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A View From The Cheap Seats:
SPACE 2003: The Comics By Rich Watson
This year’s Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo (click for coverage) was fun, as it always is for me. I want to thank everyone who came to my panel discussion (transcript here), as well as my fellow panelists Sean McKeever, Pam Bliss, Max Ink, and Jimmy Gownley (who just received an Eisner nomination, good for him). I was pretty nervous about it, since it was the first time I’d ever moderated a panel before. Ten minutes before it began I was running around trying to gather everyone, then I worried whether we needed the microphones (we didn’t), not to mention whether we’d get a decent turnout (we did). I’ve already talked to Bob Corby and Mike Carroll about doing another one next year, so who knows? Maybe this is the start of something…
Max has informed me, for those of you living in the Columbus area, that he and his comics group Sequentially Speaking will take part in Free Comic Book Day May 3 along with the comic shop The Laughing Ogre. In addition, they’ll be working with the Drexel Theatres Group to promote comics in association with the upcoming comics-based movies, and will be talking with local libraries and bookstores on promoting comics, so keep an eye out for them.
I haven’t done rated reviews in awhile, so here are some of the books I picked up at SPACE this year:
Stylish Vittles: I Met a Girl by Tyler Page (link). This is an autobiographical graphic novel about true love in bloom, however that’s pretty much all it is. We see Tyler and Nanette’s romance in great detail, but there’s no tension to it. Everything happens way too easily and far too slowly, beginning with what has to be the most pretentious and narcissistic opening to any comic I have ever seen. The story finally gets interesting when Tyler and Nanette discuss their religious upbringings, but this doesn’t come until the very end – and it comes out of nowhere. It wasn’t set up at all. And to be honest, I found both of them bland as characters. Tom Beland does so much more with less in True Story Swear to God, a similar book with more genuine drama and characterization, better storytelling skill, and less reliance on gimmicks (breaking the fourth wall, the “documentary interview” approach, that damn beginning). The art is good, though the inking is a bit harsh in places and the figures look wanky at times, especially in those “action” running poses. Even if this is more or less how it happened in real life, as a narrative story it needs some kind of conflict, even if it’s an internal one. And what the hell are stylish vittles anyway? C+ (full-size OGN, $15)
Lost Tales of Erin by Chris Ryan and Bill Knapp (link). Faith: A Fable creator Bill Knapp teams up with writer Chris Ryan to tell three interconnected Irish folk tales. Some of the Irish names and places don’t exactly roll off the tongue – a pronunciation guide would’ve been nice – but these stories are adapted very skillfully, written in a semi-formal style that doesn’t go overboard with the “faith an’ begorrah” cliches some writers might use. Knapp adopts a more cartoony style here, but as always, his storytelling skill is dynamite, capturing a wide range of emotions. B+ (full-size, $2.95)
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Feudin’ with the Fat Guys by Randy Crider and Mark Crnolatas (link). Over-the-top Jackass-type humor involving the title characters and an irate next door neighbor. The slightly manga-ish art is appealing – lots of big blocky shapes that combine bold lines with smaller, detailed ones and a good sense of space. The facial expressions all have those wide-open mouths, but this is not a story that deals in subtlety. In fact, the art communicates perfectly, effortlessly swinging from one outrageous action to the next. And yeah, it’s pretty funny too! Definitely worth a look. B (digest, no price listed)
Panel by various. An anthology featuring a bunch of Ohio artists (including Day Prize winner Tom Williams), in stories ranging from dark comedy to sci-fi to drama. Few of the stories did anything for me, but the art on most of them was very impressive, especially Tim Fischer (who I’ve always been a fan of), Steve Black, and of course, Williams. B- (digest, $2)
Wasted Potential: Blue by Ray Tomczak. A small collection of comedy strips about the life of a cartoonist. As much as I enjoyed his previous title, Dr. Bob & Irving, Ray’s going in a different direction here and I think this suits him. His art has definitely improved; there’s detail in just the right places, the characters are active (they’re not mere talking heads; sometimes we can see their entire bodies), and his inking line is confident. And while the subject matter is familiar territory, it’s presented entertainingly, and I suspect with time, he’ll refine it until it becomes even more distinctive. B (5 ½” x 4 ¼”, no price listed)
