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Round Table #1: Pim & Francie


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

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[TIM: After coming to the uncomfortable realization that it has been more than a year since our last Cage Match, Dan, Frank, and I decided it was time to get back in the pen and fight it out over some recently released comic book. Unfortunately for the format, the book we chose as a topic, Al Columbia‘s Pim & Francie, turned out to be a bad subject for a no-holds-barred, drag-out fight, mostly because we all really enjoyed it. But giving up would be too easy.

So here is the first installment of a new, buttoned up, and possibly less exciting feature, the Round Table, wherein we discuss a comic without coming to blows, though with any luck, we will still find a few things to disagree about to at least somewhat interesting effect. No strict rules here, just an online discussion taking place over real time. Readers should please feel free to participate in the comments section. This is a first time thing, and we haven’t really thought it through, so maybe the event will turn out to be a joyless affair, quickly sputtering into sad banalities. But maybe it won’t! If you believe, clap your hands!

In any case, welcome to the Round Table. Dan is starting the conversation, and will take the lectern shortly.]

DAN: I suspect each of us will have a very different interest in Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days. Rather than attempt a comprehensive statement, I’m going to look at it from a couple of different angles.

A one line explanation of this book is: Pim & Francie is a book of drawings and stories about two cartoon children. What is resembles is a stack of fragments, sequenced to indicate a few suggestive narrative threads. But its surface is deceptive.

If I didn’t know the back story of Columbia’s career (the starts and stops, the destroyed work, etc.) I would assume that the book looks the way it does intentionally. That the artist’s intent is to convey disintegration and ennui through the physicality of the drawings themselves. Images are torn, taped together, burnt, wrinkled, and water damaged. When a character disappears into pencil lines, or is obscured by ink blots; when a scene is interrupted by white drafting tape or a massive tear, the characters seem to come to life. That is, the imperfection of the page, the process of the drawing, drives the characters. So, I don’t read these pages as “sketches” but rather as full blown drawings akin to something like Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning” in which absence animates the page.

The distress is so thorough and consistent that simple coincidence seems impossible. But, then, maybe it’s just unbelievably good editing. And then I got to thinking, what if Columbia is so aware of his mythology and such a good cartoonist—such a master of surface effects to indicate sub-basement meanings—that he wants us to believe the P&F is “just” a collection of scraps so that it quietly engulfs us? What if this doubt, this underestimation, is part of his intent? Then I happened on Sam Anderson’s review of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura in which he suggests much the same thing about that just published fragment. It’s wishful thinking, of course—but it speaks to the power of the author to even make us long for some over-arching master plan.

I am also reminded of a much younger cartoonist’s new book: Josh Cotter’s Driven by Lemons. Lemons is a very different animal, though it also is a brilliant, virtuosic work, and one that needs repeated reads. It as well allows a look at the marks and tones that comprise a cartoon drawing—wiping away the cleanliness of cartoon reality to foreground the process. It’s also a young man’s book by a cartoonist who still has faith in the kinetics of cartooning—in motion, enthusiasm, and outlandish physics. Cotter may be investing in process, but he’s also building his cartoon language, adding new tools and new ideas as he goes.

Columbia, however, has been through it all. This is a book only an older artist could create. His process is up front and part of it is destructive. Reading Pim & Francie is an apocalyptic experience—as if Columbia is demolishing both his own work and the idea of “cartooning” in general. I found it exhilarating and terrifying.

A word about the subject matter: A lot of cartoonists have trod the “inverted comics” general territory. Most brilliantly, Chris Ware used Quimby to convey despair, anxiety, and grief by employing the lyricism of 1920s cartoons. Other, more recent cartoonists have had a lot less success. It’s rather easy to use the form or characters and then blow their brains out. It’s much harder to create something that is empathetic. Columbia isn’t aping an old style—he’s taken the building blocks of 1920s cartoons and rearranged them entirely (in some places I am reminded of the frightening clown of Monkey Shines of Marseleen.) His static figures, sepia backgrounds and faux-happy waltzes are thoroughly redesigned and made his own. There are also no easy pratfalls here. Nothing is predictable. As I watched knives glint and faces warp into horrific grins the furthest thing from my mind was nostalgia. Instead, as with Ware, I was deeply moved by the experience.

And that’s where I’ll stop for now. Next?


TIM: Well if I knew this was going to be that kind of party…

Huh. That’s a nice idea, Dan, that Pim & Francie only looks like a collection of unfinished stories and pieces, but I don’t know if I quite buy it. (I definitely don’t buy the New York magazine Nabokov theory you linked.) But I also don’t know that it matters, because Columbia makes the “unfinishedness” work for the story, just as you and previous critics have indicated, and the resulting book has its own otherwise perhaps unattainable power. It’s difficult to know whether or not these stories would have worked better if Columbia had completed them more traditionally, just as it is to conclude whether or not David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive would have worked better as the television series he had originally intended. In the end, you have to read the book you hold in your hands.

It’s definitely interesting, and telling, that the text of the book itself draws almost no attention to its own raw state, other than in the spine’s parenthetical “Artifacts and Bone Fragments.” As you said, Dan, knowing Columbia’s career history inevitably shapes the reader’s response, and it’s fun and fruitful to (attempt to) read the book as if you aren’t aware of it.

In either case, the fact that so many of these grotesque stories and vignettes don’t really resolve contributes to the reader’s growing sense of unease. It’s almost like a 12-bar blues song (or an intensifying series of songs) that never returns to the tonic chord: your nerves get a real work out.

Of course, in another way, the fact that so many of these funny-animal-like characters are horribly mutilated only to be resurrected, seemingly unharmed, a few pages later only points back to traditional cartoon tropes of endlessly recurring death, dismemberment, and escape. As if Wile E. Coyote’s tortured existence wasn’t played for laughs. (Grant Morrison’s celebrated attempt to capture something similar looks lame and obvious compared to Columbia’s infinitely more subtle work.)

I’ve said it before in another context, but I’m really beginning to believe it: “In a way, every comic depicts a phantasmagoric dreamscape: Squint just right, and everyone from Spider-Man to Dilbert is revealed as a nightmarish figure.” When I was a child, for reasons I can’t even now articulate, I remember feeling a irrational fear looking at Minnie Mouse’s oversize high heels engulfing her strangely shaped feet. Francie wears the same shoes in this book, and now I find them scary as an adult. That’s a big part of what I get out of Al Columbia’s comics in general: they really bring out the surreal terror already buried within cartoon imagery.

That’s it for me for now. You got anything, Frank? And Dan, I guess there’s nothing stopping you (or anyone) from jumping in again at any time, either.

TIM: Also, is it my imagination, or does Cinnamon Jack remind anyone else of Alfred E. Neuman?


DAN: You’re wrong, Tim! Cinnamon Jack looks NOTHING like Alfred E. Neuman. Phew. Had to get that one bit of Cage Match energy out of my system. Sadly, yes, Hodler, you’re right, they do look alike. Which means I’ll never look at either the same way. Tim’s blues analogy is a good one: I’m reminded of John Fahey or something like that—ultra tense, repeating patterns that don’t allow for a satisfying payoff. But, I have to say, the life & death cycle of cartoon characters, as well as their lurking grotesques don’t interest me that much on their own. I almost take it for granted. It’s more like what Columbia does with subtly “off-model” versions, like his repeating Goofy/Lena the Hyena figure. It’s more than bringing out the horror in an extant design, it’s taking components of that design and refashioning them all together. The highly individual result is the scary thing. It’s not like I’m arguing, dear Tim, just expanding.

Also, one thing I forgot to mention before: P&F is also a wonderful demonstration of the cartooning and animation process: The insane amount of drawings produced that have just subtle differences or mistakes. The maddening repetition. Ironically, I have to sign off until late this evening as I have to go teach comics at SVA! I should just have a group reading of P&F, I suppose. Below: A version of the Phantom Blot?


TIM: Well, I take Robert Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning for granted, so we’re even! (It’s probably unwise of me to admit that.)

And I knew that image reminded me of something, and you’re right: The Phantom Blot! So many memories just opened up. Time Regained.


I read straight through like a narrative. Like a detective, I put the clues together and read the images attentively as they sped by. I could feel the collage of all these fragments, clues assemble and tell a very clear story to me. I’ve read this story before, have felt the same emotions. Pim and Francie’s adventure struck a chord in me that’s been dormant for a long time. A haunting wonder, perhaps? A curiosity of the unknown that, when found, rattles one to the core?

Does that all sound too heavy? Insincere? Not to me. Like Dan, I felt really moved by the book. I don’t feel the need to explain the “unfinished-ness” of the book at all because I see it as “finished.” Notes, fragments, whatever. I read it slowly, turning each page like I was watching a film that had me riveted. Does that make sense? And then I would go back to certain section I wanted to re-read and watch that unfold again and again.

I also wanted to find a way to gauge the “timing” of the author’s delivery. Columbia’s progression of two-page spreads and how the spreads folded into the next in sequence is truly beautiful. I read each spread as a pairing of the left and right pages. And as I would turn the pages I could feel the changes in tone and how it affected the “loose” narrative. I wanted to be able to feel the changes and mark them so I could return to these transitions and re-read them like chapters.

The way I did this was to determine the first spread in the book, which is this:

Spread #1

The page on the left is, technically, not the first image in the book. That would be this image which is very important:

First Image

The above image of the sun and the torn curtain is, to me, the beginning of the “play” as it were. It feels like it’s part of a proscenium stage.

I numbered the remaining spreads as “Spread #2, #3,” etc. I then would put a post-it every ten spreads to mark the “time” for me. I could see the rhythm of the images, watch how they played off each other. And most importantly it let me appreciate it as a whole even though I was inserting breaks. But these breaks were just so I could get my bearings, a sort of time code for this world outside of time.

Spread #10

Spread #20

There are 118 spreads by my count. To me, the fragments are expertly pieced together and a sort of “hyper-text” is created. I read it up, down, and sideways, using the symbols of the characters as links to other spots within the story fragments.

I would like the reader to enjoy the first twenty spreads without my description. It’s a marvelous fable, a poetic onslaught of images that will deposit you, the reader, into the rabbit hole. And you will find yourself with Pim and Francie, lost in the haunted forest.

And then Grandma appears. She finds you, and all is well. And then, at Grandma’s house, we know real fear. A succession of images terrorize our heroes, and like a nightmare, they find themselves on a dream street in a bad part of town. A cartooned detective appears chasing a killer. On the opposing page, a smiling, long-snouted, gap-toothed visage of fear with piercing eyes is depicted. Turn the page and there are severed limbs on the left hand side of the spread. And on the right hand side is an old man smoking a cigar. The words in the balloon are difficult to make out because there is tape and corrections. The one phrase that is readable is, “They enjoy killing! It makes them happy!”

When we turn to the next spread, we see Pim speaking to this older gentleman. Pim refers to him as Grandpa. This is the first time we understand within the order of the images that this character is Grandpa. The representation of Grandpa, like Pim and Francie, is reduced to a symbol, so when we encounter this symbol, we, the reader, bring so much to the table already. Just the word Grandpa and any cartooned image of a pleasant-looking gentleman, fused together, evoke a very particular feeling in me as a reader.

Spread #25

Spread #26

So when Grandpa reveals to Pim what the murderer does, it also sets up the reader to feel for Pim as he goes down the rabbit hole. On the opposing page, the grotesque, exaggerated visage of a few pages ago is replaced with it’s “flipped image” double. Only now it is hacked to pieces, dead or dying and still smiling. A haunting mad image that bears the text, “Sonny Blackfire had returned.”

When we turn the page again to spread #28 we meet “the Bloody Bloody Killer.” His face, the angle of how it is drawn, all match the “grotesque visage” of the previous spread which of course, rhymes with the original spread. It is this phrasing that interests me a great deal. Spread to spread, Columbia directs my eye to see, in succession, more than the images reveal singularly. It reminds me of how a musical chord progression is built out of single notes, played together in time.



TIM: Good one, Frank. I feel like we’ve barely begun to get anywhere, but I have to bow out for the rest of the evening, and do some stupid parenting. Maybe you and Dan will come up with more tonight—either way I’ll rejoin the conversation tomorrow morning.


DAN: Top of the morning to ya! A few responses: To the anonymous comment below: The reference to Wolverton’s MAD cover is mentioned above: Columbia merges Lena Hyena with Goofy. And, I’m not pulling art from the book, necessarily. Comics Comics HQ doesn’t have little helpers scanning books so I just grabbed stuff from the vast internet. So, you can stop searching for these images in the book (except for Frank’s spreads. Those ARE in the book). Finally, I wanted to add to Tim’s thoughts on the object-ness of, say, Minnie’s shoes. If, as in a previous post, one could make a list of invented comic strips within fictional narratives, one could also perhaps make a list of invented comics museums within stories. There is a brilliant and haunting spread of a ballroom filled with cracked cartoon visages frozen in song. P&F enter the space wearing their Mickey hats—fresh blood in a toon graveyard. It’s the only literal depiction of these old icons (Snow White, Mickey, the Ducks, et al) and it’s a great disruptive moment. Two other cartoon museums come to mind immediately (and there must be a ton more): Francis Masse’s brilliant “The Museum of Natural History” in Raw Vol. 2 #3 and Spiegelman’s own satirical museum drawn as a poster to benefit Danny Hellman.


