Saturday, February 27, 2010

Spirou "the Wizard of Culdesac"

"the Wizard of Culdesac" was the first major "Spirou and Fantasio" album, serialized by Dupuis in 1950. Assisting the regular penciler Andre Franquin was Henri Gillain, a math teacher and brother to the artist's mentor Jije. Henri passed his notes of to his brother to turn into script, but insisted on signing his work under the pseudonym of 'Jean Darc'.

In effect, it was Henri's contribution of count Culdesac, an eccentric inventor living in rural France, that would prove to be crucial in the early development of the franchise. Appropriately, in story, city dwellers Spirou and Fantasio plan to make Culdesac nothing more than a short stop on a trip through the country. But even before getting off their bikes, they are treated to an unexpected dose of weirdness surrounding the charmingly anachronistic village.

Most of the album is taken up by the mystery story with a very particular atmosphere, centering around mysterious occurrences involving livestock of the sleepy helmet. The sheer oddness of artificially aged cows and spotted pigs soon carries over the inhabitants of Culdesac, common folk set in their ways. All the while, Spirou and Fantasio are perplexed by the strange mushrooms that seem to cause the strange illnesses, as well as a gypsy family whose arrival coincides with the malady. The reclusive count that seemingly hovers around everything, in his old time automobile is of no help, as he keeps to himself, and the run down family castle he calls his home.

By taking the story out of the big city inertia, Franquin once again proves at home by bringing all of the deranged and interesting details to life. Typically, his vehicles and animals exhibit a real sense of character, with their run down, caricatural designs. But, more importantly, by having a real sense of place in Culdesac, he the artist is free to finally commit on fleshing out the supporting cast. And, by and large, the rest of his two decades long association with Spirou and Fantasio's adventures centers around the concept of Culdesac, at least as a place to start from and return to, in those albums that have to do with exploring a more exotic locale.

This is only natural, considering his charmingly odd and fresh interpretation of the village, with it's dusty architecture and short, middle aged civil servants that have to put up with the weirdness that starts to creep in, seemingly from outside. All of the locals strive to present themselves as stern pillars of community, with the eloquent mayor, being the volume's standout, a perfect picture of a neurotic with a hugely boosted ego based largely on self-delusion. That both him and his bureaucrats have a hard time dealing with the crisis at hand comes as a surprise to everyone, except for the local veterinarian, constantly stumbling around, who has long since given up on the subjective normality that the rest of the village prides itself on.

Seeing all of these rich characters, with their noses and stooped stature, run around trying to be effective, when beset by what seems a horrible curse is the element that finally imbues "Spirou" with the type of energy all of it's own. The protagonists themselves initially find the strange circumstances as unnerving, but quickly grow intrigued, trying to find the real culprit behind the increasingly dangerous effects of tampering with nature. That the Count knows more than he lets on comes as no surprise, but, again, Franquin uses their finally getting into the castle as an excuse for a series of gags involving strange elixirs and physical comedy. Count Culdesac is likewise, portrayed less as a gifted inventor, and more like his absent minded assistant, which is a break following the mad scientists that Spirou has kept running into before his first extended adventure.

Yet, despite the stakes being relatively low, the artist exploits local paranoia and xenophobia against the mysterious gypsies to have the story achieve a tense mood. That some of the key proceedings happen at night, also helps carry over the supernatural mood that has beset the villagers, while still using every opportunity to point out at some of everyone's more obvious failings. All of this is done without a malicious intent, as even though Spirou and Fantasio don't make any distinctive proclamations as early as "the Wizard of Culdesac", it's clear that they fit right in, particularly in the hands of such a creative artist as Franquin.

In fact, the latter part of the album proves this in unequivocal fashion, as Jije carries Count Culdesac, and in turn the story, over to the big city. Thereupon, the two elixirs that he has taken with him are responsible for a series of unnatural events that Spirou and Fantasio are called in to investigate. Getting the young reporters on a trail of a man using unorthodox strength to achieve money by competing in sports is a familiar superhero territory, but in the hands of Belgian comics artists, it takes on a completely different note. Seeing count Culdesac in a race with his full attire on is in effect, much more similar to the feats of Asterix and Obelix using magical potion, and is used in much the same comedical manner.