The Story of Ernie by Aaron (P.O. Box 24894, Detroit, MI 48224). The epic tale of an old man, a girl, and a giant dinosaur. Okay, maybe it’s not quite so epic… The word balloons are out of sequence in places and the lettering could be a lot neater. The art, while certainly unpolished, to say the least, does seem to communicate the very basics and is consistent, if nothing else. Still, the artist has a very long way to go. D (mini, 50 cents)
Cabaret Comix #2 by Mike Dawson (link). An ensemble about New York twentysomethings, there are two stories here – one a near-silent vignette featuring the lead character Malcolm at home with his cat, and the other based on a real-life event: last year’s protest rally against the World Economic Forum held here in New York for the first time (which I briefly mentioned in my reviews of the major 9-11 comics). This isn’t necessarily meant to be a political treatise, however; it has more to do with the attitudes of the characters involved towards the event and each other. The zany humor Mike employs in Gabagool! is tempered here, but it feels truer to life. This is less about a story per se and more about the people in it, and they’re presented with a great deal of dimension and subtlety, not just in the dialogue but in the art – certain looks carry subtextual weight to them when placed in the proper context. One can easily imagine these characters inhabiting the same New York as those in Box Office Poison and Beg the Question. The art is remarkable, especially the exteriors. I hope there’s much more to come from this very impressive creator. A (digest, $2)
As Eavesdropped… by Suzanne Baumann (link). Snippets of (presumably) real-life conversations in comics form. While there is a certain old-fashioned charm to these kinds of gags, which Suzanne pulls across just fine, they usually leave me wanting to know more about these people. Personally, I’d opt to take one of these vignettes and build a story around it, but that’s just me. The inking is kinda raw on some of these; I’d like to see a simpler line used. B- (5 ½” x 5 ½”, 50 cents or trade)
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All the hand-wringing over the books Marvel and DC have cancelled or are about to cancel lately has got me thinking. The one thing all these books have in common is that they were all open-ended, ongoing series. The problem with open-ended series – at least the ones Marvel and DC publish – is that nothing ever really gets resolved, and any changes are always subject to a retcon at a later point. From what I’m seeing on the various message boards I travel around, fans are beginning to recognize the flaws in such a system. For example: Peter Parker: Spider-Man has received criticism for having Spider-Man let the Green Goblin go, despite all the torment the villain has put him through in recent years. Currently in the pages of Batman, there has been speculation that Batman may finally kill the Joker, a development that a number of fans are calling for. In both cases, Batman and Spider-Man are being taken to task for letting mass murderers go free – yet from a real world perspective, everyone knows that popular villains like the Joker and the Green Goblin will never really die. When a new series begins, it’s expected to follow these same types of patterns, and indeed, most writers unquestioningly do so, especially if it’s part of a shared universe.
New series need to be finite ones. Something small, like four or six issues, is one possibility, of course, but I’d prefer much longer series, ones that last a few years and are clearly meant to have a beginning and an end. Starman and Hitman are the best examples of this. Both books established a tone and a direction, were part of the main DC universe yet could be read independently of it, and ended on their own terms, thereby avoiding the stigma of being a cancelled book. And best of all, they were collected in trade paperbacks, so that they could be reread long after the series ended – and continue to make money. (Although the entire runs of both have yet to be fully collected. Coincidence?) There aren’t very many other books like these from the big two. Alias is one – Brian Michael Bendis has said that it will have a definite ending. But I see these new books they’re coming out with now – HERO, the new THUNDER Agents, and of course, most of Marvel’s Tsunami line – and they also appear to be ongoing series. And given the recent history of books like Hourman, Chase, Power Company, Black Panther, Thunderbolts, etc., these new books will be under great pressure to make it through their first year unscathed. New series need to be finite ones – and they should be marketed as such. I believe it would make all the difference in the world, both creatively and financially.