I think Columbia’s approach points the way to a more intimate reading of the text. The fragments, the feel of the paper, grant us access to the material in a way that is more tactile than we get from most who employ this “style;” there is an almost uncomfortable intimacy. Partly because of the violent imagery but also because of the torn and shredded pieces of paper themselves. The humor and the horror and the presentation do not feel contrived at all, but authentic, sincere—REAL in every sense. The approach, the style of drawing interests me but I don’t feel repelled by the treatment. Meaning that it could be read as “cold” somehow. There’s a seduction to the drawing, the style, the pencil, the stages of development. The “behind the scenes” look can be startling.

I must sound like a broken record to those who know me but here goes: This book makes me think of Be-Bop. Notes, chords but skirting the melody. Playing up and down the scale. There’s a beat (page spreads, rhythm of turning pages, the architecture of the spread—two fixed pages—and the architecture of the page; how it’s presented as illustration, as symbol, as comic strip, as movement, as march), and there are notes, chords, but the melody line comes in and out like Charlie Parker playing a standard from The Great American Songbook.

I listen to Charlie Parker everyday on WKCR in NYC. While writing the above paragraph I heard a live recording of Parker where he riffed on the theme from Popeye. I forget the song but the band is chugging along and Parker is playing up and down and around the melody and slips in “Popeye the Sailor Man” without loss of tempo or control or anything—incredible. And to me, that’s akin to what Columbia is able to do in the way he sequences the notes and fragments together in Pim & Francie. (The above Parker video isn’t the song with the Popeye riff, FYI. Just an example of playing with intention and focus and still finding room to “play”)

Columbia’s style of drawing doesn’t evoke a nostalgia in me; I don’t feel he is drawing in an “affected” way. Hokey it ain’t. It’s very REAL. And his take on this American symbolism is strikingly elegant in its delivery. It’s through this elegant delivery that we connect to the fable, the song which somewhere we have all heard before.


TIM: Frank, your musical comparison seems pretty apt to me.

Dan, have you read Michael DeForge‘s Lose yet? Because there’s a bar in hell there that you really need to see. (I should review that issue—it’s really a great debut. Go order a copy, people.) It’s not exactly the same kind of thing you’re talking about, but it’s close enough for blogonet work.

Also, it’s funny that you began this Round Table by saying that you thought we’d all have “very different interests” in the book, but in fact, our responses seem to have been very similar. Maybe that’s indicative of the power of Columbia’s art, that a book so ostensibly “obscure” and “difficult” can provoke such strong, unified responses. (Or maybe its says more about our own limitations as critics, but that’s too depressing to contemplate.) The relationships and situations seem to shift from “story” to “story” and page to page (are Pim and Francie siblings or spouses? children or adults? dead or alive? etc.), yet always make strong emotional sense (for lack of a better phrase), even as they avoid more traditional, “logical” closures.

One other small effect I don’t think has yet been mentioned: I really enjoy the sense you get (through book covers, logos, film stills, etc.) of an alternate universe full of Pim & Francie books, cartoons, and merchandise. That so many of the characters and images mirror those from real (and often long-forgotten) commercial culture only increases the effect.

I don’t know how much more there is to say about this book, without going into the kind of close analysis that Frank began to attempt yesterday, but maybe you guys will prove me wrong. Or actually do some of that close analysis! Like, I mean, what does it mean when they poke their eyes out? Whose “revelation” is it near the end, and what causes it? And what about that final scene in the meadow? What does it mean, man? Actually, those kind of analytical questions appear to me to be largely pointless. But am I wrong? Is that just lazy thinking?


DAN: I have only flipped through Lose but am looking forward to getting my hands on it. Looks amazing. His Cold Heat special is genius. As for the rest, well, man, I think we’ve run out of steam. Those major questions of yours will have to wait until we next meet for beers. Or at least, me and Frank won’t be answering them. Perhaps some kind souls in the comments will help you through this ontological quandary. If not, you can call me up until midnight tonight. Just kidding.

I think that about does it, folks! Thanks for reading. Now back to your regularly scheduled Comics Comics programming.


TIM: Aw, you guys are chicken.

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Steve Oliff riff


Saturday, June 20, 2009

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Okay, Frank Santoro here, and this one’s for all the color nerds out there. It’s just my notes, fragments of an interview with a master.

Steve Oliff may be one of the best color artists in comics history. I tracked down the 30-year veteran of comics and asked him a few questions about some old color processes used in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was kind. And patient. But please know that these notes, this “interview,” is really just to satisfy me and to add fuel to the fire of my own obsessions—so forgive me if this isn’t a super well rounded portrait of an artist. (And thanks to Steve.)

I was just reading, looking at everything Oliff had worked on, collecting the coolest and weirdest crap comics just cuz he’d colored them, and trying to make sense of how the processes changed over the years. He ushered in the computer era when he found a way to color Akira by the most insane process in 1988. And before that he worked on Marvel’s first full color comic magazine in the ’70s, The Hulk!, the first book there to use the “blue-line” process.

Blue-line. Blue-line color process. What is it? From what I understand, generally, it’s when the “black line” (the inked, finished art) is printed on an acetate sheet and then is also printed in non-photo blue on Bristol board at the same size. The acetate is usually hinged at the top of the board and brought down for reference. Anyways, the board gets the full color treatment, watercolor, acrylics, dyes, anything that’ll stick to the board. The colored page and the black-line page are shot by the camera separately. The idea is that the blacks stay black and the color stays balanced. You can paint the fuck out of it and still have these crisp containment black lines that’ll shape it all up.

An example of this process is found here. Read the intro paragraph about original blue-line comic art.

I got really into reading Howard Chaykin‘s Time2 and really into trying to understand how Steve Oliff went about coloring it. Time2 has a fresh, light palette that adjusts to the mood of the story ?very nicely. The light “pastel” palette was so different from the ?traditional four-color books on newsprint and the garish Baxter paper ?books of ’84-’86. ??”Flat” colors for the most part with slight airbrushed gradients that? presages computer color’s ubiquitous “modeled” color of today—a look that ?Oliff was instrumental in creating.

Yet, the effects achieved in? Time2 are remarkable because they do not rely heavily on “modeling” ?and gradients; the colors are restrained and generally “flat.” Oliff ?arranged the mottled, impressionistic flat areas of color to create ?tension and mood and it worked beautifully. White Conté crayon ?highlights and watercolor paper-like textures reveal a hand? with a liveliness rarely seen in color comics. This approach ?pairs very well with Chaykin’s style, which is important to note.? Subtleties of color,? highlights, and patterning that mirror Chaykin’s style unify the color and line ?art, like a second voice providing a stellar harmony.

Note the blue flourish on the back of the policeman to the right. And how it rhymes with the sky on the adjacent page.

These flourishes and the simple painted sky background were? not possible with the four-color process. All “art” was made on the ?black line with the four-color process. A colorist may have implied a? stormy sky in his color guides, but it would be left to an unknown? “separator” to create the sky—a chance that most artists and? colorists were not, generally, prepared to make. It was very uncommon ?to see elements created by the artist printed on any of the color ?plates. For the most ?part the artist was limited to the black line, and the colorist to flat? color, screens and mechanical gradients notwithstanding.

Santoro: Was this (Time2) your first experience with the blue-line process?

OLIFF: Yes, this was the first time I’d tried the blue-line process. It was the second time I’d worked with Howard Chaykin, though. The first time was in 1978 on The Stars My Destination. On that project we just did full-color art. I was laying in the basics and Howard did the finishes.

On Time2, Howard and I worked very closely. He sent me a pile of color references, from painted TV Guide covers to fashion photos. He had a late-forties to early sixties flavor to all of it. He does extensive reference research for his projects. That naturally carried over to the coloring.

had a couple of things different about it. First, many of the pages were designed as double-page spreads, and could be linked thematically. I knew there weren’t going to be any annoying ads that could pop up randomly with God only knows what kind of a color scheme to compete with my work.

Then you have the real advantage of blue lines: You can use any paint, pencil, etc., that you want. I could use gouache (opaque watercolor). And in reproduction, that word “opaque” is crucial.

I’m going to digress a bit, but this is important.

Comics had traditionally been colored on the guides using Dr. Martin’s Radiant Transparent Watercolors. These guides were not used for reproduction, just as an indicator for the engravers and separators.

When people started doing full-color, they were looking for bright, saturated colors, which Dr. Martin’s gives on the original color art. However, when you try to reproduce the transparent colors, because of the crystalline structure of the pigment, and the bouncing of the light between the white paper and the pigment, the colors will over-saturate, and react weirdly.

With opaque colors, the light hits the paint and is directly reflected back to the camera or scanner without the trip under the transparent colors. This gives a much more controllable color that can be accurately reproduced.

Up to that point in my career, I had been using transparent dyes, felt pens, and only a very little opaque Cel-Vinyl animation paint. Gouache changed my whole approach to color. And best of all, I could mix the gouache thin enough that I could airbrush with it. (And there is a lot more airbrush work on Time2 than at first meets the eye.)

One of the main things that separates Time2 from my earlier coloring jobs was that I mixed up my own special palettes of colors to airbrush, and then I used some of those same colors to paint with. Then on top of that, I was using some of the leftover frisket (a masking film) to create patterns of color. For instance there is a big shot of a girl sitting on a couch. The pattern on the fabric is mostly used frisket pieces. We used spatter and colored pencil extensively to give texture.

I also used Pantone films to cast shadows over the colors once they were rendered.

And finally, Howard came back in and gave a lot of the faces hard edged color. He felt some of my color edging was too soft, so he cut in some highlights.

I was out of the loop on the proofs, so I don’t know what was going on in that department. Howard and the editors were more on top of that. Time2 has been one of the most popular works of mine among colorists. I can remember Brian Haberlin mentioning it as one of his favorite color jobs before he became a pro. I think it still holds up. I’m proud of it.

The blue-line process changed the way colorists essentially ?”created” color. To get an insight on how different the process was, ?I asked Steve to compare Time2 to another book he worked on only the ?year before: Mike Kaluta‘s Starstruck series.

When I worked on the Epic titles: Timespirits, Coyote, The Bozz Chronicles, and Starstruck, they were all flat color books. (Timespirits eventually switched to full-color stats for the last few issues.) It was an adjustment for me. It was like working on Captain Victory and Starslayer for Pacific, which I’d done in the early ’80s.

How were your guides interpreted for Starstruck?

I’m guessing ?paper seps that were then shot with screens to get percentages. This is more or less the same process that had been in place for fifty years ?in comic books.

Starstruck was separated by one of the old hand separation companies, probably Chemical Color up in Connecticut. They did a decent job considering I hate to write numbers all over my guides, so they were left to guess a lot about exactly which colors I wanted.

Your arrangement of bright flat colors in Starstruck, to me, really? suits Kaluta’s work. It feels like you really looked at his own color? work and really attempted to dovetail nicely with his line work. I? don’t get that feeling with Elaine Lee‘s colors on the first two ?issues. I also think it’s a very modern palette that holds up over ?time. Very fresh.

Starstruck had great art, and I was forced to think things through in a flatter way. However, I’ve never approached any project without trying my best to figure out which color approach best suits the story and the artist. Also, whenever possible I talked to the artists about what they were looking for in the color. My goal has always been to be a real collaborator on the art, and do everything in my power to bring out the best in it. That’s not always possible, but I tried whenever I could. I didn’t have much contact with Mike on that book, though. I was called in because the editor (Archie Goodwin) either wasn’t totally happy with Elaine’s work, or she was behind on deadlines.

Please elaborate on the mid-’80s and the choices offered: four-?color, blue-line, Photostats, grey-line. Did you feel that one process was superior or did you have? a preference? They are understandably different processes with their? own quirks. Did turning over your guides to a separation house and? getting back lazy seps fuel your interest in blue-line? Obviously with Akira that was an issue (I read your essay on Akira color), but before you really even thought about computer color, lets ?say in ’85, ’86, which process did you feel best represented what you ?were trying to do? Because from what I can tell you were doing? grey-line, blue-line, and four-color in 1986.

I was doing all different color styles around then, true, but I’d been thinking about coloring using computers as early as ’82-’83.

For me blue lines were a step sideways in my color evolution. I’d been doing full-color work since right after I worked for Howard in ’78. I was one of the first colorists to use the Marvel double-print black system that Rick Marshall put together for The Hulk! magazine. They called it SUPERCOLOR, I think. It was an attempt to find a blue-line substitute.

The idea of their system was similar to blue-lines, except that they printed two copies of the line art onto a type of Photostat that supposedly wouldn’t shrink (therefore preserving registration). I did full color on one, and the other was used for the line art. Between the two of them I could get a variety of effects. I could knock out the line art to get glass FX, and I could also add Zip-A-Tone to the black to get darker tones and set moods.

This system worked fairly well, but the problem for most colorists was that you had to work on a very slick surface that only took certain color mediums. I developed a system for coloring on them that worked well, but it wasn’t like working in paint and colored pencil, etc. I could use airbrush, however.

The problem at the time was that editors were looking for ways to economically get better color, but there weren’t many books to try things on. After the Hulk series got canceled, there wasn’t any work for a full-colorist.

That was a rough spell for me, but I got little jobs here and there until Pacific Comics began. They did flat color on newsprint until Bruce Jones’s Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales came out. On those they did the jump to Baxter paper, but the first issue of Twisted Tales was hand-separated. I did most of the guides for that issue. By this time I was coloring my guides on photostats, so I just did them like I was doing full-color even if I knew it was going to be flat separations. I put an acetate overlay on them, which was where I wrote in the color codes. (I REALLY hated putting those numbers in.)