Predictably, it's the local gangsters who are attracted to the familiar wish-fulfillment scenario behind such a miracle of science, and their inclusion goes to severely weaken the strength of the album as a whole. By serializing the story in two page sized chunks, it's entirely possible that this kind of effect wasn't apparent on Franquin and his collaborators, but nonetheless, having a completely different and predictably bland Golden age chase after the innovation of the Culdesac mystery sequence does detract from "the Wizard" working as a satisfying whole. None of the mismatched gangsters really feels much different from the previous antagonists in the Spirou short stories, and there's next to no suspension in seeing the artist go through the motions as he depicts the caper.

Thankfully, the final portion of the album is much shorter than it's more intriguing and highly innovative title story, which was sure to leave an impression with the readers of the time, unfamiliar with the ease with which Franquin brings together the disparate elements that make up Culdesac. In truth, breaking the stories in two separate wholes might have benefited the characterization of the protagonists too, as Spirou and Fantasio betray the artist's affinity for the Count, as they forget about their enmity as soon as they get to big city and befriend him a little too easily. By and large, this new addition to the cast is a wholly welcome one, even in this early, somewhat scattered version, as Franquin has traditionally found little use of the reporter's pet squrriel as a third protagonist.

It goes without saying that the artist's work on Spirou and Fantasio themselves is continually evolving, in such an organic way that is perfectly epitomized by Culdesac. Such ragged scenery goes beautifully with Franquin's treatment of Spirou's bravery and natural curiosity, as well as Fantasio's nervous and moody nature. It is really as if the artist was waiting for his Gillain's brother Henri to help with the final part of the outlook on "Spirou" that he needed to finally commit to the story and calls it his own. And seeing Franquin's endless imagination fully unleashed in the very next album is all the proof needed to see why the title has gone on to achieve such international success. That it's most popular artist had continued to treat it as his primary assignment for so long after that point is a boon for all of his fans, as they got to see a crucial part of his evolution from a Golden age penciller into a supremely important Franco-Belgian comics stylist.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spirou "Hearts of steel" (Yves Chaland)

"Hearts of steel" was a Spirou story Yves ("the Adventures of Freddy Lombard") Chaland devised for the "Spirou magazine" in 1982. His was one of the several concurrent takes on the character serialized following Jean-Claude Fournier leaving the title. Unfortunately, "Dupuis" gave up on Chaland's version of Spirou halfway through the first story, leaving the artist to piece together the rest of the material, which was eventually published in several formats.

In many ways, having Andre Franquin on the series for so many years has set up a model that the publisher felt insecure to let later creators deviate too much from. Yet, by tasking the "atomic style" forerunner as a possible successor to Franquin devotee Fournier, "Dupuis" exhibited remarkable vision. Chaland himself was a lifelong fan of Spirou, but his take on the character deviates largely from pretty much all of the modern depictions of the mythos.

By having the story take place in the past, the writer/artist announced a bold departure from Culdesac, the setting which has given the title most of it's charm in the preceding decades. Aware of how such a bold choice might impact the modern readers, Chaland even went so far to originally present "Hearts of steel" in black and white, boldly proclaiming his take a throwback to the earliest history of the title. For once, it was Jije and early Franquin that a Spirou artist was calling upon, but not only as a matter of style.

Chaland was of course well versed with the endearing version that the title eventually evolved into, but his own take is much more focused on the formative years of post-War Franco-Belgian comics, a time where Spirou was much more closely related to Tintin. By shrugging off the all too familiar weirdness of Franquin's take, the writer/artist ventured into a much more paired down territory, deciding to revisit the character's earliest years, of being a young man in an elevator boy attire, with a pet squirrel as a companion and a close friendship with fellow reporter Fantasio. Once again, the reader is taken into a nameless urban city with nothing of Parisian glamor to it, acting as a hub for a series of strange coincidences that conspire to get the protagonists to action as soon as possible.

And although "Hearts of steel" never stops using Golden age logic, it feels remarkably contrived and manipulative. Chaland is well aware that he is writing a Spirou story, which justifies getting to his point by using classical contrivances such as a box being delivered to Spirou's address by mistake. The writer goes so far to have a homicidal robot in it, intentionally invoking the design of just such an adversary from the earliest Spirou short stories. Their long chase that starts off the tale is intended to confront the reader with a clear question, which is why are these old stories being remixed and brought out to the audience that's grown up on much more elaborate set ups. Chaland even has Fantasio make direct mention of the familiarity of the robot's design, which is a clear nod that the writer is fully in control of the story.

