Tuesday, March 31, 2009

the Death of Tarzan

The story

The first "Tarzan" story I read started out as an ordinary jungle adventure. Penciled in all probability by Burne Hogarth, it was a tale pitting the Lord Clayton against the tribe that kidnapped his wife and son. Tarzan set out to search for them, eventually having to cross a great desert. The journey seemed too much for even him, as there was no water to be found, and he tried to keep going by tying a rag around his head in order to hide from the sun. It was to no avail, as the hunger and long days of search started to wear on him, with only vultures circling overhead to keep him company. Finally, his pursuers managed to get their reward, as the Lord of the jungle collapsed and passed out in the desert.

As abrupt as it was, that seemed to be the end of the newspaper story. I bought the next issue of the magazine that carried it over but there was no "Tarzan" feature in it - for all intents and purposes I have walked straight in to witness the tragic and lonesome death of the pulp hero. Except that it couldn't have actually ended like that, but in order to understand the circumstances that lead t0 my actually reading the strip as presented, you have to be aware of the conditions in Serbian comics publishing during the civil war 16, or 17 years ago.

Maverick publishing

There was no official fighting in Serbia, as it is now, all of the military operations were carried out on the borders. The country was under heavy sanctions though, so there was little interest in taking care of legal matters in publishing. The newsstands themselves carried very little items during those years of economical collapse, but here and there a few new comicbook magazines could be found. 

One of them was simply titled "Maverik", published by the company of the same name, situated in Kragujevac, one of the largest cities in the region. Amidst all the bootlegs available on audio and video cassettes, "Maverik" publishing was in the business of producing pirate copies of comicbooks. And not even the usual foreign stuff badly lettered and mistranslated, but actual comics previously released by domestic publishers.

Thus, bundled together under one cover, there was a myriad of unrelated, previously available material. There was no more than five or six issues released in that chaotic period, and one certainly can't blame the publishers for trying to earn a living any way they could. The periodical still reflected the tastes of Serbian readers, publishing everything from French's "Spirou et Fantasio" to Italian cult favourite "Alan Ford".

As for the American comics, the assortment followed the decades old preferences of Golden age newspaper strips over superheroes, or any kind of modern publications (Conan is usually exempted from this). In any case, to see "Tarzan" among the reprints of "Asterix" was no surprise, which is how I got to read it.

What was unusual with reading the reprint in large black and white format, was that the story was cut in the middle, with no caption announcing the conclusion. It's unclear if "Maverik" ever realized their mistake in their rush to turn in a profit, but in a strange twist of events, that lead to a short period in which I was unsure if I had actually witnessed the death of the Lord of the jungle.

Of course, it didn't take me a long time to understand fully the machinations of Kragujevac's "Maverik", but to this day there's still a part of me that believes that Tarzan actually died in the jungle, having passed out from under the unrelenting rays of a sinister sun, with vultures circling in for the kill.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Travis Charest's "Spacegirl": volume 1


By now, there's been hundreds of webcomics, and they come in all shapes and sizes, varying greatly by subject matter and the publishing schedule. Yet, in a field as unique and experimental as comics published on the Internet, "Spacegirl" is an exception.

And it's not the case of having recently been made into a hardcover bound edition, that makes it special, as that has happened with a lot of other books, such as "Mom's cancer", "Freakangels", "the Perry Bible fellowship" and "Athena Voltaire". 

To the contrary, most of those titles have been updated with new pages on something resembling a regular schedule, which is something that "Spacegirl" seemingly never even strived for. 

But that's because it's a Travis Charest comic, and that in itself is special in all sorts of ways. Travis Charest came to prominence in early 90-ies, following Jim Lee's "WildC.A.T.s", and found himself shortly penciling comics written by James Robinson and Alan Moore. It was astonishing how quick he reinvented himself from an Image-style artist into an author with his own very particular style. And yet, as his fame rose, his output slowed down until it became clear that the page-rates he's been paid allow him to take all the time he needs to meticulously produce work on the level he's comfortable with. Which lead to his work becoming less and less seen, until he left for France to work on Alex Jodorowsky's epic "Meta-Barons" saga.

