughan contemplates interesting ideas here and crafts an enjoyable tale. Soon though I started feeling a bit frustrated when I realized a strong point wasn't being made. That's not necessarily a problem, perhaps it is better when an artist simply raises questions instead of supplying answers, but Vaughan employs some heavy-handed symbolism in the book as well. The notion of cutting off a nose to save a face is used literally here, to say nothing of a moment near the end where the American flag appears. The tour of humanity’s follies Vaughan gives his lions is through-provoking and entertaining but there's a troublesome inclination to be both heavy-handed and vague.

Henrichson’s artwork is a high point for the book. His illustration of many different types of animals is strong and confident. An almost unbelievable story looks believable through Henrichson's skill of anatomy and movement. There are many scenes in the book where the lions come upon cities ruined by war. Henrichson gives these scenes big wide panels that create a valuable sense of place. Vaughan’s writing and concept for this book will bring in a lot of interest but I hope the real find for readers will be Henrichson’s artwork. Vaughan has some interesting things to say but it is Henrichson who provides the real gravity and sense of importance to this book.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Clip guaranteed to make your brain feel like Jell-O

Found through the comments section on Jog's blog here's a 1988 CBC report on "adult comics. Not unlike '50s social engineering films, this thirteen minute report is filled with ironic chuckles. A father frazzled by Green Arrow, Chester Brown not exactly coming off as the best voice for comic book creators and the entire sensationalistic view point of the piece left me with a loss for words.

I do have one question (and I know the comments section isn't working for everyone so if you know the answer and can't comment please e-mail me), does Canada have a version of the ACLU that fights censorship? The reporter in the clip didn't have a shortage of citizens with their own groups ready to take action against what they deem as pornographic or hateful but the voice for comics was made up of retailers and creators. A group like the ACLU and CBLDF that defends artists and retailers against such accusations, not to mention some of the legislation that was being discussed, was never represented. Did such a group exist when this report was made and the CBC just figured an informed and rational voice for freedom of speech wasn't worth talking to? It's not hard to believe.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Happy 40th Anniversary Star Trek!

Carol Marcus: Please tell me what you're feeling.
Kirk: There's a man out there I haven't seen in 15 years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son that'd be happy to help. My son. My life that could have been... and wasn't. How do I feel? Old. Worn out.
Carol Marcus: Let me show you something that will make you feel young as when the world was new.

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All the Trek info you could want at Memory Alpha.

Thursday, September 7, 2006


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David Lloyd's first original project since the release of the V for Vendetta film is a graphic novel about crime and corruption. The content bears little resemblance to V but both books display an awareness of how political systems can decay under human failings.

Lloyd has created Franklin City as the place where cops and criminals fight a war on each other not seen since Al Capone's Chicago. Det. Joe Conelli is our guide in the story. Lloyd makes an interesting choice in not having the protagonist be the one honorable cop in a police force that chooses tactics matching the underworld's for thuggery. When prodded by his girlfriend he admits he's a cog in the machine, resigned to "the way things are." I think it's important that Lloyd spotlighted this mindset in the book as it is this type of apathy that presents the threat to social order. The cops employing revenge is dangerous in itself but it is the attitude that Conelli possesses that enables such behavior to continue, with this book illustrating the results.

Conelli might be something of a faceless drone on the street but Lloyd flips between the real world and the world of Conelli's dreams. The book opens with a strange scene reminiscent of some of Steve Ditko's more psychedelic work. Conelli is trying to reconcile his feelings of honor and heroism with the cynical man he is now. He feels like he's being pulled by two forces in a world he doesn't understand. These dreams are one way Lloyd creates those tense feeling that rest upon the entire story.

No other characters stands out like Conelli does. Lloyd doesn't develop the rest of the cast as much as he sets up this feeling of being under pressure in a briskly told tale. What are memorable are scenes of violence, such as one sequences that lifts the technique Lloyd's V collaborator Alan Moore used in the "Night Olympics" stories. The book is 96 pages and Lloyd moves things along quickly. The ending brings both the plot and emotions of the story, explicit in Conelli's dream, together. The pacing is excellent but I wished for something that I hadn't seen in many other crime shows and films, even if those shows didn't have the benefit of looking like David Lloyd drew them.

