Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"XIII" volumes 6,7

When "XIII" returned after it completed it's initial story-arc, it was subtle differences. Vance and Van Hamme were under no obligation to prove themselves anymore, thus their new effort proved a two-part story. No longer worrying about the new readers or keeping the story satisfying as an album unto itself, they published the first part as "Dossier Jason Fly".

Yet, despite the changes in the structure, the comic read as an entry point in itself. On the surface, it starred a man reclaiming what could be his forgotten past, in much the same way as "Where the Indian walks". Again, the story was set in an idyllic locale, this time a moutain town of Greenfalls. Finally, the creators seem much more secure with the story possibilities of giving XIII a permanent identity. 

Thus the recurring guessing game gets changed into a matter of pseudonyms, centered around a concrete identity, whom the character still can't remember being. Interestingly, for the first time a dfeinite conclusion seems to come from a blind man, recognising XIII's voice.

The story opens in the mountain town, using flashbacks to explain the vents thave have taken place since "Red alert". At face value, the journalistic angle is continued, brining to light the difference in tone, as this volume features a small local media as the lens for providing the information. The action did not fall by the wayside though, as XIII's pursuers find the way to Greenfalls, slowly circling in on the mystery man.

Vance and Van Hamme have decided not to make the readers wait on the resolution of previously set up character arcs, as a major plot point regarding major Jones gets touched upon in a subtle, yet frightening way. Still, she is the last direct link with the previous cast of characters, as Van Hamme is concerned with bringing the coplicated XIII family history to the foreground. 

For the moment, they are supplemented by locals, captured in all their character by Vance. Despite some of the town's residents acting as familiar series archetypes, the artist manages to act upon the unique nuances and establishes them as personalities in their own right, capable of supporting closer scrunity in the next volume. XIII's pursuers quickly find a way to get in touch with the town's shady power player, whose secrets are set to be revealed as Greenfalls conveniently gets sealed off from the outside world.

It stands to the creator's professionalism, that "Night of August the 3rd" feels as an organic continuation as it does. The character arcs all carry over to their natural conclusions, making the most use of the larger format. Van Hamme touches upon the "Where the Indian walks", in taking forward the racism angle, but this time around pushes it to the forefront.

Bringing the Cold war history of the town to light, the writer ties it masterfully with XIII's search for answers. The xenophobia and the town's hideous crime are woven with their current resolution in a way that overshadows the lingering presence of conspiracy. 

The snowed-in town's hysteria, unleashed by the manhunt, expertly gives way to one of the best conclusions of the entire series, as the sense of local melancholy reaserts itslef again. Van Hamme's strong plotting gives a definite place to XIII's role in the Greenfall's history, and the authors even find room to explain an ironic "red herring". With Vance once again at easte while pencilling the new surroundings, as well as winter wear, they cement the feeling that the reader's trust in the longer form has been rewarded.

Moreover, after the ambitious storyline that preceded the two-parter, "XIII" proved that it has carved a unique space for itself among the best of modern Franco-Belgian comics.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"XIII" volumes 1-5

"XIII" is the title of the 25-years in the making Belgian comics series, that has just recently concluded it's first story cycle with  the original creators Jean Van Hamme and William Vance. Despite being adapted as the video game and a TV mini-series, the Dargaud-published property has enjoyed little success in the United States so far, with only a few of it's earliest albums seeing print. In Serbia it remains a cult favorite, with all of it's albums, up to the final chapter, having been printed in some form or another (mostly without the color presented in the Belgian original).

When it comes to Franco-Belgian authors, "XIII" creators have been known to present material almost as diverse as that of Moebius. Van Hamme is chiefly remembered for authoring the fantasy "Thorgal", and Vance for creating both the sea fearing "Bruce J. Hawker" comic, and actually even lending his pencil and ink on the first two volumes of the "Marshal Blueberry" spin-off. 