After infamously taking seven years to produce thirty pages he was satisfied with, the publisher "Humanoids" decided to break off their collaboration with him. Getting back to American comics, he has since restricted himself to applying his particular style on covers. 

Still, his sequential work could still be seen sporadically, in the webcomic, called "Spacegirl". What started out years ago as a retro-adventure story, proceeds to this day at the pace artist's comfortable with. And that means that just like once the readers waited months to see a "WildC.A.T.s" issue with some Charest pages in it, nowadays the same thing is happening with webcomic, serialized in panels.

The format is familiar to the newstrips comics were originally published in, but it lacks the weekly schedule the pre-WW2 fans were familiar with. The art is very familiar to Hal Foster's classical figures though, and reading "Flash Gordon" filtered through Charest's style seems to be enough for fans to continue checking out the links, even after long months of the lack of updates. There was apparently enough interest to warrant the publication of the first volume in print. And that is roughly 60 pages, each featuring a single panel drawing.

Obviously, consistency is key in discussing Charest's work on "Spacegirl", and it's interesting to see how it measures up taken on it's own.


The serial opens with a "widescreen" black and white inked drawing, showing a spaceship's emergency  landing, and proceeds quickly establishing the book's protagonist. She is as much as a stock type as can be excepted, serving mainly to introduce us to the action in a more dynamic way than the traditional caption that litter those early pages. In the matter of panels, we are taken from one twist to the other, with Charest seemingly content with establishing one piece of futuristic technical design and than moving to another. 

Suddenly, the trend breaks as a color panel appears, featuring the book's antagonist in a manner evoking threats from the Golden age of comics. 

The very next panel seemingly takes us back to the heavily captioned, technical design of a pair of robot minions, but twists still keep coming. A third party is introduced to Spacegirl in the very next panel, as the artist continues in a new direction, this time spotlighting the action in a more thorough and fluid manner.

And just as Charest has seemingly found his voice from the experimental approach he employed in the first panels, a couple of confusing panels break up the fight's flow, thus he is forced the heavy-handed captions again, enabling him to get his point across.


Coming at the story's half-point, Charest seems much more confident and falls back to the tried and true story methods, following the action sequence with a lengthier sequence, focusing on the two characters. The dialogue is stripped down to convey the most information, interestingly featuring yet another panel that breaks from the black and white standard, seemingly at random. 

Charest patiently delays the action, determined to make the book count as more than a of contrived action sequences strung together, using just a couple of panels to foreshadow the enemy's presence and keep the tension going. Those panels also serve to show the passage of time in the movements of Spacegirl and her new ally, until all is set for the inevitable stand-off.


A couple of apparently rushed panels with strange perspective later, and for the first time we see Charest exhibiting a firm grasp on the particulars of his imaginary universe. The battle that follows is made much more interesting for the revelations has in store for all characters, as the confrontation culminates in each identifying themselves as to what they truly are. 

The final pages show the result of that emotional moment, taking Spacegirl and the only other survivor from the unknown, hastily defined, and scarcely inhabited planet to Delta-Moon space station. Still, Charest is not content with leaving Spacegirl in a spaceship, thus bringing in one final twist, and ending the chapter on a familiar note.

Taking the fully-colored epilogue, which premiered in the collected edition, it's clear that Charest is not done with the project. Designed as an artistic exercise, he has in time come to accept it as no doubt the purest and most personal of the projects he's been working on. The result is a work that has found it's own voice and with a potentially background material to help continue the serial. The reality is that his work-for-hire on the established franchises compels his good-natured serial to continue as it has until now.

Thankfully, moving slowly, from panel to panel, is the way his fans have enjoyed his work years now.  Thus, there's no fear that the delays on the completion of the second volume will come as any surprise. And until Spacegirl matures into a brand capable enough to stand on it's own, it will be inseparable from it's creator, the unique Travis Charest.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Potter's field: Stone cold"

"Potter's field" is the name of the first project writer Mark ("Kingdom Come", "Fantastic Four") Waid released through "Boom!" studious when he became their editor in chief in 2007. Aided by artist Paul ("Daredevil","B.P.R.D. 1946") Azaceta, the long-in-the-making mini-series published three issues, and completing it's first story arc, wrapped up by promising more.