Lloyd's art is wonderful throughout the book. Of all the British artists who were inspired by Frank Hampson's photorealistic style Lloyd has done more than most to combine that style with modern sensibilities. Here Photoshop tricks are used in to amp up the feelings of violence and hectic city life. Lloyd's a master of color and one of the best things about the book is how often scenes would look like old photographs of the 1930's come to life, even though the book takes place in modern times. A character might bring up that history but it's the visual tone of the book that drives the point home. Kickback is a book that looks at those times when frustration and passions set in to men trusted to guard the lives of others and what it feels like to be in a situation governed by anger.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Helping Lea Hernandez

Sadly, cartoonist Lea Hernandez and family have suffered a house fire and lost pets. To help you can send donations through Paypal here or buy NARBONIC art from Shaenon K. Garrity here.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Alien, the film and comic

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In my quest to better familiarize myself with the great genre films out there I rented Ridely Scott's Alien, which I have heard described as "a haunted house story in space." At the same time I came across the comic book adaptation by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, published by Heavy Metal. Watching the film and reading the comic on top of each other was an interesting learning process on the importance of texture in telling a story.

I came into Scott's Alien with a lot of preconceived notions. A major one, soon shattered, was that this was an action film, like latter films in the series (my introduction to these movie monsters came from the tie-in merchandise, the video games and action figures of my youth). This film is about scares. To become scary it takes its time in setting up a particular mood for the spaceship Nostromo. The first images in the film is the word "ALIEN" slowly appearing on-screen, starting with abstract lines that only fully spell the word after a few minutes. The opening of the narrative is similarly creepy and obtuse. It's just a computer turning itself on while one of the crew's space helmets stays on top of the ship's machinery. But the little things about that scene make an impact. There's the way that one bit of the ship is pumping up and down in the background and how the computer's monitor is reflected in the helmet's visor that communicates this sense of strangeness, and the distressing feeling of jeopardy that comes with it.

Scott's ability to create such an intense atmosphere assists the structure of the film, where the alien doesn't become a presence until an hour into the film. Instead we spend time with the working class crew of the Nostromo. There is abundant characterization in Alien but it's not the usual kind seen in films. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon said he was impressed with producer Walter Hill's screenwriting technique (Hill wrote and directed The Warriors and The Driver as well as many other films). O'Bannon said it resembled "blank verse" in how perfectly simple it was. That simplicity works in Alien as we only learn about the crew of the Nostromo in how they react to the immediate actions taking place in the scene. When a face-hugged Kane is about to be taken aboard we see what kind of characters Ash and Ripley are when they go for completely opposite actions (letting the alien aboard also leads to another plot line involving Ash we see later).

One of the main reasons that precise way of storytelling works is due to the acting. Watch that scene of the crew socializing over breakfast after deep sleep and you see a collection of some of the best character actors in modern film. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto have an immediate chemistry as these blue collar guys. The rest of the actors are able to establish themselves with only a few bits of dialog and actions but I thought Ian Holm did the best job early on as Ash, the science officer who seems a (shades of Spock). Of course it's Sigourney Weaver as Ripley who captures our attention knowing she's the second most important thing of the entire franchise. Her performance presents a type of woman not seen much in sci-fi/fantasy films, then or now. She is focused and capable but spends no time satisfied with herself for standing out, she just is. Her Ripley makes an interesting contrast to both Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), who is more in the "scream queen" vein, and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who starts off being the typical male lead but whose changes when all intergalactic Hell breaks loose.