There exists a long practice of using period pieces as the setting of European comics, evident everywhere from "Asterix" to the Italian "Zagor". Despite this, Van Hamme and Vance opted to avoid the historical context, and create a contemporary action comic. They decided to set their story in America, and the inspiration naturally came by from spy fiction in the vein of "the Bourne identity", along with a healthy dose of crime movies. Thus, in 1984 the creators debuted "the Day of the black sun", their own take on the story of one man finding himself embroiled in the criminal conspiracy, with heavy allusions to the Kennedy assassinations.

The original series outline seemed to cohere at five albums, bringing the mind "Lieutenant Blueberry"'s initial status quo, as defined by the "Fort Navajo" cycle. Starting with a wounded man surfacing on a beach with only the number XIII tattoo as an identification mark, the comic is quick to emerges into what would later solidify as it's most definite characteristics. Due to his lightning-quick reflexes, Van Hamme and Vance's amnesiac protagonist is quick to discover that he possesses some kind of military training. The elderly couple that befriend the mysterious man and nurse him to health are shown treating him as if he was the son they lost in the war.  After a slow start, the authors are more than eager to burden the "tabula rasa" character's search for his identity by placing him in the middle of a multi-faceted game of high stakes. 

Despite being the only one unaware of the role that led to him being listed as the most wanted man, he is given little time to differentiate among the various factions interested in him. One of his pursuers identifies himself as the shooter who caused the wound that lead to the amnesia. Following this, the man known only as "XIII" finds himself being given a clue as to his possible identity, but finds it hard to reconcile the shocking facts presented to him. It was difficult to imagine that these two plot points would end up being only a basis upon which the series built a story as complicated as any presented in the genre. The opening volume ends as befitting a fast-paced thriller, on a cliffhanger, promising more of what the readers just experienced.

Vance's art is by then bound to have established an effect on the reader, as the penciler and inker proves capable of bringing every aspect of the series to life. The bold and realistic artwork is employed to bring the figures in motion amidst the heavily-detailed backgrounds, while never losing the subtlelty in the faces of the characters. All of them are brought to life in distinct body types, carrying the feeling of authenticity to the world in which Van Hamme's cinematic, action-packed story takes place in. The only fault that can be attributed to the artist's stylistic choices is the overuse of the ruler to define the edges of the objects in the background, leading to some of the blockier architecture contrasting with the organic figures of characters. Still, the heavily referenced artwork never confuses the reader, working constantly in the service of the story, particularly in it's high-speed chase sequences.

Van Hamme similarly never stops earning the right to be credited next to such a distinct artistic collaborator. His script shows complete command of the story and the genre in which it's being created, but never fails to remind the reader of the subtleties of the characters entangled in the plot. Indeed, it's in the small moments that his characters are at their most honest and emotive, proving themselves as real people with years of experience before the events being depicted. Yet, despite presenting his readers with a story that works as a complete experience in itself, the writer is clearly working towards the wider story that brings the initial volumes together.

It is to the creators credit then that "Where the Indian walks", the next chapter in the arc, works to both continue the plot threads and to present a stand alone genre tale. This time around, the authors focus on placing their tattooed man in the southern small town, as he adapts to what may have been his real identity. The change of scenery comes with recasting the drama as much more of a character piece, with intrigues that threaten to reveal the long-buried secretes beneath the pleasant rural facade.

By now, XIII starts developing into a more distinctive protagonist, defined not only by his athletic prowess, but one prone to charmingly rash decisions and bursts of temper, especially after his constant inability to ease into a normal life, preferably his own. The added character focus helps also to spotlight some of the key characters in the emerging cast, as the protagonist is introduced to the kinder side of colonel Amos, major Jones, and general Ben Carington. The various players continue to influence his fate, but in a subtler way, compared to the high-octane thrills that characterized the first volume. Also, two of the series' common archetypes emerge in this second volume, as the authors introduce a brutish sadistic underling, alongside a typical femme fatale mistress. Still, the direction really pays off with the secondary characters, as Vance brings all of the members of XIII's possible household their own character, portraying them with individual designs.

This helps set up the eventual conflict really well, as he more than fills in on the lack of space Van Hamme has to devote to fleshing out the nuances in the dysfunctional family's personalities. More importantly, the change of scenery further demonstrates his versatility as an artist, as he seemingly paints the nuances of life in the country with the same grace as the more familiar detective story tropes that characterised the previous volume. 