That all changed on one Al Williamson story for Alien Worlds. They saw how nice the guides looked and decided to try to get a clean full-color shot, which they did, so they switched then and there to full-color. I still have a daily strip that Al sent me in appreciation for that job.

But the age-old problem of shooting full-color art was still there, so someone came up with the grey-line system, which was a watered-down blue-line approach. It worked up until the end of the Eclipse line of comics.

When Time2 came out, and so did The Dark Knight, the blue-line was the hot way to get full color.

(Oliff would continue using the blue-line technique and his ?collaboration with Chaykin through 1988 with Blackhawk, from DC ?comics.)

Would you comment on this series briefly? I feel like you grew more? comfortable with the blue-line process here and created a palette and? look that was very suitable to the 1940s setting. Its a bit less? frenetic than Time2, but still very “lively.” There are also more ?instances where you are painting in backgrounds that Chaykin is not delineating on the black line.

After Time2, when Howard landed the Blackhawk series for DC, he got me signed on as colorist. All the stuff I learned on Time2, I was then able to use on Blackhawk. My painting ability got stronger and cleaner, and Howard felt confident to let me add background and design elements. I still have many of those pages, and I’m amazed at how much work I put into them.

Would you elaborate on the grey-line process used ?at Eclipse? Was this the same process that Marshall Rogers used for? his Scorpio Rose comics? Did processes change at Eclipse and Pacific ?over the years? I’ve heard that Marshall was very involved in?developing Eclipse’s color process in the early ’80s.

I don’t know if Marshall had anything to do with the development of the grey-line system or not. The grey-line process was a hybrid of the blue-line designed for drum scanning. Blue-line traditionally had the blue line printed on heavy illustration board. That meant they had to be shot photographically. The grey lines were 10% line art printed on a flexible Photostat. That was what we colored. The black line art overlay was also flexible. The pages were done at printing size, and ganged up to scan a bunch of pages at a time on a drum scanner. I don’t know whether it was four or eight pages at a time, or what. This made the separations inexpensive, which allowed them to do full color at not too much more cost than flat color.

How did you feel about the Baxter paper books ?that came out in ’84? Camelot 3000 and the New Teen Titans. I’m not? aware of any “Baxter” books that you may have worked on.

I always thought that the Epic books I colored were Baxter books. But in general the first Baxter books were a bit much. The Baxter books did allow a wider range of colors, though. It was just that no one was quite prepared for it at first.

Moebius‘s Epic graphic novels. Were they? blue-line? Were all the Marvel graphic novels blue-line? Is the? Starstruck graphic novel from ’84 a blue-line process? Do you remember? what the first blue-line process book you saw was? I mean one that you ?saw in a production office or somewhere, not the final printed book ?but the board itself with the overlay.

Moebius was definitely blue-line. I don’t know about the Starstruck graphic novel. The Marvel graphic novels I colored were the double-print black system. (I’m not sure what the official name was for that system. I’ve just always called it that.) The Death of Captain Marvel, God Loves, Man Kills, Super Boxers, Revenge of the Living Monolith were all that system.

The only one that was totally different for me was the Alien Legion graphic novel. On that one I colored directly on Frank Cirocco’s art. I’m not sure what the rest of them were.

I don ‘t remember seeing any blue-line jobs in the office until after I had done a few myself. In addition to Time2, I colored about three Classics Illustrated graphic novels for First Comics.

I asked a fairly reliable source about who ?actually interpreted the guides for the separation houses in the ’60s ?and ’70s and was told that Marvel and DC had the same separation house.? “It was little old ladies in Connecticut who made the separations.”? Have you ever heard anything like that?

Oh, yeah. That was it. Chemical Color. It was a standard line about the state of comic coloring. When it sucked, you could blame it on the “little old ladies in Connecticut.”

postscript: anyone with info on the “greyline” process, please email me. capneasyATgmailDOTcom

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Cage Match #3: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (2008)


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Read Comments (126)

[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues on which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Frank puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, I will respond (though it’s likely that this particular match will proceed a bit more leisurely than past conflicts). We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this book yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

FRANK: I’m too lazy to write a full review of David Heatley‘s “new” book, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, so we’re gonna have a Cage Match. I should take a scalpel to it and slice it up precisely, turn it inside out. I could easily show how there is really nothing there, that once the “shock” of his work wears off, the lines, the forms, the cartooning is all clearly sub-par.

But Heatley’s new book just makes me angry. And I think that’s what he wants. He wants to provoke reactions like mine so that he can “work out” his insecurities, his racism and his issues with women on the page. And be forgiven.

I’ve been waiting to see this cartoonist take the next step and I think his new book is incredibly disappointing.

Since Heatley keeps re-printing the same material over and over again, should I consider this the Heatley I’ve been hoping will emerge? I mean, I liked the sexual history story when it first came out. Five years ago. It was funny. But I feel like I’ve seen it in at least three different collections since then. And now it’s in his hideously ugly new book, replete with self-censorship and no explanation as to why. (He famously placed pink bars over all the genitalia for this new version and added an epilogue of sorts—more on that later)

The book is broken up into sections that are labeled as parts of Heatley’s brain. The “Race” section starts off with a dream comic of David fucking a Black woman from behind and her asking, “Did you stick it in yet?” O the humanity!

“Sambo” is up next, a dream comic about protecting himself and family from “Sambo.” (The last image is of David hitting “Sambo” over the head with a bat.)

A dream comic about the “Projects.”

Then “Black History” begins. The bulk of the new material in this book.

Y’know, it’s not like he grows as a cartoonist. This big new story about “every Black person he’s ever known” looks and reads exactly like 2003-4 Heatley. There’s little measurable growth. (Insert dick joke here.)

And as someone who’s godfather was Black, I gotta say, you’re a fucking asshole for even doing this story, Heatley. My godfather used to say, “I love it when someone says they got lots of ‘Black friends’ like they gotta say ‘Black’ just to impress me. If they your friends, why you gotta say ‘Black’? You think that same person says, ‘I got a lot of White friends’?”

And that’s sort of what Heatley does by inserting “Shout Outs” to his homies within the narrative itself. There are larger panels within the dense page design of the story that include a drawing of a figure, of a real Black person like his childhood friend Winton, with dedications like, “Dude, you were the coolest, stoney-eyed artist around!” To me, these come off as really demeaning.

There are also large sidebars and whole pages of handwritten text that are “Record Reviews” of Black music that David loves. It’s the “voice” Heatley uses to describe getting, say, a Jungle Brothers tape that makes me just shake my head. All that “Yo wassup” white-boy lingo that he spits? Give me a fucking break. Just read it, look at in the store. I don’t have the patience to describe it.

I think it’s the pairing of the two things—the narrative, the comic, these fragments of memory with the “Record Reviews/Shout Out” music-zine stuff—that really puts me off. It’s as though he’s trying so hard to prove that he really loves Black people by listing the music and art made by Black people that he enjoys—just as he lists the trespasses and aggression he feels from Black people or towards Black people. It doesn’t ring true. For me.

(Bell: end of round one)

DAN: OK, I guess I will jump in. I think what riles people up about this book is precisely the public/personal nature of it: That is, it’s a book explicitly about coming to grips with some notion of morality or a way of accepting one’s own behavior. Unlike the demonstrative fantasies of Crumb or meandering auto-bio of Joe Matt, this is direct, speaking to the reader kinda stuff. It’s specifically drawn as, in a sense, therapy. That such a process becomes so public is what, I think, some people find alternately compelling or repulsive about it. I am, of late, on the compelling side, but that is less the “critic” in me talking and more the human being — that is, I suppose, in terms of the “journey” being undertaken: I relate; I empathize. One question worth asking is: How does one judge such a work: Is it reasonable for David to expect moral outrage like Frank’s? Does such a story, and the obvious implications for one’s moral well-being, elicit a like-minded response, as it did from Frank? Is that fair? I mean, David isn’t offering a prescription for how to live — just describing his own journey. But it’s the tone and content, I guess, that Frank is reacting against. Just some stray thoughts here. Tim?

TIM: Wow. Okay, that’s a lot to chew on. This particular Cage Match might take a while, though I have a feeling neither one of us is going to emerge a clear winner, at least not in the sense of convincing the other to change his mind.

Anyway, first of all: I like David’s comics a lot more than you do, Frank. They aren’t flawless by any means, and I have extremely mixed feelings about many of his artistic choices, but they do provoke extraordinarily rich reactions and thoughts. Basically, I can imagine a really full discussion of his work lasting up to a week without exhausting a lot of what’s going on, and that’s something I couldn’t say for very many contemporary young(ish) cartoonists.

But maybe it’s best for now just to respond to the points you raise. First, you’re right: this is the umpteenth appearance of the “Sex History” story, which has been re-packaged a dozen times. Except for a one-page coda to this story, the epic new “Black History”, “Kin” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve seen this before), and I believe at least part of the portrait of his mother, nearly all of the contents of this book have appeared in previous David Heatley projects. This doesn’t bother me much personally—I like how this all reads when put together. Many of these pieces, which seem too open-ended and inconclusive on their own, gain power and cogency through their juxtaposition. I think, at least.

Second: I’m not a fan of the pink censor bars David has added to his “Sex History” strip, either. And I don’t find the explanation he provided in his Time Out New York interview to be very convincing: “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind. It’s really about longing and bad sex and lack of connection.” Mostly because, uh, while David has a pretty cute drawing style, I don’t think they’re particularly erotic as images. If readers were getting “boners”, it probably had more to do with the mental images and memories provoked by the narrative itself than with crudely drawn genitals. I also think that the censor bars make the story feel less honest, less sincere: two of the story’s greatest apparent strengths, previously.

And the coda he’s added! It’s simply bizarre, and a huge disappointment, reading almost like a repudiation of the entire point of the story that precedes it. For those who haven’t picked up the book yet, in the last page, David comes to believe that he spends far too much time masturbating to pornography, to the point where he believes he is a sex addict and enters treatment for it. This really calls into question the original story’s veracity and clashes hugely with its tone, because there’s really just no hint that this has been such a serious issue for him, and coming out of the blue as it does in a single page at the end raises a huge number of questions. I really don’t know what to make of it, but if this topic was something he wanted to explore in his comics, I think it should have been treated at greater length, or at least in a comic more clearly separate from the original.

I don’t want to go on forever, so I’ll tackle your “Black History” argument briefly, and then turn it back over to you. Basically, I don’t think your characterization of it is very fair at all. He doesn’t present himself just as having a lot of black friends, but also includes many interactions with black people who dislike him, or whom he dislikes. And even the vast bulk of his black friendships seem to either peter out or end in anger. He’s obviously playing with inflammatory material here, but it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be self-congratulatory in that particular way.

As far as the record reviews go, I think you have much more of a solid point. Their tone really feels odd next to the comparatively heavy stuff going on in the larger story, and the “critiques” in them are so shallow and clichéd that they don’t seem to really add anything to the story, either. If the effect of black culture on David’s feelings about race were to be included, he really should have gone into it more, I think. As it is, the only value they add is the presumably unintentional one of revealing the shallowness of his actual thinking about race relations, and specifically his [unacknowledged] white privilege. One of the most unusual qualities of David’s stories is their very conspicuous lack of analysis, of summing up. The record reviews are an atypical aberration in that regard, and I don’t think they add enough context to be worth sacrificing one of David’s strongest and most compelling effects.

And Dan, I wrote this before seeing your post, but I basically think I agree with you, or at least think that it’s a fruitful way to start thinking about his work.

TIM: Don’t neglect the comments section on this one, by the way. Lots of good stuff down there.

TIM: Okay. I guess while we’re waiting for Frank to respond, and now that I’ve taken more time to actually digest Dan’s post and some of the comments, I’ll take another quick turn at bat. As far as whether or not David creates his art as therapy, I guess I’m not really interested. I’ve never really bought the idea of art as therapy, but I don’t really care if David uses it that way as long as the story on the page works for me. (I also think that the therapy bit is probably more of an interview shtick than the actual truth, but there’s no way to know that for sure.) As Dash Shaw says in the comments, “If this book really is play therapy, as Heatley says and as it would suggest, it is beyond criticism and (really) a not-for-print book that happened to find publication, which is an extremely romantic/ideal situation.” But obviously it is meant for print, and obviously David does care how readers respond to it, because otherwise: why the new pink censor bars boner-blockers?

TIM: Also, just to add fuel to the fire, I thought I’d highlight a few possibly relevant quotes from the interview with David in Comics Comics 3.

DAVID HEATLEY: I’m a big believer in psychology and therapy and all that stuff. I don’t feel that what I’m making is art therapy—it’s not that kind of thing—but it’s related to self-discovery and trying to be a better person, and it’s definitely an extension of the rest of your life, too. And most of my time is spent trying to be better in some way, and it’s an extension of that. I don’t think it changes me, but it’s a driving force to make new work.

Here’s another:

TIM HODLER: Do you ever do anything similar in your autobiographical work? I mean, try to make yourself look worse or better to make it more interesting to people? Or other people look worse or better? Or events?

DH: I don’t think I do. Let me put it this way. Chris Ware and I have been writing each other, and one time he said that I was one of the very few autobiographical cartoonists who doesn’t make himself into a character and I don’t know how you do that, but that’s true. I don’t make myself into a shticky Woody Allen/Joe Matt kind of character. I’m not—somehow there’s just a blankness to the “me” in those stories. I didn’t know I was striving for that, but I think I am striving for that. So I don’t think I’m trying to change myself one way or the other….

