Thursday, September 20, 2012

Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch

With the publication of the one-shot Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson once again put the majority of current comics to shame. In an era where most writers cannot tell one story in one issue, Dorkin delivers THREE short stories full of pathos, humor, characterization, and tragedy, each capable of bringing a tear to the eye of the most jaded reader. Who would've thought that you could make a story about ghosts of sheep into a tear jerker? Where computerized coloring of today's comics means a plethora of filters, gradients and texture fills to overwhelm the pencils and make a book un-readable unless under specific lighting conditions and artwork designed to shock and titillate, Thompson delivers a painted book that is reminiscent of Disney and classic storybooks. The comic is lushly and subtly colored without sacrificing storytelling clarity. There is just enough caricature in the animals to make them expressionistic without sacrificing the relative realism of the world. Creators and publishers should read this comic and see how it's done.


Got the Namor Visionaries #2 as well. I have the original comics, but for favorite runs, I like getting the trades. Eventually, I'll just get rid of the original comics. Like the first volume, the cover takes a cover from the comics and re-colors it. It's not as garish as the first one. In fact, the red and yellow knockouts for the fire and smoke really punch. Color knockouts are a favorite trick of colorists today and often over-used. The difficulty and added work of them in the past made them more sparingly used and thus often more effective. Today they generally have the opposite effect than intended, instead of standing out, the knock-out tends to be flattened without the black to delineate and offset the color. Here it works. However, the colorist also added darker hues on the areas where Byrne was using zip-tone for the shadows on the figures, making the shadow areas too dark and frankly destroying what made the art work and stand out to begin with. If the line work is full of cross-hatching for shadows and textures, the colorist doesn't need to over-do gradients and fills. The artwork was originally designed for a more traditional color palette and thus works better with a limited one.

It's been awhile since I read the originals and I don't know if the interior pages are recolored or not. They are obviously using the flatter color scheme. Yet, there are two coloring errors that stand out that may have been there the first time. We have a cameo of the original Human Torch's kid partner Toro. However, he is colored as if he's wearing a red body suit like the Torch instead of being half naked with just trunks and boots. Later, a pic with Sersi in the background is colored as if she is wearing an all white outfit that covers shoulders and arms as well as a white one-piece bathing suit on top. Since the comic features a main character who runs around half naked as well as Namorita as supporting cast member who spends most of her time in a bathing suit, it can't be just scared of showing too much skin. Maybe, they exceeded the use of flesh tones allotted for the book? Just kidding. The Sersi pic looks like the colorist wasn't sure how Sersi was supposed to be colored and left it blank to come back to... and then forgot.

Otherwise, Byrne's Namor series is him pretty much at the epitome of his writing and drawing. Namor makes for a flawed hero and it's something that Byrne doesn't shy away from. His taste in women remains mercurial and questionable, and not being the best judge of character around. We have Byrne playing in the Marvel sand-box, using well known and mostly forgotten pieces of Marvel lore and characters. There's the Super-Skrull, Iron Fist, Misty Knight, Ka-zar, and Shanna and Zabu, Spitfire and Union Jack (acknowledging the changes to the character in Knights of Pendragon). A set-up for the redesign of the Plant-man. An appearance by the Punisher. A set-up of the return of the real Iron Fist and bits of an older story when Byrne was first working for Marvel. The zip-tones hearken back to Will Everett's style on the character just as using Iron Fist is also a shout-out to Everett who created Amazing Man, the template for the creation of Iron Fist. If there is a flaw, it's in the cross pollination of Byrne writing Iron Man at the time and using the Marrs twins in both books. While most of their development and ongoing stoy occurs here, some of their business actions in Iron Man's title play a major role in the ongoing subplot here and the motivation behind some of Desmond's actions.