This is nowhere as apparent as in his layouts and figure work, both shining examples of very strong and capable craft holding together a particular retro modern look that has characterized the creator's output. Contrary to Jije's paper thin surroundings, Chaland's "funnies" have a frightfully tense and controlled style, deliberately invoked for just such a story as "Hearts of steel".

Taking the clue of an early Franquin short, Yves has the source of the character's problems be in the same building, living no less than in the apartment upstairs, as if this was a particularly paired down sitcom. But, by climbing to the elderly colonialist, the readers not only find an elderly adventurer surrounded by memorabilia, as in "Spirou and the Pygmies". Instead, theyd discover a man who is terminally ill and melancholic, mourning the disappearance of his African manservant. Seeing such a display of fatherly emotion, and perhaps even hints of stronger affections, was simply unknown in the initial days of Spirou and Fantasio's garishly colored exploits. The man still sets them on a typical adventure quest, but Chaland insists on every so often having a panel that very distinctively challenges the taken for granted innocence that the Franco-Belgian comics were built upon.

Having Fantasio sleepless before the flight is, of course, nothing new and completely in character, but so is his dialogue all Chaland as he actively ponders the nature of his existence, with the awareness of a mature protagonist, as if he has had decades of experience to him. That Spirou routinely shakes off this dilemma, as so many other fixed ideas that his friend has gone through, enables the story to continued with their journey. And Chaland is prepared to return to let go of post modernism for yet another return of the less sinister nostalgia.

But, such a sequence is as short as the characters' flight, and as soon as they land, the writer/artist is ready to make mention of the reality of an international corporation (called precisely by that name). This actually reveals that Africa that Spirou and Fantastio have flown to is a genuine one, completely at a disarray with the one they encountered in Franquin's initial scenarios.

This is supremely important, as it goes hand in hand with Chaland's retro modern art style. He is revisiting a Golden age locale, and is unprepared to have it be storybook jungle, or even a by the numbers military dictatorship that supplemented it in the later genre depictions. Chaland notably reveals this information by having Spirou say it out loud, while reading the local newspapers. Fascinatingly, this time Fantastio stays in character, responding in a way that could be perceived as racist, if not for his casual ignorance. His demeanor can almost be excused by imagining him having a memory of his highly stereotypical previous adventures.

Showing his hand, Yves Chaland has no doubt set out to challenge his progaonists, and have them come to terms with the complicated reality they haven't noticed before. Wisely, the artist doesn't depart from the story's atmosphere, and moreover grabs hold of another Golden age cliche by having the characters randomly encounter an old acquaintance on the streets of the foreign continent. This never before mentioned friend is another complex figure, as the affection he displays for Spirou and Fantasiois starkly contrasted by his treatment of the native populace workforce.

Most of the later plot is hinted upon in his dialogue with the characters, including the introduction of an equivocal villain of the piece. It is therefore a shame that "Dupuis" so opposed Chaland, that they had his story cut short right after he has finished setting the exposition. As soon as the writer/artist has depicted a couple of competent local detectives, and before his characters can get into a neighboring country involved with the diamond smuggling, the action abruptly stops. The readers are left with a sketchy final page promising a grand resolution, that would tie up all of the elements in a satisfying whole.

The twenty odd published pages are signed off as a complete "chapter" with conflicting reports about the publication of the rest of the story, first as a bootleg, and only recently a kind of authorized whole, bridging together the official "Spirou magazine" beginning and it's troubled follow up. It would appear that the project was left for Yann le Pennetier, who turned it into an illustrated text piece with the protagonists' identities bizarrely hidden under the leopard skins.

The names assumed by Spirou and Fantasio for this follow up are supposed to have been changed back in the long awaited "Dupuis" edition of the story, but that doesn't change the reality of Chaland's association with the title. It remains unfortunate that all of his effort and hard work was met with such a resistance from the traditionally minded publisher, one that ironically continues to reprint the characters' earliest racially offensive adventures as so much juvenalia of the comics' earliest days. Thankfully, this didn't stop Chaland from producing work in a similar vein with his creator owned "the Adventures of Freddy Lombard".