The album ends with a couple of epilogues, the first of which continues the tradition by saddling XIII with another possibility as to his real history. The second one is much more rushed, as a complicated series of events is presented in a montage designed to speed up the change to the next album's distinctive setting. All things considered, the second volume remains one of the best in the series, managing to realize more potential than hinted in "Where the Indian walks", raising the expectations for the series to a whole new level.

The authors follow with "All the tears of Hell", casting XIII into a new dynamic, that of a prisoner in a maximum security penitentiary. This very memorable setup leads to a particularly effective portrayal of a man trying to escape dismal surroundings and is in many ways a creative peak of the series' introductory volumes. The relatively small cast is realized with minimalistic precision, as if both Van Hamme and Vance are starting to become sure that the series may well end up a powerful demonstration for their talents. 

The feeling of claustrophobia is established very quickly, as XIII is forced to deal with the severe conditions that are sentenced to become his likelihood until the end of his days. What's more, the behavioral treatment he is receiving stands to drive home the point that he must make friends with everyone he can, and survey the whole place in order to even try to escape the nightmare.

The volume is full of Van Hamme's carefully measured characterization, which quite literally explodes in the climax, with the choices of a couple of desperate characters. The reader is coldly left to contemplate their true nature that comes ahead in a series of particularly disturbing twists. Of course, Vance follows every step of the way, but his contribution is perhaps most notable in the portrayal of desperation leaking off the shower scene, which still manages to work as a very important plot point. Similarly, the brutally cruel solitary confinement scene maximizes the impact of the writer's pacing, serving as a prime example of carefully setting up each scene for the most possible effect. Yet, overall atmosphere of the piece, driven home by the rocky terrain fired upon by the scorching heat of the sun, manages to quite literally make the prison setting a character in itself, never taking it's eyes off it's victims.

Still, even in the Nevada desert, XIII cannot escape his past, as the members of the conspiracy, represented by their chief hit man Mongoose, try to get to him despite the protective measures. By now, Major Jones, an African-American aide to general Carington, starts developing a unique relationship with XIII, in itself a rarity in comics. She is depicted as anything but a damsel in distress, and is instrumental in helping XIII free himself. The volume ends on cliffhanger, as he decides to confront the shadowy forces that have manipulated him every step of the way. Throughout the volume, there are several conversations between the secondary characters, that still manage to act largely in service of filling in the back story for the new readers. These kind of sequences grew to become a major problem for the next volume, as the authors decided on giving another possible path of life for the beleaguered protagonist.

"S.P.A.D.S." finds both XIII and Jone with special forces, but the story doesn't shift as much as one would assume it would to accommodate another sort of genre adventure. In fact, starting with a long recap, it truly begins with the investigation of Colonel Amos, leading him to his first personal encounter with his opposite number in the criminal organization. The author's decision leads to a whole parallel plot devoted to the efforts of both the secret service chief, as well as general Carington, that is mostly devoted to a lengthy conversation that recasts the previously known events in a new light. Still, the additional information defines the context of the main plot so much, that the actions of XIII, thousands of miles away in a seemingly separate set of circumstances, might seem less than important. In a way, this completes defines the mystery man as a character at that point, for he is a man of action, that leaves the intelligence gathering to his peers, still uncertain how to deal with the manipulation and distortions of truth that surround him from all sides.

Similarly, in the writer's hands, the pair's relationship gains it's final defining element, as XIII starts establishing a practice of conveniently needing to seduce other women in order to discover the truth about himself. His lover is quick to realize this, but is unable to calm her feelings despite the mystery man promising nothing more than a casual relationship. This kind of anti-romantical self-centered behaviour makes perfect sense, when coupled with the fact that as an amnesic, he is constantly trying out new identities provided to him by the men he considers friends. 