Both creators had much to be happy with, since their efforts made for a very professional book, with an intriguing premise and flawless execution. But that's to be expected from the "Boom!" studios, who never let their status of an independent publisher omit them from putting out highly respectable material, such as "Talent" and "X isle". Still, with the way penciler/inker Azaceta kept getting more and more high profile work in the industry, it became doubtful that he would return soon to the book that just might be his best work.

It stands to the testament of both creators' belief in the concept, that they reunited for this one shot.

Now, having said that, the comic industry is no exception to the common problem of follow-ups, that which traditionally fail to engage the audience in the way the original work did. It's to be applauded then, that the creators take the effort to present the "Stone cold" one shot not only accessible to readers who have not re-read the original mini-series, but present their work in such a way that it's absolutely new-reader friendly.

"Potter's field" is a modern-day update on the pulp murder mysteries of the day, framed around a very distinctive concept. Waid's "Sherlock Holmes" is a mystery-man himself, who has set upon himself to discover the identities of the people buried in unmarked graves on Potter's field cemetery, hoping to bring closure to the tragic way in which their lives ended. Also, just like "the Shadow", he is pragmatic enough to recognise the need for the experts' help, making him more than just methodical, but relatively sociable, a rare trait in genre fiction of the sort.

"Stone cold" one shot starts with a grisly image that drives home perfectly the stakes in what turns out to be another detective mystery. The following several pages are exposition-heavy, but it serves as both a (re)introduction of the concept behind "Potter's field", as well as to lay out the particular problem our protagonist has found himself driven to solve. 

What follows is a mature effort by Waid and Azaceta, both time and again proven storytellers, as they bring their story to a definite conclusion, but not before dropping a few subtle nods as to the direction the series will, hopefully, one day continue in.

Once again, the book is soaked in the atmosphere of a lived-in big city, refreshingly set during winter time. Azaceta avoids using the familiar cues to drive in the "noir" feeling, dispensing with heavy rains, portraying all the characters in a realistic manner, with wrinkles atop their worried faces. This is a very sober and mature way to present a crime procedural series, helped immensely by Nick Filardi's earthy tones, that go hand in hand with Azaceta's afore-mentioned use of snow.

We are introduced to John Doe's current dilemma at night, on Potter's field, as it starts snowing. As her investigation starts, it's a new morning, with the weather changes picking up only later on, as the mood tightens, culminating in a very tense situation that resolves all the creators have been gearing towards. Conveyed in a subtle, but emotive way, all that goes to show the meticulousness of the author's approach, as the sure hands guide this franchise in a way that is to be commended.

The book falters only when it comes to the suspects behind the refreshingly new take on the type of the crime that seems uncommon but really amounts to a new take on the old con. To put it simply, 24 story pages is not enough space to introduce the cast of characters neccessary to plant the seed of doubt in a story where the basic nature of the crime is something that is not easy to explain.

But than again, not every story has to be a "whodunit", and this time around, the motives and reactions of the perpetrators, along with their reaction take center piece. In fact, the simple, even clumsy way, in which the antagonists have proceeded to carry out their scheme, is very convincing. The same is true for the rushed and emotional way in which they react when finally confronted with John Doe and his "agent".

Beat by beat, "Stone cold" remains a textbook example of crime fiction done in a smart, believable way, yet not without a couple of over-the-top action scenes. The final product seems so seamless in it execution that it cleverly disguises the hard work Waid and Azaceta put into it.

Of course, that also means that we've been once again some nods regarding John Doe's identity, that fit in both with the book's theme. In fact, the closing pages go so far as to tie that aspect with the particular crime that's been investigated, in the epilogue that brings the characters full circle to Potter's field at night. It's also a perfect tease for more "Potter's field" stories, that will hopefully show up once the authors find time in their busy schedules to go back to the concept.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sub-Mariner: the Depths

This week saw the release of the last issue of Marvel's "Sub-Mariner the Depths" mini-series, a prestige project by Peter Milligan and Esad Ribic. The out-of-continuity tale offers an alternate look at one of Marvel's oldest characters, very different from the company's official take on him during their current "Dark reign" phase. Being a long in making painted project, it's easy to see how different the project feels for the company.