It is those five albums that he is today best known for, and it is doubtful that he would have returned to work for hire, if his life (and that of his daughter) hadn't been so tragically cut off in 1990. From the creative standpoint, his association with Spirou remains a classic cautionary tale of a creator hired to work on his favorite childhood characters. In the case of Chaland, the maturity of his world view, and the originality of his style, ended up being at odds odds with the publisher favoring sticking to the models, which seemingly works best when contracting insecure voices of relative anonymity.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Marshal law: Secret tribunal

"Secret tribunal" was a 1993 Marshal law mini-series, done by the character's original creators Pat ("Slaine") Mills and Kevin ("the League of extraordinary gentlemen") O'Neill, and published by Dark Horse. It is fairly unique in the title's history that it stands on it's own and is not a part of a crossover. By and large, it provides a very distinctive entry into the Marshal law universe, and functions as a complete story on it's own.

Of course, a working knowledge of the targets of this SF superhero satire will probably go a long way towards really understanding the goals of Mills and O'Neill. Specifically, the creator's targets in "the Secret tribunal" are DC's Silver age icons, "the Legion of superheroes", along with Ridley Scott's "Alien" and, to a lesser extent, even "X-Force". And while the science fiction set up does provide common ground for all of these ideas, the thematic connection probably has as much to do with their mash up in "Marshal law", as does the Zeitgeist when the work was created.

Obviously, following the third part of the movie serial, "Aliens" was arguably at it's most popular in the early 1990s, and Rob Liefeld's "X-Force" was the best selling comic of the moment, which made them perfect targets for Mills and O'Neill. Still, the blunt of their attack has to do with "the Legion", as seen through the lens of then-current genre hits. Although introduced as supporting characters in the 1950s "Superman" stories, the Legion of superheroes has arguably peaked in popularity during the 1980s. Assuming a soap opera approach similar to the X-Men and New Teen Titans, the most popular superhero comics at the time, "the Legion" went through various changes and reboots since, but by early 1990s, most of the fans of American comics had a working knowledge of the concept. Getting to the concept, O'Neill and Mills saw problems at even the most fundamental level, and don't even get to criticizing the other scattered details regarding the super team.

The mere fact that DC had decided to depict the "teenagers of the future" in such a way as they did, seems to offense the creators at such a level that they find it justified to spend countless hours in tearing the basics of this "Superman" spin-off down, while still never forgetting to amuse themselves along the way. Truthfully, it's hard to imagine a cruder and more offensive take on "the Legion", which i exactly the kind of lens through which to examine a longstanding somewhat conservative superhero property. This is also why it is very important that the satire wasn't done in a crossover with the actual DC title. By utilizing the obvious analogues, Mills and O'Neill avoid any kind of censorship and scrutiny by the traditional superhero publisher, and are free to unleash all of their criticism in the peculiar Marshal law way.

And that is an extremely offensive caricature that still has all the semblance of a superhero story in it's structure. It's just that the journal entries our point of view character makes are used to detail all the hypocrisy inherent with the genre, with the iconography being twisted and ridiculed in every panel. Kevin O'Neill seems to take Pat Mill's over the top script and shows no restraint, he ridicules the characters' every shouting facial gesture, and turns all of their iconic costumes into garishly colored pijamas, and that's only for a start. In fact, all of the trapping of parody are to be seen in "the Secret tribunal", but they never seem arbitrary. Each of the panels' not just filled with graffiti for the sake of occupying the creator's dwindling attention. Quite the contrary, all of the impossibly clunky armor painted in blood does serve to make a concrete point, illustrating layers of unreality that not only fail as escapist entertainment, but in turn offer all of the wrong underlying messages.

This is why it's important that so much of the comic consists of caption boxes and never ending dialogue which are the founding stones of superhero storytelling. Just like with the art, it serves to highlight the satire to recreate by creating the basic framing of a familiar story, but the creative essence is filled with negativity nowhere to be found in "the Legion of superheroes". And just as Kevin O'Neill couldn't be replaced with a generic superhero artist, and still make the relevant points, so is Pat Mills unique in his attention to detail and sarcasm he brings to the story. It would certainly be easy to have such an explosive comic devolve into an orgy of non-stop violence, carried by Kevin O'Neill's considerable skills as a cartoonist. Even now, it's possible that a lot of the casual readers wouldn't bother to see a broader point with a comic like "Marshal law". Still, Pat Mills had to find a properly balanced story for all of the vulgarity to be effective, and not to register as so much of the white noise that is so common when it comes to the superhero genre.