Their manipulation leads him to take upon a role of a soldier, trying to remember if the regular army training was ever a part of his life. The hardships and discipline that XIII has to endure the whole training, are only accentuate by yet another brutish character, that takes instant dislike of him. Vance continues to work on deepening the reader's understanding of the character, with the artist being particularly effective as the scenery changes to accommodate the muddy rain forest. Such a portrayal of the greenery in low light, stands in stark contrast with the relentless heat that marked the previous album's desert canyon location.

For all the hallmarks that the fourth album establishes, it remains little more than a transition, as XIII is still unaware of the new information about his true nature as discovered by Amos and Carington. In any event "S.PA.D.S." begs for a re-read of the entire series up to that point, as the events are cast in the new light, leading up to the big confrontation in what must have been designed as the final volume at some point.

"Red alert" begins by the authors deciding to use the media reports as the framing device, recapping the important events in the series at that point. Despite the cleverly designed action sequence that breaks up the report, the narrative trick serves to further distance the reader from the main characters. With the break between volumes shorter then before, they get to spend half of the album getting back to Washington, where the antagonists are in the middle of the final phase of the c'oup d'etat. Vance and Van Hamme being as careful as always, leaving no page wasted, as even during these sequences devoted to trying to return to America in time,  they set up a couple of very important points regarding the future volumes.

When they eventually reconnect with the political thriller that's taking place around the new president, the countless hours used to set up the saga's finale start to pay off. Finally, the seemingly disconnected parts dealing with the jungle training in "S.P.A.D.S." start tying up with the main narrative in more than characterization. At that point Vance stops alternating between the sterility of the diplomatic headquarters and the gruffness of central American backwaters, opting to deconstruct the former by revealing all the pettiness of the power play. Thus, XIII and his allies put all their strength in to survive the greatest threat to the national security, as the author's use the army base setting to it's most effect. All the while, the book continues foreshadowing the future events, even going so far as to end with the mystery of the leader of the conspiracy unresolved.

Van Hamme's mixing of the two opposing approaches turns up with strange results, as the series most definitely reaches a kind of open-ending that's probably the best, given the circumstances. The reality of the book's success seems to have changed the minds of the publishers and the authors, resulting in a relative finality similar to many genre pieces it draws upon. 

The particular phase in the book's life has still been taken to a certain conclusion, and one can hardly fault the creators for being so optimistic about it's future. Perhaps any kind of ultimate resolution off all the myriad story threads introduced in the series up to that point would have lead to a rushed and unsatisfied ending if the fifth volume ended up serving as the last one in the series. The remaining fourteen volumes certainly work to give the saga the best "sequel" that it's creators, William Vance and Jan Van Hamme could have ever imagined.

Monday, April 13, 2009

War is hell - the First flight of the Phantom Eagle

Last year, Marvel published the "Phantom Eagle" mini-series as a part of it's "mature readers" Max imprint. Featuring covers by John Cassaday, the series united longtime war stories enthusiast Garth (Preacher) Ennis with industry veteran Howard (American Flagg) Chaykin. The result was a 5-issue mini-series with a set of very unique creative goals set for itself.

1. War is hell

As part of it's agenda, the editorial behind Marvel's Max imprint thought it wise to update the trademarks to a couple of decades old genre comics, such as "War is hell" and "Dead of night". The latter turned out to be a moniker for a series of mostly unconnected mini-series trying to re imagine Marvel's horror characters for today's audience, but the former didn't so far yield any follow-ups. For all intents and purposes, so far it remains but a subtitle for the Ennis and Chaykin series.

2. the First flight of Phantom Eagle

Yet, despite "the Hood" and "Alias" being among the first projects Marvel Max projects, the imprint has since mostly avoided being used as a platform for creator-owned characters. Thus, when writer Garth Ennis first proposed the idea for a story about Great war pilots, the editor Nick Lowe had to try and find a suitable company owned character.

Eventually, the little known war ace Phantom Eagle ended up being used as a vehicle for the story. The character's back story mostly consisted of his original appearance in 1968, which suited Ennis. Taking the basic ideas behind Phantom Eagle's origin, Ennis reportedly set out to do additional research for the project.