The editorial has long since abandoned focusing on creator-oriented mini-series as yearly "events", focusing again on the more traditional crossovers. Indeed, even the projects as innovative as "Wolverine: origin" and "Captain America: the Truth" ended up being integrated into continuity. Nowadays, "Marvel knights" imprint is the sole refuge of a particular kind of the project "Submariner: the depths" falls into. Compared with the character's last major showcase, it's easy to see that as an improvement.


In 2007 Marvel followed their immensely successful "Civil war" crossover event with a Namor series that largely flew under the radars of the fans. Exploiting the character's appearances in the tie-in comics, the editorial commissioned new Sub-Mariner material by Matt Cherniss & Peter Johnson, writers of the previously little known "Powerless" mini-series, and Phil Briones, a French artist that having penciled "the White tiger" project was still a largely new quantity to US fans. The end product was "Sub-Mariner: Revolution", a competent superhero effort that nevertheless failed to gain enough audience attention to persuade the company to seriously invest in that particular depiction of the character. The mini was eventually collected, but there was no doubt that it will be little remembered except as a part of the then-current Marvel's publishing direction.

Thus, it's a testament to the editorial vision, how so soon after the failed relaunch the editorial saw fit to green-light a new project spotlighting the character. The assumption was seemingly that it would pay to market Namor to an audience broader than the "Marvel zombies" that keep up with the current minutiae of their event-driven publishing. Marvel made certain that "Sub-Mariner" was their star artist Esad Ribic's next project, after being satisfied with his work on "Loki" and "Silver Sufer: Requiem". Being completely painted and sporting a more universal and unique revisions of the publisher's long standing characters, Ribic's previous projects were met with both high acclaim and stable sales. Bringing in Peter Milligan, a writer whose innovative work on "X-Statix" and DC's "Shade the Changing man", the publisher did all they could to ensure the vitality of the project.


Looking at the results of the collaboration, it's interesting to see how well the creators took to the added freedom, presenting a story that at every level challenges the expectations of a typical Marvel comic. And while "Silver Sufer: the Requiem" was satisfied with providing an relatively close alternate to Marvel's familiar superhero universe, "Sub-Mariner: the depths" couldn't be further from it. In fact, it surpasses even "Loki", that focused on the mythological foundation of the Nordic myth, as appropriated by the publisher.  

Literally, the closest thing Milligan and Ribic's efforts echo is the Namor's original appearance, trying to reconstruct the character's pulp origin. The result is a project that feels much more universal, when compared to it's Golden Age predecessor, but also dripping with style the creators' own. And that means opting for a very particular approach, centered on the all too human protagonists, which gives the book a completely different aesthetic.  

Following "Marvels", the publisher's most successful effort in creating painted graphic novels, one would expect the book to start as a grounded story but to achieve at least a healthy balance with the fantastical once the superhuman elements came to dominate the story setting. Remarkably, Milligan and Ribic are so confident in their talents, that they don't let their human leads leave the spotlight for a moment, which is a move not to be understated considering that Marvel is the predominant superhero publisher. That is not to say that the authors for a moment forget their particular task - the book remains first and foremost completely devoted to rebuilding Namor into a stronger, more licensable property. But it was hard to imagine that it would be done into an almost classical adventure story.

The story chapters open twice with the Herman Melville quotations, as if to note that "Submariner: the depths" dispenses with the traditional self-involved superhero continuity that has saddled the character so long. Starting in that vein, Milligan and Ribic are not the least bit sealed in by a new set of rules that characterizes their new inspiration. Quite the contrary, everything from the Jules Verne and H.G.Wells' "scientific romances" to Joseph Conrad's nihilistic "Heart of darkness" is used with skill and precision to fuel this particular incarnation of Namor. The authors are no doubt aware that such care coupled with artistic freedom is rarely visited on a character as continually revised as Namor, so they go to great lengths to distill a very specific pulp feeling they feel works best with the character.