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There's no doubt when the chaos starts happening, it's the greatest and most remembered scene in the film. John Hurt's Kane is recovering from a facehugger attack and, recalling an earlier scene in the film, the crew is breaking bread with each other and acting very comfortable with themselves. Then a monster bursts out of Kane's chest and quickly scurries off. On the DVD commentary track Cartwright talks about how the cast, with the obvious exception of Hurt, didn't know what the chest bursting would look like. The reactions you see are not those of the characters but the actors playing those characters. The universal pop culture conscience has dulled the novelty of the scene but it's still a powerful marker between the first half of the film and the second. From there all the capital of mood Scott has built up gets cashed in. When Stanton enjoys the water from the ceiling dripping on his face it's both a beautiful and sad image, knowing what could be the only possible ending to that scene. The film's pace quickens but not by too much. There is still plenty of space between the alien's kills, space filled by O'Bannon's "characterization as plot progression." There's also a subplot about the entire alien situation being engineered by the Weyland-Yutani Corparation and its dutiful android Ash. This was added in later by Hill and listening to the commentary track O'Bannon makes it clear he didn't like his story being changed to make "a trite political statement." This is a man committed to one thing, scare the Hell out of the audience with a monster they've never seen before, and nothing else. Fortunately for O'Bannon and the audience that goal is still met. The various characters' deaths creep in with great suspense and pay off with the alien, H.R. Geiger's equally repulsive and sexy design, bolting onto the screen for only a short while. You never really see much of the alien actually slashing up anyone, usually just the gory aftermath.

The film only really feels fast when Ripley has to reach the escape ship while emergency self-destruct lights are going off. The claustrophobic sense of the Nostromo is heightened in those scenes of our heroine running down the corridors. All that and the film isn't even happy with just one climax. Rather, we get another battle between Ripley and the alien on the escape ship itself setting up the "blown into space" offensive tactic that James Cameron would basically repeat at the end of Aliens. Ripley and Jonsey the cat have to enter deep sleep after all that, a simple nap wouldn't be the come down needed after that maddening experience.

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Goodwin and Simonson are telling the same story but with definite stylistic differences. It's a good comic made by great artists but suffers in comparison from not being as ambitious with its medium as Scott was with his. An "illustrated story" from Heavy Metal this book is from the time when people wanted to give the medium a more sophisticated face but were still a part of "comic-book culture," to use something I picked up from Eddie Campbell. Creators used more pages and had less content restrictions but books such as this feel closer to Marvel superhero stories than the stuff we see in graphic novels now. Of course this is still a story about an alien terrorizing a spaceship that's not necessarily a bad thing. The book is not as startling original as the film but Simonson's contributions in terms of technique still manage to astound.

The major stylistic difference is visible from the start. The film presents its title slow and creepy. On the cover of the book the word "ALIEN' is in big yellow letters and takes up most of the cover. Goodwin and Simonson haven't created the exact opposite of what Scott did but this book does go big where Scott never does. In the film big set pieces, such as the downed ship infested with alien eggs, loom over the actors. In a Walt Simonson a comic splash page, or double splash page as used in the same scene, is loud. Alien had a beautifully subtle score by Jerry Goldsmith but those Simonson scenes look like they should be scored by John Williams. The chest bursting splash page doesn't feature a small alien coming out of Kane but rather this long snake surrounded by an almost psychedelic backdrop of blood. To pile on top of that Goodwn's narration tells us "Eruption! A scarlet shower. Of flesh. Of blood. It moves. Faster than the eye can follow..."

Fitting what is a roughly two hour film into about 60 pages would seem to be impossible. Goodwin and Simonson had no room to set the mood the film had. The intensity of scenes start much more quickly and are over faster as well. Thankfully Simonson is the kind of artist that can make sure these scenes work in a comic book format. The two pages of Harry Dean Stanton's character's death should be studied on how to organize panels and show movement as to really communicate excitement. One technique Simonson uses a lot is a row of panels in the exact same shape with only the slightest change between them (on the third page of the actual story he does it twice). Since he didn't have the breathing room Scott had Simonson found a way to create tension and release right in the moment.

Goodwin and Simonson adapt a film with a distinct feel into a comic book story that is well done but is still crafted similarly to what had come before. Things could have been different if the creators had the freedom, or at least the page count, some artists do now in creating fully realized graphic novels. This book came from a time when there were still these expectations on what a comic book, at least a genre comic book, had to be. This wasn't something the audience was watching on a giant screen. This was something they held in their hands and could close at any moment. The comic hollered certain ideas while the film whispered them but then again, the comic had a much longer way to get to you.