3. Garth Ennis, the writer

Reading Ennis' work, it's always been obvious that he is a history and military enthusiast. Even the series with heavy supernatural elements, like "Hellblazer" and "Preacher", featured whole issues that had little to do with their protagonists, instead spotlighting memorable war stories. On "Hitman" he even went so far as to mirror some of his favourite movies with an extended homage to "Kelly's heroes", recasting the famous film using DC's classically bizarre "Haunted tank" iconography.

DC was receptive to his way of doing things, giving the writer a chance to revisit the later career of the German Great War pilot "Enemy ace" in a prestige format series. Following this, the Vertigo imprint was open to allow the writer to write effectively a series of creator-owned one shots under the title "War stories".

Several years later, he was tying up his four year long tenure on Marvel Max's highest profile title, "the Punisher", with, appropriately, a story calling back to the Vietnam war conflict. This overlapped with his commitment to finally write the "Phantom eagle" mini-series, which was to be published following his departure from the ongoing title. Marvel counted on Ennis' familiarity with the historical events, but it's another source that seems to have left a much more direct influence on his script.

Nowhere in the promotional material was it mentioned that "Aces high", Jack Gold's 1976 film ended up being the biggest inspiration for the project. The mini-series mirrors most of the movie's plot point by point, with Phantom Eagle and his little known back story being the most notable addition to the Malcolm McDowell-starring feature. This should come as no surprise, remembering Garth Ennis' tendency to stick close to his inspirations, but it brings about comparisons that may well be to detriment to Marvel's series.

In retrospect, it's obvious that Ennis couldn't have drawn much inspiration from the 1968 mystery man aviator, but he still manages to elevate Phantom Eagle to the status of a fleshed-out character. To Ennis' fans this should come as no surprise, as the writer always excelled at realistic characterisation and natural dialogue. In fact, some of the comics' most memorable male bonding dynamics come from the relationships he set up and fully developed in "Hitman" and "Preacher", so that the camaraderie between the pilots comes off as very believable. Phantom Eagle's colleagues are all new multi-faceted characters, with the drama aided by the fact that the reader isn't at any point sure if they will survive the next aerial fight, such is the unique standpoint they find themselves in.

The series alternates between the dialogue-heavy scenes featuring the aforementioned base staff interacting with the unique lead character, and fast-paced action sequences filled with shock and suspense. This gives Ennis a unique chance to develop Phantom Eagle in the brief moments of his highly-dangerous flight experiences, while showing his continuing maturation through the eyes of his fellow officers as they struggle to make sense of their lives between missions.

The fast-pace of the story and it's relative brevity could make for some confusing moments by the reader not accustomed to Ennis' style of writing and the particular story setting. Ennis makes the most of the minimalistic format, but some of the characters still remain as little more than caricatures, which does not go far to making the reader care for their sudden deaths. Coupled with the period language, the lack of space leaves the book with some scenes that potentially make more sense upon rereading.

Still, the work does not suffer from the stylistic choices, as Phantom eagle's character arc works very successfully, leading up to the last chapter that reveals the mysteries of his past as the character comes full circle in his understanding of the horrors of the war. Similar to the approach taken by Jason Aaron on his "Other side" mini-series, Ennis paints yet more realistic portrayal of a war hero, learning to live with the seemingly endless war in ways both tragic, and times comical.

Faced with the limited space to present his impression of Great war aviators, Ennis had to leave out some of the background details that made up the experience. Still, the opening page sets up the experience so well, that the little particularities always keep amassing around the pilot's calling, but without calling too much attention to themselves. Naturally, there is a heavy focus on character and plot, but the script keeps asking the artist to present the experience from all points.

4. Howard Chaykin, the artist

Chaykin's art only recently started coming out on the regular bases again, after a long spell when he was focused on writing for television shows. During those years he continued working in comics almost exclusively in a co-writer capacity, with David Tischmann presumably scripting over his story concepts. The veteran writer-artist went back to pencilling on a regular basis with DC's short-lived "Hawkgirl" revamp, and quickly followed suit to work on Marvel's "Blade", "Wolverine" and "Punisher War Journal". 