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If you’re in the New York area, there’s a wonderful exhibit going on at the New York Historical Society celebrating the work of one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Jules Feiffer. Illustrator, satirist, playwright, screenwriter, activist – Feiffer has done it all. And this exhibit touches on all aspects of his long career, from his childhood (including some mini-comics of his!) to his work for the Village Voice, his Oscar-winning animated film Munro, his plays, his children’s books, and more. The NYHS is located at 2 West 77th Street, across the street from the Museum of Natural History, and is open from Tuesday-Sunday, 11 AM-6 PM. Admission is $6. The show runs until May 18.
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A brief word on this year’s Eisner nominees: I found it very surprising that CrossGen neglected to submit nominees, especially given the way they’ve pushed the fans to vote for them in the Wizard awards in the past, not to mention their big push in last year’s Harvey Award nominations. Not to make too big a deal out of it, but it doesn’t seem like them to make a slip like that. Nice to see Fables get a lot of love, though I thought it and Y: The Last Man would go head to head in more categories than just Best New Series. My predictions, for what they’re worth: look for Bendis and Daredevil to make a killing, however, I think True Story Swear to God has a very legitimate chance at scoring an upset in the Best Continuing Story category. I think this could finally be the year for Carla Speed McNeil to win; I think Best Writer/Artist will come down to either her or Eric Shanower. And I am fully getting behind Myatt Murphy & Scott Dalrymple to take Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition (someone really, really has to simplify that title somehow).
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A few other comics I’ve been reading: like a number of people, I was baffled as all heck over Solus (CrossGen). Barbara Kesel has done a wonderful job with Meridian, but The First is a mixed bag at best that appeals more to the diehard fans from what I’ve seen, and now she’s launched a book heavily steeped in the overall story arc running throughout the CGU books. Those other books revealed their connections to the big arc slowly, throughout the course of their stories. Solus just threw them out at once, and without any context, it came across as more than a little confusing. That said, however, the basic premise remains interesting, and George Perez’s art rocks as usual, so I’ll continue reading it for now – albeit very cautiously…
Judd Winick’s Blood & Water (DC/Vertigo) is off to a promising start. The protagonist’s physical state is starkly portrayed – horror works best the closer to reality it is, in my opinion. Vampires and Goth culture have become inextricably linked to the point of cliché (this coming from a huge Anne Rice fan), so it’s nice to see that this mini-series will take a more modern approach… I think it really hurts a story as intimate and intricate as Rex Mundi (Image) to not come out on a more reliable schedule. There was a ton of buzz over this when it first debuted, but where is it now? The art bugs me – the figures look disproportionate in places (the child on the first two pages looks more like a shrunken person, for example), the white borders around the panels are uneven and distracting (and unlike, say, Steve Dillon, who does this sort of thing deliberately, I don’t think this is intentional), and something about Eric Johnson’s inking really sets my teeth on edge. Maybe it’s all those picky little lines he puts on Julian’s face that are supposed to suggest shadow, I guess – the same lines he puts on hands and people’s clothing. I’m giving this one more issue to turn me around before I decide to wait for the trade.
Days Like This (Oni) was a book I had been eagerly awaiting from the moment I first read about it, and I enjoyed it very much, as I knew I would. I can’t think of too many other times I’ve seen a comic about a 60’s girl group, and J. Torres and Scott Chandler capture the innocence and wonder of becoming stars at a young age nicely, as well as showing glimpses into the corporate world of the music industry. The ending is surprisingly ambiguous with regard to the book’s central conflict, and indeed, the storytelling is done in a way that one can fill in the blanks in certain places, a very canny and intelligent approach. The absence of any racial tension struck me as a little false, given the time period this takes place in, but that’s the only sour note this book hits as far as I’m concerned. (Torres said on the CBR Indy board that this was a conscious decision, although hints of it can be found in certain scenes.) We need more books like this!
Up next: my report from Free Comic Book Day, as well as my X2 review. See you then…