My absolutely favorite type of superhero comic came out this week,

July 2, 2009 at 4:00 pm (Comic Books)

and it’s pretty much the reason I still, more and more briefly these days, digest panels, and its related to the format’s work-for-hire aspects, a tremendously negative effect in every artistic way (“Now, who here wants to work without knowing who your collaborator is necessarily going to be, and you also better finish by the end of the month, m’kay?”, I imagine Jim Shooter announcing during annual Marvel recruiting sessions. The rest of the crowd shouts back, screaming, yes, gloriously yes, just let me draw Deathlok!). I speak not of the deadline crunching aspect (eww!), but the sheer creative industry involved in making comics. Out of the contemporary scene’s soup, an editor plucks enough creators available to draw this month’s issue of Batman, and the random fill-in guest star could astound. When Bill Sienkiewicz first drew an issue of New Mutants, or Frazer Irving drew a Civil War tie-in comic recalls finding a lost gem more than reading a storied classic.

To get blatantly autobiographical (those words are where “blog” comes from, right?), this is why I am still drawn towards comics. The ability of insider knowledge to point me towards a stray issue of J.H. Williams III doing a Batman Annual* is a feeling only replicable by scouring the internet for that Gang Gang Dance remix of a TV On the Radio song**. The only feeling of discovery better than chancing upon that Jeph Loeb series prequel with art by John Paul Leon is fishing one out of the back issue bin, with stellar creators but elevated after the world forgot about it.

*#21, which was probably his second mature work where draftsmanship was no longer a primary concern, and frames and page construction became each page’s starting point. It’s really beautiful work!

** It’s here. Which is pretty cool, but looptastic in a boring way instead of a mantric or revelatory way. For those further interested in following a rabbit trail, TVOTR remixed a GGD song, and it’s a great treble loaded dance music jam.

Some artists understand the pull of having a script to draw, a page to illustrate, without having to form the idea of the page. They are visual storytellers instead of illustrative slaves, not carrying out an author’s exact script and panel layout (unless you’re Alan Moore), but reifying the words, bringing it to life. I would compare Kafka or Nabokov first to J.H. Williams III or Frank Santoro before any creative individuals that get the premiere credits of a book, because without them the story is only an idea with some directions, a fantasy with no reality. Hand Frazer Irving the medal for Klarion: Witch Boy, I ask, for without his muted, impressionistic colors and powerful cartooning with expressive brushstrokes, there would be nothing but a rollercoaster ride through the sewers and Mars. His dark children’s book style made Limbo Town a place to cherish and fear instead of a plot device to forget.

This triumph of style as substance in comic’s very creative process is not lost on the creator’s themselves, even if it is rare to spot an example as a sheer creative need without any hint of freelancing for the month’s paycheck abound. Fortunately for my argument, Eddie Campbell went out of his way to find a very different collaborator for one of his most recent, less personal but certainly idiosyncratic works, The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Adapting an as-yet-unmade screenplay, the comic’s narrative is a spy narrative with a couple fine twists and unpredictable turns. The characters, however, are poorly motivated, dialogue conveys plot information with the rare exception of being stylized to a particular character’s voice. Even motifs arrive from the art more than the screenplay, with the comic’s persistent attention paid towards frames and boundaries, making the comic a tense exploration of social and ideological boundaries instead of a merely exciting and fast-paced caper.

While such a comic is a rare find, an entire book devoted to an artist’s reification of another’s script, the single issue where the artist outmatches author is a fairly common occurrence, and this week boasted of such a comic, that I’m now going to spend a handful of paragraphs drooling over.

Dark Reign: Zodiac #1

DKR Zodiac 1 cov

You didn’t think I was going to talk about the J.H. Williams III’s Detective Comics issue, did you? That’s too obvious. No, I probably should have mentioned that watching artist’s develop, or, gasp, finding completely new artists is the more powerful thrill, one this issue will deliver. With a line somewhere in between Paul Pope and Fared Dalrymple, the comic looks like very few superhero comic books on the market today, with think, inky characters ably cartooned. The page construction, too, ideserves some mention, with lots of panels thrown onto a page but without a stable grid imposing order. Every panel seems like a leap instead of a step, and it fits with the jerky, homicidal villain caper we get in the comic.

The comparisons earlier to Paul Pope may be perhaps to obvious a comment to write, given that the book shares the psychedelic and festive colors of Jose Villarubia. He went from Batman: Year 100 to this. The clear decline in intellectual properties Villarubia suffered to reach this astoundingly illustrated Dark Reign fill-in comic, the colors themselves fill in blanks more often than have their own attention grabbing texture, but with this decline in a need to stake out any new ground artistically comes a stronger palette for the comic, with clear moods conveyed throughout the issue by a palette shifting from the horrific murk of Zodiac’s homicidal carnage to the tension of security at twilight.

To illustrate the shift, I offer two illustrations. While Batman: Year 100 would have colors melding together to make a tense backdrop,

Bman Yr 100 Villarube ref r

this issue gains tension by a simple contrast between two colors, a Halloween’s orange and ink alleyway:

DKR Zodiac 1 Villarubia ref

(Apologies for the poor scan of the Batman issue. Prestige Format/Perfect Bound books are a pain to scan.)

As good as the “color art”* of the issue is, it can’t hide Nathaniel Dog’s (check spelling) stellar eye for clear storytelling, nor his powerful ability to slush scenes in ink or let them free with slight brush strokes.

*A term I place in quotes because it just sounds pretentious by adding art to the tail of its function. DJ Shadow is such a good sound artist! Jean Luc Godard is such an interesting moving picture artist! I think you understand both my reverence for Villarubia and the unfortunate title bestowed upon an intriguing artist.

In fact, if any faults of this issue must be laid on anyone, it is, surprisingly, Joe Casey, who turns in a script repeating itself for at least a page to show that there was an unknown listener during an earlier conversation. He also writes off an assistant to the evil supervillain of the piece using the tired motive of saving someone’s life. While the move to both instill pity in a main character gleefully anarchic every other moment of the comic* as well as provide character motivation for why anyone would be a supervillain’s assistance nicely ties up holes in the plot, it also treats the comic more seriously than it should perhaps be treated, and also causes one reviewer to yawn. I worked a nine hour shift before writing this, however, so the purely biological response may not be entirely Joe Casey’s fault.

*Zodiac hits the same notes as Heath Ledger’s Joker, but gives us a villain who engages in physical fights more often, as well. Another reviewer talks Mr. Nobody in the same breath; agreement.

The rest of the issue on Casey’s part is gold. Or, at least, a very serviceable silver. With a supervillain spouting lovably villainous dialogue, an exciting fight between the Human Torch and Zodiac in the first issue (this issue doesn’t play around), as well as a diabolical scheme and the “mole” subplot in what will prove to make this the next mini-series selling out with crucial plot points for Marvel’s next blockbuster crossover, True Believers!, Casey does so much right in making an exciting three issue caper story, and he has an astounding collaborator who has never work on capes and tights before. With the way he handles a clown in the same room as a fat, purple mohawk guy and a tuxedo dressed, faceless monster, hopefully it isn’t his last.

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1 Comment

  1. I think I’m going to make this kind of a feature. « Psychopomp & Circumstance said,

    […] uniformly positive: Dean White (credited with “color art”, a recurring theme, if spoonerism, of comics I’ve reviewed recently) colors each pool of pencil and empty paper in elegant tones, making each section of color rounded […]

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