TH: It sounds like you’re more interested in the atmosphere or feeling of the story than you are in the plot or the characterization.

DH: Yeah. How would a person feel when confronted with this situation or that? How would this feel? [then, self-mockingly] I have feelings!

TIM: Frank gets back at four, so prepare for a late-afternoon explosion. In the meantime, to answer Alex Holden’s question in the comments: yes, I think the crudeness of David’s art is clearly deliberate. And I actually think it works really well with his stories. His drawings are child-like, which reinforces their primal, almost solipsistic tone; his stories read as if created by David’s “inner child”. (It may be a cliché, but it’s true all the same.) Of course, as in the case of the self-censorship mentioned above, this effect is sometimes blunted by David’s other formal choices.

FRANK: Round two: This is what I got. I read through Tim’s parts and Dan’s parts and the comments and I’ll add more soon.

Sigh. It just really makes me angry. Parts like where he says, “I can’t remember if my babysitter used the word ‘nigger’ but…” simply give him such an easy opportunity to “investigate” these “injustices”. He’s so full of bullshit righteousness. He always eventually shows himself doing the right thing, he’s always absolved.

And that’s okay, you know, because he’s an honest to god auto-bio cartoonist and it’s cool, y’know, for comics to be EDGY and REAL. So what that it underscores an incredible hostility and disrespect to others. “It’s like Crumb, man, c’mon…” I can hear some feeble defense of it all… What-fucking-ever is all I say.

And lastly, most clearly, he’s a hack of a cartoonist. Ever notice when he draws panels larger than an inch square you can truly see how shitty his line work is?

My God, look at the last story in the book. It is literally hacked out of the Bristol. It’s unbearable.

Whether his style is “intentional” or not, I don’t care. Sure there are deliberate choices. Those choices, to me, illustrate the limitations of his skill and vision. Line is line. Gary Panter’s line is strong, subtle; there are ebbs and flows. Same with R. Crumb and Mark Beyer (to use an example from the comments section)—there are discernible modulations of line that indicate a craftsman in control. I don’t get that with Heatley.

So what that he’s got the guts to show these sides of himself? There’s little craft, no narrative—just memory fragments arranged like a list. A brilliant strategy for a Truffaut movie but it doesn’t work in this comic. Or any of his comics, come to think of it. Dreams, lists of sexcapades, lists of people. Nothing adds up into a satisfying read. I’m sure to David it’s fascinating. But these anemic story arcs coupled with the Matt Feazell-like wizardry in the art department make for a profoundly disappointing “debut.”

TIM: The weird thing is, in a lot of ways I agree with you, Frank. There’s no question that David’s work so far is limited—to say the least—both in terms of craft and theme. I happen to think his drawing style works really well for those themes, but I hear you. I also agree with you (and disagree with Dan) about a lot of his storytelling. That “Black History” story in particular, as you point out, is far more meandering than anything Joe Matt has ever done, and ends kind of anti-climatically. As you imply, it’s just one thing after another. The “Kin” story, too, ends abruptly (and that’s one story where I agree that David’s drawings are simply not up-to-snuff). But…

But at the same time, I still find his work compelling, often despite myself. Somehow, as David put it in that CC3 interview, “content [leaks] in almost from the outside” despite the fact that he leaves out so much. All the little anecdotes (most of which are actually pretty mundane) trigger half-buried memories and emotions when I read them, evoke barely remembered events in my own life (usually quite different from David’s), and create a reading experience I don’t think I’ve ever gotten from any other auto-bio cartoonist, even those who I think are far superior in terms of craft and artistic ability, and whose work I probably value more highly in the end: Chester Brown, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, Crumb, etc. All the same, I can’t deny that Heatley’s work seems unique to me. (Though sometimes I wonder if the taboo nature of much of his material may make me overvalue them… I don’t know.)

And also, as I said before, I do think that somehow by putting all these stories together, as inconclusive and unsatisfying as they can be when set apart, they combine in context into something more nuanced and “whole”. The portraits of his mother and father in particular seem almost revelatory after reading the sex and race stories—suddenly a lot of weird, unexplained things in those stories spring into focus.

Finally, I really don’t think that Heatley always shows himself doing the right thing. Did you read the part where he was a camp counselor, urinating on a young child? Did you read the part where he freaked out and yelled at the medical workers in the maternity ward? There’s something there in your criticism, maybe, but it’s a lot more complicated than you’re admitting. I think, anyway. Over to you for now.

FRANK: (Round three—jab, jab, jab.) Look, I’m going on my “gut” reaction to his work. I don’t like it. And the more people try and “convince” me that his choices are artful and inventive, the more I feel indifferent to his work.

When Crumb creates a narrative of riding a woman’s shoe when he was a child and getting off on it, it’s a beautiful, repulsive, remarkable expression of lines and forms.

David’s typical choice: to use small, rhythmic panels that quickly build the scene like notes to one’s self–just do not satisfy me as a reader. There is little arc building and narrative give and take, or even a beginning and end. It’s like being told an anecdote.

These anecdotes, in the “Sex History” for example, can sometimes unite the narrative. But in “Black History”, the thread that binds it all is simply “race” and that just leaves me cold. There’s little cohesion. It’s a catalog. It’s not interesting to me. Not challenging.

“Black History” is a totally boring, list-like collection of stories, that begin and end abruptly. There’s no real narrative thread like in the “Sex History” story. That story “works” because the sexual act is the thread. That’s what connects the stories, the memories. The thread of “race” is not enough to sustain the narrative. And that might be fine for a two- or three-page comic with fifty panels per page, but for a comic of this density to go on and on and on is borderline torture for the reader.

I do agree with you that his work creates associations of long dormant memories, and that is different from “the Browns” (Chester and Jeffrey), but again, SO WHAT?

It’s totally boring. And right when I thought, “this is Black History story is totally boring”, David provides an “Interlude” where his Dad says the magic words, “Goddamn Nigger Bitch”, which will haunt David until the end of this insanely long and tedious story. (More on that later when we have the scanner. Wait ’til you see the end of “Black History”!)

TIM: Okay. Well like I just said, I agree with you on the “Black History” piece! At least on its general formlessness.

As far as “SO WHAT?”, I don’t know, I guess I do think that evoking an emotional response is a valid artistic goal. Do you really disagree? If so, you should say why! I’m interested.

Eric Reynolds weighs in with a pretty amazing comment, which everyone should read for themselves in full. But I wanted to respond to a few bits from it, because it brought up a few things I eventually wanted to get around to talking about, anyway.

First: “I liked “Sexual History” when I first read it. At the very least, it indulged my voyeuristic tendencies enough to enjoy the ride. But I also wondered if I was enjoying it in spite of David, because my armchair psychologizing/reading often seemed at odds with the author’s own conclusions (or my own interpretation of them, anyway).”

That really rings true for me, because I think that on the few times David includes his conclusions (such as the new ending to the sex story, the record reviews and shout-outs in “Black History”, etc.), they almost always seem to be at least somewhat wrong-headed, and to undercut, or to be undercut by, the story itself. For me, that kind of paradoxically adds to the whole experience, though yeah, it’s kind of a similar fascination to that which I sometimes get from reading Dave Sim (not that I’m accusing David of being Sim!) or even from the Dick Ayers autobiography. There are more layers to the comics than the cartoonist seems to realize or understand.

Second: “One thing I tend to agree with Frank about is that although I consider myself pretty thick-skinned when it comes to political incorrectness, I can’t escape that there is a fundamentally wrongheaded, racist idea at the core of the black history strip: that the author thinks he can essentially organize an entire, other race of people in a way that is comprehensive and/or meaningful to anyone but himself.”

[UPDATE: Eric modified his thoughts on this a bit later.]

Here I want to be really clear that I agree that the story is at the very least kind of questionable in terms of its approach to race. When I disagreed with Frank over this story, I was disagreeing with how Frank characterized the way Heatley presents himself in the story. I think he intentionally implicates himself several times. That being said, the more I think about the story, the more I wonder if the whole conception of it wasn’t flawed, as Eric suggests. The approach that successfully worked with sex doesn’t seem nuanced enough to deal with a topic this complicated.

I get the feeling that Heatley must’ve realized this himself, at least subconsciously, which may be why he included the really weird record reviews and shout-outs (to which, too, yeah, I agree with Frank: they come off as condescending). The weirdest of all may be his review of the TV show The Wire on the last page (I don’t know if this is what you’re referring to, Frank), where Heatley writes, “It’s certainly the only TV show to alter my race consciousness. I notice certain young black men who would have been invisible to me before, hidden behind the screen of my own ignorance and fear. I’d like to think I know something of their stories now. … Did you know it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, too?” Now The Wire is a great show, don’t get me wrong, but this bone-headed, totally self-unaware statement, coming after some dozens of pages of pretty intense racial encounters, is a real WTF moment.

FRANK: Round four. Rope-a-dope.

The “SO WHAT” factor is large for me. It’s too easy. I’ve seen so many students, amateurs, AND professionals use “provocation” as an artistic stance. These creators are calculating (to a degree) what the readers’ emotional response will be, and I feel manipulated by the creator’s choices. I don’t like having my buttons pushed in art just for the sake of it. Generally, I think this masks the artist’s shortcomings.

From the comments section: “Is the motivation to make a good comic, or is it just picking a taboo subject so people talk about and buy the book?”

Dreams, sex stories, “Darkies”, and Dad. Heatley’s subject matter in a nut-sack, er, shell. Nut-shell.

(I have to make one last comment about the “Black History” story. It’s when the “Mumia Abu-Jamal” section starts (he went to some rallies). There’s a largish panel at the bottom of the page where the Mumia rallies begin that is like a record review. It begins, “Mumia, blah, blah, blah, I read his book, blah, blah”, and concludes with, “My wife and I joined his movement in mid-summer 1995.” Bully for you, David. Thanks for sharing.)

And then there’s David and Women.

It is interesting that the first depiction of a woman in the book is being punched in the face by David. And the first story in the “race” section contains the scene described above where David is fucking a Black woman from behind. Curious. What IS his intention in these stories? Wait. Forget it. I DON’T CARE!!

TIM: Okaay. And I don’t really have the energy right now, so I’m probably done for tonight, and won’t respond with final thoughts until tomorrow. Anyway, feel free to keep arguing in the comments ’til then.

TIM: All right. I’ve gotten some sleep, and maybe a little second wind. Though I have to say, I think my initial prediction about neither of us convincing the other seems like it’s going to come true. Basically, I don’t know where we can go from here, really, seeing as you “don’t care” what Heatley’s intentions are. That’s kind of a brick wall in terms of discussion.

But, a few quick final(?) thoughts:

First, I don’t think the charge that Heatley is manipulating his audience really rings true to me. He certainly does provoke emotional responses, but he also, I think, engages the reader’s intellect as well. To bring up the Dave Sim comparison again: Sim’s a guy who tries to manipulate his readers, by using various rhetorical tricks, and jerry-rigging his evidence and arguments. Heatley generally does the opposite; he usually presents events without analysis or comment, leaving it up to the reader to make sense of them. (In the few occasions where he does provide analysis, such as the new final page of the sex story, or in the “record reviews” of his race story, I think they weaken his work, as mentioned earlier. But those are relatively rare occasions.)

Second, I don’t think there’s any way to be sure about Heatley’s motivations in tackling these taboo subjects. Are they exploitative, or courageous? Or both? I don’t know, and while I understand why people would suspect bad faith on Heatley’s part, I don’t think I ultimately agree. Despite what you have said, he simply does portray himself in an often unflattering light. I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the “truth” as well as he can, at least most of the time. And I don’t think it makes sense to say first that he tries to make himself always look good, and then once you admit that he doesn’t, say that it doesn’t matter. Either it matters, or it doesn’t!

Third, and I realize this is only my opinion, and can’t really be argued, but despite the many failings I think can be attributed to “Black History”, I really didn’t find it boring. Exhausting? Sure. (Kind of like this Cage Match, maybe.) But not boring. And I think that the fact that you read the story, which is quite long, under less than ideal conditions—standing in a bookstore (please correct me if I am mistaken—rather than in a comfortable chair, at leisure, with time to digest the content, might have made it more difficult to engage with the story I get the impression from reading your comments that you haven’t really fully engaged with Heatley’s story, or given it the time and thought it deserves to be fair to it. I think that whatever Heatley may get wrong, his stories more or less demand strong engagement if the reader is going to do them justice. He doesn’t spoon feed you; you have to decide for yourself. (And yes, I acknowledge that Heatley’s choice of subject matter is going to cause a lot of people not to want to engage just on principle. But I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction isn’t a very fair or fruitful way to think about his work.)

Fourth, I want to second Eric’s opinion in the comments about David’s design sense, which I think is indeed strong. I also think that we haven’t acknowledged just how good David is at isolating evocative, resonant, telling moments, which greatly enhances his storytelling.

Finally, I think Heatley’s weaknesses and virtues as an artist are tightly interwoven. You have to work out for yourself whether it’s worth the effort to read him. For myself, I have to say that for all my problems with his work, I find it unique, memorable, and occasionally powerful. I’m glad I’ve read him; his stories, warts and all, have expanded my concept of what comics can do.

Over to you.

TIM: Oh, and this isn’t really a good place to put it, but I did want to highlight part of a comment from Tom Spurgeon that I thought was particularly smart, and made a point I hadn’t considered, but which seems obvious in retrospect:

“The thing I don’t like about the pink bars in the sex story is that it changes the context by which he refused to treat his wife the same way as the rest of the people in the book, which I thought was hilarious and somehow meaningful in ways other than the obvious ways.”