In FF and Alpha Flight, Byrne's stories were more linear with tighter 2 and 3 issue stories that were more self-contained with a little bit of subplots running through and taking prominence later. Here, Byrne is telling a longer and denser story often with multiple subplots going on at the same time. It's somewhere between the style he used in other books or Claremont used in X-Men and today's writers such as Brubaker's Captain America or Geoff Johns' Aquaman, telling one long story thinly disguised as being composed of shorter stories. The balance is stronger here. The ongoing story of Namor in the business world and the machinations of the Desmond twins is a secondary story or plotline that bubbles up and affects what's going on, ever present (much how Doctor Doom always seemed to have his own story going simultaneously with whatever else was going on in FF). But, you also have a variety of plots and subplots that has nothing directly to do with them, giving the shorter stories variety of styles and locales. It's soap-opera-ish in the long form, but with a variety of threats and plotlines for satisfactorily reading in smaller chunks.

As Byrne is working with some Roy Thomas creations in the series, it's appropriate there's also a sense of Thomas in the approach to history and retcons. He uses Namor's vast and schizophrenic history, ironing out a few kinks but playing ever fair with the history and continuity. Union Jack is a guest-star so he's kept in character as he had most recently appeared in a UK title, Knights of the Pendragon, even though that take is substantially different from the character that he first drew in the pages of Captain America. He raises questions about Iron Fist's death, setting up his impending resurrection, but doesn't just re-write or simply invalidate the story that lead to his death. It still happened, it's still very real and a struggle for his old supporting cast members. Just that not everything was exactly as it seemed and it's used to RESTORE a character back to his prime. Thus, it actually makes the universe richer not poorer as most retcons these days seem intent on doing.

It's also interesting to see how he draws Master Man in his coat and Warrior Woman in her skirt is a lot like what Frank Miller was doing with his art in Sin City at about the same time.


Byrne's new book Trio has ended its first arc and in many ways is a return to those glory days. He doesn't have the larger DC or Marvel sandbox to play in so he plays in his own sandbox. With the penultimate issue, Golgotha, a villain from his Danger Unlimited and Torch of Liberty stories comes to this universe. The last issue has an appearance tying Trio to his Lab Rats series he created for DC and whose rights reverted back to him.

The texture file for Rock was the biggest visual drawback to the series, not really working with the relative style elsewhere in the book. But, Byrne's style is often evolving and experimenting and Rock's look is one of those things that just doesn't work out.

The final product of the writing is somewhere between his Next Men work and his more straight-forward superhero days. Ultimately, it doesn't work as well as the format for the book is really as a mini-series and this feels more like part of several issues of an ongoing, setting up many questions and subplots for future stories but not really delivering much in terms of background and characterization for the main characters. The problem is it's not really an ongoing, but a mini-series. For a mini-series format, there needs to be a tighter focus on the main characters and their story to make us care for them. An interesting plot, interesting villains and world creation, but ultimately a letdown when it comes to the very story aspect.

From the first issue of Aquaman, it was only a matter of time before the current Geoff Johns, the one who focuses on gore, violence, death and anti-heroes, showed the trident being used as a lethal weapon. This issue fulfills that promise as Aquaman skewers a henchman. It is interesting to note that while the issue has two deaths, it is the death at the hands of the hero that's the most graphic. The death of the hero Vostok doesn't even look like a lethal wound as he's stabbed in the shoulder.

From the start, this Aquaman title has been one of love-hate. Such as all the jokes at Aquaman's expense in the early issues. See, the problem is that the people in the real world that make fun of Aquaman aren't the civilians but comic fans and geeks (although their point of view getting broadcast to mass audiences via Big Bang Theory, Family Guy and Robot Chicken doesn't help). If Aquaman existed in the real world, he wouldn't be considered a joke. Because in the real world, he's the equivalent of a super-Navy Seal, you know, the guys that took out Osama.  In the real world, Olympic swimmers and divers are sex symbols. In the real world, we recognize the power of ocean as a literary symbol and some of the greatest classics are of the people associated with the sea: The Odyssey, Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea. Real world heroes and villains like Blackbeard the Pirate, Columbus, the Vikings, Jacques Cousteau. Clive Cussler and his fictional counterpart Dirk Pitt. The people that think he's a joke are the ones that couldn't swim a lap in a pool without heaving, and who have this passive-aggressive self-hate relationship with their reading comics.