And that is a story that could only be told decades removed from the character's beginnings, with Milligan and Ribic working to use the context to their advantage. The result is a predominantly horror story, working to use it's Victorian inspirations in contrast with old cinematic tricks. 

Working with rough models of monsters that could hardly withstand too much time in the spotlight, the film makers actively used the type of storytelling that would enable them to keep the threat out of the focus and in the dark, until the ending, where a couple of carefully selected shots would reveal the film's supernatural villain. Due to the cost of detailed computer renderings that replaced the familiar Hollywood props, such methods are not unheard of even these days, and judging by the success of "Cloverfield", when used creatively, the audiences don't object to them.

At first glance, it's kind of strange that Milligan and Ribic opt for that type of approach, when dealing with a medium that has always boasted its strength of being able to show the most fantastic scenery and epical imagery. Indeed, remaining to this day, the displays of that type of rampant imagination are one of the major strengths of the superhero genre, of which Namor has been so long a part of, that it's strange to think otherwise. And this is where the authors show their particular strengths, in deciding not to steer Ribic's talents in the way that has previously brought the otherworldly images of Silver Surfer's cosmical adventure and Loki's Asgard to the reader. 

Milligan instead steers Ribic to painstakingly render the cold valves of a submarine, diving under the heavy darkness of the surrounding ocean, alight only by the suggestion of Namor's spectral shape. Picturing him as almost a malevolent spirit leading the sailors to their doom is so contrary to the character's traditional faux-Shakespearean pomp, that it can be not only considered as refreshing but something much more. It's a mark of two talented professional providing a take on a seemingly simple idea, that is in reality both very well thought-out and laboriously expanded.

Cast and crew

Leaving Namor as a presence always one step ahead of the submarine, the creators provide the readers with a much different anti-hero in the spotlight. Doctor Stein may be a new quantity to the fans, but that does grant him a consistent characterisation that is not only the work of Milligan's particular take on the professional sceptic. Esad Ribic shines when it comes to depicting the brooding agression that works so well with the hints Milligan's provides of Stein's mysterious past. Brash and self-involved, Stein is indeed more than a bit similar to Namor's already established Marvel universe personality, but the authors are very careful to use up all of the character's potential in what may be his one and only appearance. Thus, contrasted to the Marvel's rigid adherence to a  two-dimensional personality forced upon Namor in the guest-appearances that constitute most of the character's publishing history, Stein really opens up to the reader as "Sub-Mariner: the depths" starts nearing it's end.

The same is true for the rest of the cast, that starts small but is gradually introduced to us. The self-proclaimed "deep-men" all mirror Stein's world weariness, but they come from the different background, forced to adopt superstition due to the uncertain waters where they make their living. Even then, Milligan opts to wisely emphasize the subtle differences in the way they react to Stein, and the threat of Namor in return. The story's divided in such a way that a particular crew member is subtly brought forward in each part that corresponds the most with his distinctive attitude.

The flow

Arguably, the story's greatest strength lies in the ways it's structured, managing to avoid the confusion that comes with so many different influences and goals. The story starts as an adventure, but quickly turns into a psychological drama when the search starts taking it's toll on the "deep men". 

Whatever the reader's expectations, his direction is constantly diverted, by the author's masterful pacing, that doesn't let up, and only starts getting faster as the horror of the story starts breaking through the already fragile relations on the mutinous submarine. Using Stein's ever-fracturing face as the center of the tale, the authors masterfully transition from one well-realised scene to the other, all the while making the reader ask the same questions the chacters face, as they question the reality of Namor.

Relaying on the voyage to serve as the vehicle for the character drama, the authors show all their strenghts by using just enough amount of information possible to convey all the gravity of the situation. The captions are sparce, and the dialogue frequently wordy, but written in such a stream of consciousness mode that it never breaks rythm. Ribic's art remains uniform and similarly never calls the attention to itself, devoting itself to making the story work first and foremost.