Because, for all of the science fiction concepts, it's the characters' emotions that reveal them for what they are, and this is exactly how Mills layers his satire. Amid all the chaos, the writer carefully positions three characters that are the closest the book gets to morality. Considered from the point of view of their personal systems of value, the all around carnage in an otherwise full to the brim cast gets the particular context that the story calls for. Because, for all their foul mouthedness and displays of graphic sexuality, Mills and O'Neill are portraying the real morality play behind the superhero offering that is "the Legion of superheroes". This is nowhere as true as in having the aliens literally burst from the skin of the idealized do-gooders, revealing the falsety behind their conception, provides in turn the visual attraction that earns it the "Marshal law" title.

Having Marshal law arrive at the team's headquarters with the thinly disguised "X-Force" mutants serves as a catalyst of bringing to fore all that is rotten behind the decades old DC superteam. The various other superhero conventions that get shattered along the line, seem to accentuate the unreality of the Silver Age story, and Mills and O'Neill are happy to reveal them for what they really are. Specifically, the slighted sexuality of superheroines is taken apart with a real fervor, by showing exactly how a sculpted vixen would behave if she had the facade of a naive girl easily falling in love at every turn. This is a particularly slippery slope, as the various sex scenes all border on insulting if taken on at face value, but again it's up to the reader to put them in context.

And that broader "Marshal law" picture is what colors every aspect of the project. Basically, by putting a Judge Dredd approximation against the superheroes the creators cheerfully boil down the differences between two schools of storytelling and make their point appear to be nothing more than British vs American comics. Coming from a nastier, more graphic and even more mature point than the average Silver age superhero comic, Mills and O'Neill have done their all to bring a black-humored story with horror overtones to "the Secret tribunal". The result is a layered microcosm with a clear line underneath the excess. For every obvious joke ridiculing the Legion's code names and arbitrary powers is actually needed to get the point across in the clearest and most offensive way possible. By doing so, "Marshal law" actually becomes something more than the sum of it's detailed parts, it clearly delineates itself from the bulk of unsuccessful superhero parodies, and makes it clear why the creators have stuck to the concept for so long.

For all of it's immaturity and manic energy, this is a comic that found a clear niche in the post-Watchmen superhero publishing, that of a cynical eye and a severe critic unafraid to take delight in taking it's victims apart. Looking at the comics landscape today, the closest thing to "Marshal law" can be found in the works of Garth ("the Preacher") Ennis. A 2000ad contributor himself, Ennis is responsible for the infamous "Punisher kills the Marvel universe" Special, which is perhaps the closest mainstream approximation to the character that ironically, had his first appearance in Marvel's creator-owned imprint. And while the writer's sensibility has lead to his repeatedly using the Punisher as a Jugde Dredd-like character that he likes the most out of Marvel's library, it is his current most ambitious project that ties in most with the ethos behind his colleagues Mills and O'Neill. "The Boys", published by Dynamite as an ambitious look at the reality of a familiar superhero universe recalls all the best parts of "Secret tribunal" and is perhaps the closest a fan could get to Marshal law in the current marketplace.

And even if Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's association with the character has come to an end, there still remains a large body of work done with their most successful collaboration, that can only prosper due to the announcement of the omnibus edition collecting all of their "Marshal law" work. We can only hope that in the future, more humoristic comics will as bald as "Secret tribunal", bringing a much needed insight and energy to the market.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Spirou and Fantasio - Franquin's short stories

Andre Frenquin became synonymous with "Spirou and Fantasio" due to his 20-odd year long run on the title, taking over from Jije, and turning the series into full-fledged adventure strip, rivaling Tin Tin. While creating the setting of Culdesac and Spirou and Fantasio's unforgettable animal companion Marsupilami, his own style has evolved dramatically, enabling him to continue in another direction starring Gaston Lagaffe, another of his additions to the series.

It is interesting then, to look back at the writer/artist's first pages, serialized in "le Journal de Spirou", as they reveal a young Golden age comic artist, following in the footsteps of his mentor Jije, who established Fantasio as the strip's co-protagonist. Spirou himself was created by Rob-vel, who signed the rights to the publisher "Dupuis", after creating an interesting comic strip starring an elevator boy and his pet squirrel. During the war, the stories about Spirou and Fantasio as investigative reports was worked on by the Belgian artists collective that came to be known as Marcinelle school. In the transition to the artists' post-War comics, such as Morris' "Lucky Luke", Jije started handing the "Spirou" assignments over to Franquin, who quickly proved his own, reworking the short stories format into the success that has since been associated with "Spirou and Fantasio".