Somewhere in his busy schedule, Chaykin found the time to collaborate with Garth Ennis. His involvement with the mini-series about aviator is again no surprise to his fans, due to his previous involvement in reestablishing DC's WW2 flying aces comic "Blackhawks" for the modern audience. The veteran artist had by 2008 went through several revisions of his signature style, but the Marvel Max series ended up being most similar to his then-current work for the publisher.

Tackling a period-piece mini-series comes with a heavy dose of research, and nowhere is it most apparent than in a work of the penciller. Despite having to draw a complete set of new character designs, Chaykin had to take care to paint every single detail by using whatever reference he had available, and integrate it all into his own style, while worrying about the storytelling choices inherent in bringing someone else's script to life. This kind of time-consuming commitment is rare for American comic book pencillers, who mostly stick to working in the superhero genre, thereby reusing the same iconography over and over.

Chaykin solves some of these problems with the action sequences, using high altitudes as an excuse to sometimes pencil simpler backgrounds, but even then he was left with a very particular storytelling challenge. Due to the static nature of images in a comic book, the car chace scenes usually end up being confusing and are very rarely depicted, which makes his task in drawing a story filled with aerial combat sequences seem almost insurmountable. Being a professional with decades of experience, the artist manages to guide the reader's eye in an expert manner through even the most complicated scenes, featuring multiple air crafts maneuvering all at the same time. Interestingly, Chaykin and Brian Reber, credited as color artist, decided to render some of the vehicles using computer graphics models, while being careful never to depict this way the main planes during the crucial sequences.

The particular special effects are most pronounced in the strange hue of the mechanics clothing, that distinguishes them from the pilots which the story's centered around. Despite the coloring, the special effects seemingly reappear mostly in the textures on the wallpapers and photos. The effects call to themselves when contrasted with Chaykin's appropriately gritty and thick-lined art. Thankfully the use of photos to replace backgrounds is very seldom used, and almost only when depicting the trees seen through the windows in the barracks.

As for the scenes featuring the pilots' witty conversations, Chaykin is careful to constantly change the angle, depicting them with diversity that would have made the dogfight sequences very chaotic. The long dialogues are thus brought to the reader in a very realistic way, as the characters emote all their rage and stress, under the formally reserved facade, leading more often then not to humorous situations. Chakyin renders all of these with the same skill, but his penchant for square-jawed men unfortunately calls too much of intention to itself during at some points. There is no real fear of confusing the main officers, as they are all distinguished by their hair-colour and facial hair stylings, but the artist remains true to his style even when some more diversity could have been potentially called for.

Nevertheless, tasked with drawing such a complicated and unique project, Chaykin succeeds at what's most important, bringing a cohesion to the mini-series' look, that sets it apart from similiar works. The reader is never lulled into a sense of comfort, as the down and dirty life in the base, as depicted by Chaykin, offers little chance of escape, with the bloody air fights being most often the source of quick death for both the allies and the enemy. It is thus, in bringing to page the most graphic elements of the conflict, that the brutality of war leaves it's mark on the reader. Even the silliest of the put-downs that the officers arrange for one another, doesn't work only to depict the inexperience of the young pilot, but as to show the continued gravity of the situation that surrounds his coming of age in the hostile environment.

Chaykin uses the space provided him to paint the portrait of the Phantom eagle's maturation from the over the top cocksure pilot that plays down his role in the conflict, to his eventual rise in the ranks, due to experience and, even more often, survivor's luck. The character's impulsive bursts and buffoonish manner give way to a much more pragmatic, war hardened pilot, without ever feeling too abrupt, despite the short time the story takes place in. Ironically, this also means dispensing with the character's original look, and most of the setup, to give way for the realistic portrayal of an allied pilot in the early days of war.

Surely, despite the many different goals the editorial set for the creators, the most important message comes through loud and clear, echoing the title, while providing the reader with the experience as entertaining as it is tragically realistic.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

John Cassaday - an American dream

John Cassaday (born in Texas, 1971)  is a comic book artist most renowned for his work on "Astonishing X-Men", and his collaboration with Warren Ellis on "the Planetary". In fact, Ellis has just announced that that Cassaday has finished the artwork for the much delayed final issue of the latter series. 