Yet, of all the 52 books, this is the only one that comes close to what I wanted out of the reboot. Not a complete resetting, but a clearing away of the barnacles that had accumulated in the past couple of decades as he had been taken to extremes, away from the core concept of the character. His look is tweaked but he doesn't look drastically different than from most of his history, as if he went to the same tailor as the rest of the JLA. We have the restoration of his Silver-Age origin which links him to the surface world. No ancient Atlantean sorcerers or setting him up as a literal king of Atlantis. We have Mera back as beautiful and powerful (although she seems to have gained Namor's personality, at least she's not the sometimes murderous hateful insane woman she had become before). Sadly, I fear when we get around to Aqualad, it won't be Garth but the politically correct one.

The art by Ivan Reis is likewise hard to pin down. No question that he's a talented renderer and a hyper detailed artist. The colors are likewise lush and rich though at times render the art so dense to make it difficult to decipher. Whether it's Reis' style or from Johns' scripts, the layouts often fall on using a wide-screen format where the panels are three times wide as tall whether it makes for the scene or not. This often leads to bad angles and croppings of scenes with tops of people's heads cut off as well as a lot of wasted space in panels where there's no relevant information being conveyed either by art or script. You end up with pages taking twice as much space as needed to convey information.

The worst example came in the 8th issue which was when I finally noticed what was off in the art. Look at the page reproduced here and see where Reis first gives an establishing shot of where the action takes place. Four characters in a cramped room standing close together. Followed by the wide shots with a single head-shot in each panel and little dialogue! Reis doesn't even draw backgrounds in those panels. He couldn't have really as two of the characters are so close together, they should be seen in the same panel. Luckily, the colorist in this case adds a bunch of color textures to add depth to the scene. But, the bottom half of the page could easily have been done in half the space. It's decompression on the artistic scale. So, you get a beautiful looking page but full of bad storytelling basics.

Not sure what I'm going to do when the book crosses over with the JLA. I'm not getting the JLA book and have zero interest in it. In the recent past, I've protested by not buying the comic for those months and have used it as a reason to drop books that I was already on the fence on. The comic is on my pull list, so I am loathe to not buy it as I consider that as being pretty much a contract between me and the store. I may just have to be happy with not getting the JLA issues and hope it doesn't interfere too much in what enjoyment I do get from Aquaman.


There's a scene in an episode of News Radio where the station owner Jimmy James has written his autobiography. Since at the time translated foreign books sold better, he had it translated to Japanese and then back again, leading to a funny book reading where it has become almost non-sensical.

Dynamite's Peter Cannon comic is a bit like that only not funny. Pete Morisi created Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, cribbing heavily from the origin of Amazing Man. He's a reluctant superhero in that he's enlightened and wishing to live a life of peace but has physical abilities that set him above others. Grudgingly, he accepts that "with great powers comes great responsibilities" even though they are responsibilities he doesn't want to shoulder. Then there's the one-off issue by Pat Boyette where he distributed some abilities he hadn't had before. From there, Alan Moore took the basic idea and then created Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a completely different character (one based on completely different philosophies).  Dynamite's take is basically taking Moore's Ozymandias character and re-translating that version back to being Peter Cannon, giving Pat Boyette's issue heavy weight. If DC is doing "Before Watchmen", Darnell and Ross are doing "After Watchmen", more or less picking up where that story left off. Only with the actual Charlton hero and Cannon's ruse didn't involve killing half of New York City. On top of all that, he has what could only generously be called a Nu52 designed costume making him actually look generic as opposed to the rather bold look taken from the 1940s Daredevil.