Okay, I’m done.

FRANK: Round five (circle, keep feet moving.)

All strong arguments, Tim.

I agree that Heatley’s work is complicated. And that my “knee-jerk” reaction (“I don’t like it, it’s boring.”—I still say it’s boring, no matter how many wacky things happen in the story) is not a sufficient counter-argument, but what else can I say? Even when I totally love something, I often don’t have that much to say about it. Formally, it’s interesting, but not overly so. Deadening and repetitive is a more apt description. If I were to dissect it page by page, I’m sure I’d find some surprises, but it just leaves me cold. I look at stuff like Fun Home and think the same thing: “It’s good, but it doesn’t do anything for me.” Totally different styles, approaches, goals, but still in the “I don’t care” category. When someone says they think Brian Chippendale is boring, and that they don’t like it, what am I supposed to say to them? I say, “OK, that’s cool.” I don’t try and convince people that they need to investigate that further. That’s what the TCJ message board is for. I don’t do that. And while the point of this Cage Match may be to convince each other of the work’s merits or its failings, I just don’t have much else to say.

And if I talk about why it makes me angry, or that I think Heatley is a self-centered careerist, then it just sounds like sour grapes.

When I learned that the original sub-title for “Black History” was “To All My Niggas”, it made me angry. Do I have to qualify that feeling I had/have? Why? Why is the onus on me, the reader?

You write, “I think that he appears to be making a genuine effort to depict the ‘truth’ as well as he can, at least most of the time.” Funny how his “White privilege” is never really discussed. He doesn’t pull back like in the record reviews and provide a context for his actions/thoughts. He’ll show his Dad using racial slurs, but not much else in the way of “background” or a lucid self-analysis, except within the spare narrative. There are plenty of occasions where he shows himself “looking bad”, but I think that’s just part of the endless list of anecdotes. I don’t feel that it balances out the “looking good”. It’s a self-serving narrative device.

To me, he “gets away” with a lot because the work is sort of beyond reproach because it’s auto-biographical. In a work of fiction, there would be an artifice that would act as a filter. Here the rawness is unsettling. That’s its strength, but it’s also a crutch. He’s always free to expose, expose, expose. He’s “beyond criticism” as someone wrote in the comments section. It’s extremely difficult to pin down why it pisses me off, but it does. He’s a good person in his comics, he’s a bad person. So what. We all are in real life. Heatley “investigates” this. So what. Is it good art? To some, sure. To me, it sucks, I don’t like it. I have problems with it. Obviously.

And lastly: I wonder what his rock star buddy Tunde from TV on the Radio has to say about his “Shout-Out” in the book?

TIM: I wonder about that, too. It would be interesting to know; maybe he likes it? In any case, it looks like we’ve reached an impasse here. You’ve raised some good points, even if I ultimately mostly disagree with you. But I don’t want to keep rehearsing the same arguments, and it may be that we are (finally) coming to a kind of natural close here for the Cage Match. Dan wants to weigh in one more time, but probably won’t be able to get to it until tomorrow, due to the New York Art Book Fair. Until then, everyone should feel free to keep arguing in the comments.

TIM: Dan? Are you out there?

DAN: Well, for now, I’ll bow out. Seems like all has been said that could be said. I would like to weigh in again at some point, mostly in defense of the book as a book, and my own feeling that it’s largely successful on its own terms. I suppose I come down with Tim on most things, but frankly I am also too burnt out on this ongoing book fair and other pressing work to be able to post anything nearly as thoughtful or cogent as what Tim has done, not to mention many others. I think this has been by and large a really fascinating discussion. Thanks.

TIM: That’s it, folks. Thanks, and good night.

UPDATE: David Heatley responds.

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“Comics Color” article from CC #2


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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Hey Everyone,

This is an article on color I did for CC#2. I’m posting it here because my friends keep telling me they haven’t read it. I tell them there is a free pdf of the issue on the CC blog, but still they don’t read it. Maybe they’ll read it now. Thanks.
Make It Loud: Comics Color, Kevin Nowlan, and Cosmic Depth
by Frank Santoro

Until the early 1990s, most color comics were produced in the same way they’ve been made for nearly one hundred years. The artist drew the comic in black-and-white and then, for the most part, provided the printer with a guide of some sort to color the comic by. These guides would have been anything from simple color sketches to hand-colored photostats or Xeroxes of the black-and-white line art. Engraving plates would be created by the printer for four different colors: red, blue, yellow, and black. In combination, and with the help of screens, these would produce a limited but comprehensive palette. There was no guarantee, however, that the vision of the artist and the reality of what came off the press would match. Photoshop did not yet exist. There was no way to preview the results.

Despite this, I still love the idea of the subtle collaboration between the artist and the folks on the press, and even the old printing press itself. The old assembly line process has all but disappeared from comics, but there’s a warmth to the color comics made in that era that I don’t feel in those made with today’s precise computer-regulated printing techniques. The hand isn’t there in the artwork or on the press. Color separations produced in Photoshop strike me as somehow lacking. Not everyone agrees. Kevin Nowlan, one of the rare mainstream comics artists who colors his own work, has noted that today’s coloring “can be overpowering. Too much airbrush, too many effects, distracting textures,” he says. “But that’s a problem with the colorist, not Photoshop. A little restraint goes a long way.” While this is true, it’s worth mentioning that Nowlan was afforded the hands-on experience of learning how to produce color comics the old-fashioned way. He implicitly understood the limitation of the four-color process and with it was able to produce one of the most striking and vibrant color comics ever made: Outsiders Annual #1, published by DC Comics in 1986.
I asked the artist recently how the opportunities to color his own artwork came up. “After I’d done as few stories and covers that were colored by other people, I started asking the editors if I could do my own guides,” Nowlan says. “Most of them were agreeable. There was some resistance when I asked to do guides for the Outsiders story. The editor was okay with it but called back rather sheepishly and explained that I’d have to send in some samples before they’d let me do it.” The “guides” were what I was interested in—how exactly did a colorist do his or her job with the four-color process? For a long time, I believed that the colorist actually “cut” the separations for the letterpress, much like rubyliths are cut for a silkscreen press.* Actually, the “cutting” of the individual colors out of film to create the color plates was generally done by a middleman called a “separation house.” The colorist would provide the “separator” with hand-colored Xeroxes of the line art. These color guides would also have codes written across each color on the page that corresponded with a list of all the available colors on the press. The separator would then literally separate the four colors into distinct plates.

There were only four plates, but there were also countless variations possible if techniques such as overprinting (yellow and red make orange) and screens (a dotted, finely screened red looks pink).

If the separator was conscientious with the colorist’s guides and carefully prepared the film, the final printed comic would resemble the hand-colored guides. If they were careless about following the guides, and about interpreting each tiny shape of each color, then the results could be disastrous.

Poorly registered colors, unplanned overprinting, and a sense that coloring jobs were rushed are very common in old comics. Things changed in the 1990s. Photoshop has made separation houses obsolete. The colorist now “cuts” his or her own separations, but not by hand. “There’ve been two big changes for me,” says Nowlan. “First, colorists are now colorist/separators. If I’m doing my own coloring I don’t have to work with a separator. I can get exactly the results I want. Secondly, if I’m working with a colorist, it can be a real collaboration. They send the separations to me and I can make changes before the story sees print. In the old days, you didn’t see the mistakes until it was too late.”

In the old days, the discrepancy between the colors that the colorist indicated on the guides and the way the comic actually looked when it was printed was often quite large. Nowadays, that problem is “very slight and rare”, according to Nowlan. “There are fewer hands spoiling the broth. [But back then] no one saw what the colors would look like until the book was on press. The guides were done with watercolor or marker and the separator was working with film. Running proofs was expensive and time-consuming so you had to just imagine what it would look like when it was printed.” To most of today’s comic artists, who’ve never had to deal with this limitation, the idea must be unthinkable. There was simply no way to really “preview” what the comic would look like in its final form. Although I’ll admit this is an improvement and is ultimately a better process, I feel something has been lost now that the separations are, generally, not done by hand. There is a warmth in hand-cut separations that I don’t feel with those “cut” in Photoshop. “I wouldn’t want to recreate the separations with the old process,” argues Nowlan. “The only thing worse than that would be those Zipatone overlays that we used for hand separations at Fantagraphics. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe that process.”

Was there anything about the old process that he missed in today’s comics? “I liked the softness of it,” Nowlan says. “It didn’t seem to overpower the line work as much as modern coloring can. The limited palette pushed us towards a visual shorthand that works well with comics.” Indeed, very familiar and traditional coloring techniques have been marginalized. Certain looks that almost all comics once shared (such as “knocking out” backgrounds with one solid color or assigning a single color to a character—or even a whole page or sequence) are now rare. Some of the old accepted shorthand techniques walked a tightrope between realism and symbolism: a nighttime landscape would often be depicted with orange and blue, or a tense horror comic moment would be colored in greens and purples. These colors signaled a mood, and while this is still possible today, the inherent limitations of the four-color process helped create a shared language of color. And if the available colors and their compact combinations became a language first, they became a musical score second. Certain “phrasings” and “harmonies” were established like a jazz scat singing style. Although each comic had its own tone, they were all bound by this slang, all derived from the same set of colors. With today’s technology, there is a tendency in comics to color everything “naturally”, like in a movie or animation. All surfaces are modeled with perfect shadows, fades, and effects, leaving little to the imagination. Think of Shrek. Now think of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It’s a question of taste, sure, but doesn’t this trend say something about language and communication? We seem to have replaced the symbolic with the hyper-real, and in the process, lost a lot of depth of feeling.“I miss the old flat colors,” Nowlan admitted. “But we can still do that with Photoshop. Editors are resistant to it and sometimes insist on rendering-for-rendering’s-sake, but I like seeing a variety of approaches, from flat coloring to heavily modeled. My own work tends to be somewhere in between.”

Keep in mind that the way colors are created is not the only factor in this change. There have also been lots of changes with the paper stock in the last twenty years. Almost all mainstream comics are now printed on bright white glossy paper. When the new brighter, white Baxter** paper came out it in the mid-1980s, it was a shock, as the old palette suddenly printed brighter than before and made even the most subdued colors look garish. “When they started printing on the good paper, with offset presses instead of letterpress, many of the [old] coloring rules had to be discarded,” Nowlan says. “The colors were no longer subdued by the soft, light tan paper. Everything became too bright and intense. In the old days, subtlety in color choices had been discouraged but now it’s essential if you don’t want to blind the readers.“When Baxter paper was introduced, new possibilities seemed to be opening up. One of the nicest things about the offset printing was that the blacks were finally solid black. As much as I like the letterpress/newsprint look, it was very inconsistent. We all got used to seeing the black ink looking like a dark gray. If any of the four colors were run a little light [on the press], it threw everything off.”

Seen in this light, Nowlan’s Outsiders Annual work is all the more impressive. Printed with the relatively brand new process that utilized an offset press as opposed to a letterpress, and the white Baxter paper instead of newsprint, Nowlan was able to craft a color comic with an inventive palette that was at once forward-looking and conscious of tradition. In my opinion, it’s a big moment in comics history. (Remember, this was a four-color comic made with separations cut by hand, not a full-process book like The Dark Knight Returns, which was painted. The color separations for the painted Dark Knight pages were separated photographically by a camera, not by hand.) Here was one of the first high-profile comics from a major publisher made with the new process, and it didn’t just work, it actually raised the bar. There were, of course, comics printed on Baxter paper before Nowlan’s Outsiders Annual but for the most part they were eye-popping disasters. Nowlan’s contribution was to make use of the “look” of the new colors—beautiful pinks, soft fluorescent greens—that were next to impossible to achieve in the old way. His choices and arrangement of the new palette created a striking degree of depth. Entirely constructed out of flat colors and the occasional screen, Nowlan’s images achieve a balance in the coloring and line art somewhere between the photorealistic and the surreal. He created fades by careful arrangement of the flat tones, especially yellows, greens, and browns. No airbrush effects, just intelligent design, and his work would be imitated often.

Soon enough, though, such careful choices wouldn’t have to be made using flat colors and clunky screens at all. Photoshop was around the corner. I asked Nowlan if there was a combination of new and old processes that he would like to see utilized, and he replied: “I’d like to see some books printed on off-white paper. I think most of us who grew up reading books on newsprint are still put off by the bright, white paper.”

“My yardstick is still the Silver Age DC Comics covers. They used a little airbrush but generally, the effect was created with flat colors. I think they still look great today.”

While coloring and printing techniques have improved in comics, some intangible qualities have been lost (though the poorly printed color comics section of contemporary Sunday newspapers still retains at least some of the old magic). Although I don’t believe this loss can be attributed to just one factor, the fact that most coloring is no longer a hands-on craft concerns me. Creating depth with flat colors, overprinting, and making a limited arrangement “sing” is quickly becoming a lost art. These were once essential skills involved with being a colorist. Now that “depth” can be created quite simply, by using Photoshop effects and fades, the visual shorthand that’s been in place for nearly a century has been all but abandoned. The shorthand still exists, and can of course be replicated using Photoshop, but that’s not really the point. The demands of the craft have shifted and tastes have changed drastically in the last twenty years. Photoshop isn’t really directly responsible for the sanitized sameness of most color comics, any more than Pixar is responsible for the death of the hand drawn animated cartoon. The technology is simply changing, and along with it so is the product and the demand for the old formulas. An artist like Kevin Nowlan strikes a balance because he learned how to make it work by hand, under the old limitations. But most comics artists working today, however, haven’t had that training, and their coloring looks unnatural to me. There’s no magic, no “how’d they do that?” wonder to the craft anymore. There’s a rift between the handmade drawings and the precision of the computer color separations that I find unsettling, and ugly. I wish colorists today could find the restraint that Nowlan speaks of. There’s a middle ground between the old and the new processes, but we don’t see much of it in comics. “We don’t see it today,” says Nowlan, “because it’s too time consuming and expensive when you compare it to Photoshop.” And the handmade quality of mainstream comics? “It’s all but disappeared.”