Having completed his and Whedon's run on "the Astonishing X-Men" more than a year ago, the artist is currently in a very interesting position. After years of working in the comic book industry, he has recently decided to concentrate on his second career, following up on his film school studies.

In fact, "I am legion", the French comic he provided the art for is reportedly being optioned as a movie, with the artist rumoured to be on board as the director. The movie making business always being a risky proposition, Cassaday is still determined to remain in the field that he has become so successful in. 

His retro-pulpy art has actually graced many covers, no doubt leading to a significant financial reward. John Cassaday is currently as famous as he ever was, with no plans for going back to the daily grind of monthly comics where he made his name. It's interesting to note how he came to this point in his career.

1. Guest artist

John Cassaday's path is a great example of how a comic book artist can succeed in the industry. Starting out as a professional in 1995 at Dark Horse and Image, lead to his tenure on Jeff Mariotte's "Desperadoes" mini-series. The book was a cult favorite, but Cassaday chose not to continue the collaboration, opting instead for using it as a portfolio to get work at DC and Marvel. Meeting Mark Waid lead to a series of fill-ins and odd jobs on the likes of "Ka-Zar" and "Excalibur". Arguably, the high point of this point in his career was the Ben Raab penned "Union Jack" mini-series. 

All of the notable features in his art were prevalent even then, with highly expressive characters embroiled in all sorts of classical adventure scenarios. Yet, his stylized, cinematic renditions had to wait for a white to get truly noticed by the fans.

2. Co-creator

Thankfully, come 1999, Scott Dubnier, an art dealer and then-current Wildstorm editor saw fit to employ Cassaday, getting him to work with Warren Ellis. The writer was at that point peaking in his superhero output, having finally remade "Stormwatch" into the landmark "Authority", with the help of Bryan Hitch. And just as the Wildstorm assignment proved critical to making the Briton int arguably today's most celebrated artist, so did John Cassaday gave his best to making "Planetary" work.

In deciding to both pencil and ink a design-heavy book, the artist set out on the task of reshaping a century of popular entertainment in the contaxt of a superhero comic book for the new era. The result was astounding, as Cassaday illustrated every one of Ellis' reference-heavy scripts to fit a different sub genre, all the while staying true to the core characters, and the particular style of the book. The process proved time consuming, and the bi-monthly issues started experiencing severe delays, but ultimately the artist kept providing the audience with a very unique and fresh take on the old comic book cliches. 

Thus, it was that Ellis' ever-increasing workload drove the book to a halt in production. Ironically, in doing so it also freed up Cassaday, now a cult-favorite artist, to pursue the kind of work he was ready for years ago when he first started working for Marvel.

3. Trend-setter

In 2002, his first experiences with the superhero giant's new editorial lead to being placed at forefront of a very important relaunch for the company. Captain America, one of their oldest characters was being reinvisioned as the book commenting on the America post 9-11. Bringing in John Ney Reiber as the writer, the company published a new #1 under the edgy "Marvel Knights" imprint, encouraging the creators to recast the patriotic icon with very little superhero trappings.

Cassaday turned in very professional work, and the result was the first chapter of Reiber's run, depicting the character fighting terrorist threats. And yet, the artist decided to leave the competition of the story to a collegue, having been reinstated by Wildstorm to continue with his "Planetary" work. The result was "Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth", a Special teaming up his and Ellis' creations with the Wildstorm parent company's highest seller. 

The Special was warmly received, with Cassaday impressing his readers with the ability to further alter his style to mimic the artists that drew the Caped Crusader throughout the years. Having done their turns paying tribute to DC's flagship, the creators once again focused the audience's attention on "Planetary". The plan was to continue the book until it's conclusion, but doing so brought back a myriad old problems as well.

The series demanded every bit of elaborate design work as it ever did, yet it once again failed to reconnect with the wider audience. Production costs being high, heavy delays followed between the issues, and it was increasingly obvious that something had to change. Once again, it meant Cassaday getting engaged with other projects, only this time the plan was to keep publishing "Planetary" alongside.