The comic basically sums up the events of The Watchmen in the first few pages: world on brink of nuclear armageddon is driven to cooperation by the mysterious appearance of a creature, in this case a dragon. To drive the point home, we see Peter watching multiple monitors at the same time and he's compared to Alexander the Great (Adrian Veidt's personal hero), the comic plays off the superhero as celebrity, the man using the hero to become a wealthy power player. To further riff on DC and Watchmen, there are several Charlton character allusions. The President is called a "Peacemaker", we have a future foe who is an Asian martial artist in a tiger mask (Tiger was the Asian teen side-kick to Judomaster) and the super powered silver metal "Sons of Adam" (Captain Atom's secret identity being Captain Nathaniel Adam). By the time you get to the last page, it is so telegraphed, it would have been a cheat for it to turn out otherwise. No reference yet to Blue Beetle or Son of Vulcan unless it's in the supposed careers of Cannon: archaeologist and writer. The Dan Garrett Blue Beetle was the former and Son of Vulcan was a reporter.

The biggest problem of the comic is trying to make Peter Cannon serve much the same role as Adrian Veidt, but the two had fundamental differences. Peter Cannon isn't really supposed to be some big picture, genius. He's enlightened, more self aware. While I might be able to buy him opening a dojo or spiritual retreat, it's a Veidt move to do so as some kind of Mc-Franchise the world over. For Cannon to do so, it's a fundamental spiritual hypocrisy. As is using Veidt's solution to bring world peace, imposing peace by lies and subterfuge. That's Veidt, not Peter Cannon. It being what appears to be the driving force of the story is what makes it more of in the vein of being a sequel to The Watchmen than being a story that flows naturally from the character that Morisi created.

The other flaw that as first issues go, it's all set-up. It's establishing back-story, status-quo and setting up three future adversaries. What it doesn't do is really set up or move any one story. The opening pages also pretty much remove any reason for Peter Cannon to appear in costume ever again without jumping through hoops (such as wearing the costume as a uniform when visiting dojos, making public appearances, etc) because it moves the character beyond being a masked superhero. Worse, it's a set-up done as dully as possible, mostly exposition of people talking about their motivations, some flash-backs but no one really doing anything of note.

The highlight of the book is the back-up, a Pete Morisi written and drawn origin story originally slated for DC's "Secret Origins" comic but never published. While Morisi maintained ownership of the character, I do wonder about the rights concerning the pages. They were solicited by DC, making them work for hire. Comes down to whether he was paid for them or not I guess. His drawing of proportions had suffered somewhat by this point and Cannon is colored to have pants, in keeping with his look in his DC comic. But, the artwork is bold and stylish and thankfully colored in old flat coloring system since Morisi's artwork would be ruined by most of modern computerized coloring. Visually, it's dynamic in ways that the rest of the book is generic.
 I am a masochist sometimes in checking out previews of comics I not only don't plan on buying but know that I would have zero interest in. Such as Before the Watchmen: The Comedian. Just not a character I really want to spend quality time with. But, I have to say, I love this panel of him getting hit with a brick with the word's "Herriman's Bricks" on it. George Herriman was the cartoonist and creator of "Krazy Kat" who was constantly being beaned by a brick thrown by Ignatz the mouse.

1 comment:

Chuck Wells said...

I agree with you on Trio. It was fun, but since we new going in that it was only four issues, more effort should have been expended on fleshing out the lead characters. Byrne mostly writes for his hardcore fans and even if it provides him with a steady income, it fails by being so narrow in its focus. Still liked it though!

Aquaman is one of only two books that I currently pick up from DC (the other being Green Lantern Corps), and I passed on it for months before giving it a try. I like it for the reasons you cite, and get equally irritated for lazy art panels like the ones you point out.

We've entered the "fan fiction" age, where our established pros regularly fail to act like they know how to produce an effective comic book page; and what passes for an editor is little more than a butt-munching crony of these geek "rockstars".