*In silkscreen printmaking, each color is created by literally cutting the shape of each color out of a red transparent film called rubylith. This film is then “burned” on to the silkscreen by a photochemical process, and what’s left is the shape of the color to be printed. The letterpress process is similar in that the person creating the individual color plates also works with film.

**In 1986, DC Comics, in order to compete with independent publishers, introduced a higher quality, uncoated, flat white paper stock called Baxter paper in a handful of its comics titles. This paper was far brighter than the traditional light-tan-colored newsprint paper.

(all images from Outsiders Annual #1)

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Cage Match #2: Heavy Liquid (1999-2000)


Monday, February 18, 2008

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[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues about which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Dan puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, Frank and I will respond. We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this series yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]

DAN: Put on your masks and pull up your tights, because, as advertised, our second cage match is about Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope. (1999-2000, DC Comics).

I should note, before this gets bloody, that on most days I really admire Paul Pope’s sheer rendering skill. He makes exciting comic book pages. His Batman was incredibly fun. So, I like Paul Pope the action cartoonist. He gets the visceral pleasures of fight scenes and running and humping and going fast and etc. That’s not easy to do. I am not so much an admirer, however, of Paul Pope the artiste. I think his single image work is, at best, a goofy kitschy pastiche of good girl and pulp imagery. At worst, it’s just humorless advertising art, not so dissimilar to this guy. What bothers me about both of these guys, and Pope in particular, is that the work exudes “attitude”, like a model’s sneer. It signifies something, but has absolutely nothing else going for it. So, when I note that I like Paul Pope as an action cartoonist I mean I like him in a utilitarian way — like, I wish he’d drawn Batman for 20 years. I like him in a similar way as liking Gene Colan or even Alex Toth (though both are more interesting artists) — I just want to look at the comics and try not to read them. If you read them, for the most part, you’re sunk.

So that brings me to Heavy Liquid, which is about a disaffected male model’s (ok, maybe not, but basically) adventurous journey to find his disaffected artist ex-girlfriend and learn about the mysterious new substance, Heavy Liquid, which can be used as a drug or made into a weapon or even — gasp! — art! Sound familiar somehow? Well, it’s basically like P.K. Dick with a dash of D. Hammet thrown in and some liberal use of “downtown” art references like Rita Ackermann (misspelled once, but who’s counting, and an obvious influence on Pope’s rendering style and general artistic pose). The material is so slim that is just slips by. Everyone smokes. There’s coffee brewing all the time. And shit is always hazy. Oh yeah, and then there’s narration like this: “The artist’s city. More like hamburger city. Besides, they killed art years ago. They killed it, then replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation.” I mean, are you kidding? This is the sort of thing I tried to pass off as “deep” at age 14, holding a bong in one hand and an issue of X-Men in another. It’s so dumb that I actually feel guilty pointing it out. I could look past all of this and just enjoy it if I bought into the attitude behind the work. Or rather, the attitude, period. Because besides the art, the whole thing is attitude: it’s one big trashy leer. It’s about being world weary, skinny, jaded, romantically paranoid, romantically tough and romantically romantic. It’s also completely humorless and un-selfconscious, which is surprising considering how brazenly it’s drawn from other sources (name your film noir or crime novel, your Fellini film, your late 80s/early 90s indie rock, etc etc.).

Which brings me to Nick Cave. The only comparable thing I can think of is Nick Cave. Like Pope, he makes competent, sometimes exciting genre material (though, unlike Pope, he did have a glory period with The Birthday Party). And like Pope, he depends a lot on buying into a kind of shaved-chest/copious hairdo/smokey/sexy/wounded/bad boy/asshole thing that I know someone finds interesting, but I’m still not sure why. I don’t like Nick Cave either. He’s boring, too. So maybe that’s just it: I don’t like this particular attitude. Other attitudes I suppose I like, or at least have more patience with. Just not this one. I need something more than pithy cliches about love lost and finding authenticity and smoking, and wearing little t-shirts and stuff. And, for me, Heavy Liquid pretty much ends at the attitude. I’m sure Frank and Tim will come up with something awesome, though, especially since Frank secretly loves Nick Cave. Just kidding, Frank.

TIM: Jeez, Dan. You were smoking out of a bong at 14? You matured faster than I did, I guess. I’ve got to do some scanning before I respond at greater length, but I do think that Dustin in the comments has a point. A lot of this seems more like an ad hominem argument (what does Nick Cave have to do with anything?) than it does a critique of the book per se. Outside of that bit you quote from the Paris scene in issue four, anyway. That monologue really is one of the worst parts of the book, though you cut it off before it got semi-interesting (in a revealing way) — when the protagonist starts musing about “the Romantics”:

People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it all. They’d just stitch it on a screen. A picture of a picture on a screen. A knowing, tired nudge and wink saying, we’ve seen it all. It’s all been done. Don’t try anything new. We’ve used up “new.”

…the Romantics never believed that, though. They’d say, maybe you’ve heard it and said it all — but I haven’t. So art isn’t dead. It’s just holed up in some second-floor studio…

All the same, I say to Hell with the Romantics. They were never a sensible bunch to begin with.

Leaving aside the grammatical issues here, considering that there’s no real reason for “S” (the protag) to care much about art, it’s hard to see this is as anything other than a statement from Pope himself. But what that statement means is beyond me, at least for the moment.

FRANK: I don’t like Nick Cave, I’m more of a Reid Paley kind of guy.

Shit, I haven’t even had a chance to breathe, Dan’s been smashing my face against the turnbuckle and then the cage’s fence. The referee is calling for a break. Okay, here goes:

So everyone knows about THB, right? THB was a big free-wheelin’ indie hit in the mid ’90s. After that, if I remember correctly, Pope did stories for Dark Horse Presents (and famously worked for a Japanese publisher around then, too), and after that, Heavy Liquid was his first book for the majors. I think on his Dark Horse stories they had someone else lettering. The idea was to polish Pope up. You can imagine the meetings at DC: “So, we’ve got to get him to tighten up the way the balloons are placed — and don’t let him letter the book himself–” So Pope agrees (I’m imagining all this) and uses a circle template for the balloons. And DC gets workhouse John Workman to letter it in a “futuristic” style.

Well, it worked! I remember not liking this constraint put on Escapo himself (Pope) and maybe I shied away from the book at first because of this, mostly because I was a real THB fan and thought it looked “off” compared to his black-and-white work. I liked the color of Heavy Liquid and appreciated the way it created a different depth compared to the black-and-white, but I liked how I “immersed” myself in the B&W work and how the whole reading experience was about this connection to shapes, positive and negative, blah, blah, blah. So despite thinking it looked cool Heavy Liquid looked too busy for me, too complicated to follow. I just wanted HR Watson and THB jumping around the page, crazy easy-to-follow action scenes, and also a storyline that was like, oh I dunno Sub-Mariner vs Iron Man. Action! Then I could just skip the talking heads parts. So that’s why I didn’t read this when it came out. Now when I look at the color and the default circle word balloons and the non-Pope lettering, I kind of like it.

But this is going to be “tough love” because while I think this book is good, it’s not great. And forgive the “notes” like quality of my comments. I don’t have the patience to flesh out all my observations or arguments:

— Love the opening with the parade, the elephant, the lighting, the airiness of it all, reflecting the drug, the swirling steam from the kettle.
— It feels like a concentrated effort, a “try-out” for the majors. Symbols reinforced strongly — a little “stagey” — and that’s not helped by the clunky, noir-ish dialogue. As the story goes on, the lead character’s interior narration becomes annoying and I found myself only reading it for information when I didn’t understand a passage by action alone. The bath scene in issue 2 is particularly exhausting.

— NYC feels impenetrable. Downtown, Chinatown, pre-9/11 take on the “future.” We don’t know much about S’s life before they cook up the stuff (heavy liquid as drug) in #1. Inherently noir approach and narrative propulsion, but also familiar entry point in NYC: drug experience, shared experience, portal inside — as soon as heavy liquid arrives there is this access, this feels real, like NYC.

— Hard to identify with lead (classic cypher), yet he’s almost too defined, not “blank” enough for the reader to project upon. A Bogie/Mitchum type with none of the weaknesses that make them so likable. Yet the character is believable. You gotta have balls to navigate the part of NYC I feel he is depicting.

— Beautiful scenes of NYC life. The vibe, the “background”, really informs the action, but S doesn’t really engage the setting. (He’s in his own world understood, yes, but it feels like a missed opportunity.)

— Poor transition in issue one at key scene, with Guernica horse-head-mask-wearing Clown. This scene in number one is awesome where at one point a bad guy is gonna catch up with the good guy main character but when the action unfolds a very important transition is fumbled, I’d scan all three pages in here but it’ll take forever. Beginning with page 21 in issue one the Clown Gang sees S in a cab and chases him down, they get stuck in traffic so the clown wearing a horse-head mask that looks like the horse from Guernica walks between cars and approaches S’s cab. There is a striking image of the masked clown, half a page that sets up the page-turning action which … FALLS IMMEDIATELY APART when the page is turned because it is unclear if the car is speeding away from the clown or towards him, at first I thought the clown was getting run over and then I looked closely and the cab was simply pulling away. Hmmm. I mean, it’s beautifully drawn and when I examine it closely, I see that, okay, it’s not that muffed a transition, but really this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter and whatever momentum was building was thwarted by a simple transition. I appreciate his action sequences, but details like this are of paramount importance, I think. Like a beautiful thrilling, dazzling, stick-handling display by a hockey team on an offensive rush, a mighty slap shot is unleashed and OH! He MISSED the NET! Bummer.

— But then a few pages later, a moment like this one with the red curtain just overpowers me and I stare at it for awhile.

— Motivation beyond lost love and addiction?

— Issue 2 screeches to a halt — the beginning “explains” the first issue. A plodding, barely tolerable pace sets in. S takes a bath, reflects on the fix he’s in. While I enjoy the counterpoint of the action (bath) to the narration (long-winded explanation over 2 pages), it interrupts the flow considerably.

— For someone on the run — or at least in danger of being found, S is very languid. Besides the bath, he lounges around while “stitched in”, searching for Rodan. Then real world art star Rita Ackermann is introduced, except she’s old now, it’s the future. This all seems like a romantic sci-fi interpretation of Pope’s life.

— By the middle of issue 3 (there’s only 5 in the series), even though I know exactly what’s going on, nothing is going on; the dominoes that Pope sets up never seem to drop. There’s little in the way of real tension, or real motivation or empathy on my part for any of the characters. I have no emotional connection with them, or the narrative. It takes me along on the ride and I thoroughly enjoy looking at the faces and composition and everything, but it’s almost worse because I DO like the art and the storytelling so much. There are so many narrative side streets that Pope sets up (the Forked Tung gang) that feel very genuine and interesting, but add very little to the overall narrative thrust. I really like the bar scene with the handcuffs, but the whole set-up of the Forked Tung gang feels like Pope got bored with the non-story and began making a more exciting one within..

— Info not conveyed in the fight scene in issue 3. Does he have the briefcase in his hand on the previous page? Oh, so that’s what he whacks the guy with… It stops me. Have to go back..

— End of 3 is soooo bad. Builds tension then typical cliffhanger but feels ‘off’.

— Wait, did S “discover” using heavy liquid as a drug? If so, then why are the Clowns after him? He never explains what it’s for in issue one, and because he shows it being used as a drug twice in issue one, it’s assumed that it is valuable for that reason. When it is revealed that S invented the method, then it feels as though Pope had to add that the Clowns use it for explosives, and while I’m at it the Clowns feels like an Akira sample. Or The Warriors, your pick. Their role diminishes as the series goes on, and their threat feels canned when this info is revealed in the fourth issue. If the Clowns used it like S uses it, then I can see the motivation for finding him and it. If it’s just for explosives then big deal.

— End of 4 has no drama. The implied drama — Rodan saying she never wants to see “S” again — feels as though it’s supposed to be dramatic and instead comes off stale. That’s the cliffhanger for the penultimate chapter? These flourishes weren’t so common in THB and unhinged from serialization (most THB stories are modular but also self-contained — look THB is fighting someone, saving HR!) Pope’s emotional interpersonal dialogue in that series is a little more naively endearing.

— The “emotional” exchanges are really clunky, and while the body language, drawing, lighting, composition, etc., is impeccable, I feel nothing for the lead character and only a slight “something” for the mysterious Rodan who’s been getting the buildup for 100 pages. Sigh. Old lovers re-united. A dime-a-dozen type scene handled without any real originality.

— It’s really a shame. The art is so good, but the story is so muddy. Like some series of events in one’s life that are all connected and deeply intriguing to the person in question, but a story which to another person is like a confusing anecdote told in a loud bar that comes in snatches. Wait, what happened? Tell me that part about the Forked Tung Gang, I like that part. If S would have ditched everyone and made a left turn in the narrative with the girl he was handcuffed to, that would have been great. In the end it feels unnecessary to the overall story.