Thus, the artist made his foray in the European comics market, working on Fabian Nury's "I am legion". The three-volume assignment meant working in a larger format, but also in a much more relax fashion, with the audience used to yearly gaps between the story chapters. Cassaday took every opportunity to exploit his new contract, which did not prevent him from landing the highest profile work of his career so far.

4. Fan favourite

When Marvel approached him in 2004 with the idea to pencil Joss ("Buffy the vampire slayer") Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men", Cassaday finally got the offer he was working towards for all of his years in the industry. The new publisher decided to refocus the company on the traditional approach towards the characters, perhaps even making the artist sign an exclusive contract from behind the scenes. 

Getting the X-Men to the team's superhero roots in the new core title was a major challenge for Cassaday. In turn, he managed to realize all twelve of Whedon's initial scripts without long delays in publishing, all the while still finding the time to work on "Planetary" on the side. The run was tremendously well received, leading to the announcement of the additional twelve issues that would bring Whedon's subplots to the conclusion. 

In the interim, Cassaday presumably continued working on "I am legion", with every indication that his work on both "Planetary" and "Astonishing X-Men" would be finished in a timely manner, pleasing both his many new found fans, and the readers who followed his work all along.

5. Superstar

Still, scheduling the book as a bi-monthly title didn't help both Cassaday or Marvel in the long run, as the wait between issues started resembling "Planetary"'s troubled release order. Meanwhile, the artist's work on his and Ellis' own series appropriately came to a near halt, with only a few issues left to complete the story arc. 

By this point, Cassaday's career once again mirrored that of his Wildstorm colleague Bryan Hitch's experiences, as he attained the position of a top artist at Marvel. They were both assigned series that had to be relaunched due to the increasing delays, which eventually ended up not improving the book's schedule problems. Unofficialy, Marvel's hesitation to use the services of a fill-in artist meant that Cassaday has finally managed to attain a very special position. It would seem that his page-rate had gotten so high that the actual publishing frequency of the title seemingly didn't mater much to him or his audience, if it meant having the published product retain the same level of skill and detail.

Slowly but surely, this lead to the publication of "Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men", the final chapter of Whedon's plan for the characters. Yet, as the publisher finally started releasing the series in multiple formats, for the benefit of the current and future fans, the artist's position in the industry started getting unclear, as he showed no wish to continue working on another ongoing title. In fact, Cassaday started mentioning his plans to get back to film-making, a surprise for everyone not in close contact with him.

With the completion of the third and final volume of "I am legion", those plans started seeming much more concrete, leaving the artist with only one scheduled comic project, the long-awaited conclusion of "Planetary".

6. Cover artist

Today, Cassaday is in a position that is unattainable to all but the select few comic book illustrators, such as Brian Bolland and Alex Ross. His style is considered so attractive and so in demand that almost all of the major publishing companies seek to better market their work by employing the artist to paint the covers for them. 

In an industry catering so much to the first impression that it provides it's customers with variant covers for all major releases, it means that his work is now more frequently seen then ever. The higher production values also mean that his work is rewarded with sums reserved only for the elite few, in whose company Cassaday has found himself in.

This, coupled with the royalties he's receiving with every new printing of his sequential work, almost guarantees that he will not be returning soon to the long hours at bringing scripts to life. To the contrary, Cassaday seems more open to other kind of work, such as designing the costumes for "Watchmen" the movie. 

In fact, the closest he gets to regular work with a single publisher is his status as the art director on Dynamite's "Long ranger" licence. This is remarkable, considering that most of the best-selling artists rarely shy away from direct involvement with one of the major superhero publishers. It's a real testament to his reputation that he can keep up getting high profile work as a freelancer.

In an industry that is relentlessly hard to get into, forcing heavy deadlines on it's artists while arbitrarily placing them on one assignment to another, he is a shining example of the quality and professionalism. In whatever form he chooses to continue applying his talents, he will no doubt be leaving his fans with a lot to like, while they wait for his eventual return to penciling the comic book interiors.