Final word

"Sub-Mariner: the depths" is first and foremost a thriller, made for savoring in one piece, and it will only give a complete experience when read as a complete story. Whatever motivated Marvel to lengthen the original story's format of four issues, showed itself to be a very sensible artistic decision.  It's only as a five-chapter tale that mini could achieve the impact it makes, first and foremost as a formidable comic-book story in it's own right, and a distant second, a reinterpretation of Namor's origins. 

The authors even manage to include one final wink at the reader, throwing a twist ending that intervows the fate of Stein and Namor  in a way that is both pulpy and fitting. 

We can only hope that in the future Marvel continues to break from their established formula and allow their creators even more freedom to depict their characters to the best of abilities. And what better way to continue the tradition but to keep Milligan and Ribic paired on yet another project?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Golly #1-3 the Were-hog of Silloville

"Golly" was originally conceived as a 3-issue Phil Hester mini-series, but Image decided to continue publishing it as an ongoing title. Due to his commitments on penciling the "El Diablo" mini-series for DC, and writing both "the Darkness" and "Firebreather" for Image, it's easy to see why Hester had to bring in Brook Turner as a penciler for the project.

The result is a high-concept series, starring Golly, a carney mechanic, and lovable loser cast into the role of divine champion/supernatural investigator. Now, this type of premise is commonly seen in comedies, but it also echoes a lot of other comic-book series, as diverse as "Preacher", "Goon", and most recently "the Helm". Perhaps the greatest similarity could be found in Marvel's original "Ghost rider", due to the fact that "Golly" uses the traveling circus as a means of spotlighting a different adversary in every town the posse find themselves in.

In fact, the authors take full advantage of the carnival theme to set up a diverse and memorable cast of characters. Golly's friends are given such lively roles, that Hester and Turner actually go to far in setting up Satan, a minor player in the opening story-arc. Character designs are solid throughout and the down on their luck performers never shy away from voicing their unique points of view, all the while helpfully referring to one-another by name.

Hester doesn't pull his punches when it comes to the profanity, but most of the rather inventive swearing is as quirky and good natured, as his characters. On the other hand, some of the physical comedy crosses the limits of good taste, particularly in a delightfully anti-climatic finale, but even then, the authors manage to portray it as a plot point, no matter how hilarious.

Having said that, the book is definitely not for people who find themselves easily offended when it comes to the matters of faith, seeing as it constantly deals with religious themes. The turning-point in Golly's life is thus a prophetic vision, with Satan's look-a-like that believes he's the Biblical Devil as a cast member. Considering that even the were-hog threat is eventually explained as to have an origin connecting the supernatural with Christianity, perhaps the authors have had their share of jokes, and will be satisfied to downplay that particular element in the future.

As for the general tone, Hester and Turner are quick to establish a formula, a necessity considering the story's original format. This means that most of the humor comes from the relations between the characters, as they are spontaneously geared towards the threat that is set up in as serious a manner as a book like "Golly" allows. The results are hysterical,but in the long run the series could benefit from developing it's protagonist, as the drama generated by spoofing horror conventions could potentially become repetitive. Of course, this doesn't take into account the delays, which could make the audience lose the interest in the property.

And that brings us to the chief problem for "Golly" - the presentation. Visually, the book is very dark, betraying the rushed, almost unfinished look by the art department. Working from Hester's character designs, Turner doesn't always manage to continually depict characters in a coherent manner, with their features sometimes changing from panel to panel. Coupled with a general lack of background presence, his art makes for a bleak circus, culminating in a "destruction-derby" scene that is almost completely devoid of energy. The bleak humor and a strange atmosphere do come out of his pencils, but it's imperative that he should be fitted with an inker, to smoothen out some of the rough edges, and help-out with the details.

Ideally, the whole project could be written and drawn by Phil Hester, but he's proven in the past (with "Coffin", and "the Atheist") that he's unwilling to abandon the financial security of a day job of working at DC and Marvel. Thus, the best chance "Golly" has of succeeding in the market is by both of it's authors devoting even more effort in making in the book. As it stands, it's a fun read, and, despite the subject matter, a well-though out comic, but it could achieve greater success if the writing was even more satirical and the art rendered with a higher degree of detail. That way, the series would be much more appealing, and judging by the solicitation for the next arc, this is precisely where it's headed.