— Oh, he conveniently wraps it up in a nice little package, literally, at the beginning of issue 5. And then as the train rolls away into the sunset, makes a grocery list of loose ends that he needs to tie up.

Trust, drug addiction, the “other”, the secret sharer, NYC anonymity that leads to “After Hours-like” adventures. The drug sharing is the bond and the blade. It’s a smart story, and I enjoy the topic. It’s so much better than most comics, but I think Pope either tries to do too much or too little. It’s weird, for the first half of it, 100 pages in, I feel like I’m enjoying myself despite nothing really “gelling.”

— Action framework and trying to shoehorn “feelings” into it. Would have preferred it the other way around.

Okay, there’s my round. I might lose this one fans, I can’t defend this work so well, and I really like Paul’s comics.

DAN: I’ll have to respond to Frank later — that’s a lot of text! But first I’ll respond to Tim: I think the rest of that “romantics” passage is just as bad — the bit about Mona Lisa is the kinda thing you hear at midnight in a youth hostel from that guy you met during the day but now really want to get away from. Basically S/Pope is trying to find a way to re-engage with the world but at the same time won’t commit to any actual philosophy, thus maintaining the devil-may-care/disaffected stance. I mentioned Nick Cave because he seems, like Pope, to be creating proficient, pulp genre-based stuff that also substitutes a posture/attitude for real content. There’re no real characters here — just “feels” or moods. That’s a real problem. There’s no there, there.

TIM: Oh of course, Dan. I wasn’t trying to say that the rest of that passage was any better, just that it seemed to reveal a little bit more about Pope’s art philosophy. But you’re right.

We may have already scared a lot of readers a way with this kind of impenetrable commentary, so maybe we should explain the basic plot of Heavy Liquid for anyone who’s left.

It’s the year 2075. S seems to be a former cop/fed/private eye who lives in New York, and is now involved in hazily defined semi-criminal activities to support his addiction to “heavy liquid”, a substance that apparently fell to earth in an asteroid. He uses it as a drug that he pours into his ear, but (as Frank points out) no one besides his small circle of friends seems to be aware of this use for the substance. (We learn late in the series that it can also be used as an explosive.) A mysterious collector hires him to search for a missing sculptor named Rodan, who is also S’s ex-girlfriend. (The collector wants Rodan to make a sculpture using the strange heavy liquid.) S and a friend named Luis have recently stolen a bunch of heavy liquid from some gangsters (the mask-wearing “Clowns”), who kill Luis and come looking for S. A federal agent with strange electric powers is also looking for S and the heavy liquid, and after a series of fights and escapes, S meets the 103-year-old Rita Ackermann (!) who tells him that Rodan is in Paris. S meets her there, and hooks Rodan up with the collector. Then S takes a train, reminisces, meets the electric agent on the train, and escapes once more. Finally, he takes the heavy liquid one more time, and discovers that it is really a kind of alien life form, who he sort of wants to be friends with. The end.

I’ll be back later with some actual thoughts, but this kind of plot summary seemed like a good idea to put in somewhere.

FRANK: Wait, you met some guy at a youth hostel, Dan? When was this?

TIM: Unfortunately, it looks like (just like last time) we may be arguing about a comic that we don’t actually disagree about that much. But since we’ve already started, let’s see if we can’t draw out a few more points in detail.

First, I think we’re giving Pope a little bit of short shrift. As commenter Dustin points out, Pope occupies a fairly peculiar place in American comics: he’s got feet in both the indie and big-publisher worlds, he creates genre science fiction of a kind more often seen in Europe than here in the States, and he has a very idiosyncratic drawing style (which, partly because of his own influence, doesn’t seem nearly as idiosyncratic now as it did a decade ago). If Heavy Liquid is ultimately a failure, at least it’s an interesting one, and in 1999, most of Vertigo’s output was anything but interesting. Pope deserves credit for that.

Secondly, despite the book’s narrative flaws (I agree with both of you that there are many of them), the atmosphere of the book is really kind of incredible. Nearly all of the characters are stock genre types (world-weary anti-hero, criminal goon, female friend who doesn’t understand why men have to be such “cowboys”, wealthy and opaquely motivated client, etc.), but the world Pope creates is vivid and intense. In that way, Heavy Liquid isn’t all that dissimilar to Blade Runner, a film with revolutionary mise-en-scène but featuring a plot and cardboard characters that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

But therein lies part of the problem, because in 1982, Blade Runner‘s weird meld of science fiction and noir, and its junky, ultra-cool, multicultural setting was excitingly fresh and new (at least in terms of film), whereas seventeen years later, Heavy Liquid feels like a bit of a retread.

Throughout the 1980s, “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and many others wrote dozens of novels and stories like this: Dashiell Hammett updated to the 21st century, with a drug-, crime-, and media-saturated milieu of street-level hustlers (and artists) navigating a corrupt near-future world of mysterious corporations and government agencies. At the time, cyberpunk felt new, and writers like Gibson and Sterling brought more than style to the table: the environments they depicted seemed more plausible than the default robots-and-spaceships future of science fiction past. And their fictional worlds were thought-out — the details mattered.

Heavy Liquid doesn’t look thought-through at all. In one issue, Pope includes a map of 2075 Manhattan, and every neighborhood (Chinatown, Tribeca, etc.) is exactly the same size and shape as in 1999. At first, the front-buckled “Colonial” boots that S wears seem like a brilliant note, just the kind of thing that people would be wearing when the United States nears its Tricentennial. But later on, we learn that S has been wearing the same boots for many years, and the note suddenly strikes false. Finally, in another issue, Pope describes one of the most popular entertainments of the day, a prime-time show called “The Goose” that features “51 minutes of rapid digi-splice images of exploding battleships interspersed with close-ups of engorged human genitalia, followed by 9 minutes of white noise accompanied by a blank, pink color field.” This is the kind of idea you might find in a J.G. Ballard story, and it’s kind of interesting (how would a society that found such things entertaining come about?), but nothing else in the comic really backs it up. From all indications, people in 2075 act exactly like people in 1999. It’s just a cool detail that doesn’t connect up with anything else in the story.

At other times, this kind of detailing works a lot better. Pope includes several pages featuring the clothing and products people wear (along with their prices and wear to buy them), and it effectively sets up the designer youth culture he depicts. When S steps out of the bathtub and wraps his long, wet hair (style: “The Jagger”) in a towel, it’s funny. You rarely see a male action protagonist so vain about his appearance. But aside from that vanity, S has no discernible personality traits at all. He’s just a standard-issue dime-store detective in designer leather pants.

That’s probably the biggest problem one of the biggest disappointments for me: the second-hand nature of it all. When Moebius created sf comics, the planets and people he drew were strange and otherworldly, like nothing readers had seen before. Moebius was influenced (and adapted stories by) obscure cult writers like Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance. Heavy Liquid is just Blade Runner and Neuromancer all over again, the two most familiar sf settings of the day.

I also agree with Frank about some of the action staging; the two sequences he points out (the taxi chase and the fight in the elevator) were places I too had problems following the sequence of events. I’ll point out another once I do some scanning.

Oh, but on a more positive note: Pope’s drawings are beautiful, and that shouldn’t be understated. And the sequences where S does heavy liquid are among the best depictions of drug use I’ve ever seen in a comic. You have to give Pope that.

TIM: Okay. Man, scanning takes a long time. I guess I should’ve done this yesterday.

First, I want to highlight a passage that Frank already commented on, the section in the first issue when one of the Clowns, Kip, has just spotted S in a taxi, and gets out of his car to creep up on him.

Pope ran a contest asking readers to pick their favorite panel from the first issue, and the top panel from this page apparently got a lot of votes. It’s pretty easy to see why:

That’s a great page, evocative and thrilling. There’s some nice detail work, too. A reader who is paying attention will notice Kip creeping up in the rear-view mirror in the bottom-right panel.

Which pays off in the page that follows:

This one was a little more difficult for me to follow. I had to read the page a couple of times to get my bearings, and to understand why S was leaning forward and gasping, and basically, just how the POV works here in general. But in the end, it all makes sense, and I don’t mind the initial awkwardness at all. Others might disagree, but this seems like a pretty clever way to build tension.

But then, just as Frank claimed earlier, it all falls apart:

It’s certainly a striking series of images, but I must have read this page (and the ones preceding and following it) a dozen times, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Is the taxi going forwards or backwards? It’s obvious from what follows that the taxi is simply pulling away, but you sure couldn’t tell it from this.

This and similar poorly-told action sequences are frustrating, because at other times, Pope does a great job with them. Blogger seems to have started giving me trouble uploading images, so I can’t show them right now, but some pages, such as Luna’s escape from the Clowns, or the part where S barges into the hotel room full of girl-gang members, are very compelling, and display a rare kinetic energy. It’s a shame that he doesn’t pull it off more often, because he’s definitely got the chops. And like Frank said, “this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter … details like this are of paramount importance.”

TIM: All right, Blogger helped me out on one more image.

This is from the fourth issue, after S sneaks onto Rodan’s Paris apartment roof.

Am I the only one who can’t figure out how he fell through that window?

Okay. Over to Frank and Dan.

For me, the packaging of the book is totally what I wanted to do with Cold Heat and it’s really funny to me to see the issues of HL now like some long lost artifact before the “war years” in NYC. (P.S. See comments section for color commentary from me.)

It really sings at issue-length, and I’m glad that I read it this way, in individual issues. Also, the color “works”. Consistently. It’s all about the tonal range and it’s perfect for the world that’s being depicted. And it’s still really awesome all around, despite everything in the story that goes off-base. I really don’t mind the stagey-ness of it because the art is so “on”, but it just underscores how good THB really is…

What? Who said that in the third row? You don’t like THB? Thats it, I’m going after you–

Well, Dan’s allowed to bring in “image” and P.P. “the artiste” and whatever, but the thing is we’re reviewing a comic book. So I tried to check my assumptions at the door. It is hard to separate P.P. the person from his work, especially when he puts himself into the story (more or less), but the hope is that the work will transcend the “attitude.” So yeah, I get it, but sometimes, for example, I hear a cool country song that I like and then I’m aghast that it’s played by a band that I hate. Or that I am supposed to hate. (This happened to me when my metal-head friend made fun of me for singing along to the Grateful Dead in the car. “I didn’t know!”(Insert Nelson Muntz laff.))

So Dan, I figure you’ll say that this book doesn’t cut it and you might be right. However, it’s a cheap shot to roll this out as your main argument. If you don’t like the book, fine, but do the work first, review it, give a little, take a little.

The art and P.P.’s comic, Heavy Liquid, is on review here, not the person. And if you’re gonna gripe about what you’ve already griped about, don’t bother.

There, that ought to rile him up!

TIM: Body blow!

FRANK: It’s the bar scenes and the “landscape” around the action that take on a real “presence.” What about that, Nadel? What’s that got to do with attitude?

DAN: Sorry, I had to take a break to run my elitist publishing company for a little while. Anyhow, I don’t think I was reviewing the person at all. What I was saying was that the work itself is about attitude. This has little to do with the person, and is really just about the feel and ultimate content (or lack thereof). Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I dunno. I was just bored silly by it. There are no discernible characters, and the setting, once you take away the, as I’ve said, gorgeous linework, etc., is, as Tim noted, completely bland. Frank, I think the landscape takes on a nice presence because of the linework and colors, but I guess in this case it’s not enough to sustain my interest. Pope is an exciting stylist, but to my mind the best stylists, like Moebius, as Tim astutely noted, invent, and there’s nothing here invented. And, like I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with that — I liked his Batman because he didn’t have to invent — he could just lay his style over ready-made content and, presto, instant entertainment. But that sort of does it for me. On some level it’s hard to write about this book because besides getting into the nitty gritty, as Tim admirably does (but which I’m not inspired enough/too lazy to do), there’s not much to say.

TIM: You know, I kind of wish we’d picked a different Paul Pope comic for this debate, because it might have been more interesting/fair to argue about either an early, more wholly independent comic like THB or a later title that reflected Pope’s more mature storytelling ability. But what’s done is done, so here are a few final thoughts.

First, in some ways, I think it looks like I dislike Heavy Liquid here a lot more than I actually do. I don’t want to repeat myself, but Pope does get a lot of things right here. The imagery is consistently stunning, the setting is dense and vivid, and his layouts and composition are excellent. I think his visual storytelling stumbles far too often (there are several more examples than the ones I already posted above), which is a big problem, but at other times, he handles action and movement with real and unusual grace. These are not small things, and if it seems like I’m dwelling more on the flaws than I am on what works, well … the flaws really stand out in context. But flaws and all, I have to say that I wish there were more artists like Paul Pope in comics, not less.

Someone in the comments mentioned the ending, and I have to agree that yes, it’s one of the best moments in the book, a transcendent sequence that might have just worked as a slingshot effect if it didn’t feel so disconnected from the rest of the book. Earlier, Frank mentioned how late in the series we learn that heavy liquid can be used as an explosive, and that really does kind of capture in a nutshell the missed opportunities here: how can you present a concept like that and never let the reader actually see it in action? (The much-quoted line by Chekhov comes to mind: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”) All the elements of a potentially great adventure/mystery story (minus interesting characters — another big problem) are here — they just got bungled in the storytelling. Maybe a big part of this stems, as Frank semi-implied, from the fact that this was Pope’s first real comic for a big publisher. In any case, reading this again has definitely made me interested in checking out 100% and some of Pope’s other work. If he figures out how to iron out some of the narrative and visual wrinkles (and maybe he already has in comics I haven’t read), I think he could pull off something really valuable and unique.

So I think that’s it for me. Any final words, Frank?

FRANK: In my post-match press conference, I’m gonna call this one a draw. Mostly because Dan came out swinging but then wouldn’t really review the thing, and while that is kinda fair, I guess — it is his personal taste after all — it makes for a dull match. We’ve just wound up with a book that we all don’t really, uh, disagree on, wanna fight over.

There are tons of books out there like that. Dan knows I like Bob Layton‘s Iron Man run and has made fun of me for keeping them ’round the office, but so what? Bob Layton rulez!

Anyways, fans, I say it’s a draw. (Though check out the comments section for a few more of my thoughts that I wasn’t able to squeeze in up here.)

The landscape, the feeling of New York in the ’90s, YOUTH, this futurepastpresent that dominated the pop culture then: Pope did a great job with these signs. The narrative fumbles, ultimately, are forgivable. It’s a comic book for cryin’ out loud! And it was a fun read, so there.

The fun was the night life and the lighting and the otherworldliness to it. The ending with the alien life form was surprising and it made me think of THB, like I said, but really it was a comic book ending. At the end of the day, I’d rather read this than Fun Home. Sorry. Or Persepolis. Okay, or Blankets.

TIM: And on that auspicious note (a hat trick of cheap shots), I think this Cage Match comes to an end. (At least for us. Please feel free to keep arguing in the comments.) I hope all bruised feelings will eventually heal. Good night, fight fans!

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Cage Match #1: Omega the Unknown (2007)


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Read Comments (20)

It may not seem like it, but the three of us here at Comics Comics are hardly monolithic in our tastes. In order to prove it, we’ve decided to introduce something which may or may not become a recurring feature here: a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues about which we don’t quite see eye to eye. First up: The new version of Omega the Unknown, written by Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak, and drawn by Farel Dalrymple. Rules: I’ll put up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, Frank will add his. We’ll keep going until it feels like we’re done. Oh, and Dan, feel free to jump in at any point if you want to, whether you want to take a side, egg us on, act as an impartial referee, or sucker-bash one of us on the back of the head with a metal folding chair. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read the series yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this one.)


TIM: I’ll start by saying that I like this series a lot more here at the issue 3 mark than I did when I’d only read the first issue. As I wrote at the time, I was initially unsure whether or not Dalrymple’s art was really appropriate for the story, and compared it unfavorably to the surreal effect achieved in the original through the juxtaposition of Steve Gerber & Mary Skrenes’s bizarre plot with Jim Mooney‘s almost generic superhero pencils. Since that time, Dalrymple’s style has really grown on me, and as Lethem & Rusnak’s script has started to diverge from the 1970s original (the first issue, aside from the Mink storyline, was nearly a beat-by-beat remake) and the story’s themes have become more clear, it’s started to seem like an inspired choice to me. Don’t get me wrong, despite a lot of beautiful pages, I still think you find the occasional sloppy or half-assed composition, but overall, I’m really liking it. And the series has begun to achieve its own kind of surreal tone, different from the original, but nearly as effective: I like the quiet atmosphere of it all, the way a horrific image like a severed-finger-topped fast-food burger almost reads subliminally, without being turned into some overblown two-page spread. But I know you have some problems with the art, Frank, so before I go on, why don’t I give you a chance to pile in?

FRANK: I actually really like this comic, too, but I have one big problem with it, so my comments are kind of “tough love.” Here goes: The everyday scenes are impeccable. Everything about the staging and narrative flow, in each issue so far, is excellent until the action begins. Take this page from #2 as an example. It is, essentially, the only action sequence in the issue. The sequence begins from the POV of the main character, who sees the action unfolding on the street below from his window. The everyday scenes of daily life have been interrupted by the FANTASTIC. There is a moment of tension; the view of Omega doing away with two robots seems “correct” in tone. Here is this fantastic event unfolding in front of the character’s deadpan gaze, but it’s still completely “everyday” in tone. Then, when the POV switches back to the action outside, there seems to be little or no tension between the FANTASTIC and the EVERYDAY.

The page is all too flat. I don’t expect it to look like a normal Marvel comic with extreme camera angles and speed lines, but I do expect it to convey a sense of something bigger than life. And in the context of this issue, the two pages of action pale in comparison to the attention to detail and nuance in the EVERYDAY scenes. This may be a strategic move on Lethem and Dalrymple’s part to downplay the action and weave it tighter to the everyday, I don’t know. If the way that action and “the fantastic” are meant to be portrayed in a muted fashion is intentional, then they’ve succeeded. But my guess is that it isn’t intentional. I’m sorry, it just comes off like, like … a Vertigo comic.

DAN: Well, thanks for letting me know, you guys! Jeez, what does a guy have to do around here to feel included? Well, I’ll fight through the emotional pain and attempt a brief response now followed by a lengthier one tomorrow after I’ve re-read the comics. Overall, I’ve found the series compelling and very well executed. The quiet, static fight scenes work for me because they help maintain the focus on characters. That is, it’s almost like the fights are surreally incidental to the main person-to-person action. I’m waiting for Lethem to reveal that they’re not really happening at all. Though that would be too easy. Seems to me that Farel has come up with some rather remarkable here — using Frank Miller-style comic book drawing to delineate place and character in a way that, well, Miller hasn’t done in 20-plus years. And the characters are wonderful. Unlike so many comics that substitute tough talk and snappy dialogue for real characterization, Omega is giving us fully formed, sympathetic protagonists that I find myself invested in. Plus, it’s genuinely suspenseful in the “I don’t know what is going to happen next” kinda way. Lethem is writing discreet comic book units that have their own narrative arcs while building in, I suspect, devices that will become important in later issues. That’s my take on it for now. Who’s next?

TIM: Huh. I could’ve sworn both of you guys disliked this book, but I guess I misunderstood. Our first cage match may not end up being a particularly vicious one. Anyway, there’s still some stuff I disagree with you both about, but I think I’m going to need access to a scanner for my response, so I’m out until later tonight.

DAN: It’s a cage love fest! Tim, stop trying to get us in trouble.

FRANK: The action scenes “help maintain the focus on character”? What does that mean? For me, they’re too much in line with how everything else is delineated. There’s no TENSION, despite its focus on character, as you put it Dan. What I mean by tension is that Omega himself, the title character, is easily the least defined (which of course may be on purpose). However, the character “The Mink” has a much larger “larger than life” appearance, regardless of whether or not it’s supposed to be his media shtick. Anyone following me? Omega, to me, should have a PRESENCE, and the way he’s drawn doesn’t give me that feeling.

TIM: Well, maybe I won’t wait until I have access to a scanner before replying after all. I’ll just hope I’m remembering the comic correctly, and post the images later if I am. [UPDATE: I wasn’t, at least not exactly, and the following is slightly revised.]

First, I think what you’re talking about is exactly right, Frank. There is little to no effort made in the art to draw a distinction between the fantastic and the mundane. Where I disagree with you is that I think that effect is entirely intentional, and ironically, I had originally planned on using exactly the sequence you point out to say so. The way we are introduced to the fight makes this pretty clear, I think. A few pages earlier than the one you uploaded earlier, we see Alex, the kid protagonist, having a discussion with his roommate while he looks out the window. He sees something, but we don’t know what…

…until we get to the next tier on the page, which looks exactly like a normal New York apartment scene, if you don’t notice the small figures battling down on the street outside.

You’d think the reaction to seeing this pretty crazy fight between a superhero and a bunch of robots in the middle of the street would provoke a strong reaction in Alex, but it doesn’t. Instead, he seems almost annoyed.

On the next page, he still doesn’t seem anxious, and doesn’t even bother mentioning the fight to his roommate, but simply walks to a different room to continue his conversation. To me, it seems like this sequence of panels is intended not only to draw attention to Alex’s lack of reaction, but also to highlight exactly the lack of tension you sense — which paradoxically, creates an entirely different kind of narrative tension: why isn’t he reacting the way we’d expect him to? And it’s not just Alex, either. The fight continues outside, and the Mink ends up getting into the action, but the streets don’t erupt into panic. The authorities and a news van arrive, but everyone behaves basically like this is business as usual, just another day in Marvel Manhattan. This approach is more or less the direct opposite of the one used in the well-known scene from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again where the Avengers make a very memorable brief appearance, appearing almost like gods, and striking awe and fear in all who behold them. In fact, Miller’s text explicitly draws attention to their god-like natures. In Lethem’s Omega version of the Marvel universe, however, a fight between super-powered beings and robots is itself an everyday experience, no more impressive than any other story you might see any weekday on the local evening news.

I also take your point about the character of Omega himself — he’s a total blank, with almost no dramatic presence at all. Some of this comes from the original, where Omega was also more or less a mute cypher, but in Mooney’s original drawings, Omega was still an impressive physical force. Dalrymple draws him so that he looks like nothing more than an ordinary, beefy guy in tights. Again, I think this is intentional.

At this point, I start getting into conjecture, but one of the main themes of the book seems to be the relationship between children and superheroes. Obviously we have the Alex (Alpha?)/Omega relationship, but I think there’s also something going on here with the Mink. As I pointed out before, the Mink’s civilian name, Mr. Kansur, is Omega co-writer Karl Rusnak’s surname spelled backwards. We know that Rusnak and Lethem were childhood best friends, and shared a passion for talking and arguing about Marvel comics. (Lethem in a 2003 interview: “[Karl] and I shared a lot of these fascinations. Particularly Marvel Comics. He and I read them together very avidly.”) Now here’s where the speculation starts: doesn’t the Mink seem a lot like the kind of superhero a kid would come up with as a comic-book-obsessed child growing up in New York? You’ve got the weird, sort-of-lame animal-related alter ego, the connection with your own name (Kansur/Rusnak), unlimited financial resources, the secret hideout complete with labyrinth on a small, deserted island off of Manhattan — I don’t know, it all seems to fit to me. In any case, my point is that mirroring the Alex/Omega child/superhero relationship, we get the Rusnak/Kansur child/superhero relationship. The “good” superhero is basically an unimpressive blank canvas, and the “bad” superhero is a media-savvy, greedy, manipulative guy with only his own interests at heart: the cynical version of what a childish ideal might really be like in the adult world. It’s too soon to say where it’s all going, but if I’m right, I think the comparison is telling.

Anyway, you’re still right, Frank: the action sequences are quiet and lack tension. It will be interesting to see if at any point in the series, they go for one of those god-like Frank Miller Avengers moments — I’m betting that if it happens at all, it won’t be until closer to the end of the series. I also think it will be interesting to see how they end up integrating Gary Panter‘s guest art in upcoming issues — I don’t know if he could draw an undynamic fight scene if he tried.

FRANK: It’s not fair to compare a remake with the original but what can I do? I’m familiar enough with the original series that I can’t help but look at the new Omega and compare. The TENSION between the everyday and the fantastic that I wrote of earlier is there in the original but not so much in the new series. I wish that I could accept the way Omega is depicted in the current series, but I’m having a hard time with it.

You may be right, Tim, that Lethem and Dalrymple are intentionally “grounding” Omega and making him more of a blank slate for the reader (and Alex) to project upon. It’s working apparently. But my difficulty with it is that in the original series Gerber and Mooney played off of the conventions of the Marvel universe. The school scenes in the original seem so different from the battles Omega is fighting — in tone and in execution. For a Marvel comic in the ’70s, this was a pretty forward-thinking take on the way the public interacted with heroes. The current series levels the playing field and Omega’s presence is diminished, both literally and figuratively. In the original series, by issue three Omega had already fought the Hulk and Electro. (God, I can’t believe I’m writing this…) The current series may be just as refreshing a take as the original, but, man I just wish Lethem and co. would take advantage of this narrative device, this tension.

And as far as Miller’s depiction of the Avengers in Daredevil: Born Again — that’s a perfect illustration of what I expected. I expected Omega to be depicted as a “god” and for his PRESENCE to be felt, not ignored. Maybe in Lethem’s New York, a guy in a costume like that goes unnoticed, but I don’t buy it really. It feels off-type. But again, maybe it is intentional. I just don’t like it. And it’s the only thing keeping me from really loving this comic book.

Who knows? Once Omega and Alex “unite” all the pieces may come together.

DAN: I think Tim has provided the most insightful commentary here. His speculation, whether it pans out or not, gives a really fascinating grounding for the whole saga, and makes me really eager to read and decipher more. One last thing: Re-reading the issues last night I tripped over an odd subplot that I’m quite excited about: objects attaching themselves to human flesh. Happens with the book in issue 2 and then again with the gold chain in issue 3. Hmmm. These are rich, rewarding comic books.

FRANK: I’m “tapping out” on the submission hold.

TIM: Okay. I guess it looks like we’re winding down here. Obviously, being only three issues into a ten-issue miniseries makes it difficult to say anything for certain. It could be all downhill from here, and what look like promising developments could turn out to be red herrings, false leads, or massive mistakes. And I also want to say that your last point is an important one, Frank: just because an artist intends a certain effect doesn’t necessarily mean we have to like it. It could still be a bad decision, whether or not it’s an intentional one.

This was fun. We’ll have to do it again. Only one rule infraction that I’m aware of, when Frank briefly fled the cage for the safety of the comments pit. If anyone has any ideas for future Cage Match topics, please e-mail us or leave a suggestion in the comments if you’d like.

I don’t think there’s any obvious decision that can be called here, but clearly we are all losers.

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