In most of the Spirou translations around the world, these short stories usually take the place of the initial couple of albums. The Belgian album editions reprint the Franquin short stories as a couple albums preceding the "Count of Culdesac", and one immediately after, similarly to the Egmont's English edition published in India. Spirou and Fantasio's adventures have been published multiple times in Germany, with the publisher Carlsen once notably reprinting the earliest of Franquin's work as a separate "Spirou classics" edition. In Serbia, these Golden Age shorts have largely been omitted, as the definite publishing effort so far has largely consisted of high quality Spirou albums published in 1980s, and even then, reprinting only the latter half of Franquin's tenure on the title, as well as it's Gaston Legaffe spin-off.

At first, its' difficult to differentiate between the Jije and Franquin stories. The shorts are all drawn on the model, featuring standard Golden age dynamics of two friends constantly finding themselves in the situations over their head, leading to various light-hearted adventures. Jije himself has an active role in several of the stories following his departure from the main Spirou writer/artist position, but still remaining to collaborate with Andre. Gilain's own stories were mostly done in the space of 1943 and 1946, and could be said to feature somewhat realistic skirmishes with the mob and various complications emanating from the everyday life.

Franquin's initial involvement starts with "the Tank", a madcap gag scenario that portrays Spirou's friend as a buffoon, and basically serves to illustrate all the various situation that emanate from his ill-advised decision. Franquin's early artwork is very rough and indistinct, with a freewheeling quality to the plot, that still manages to get across his comedic timing. Like many of the early short stories, it feels very oddly structured, with action crisscrossing around the pages routinely packed with no less than fifteen panels.

Still, this was enough to convince Jije to let Franquin complete "the Prefabricated house", a Spirou story that Gilain has begun on his own. Once again, the reader is presented with the protagonists as a pair of young friends taking on odd jobs and opportunities, with only a lip service paid to their status as reporters. Spirou continues to play the straight man to Fantasio's hot-tempered nature, but for all their quarreling they remain best friends, going so far as to share the bed. The Golden age innocence paints the beach where their working as a few lines defined by primary colors, with literally noting at stake except for Fantasio's new job, found in the newspaper. Franquin is disinterested in Jije's simple setup, and proceeds to have fun by having his characters swept up by the storm, leading to a convenient comedy set-up of a friend believed dead. The madcap ending isn't very promising in itself, but overall, Andre's portion of the story shows a few glimpses of his style evolving outside of Jije's influence. This is particularly apparent in the artist's depiction of a stingray, a run down biplane and a craggy tailor, all of them betraying a much more original perspective, attracted to detailing the oddness attracting with everyday life of these Golden age characters.

This is nowhere as apparent as in "Spirou's inheritance", which starts as a haunted house story, before taking a sharp turn in order to appease Franquin's sensibilities. The artist spends a considerable time on the game of hide and seek played with his protagonists and a hunchback servant, before using the McGuffin to transport the plot into Africa. And though Spirou and Fantasio are routinely followed by a couple of crooks, the real point is to have the artist use to locale because it better suits his sensibilities. His figures are already much stronger and more dynamic than in his early short stories, but his real talent comes through in depicting the exotic tropics, where his caricatures spring to life fully formed, in the depictions of flora and fauna, along with some of the natives, unfortunately portrayed stereotypically in the blissful ignorance of the Golden age.

Still, it is evident that Franquin's sense of wonder knows no bounds, as in "Mad scientist" where limousine. The plot goes on to include robots, and a familiar plan of the destruction of the planet, only to be subjected to multiple climaxes. The story ends in a delightfully colorful way, he proceeds to tell a typical period story by starting it off with a seemingly possessed, and for once Andre decides to immediately continue upon it, in "the Robot blueprints", a typical chase story starring another bunch of familiarly depicting gangsters as the antagonists.

Along the way, Fantasio transforms into a much more believable character, that still retains his individuality by acting the part of strangely dressed eccentric. His juvenile behaviour is subdued to highlight his role as an reporter, albeit one that is very moody and prone to easy irritation. Spirou undergoes very little change, and continues to be a well meaning young man, stubbornly helping out in various crisis that he stumbles upon, in his red bellhop uniform. The two friends' living quarters are inconsistent, and the writer/artist refuses to even make note whether they are living in a small town or an urban metropolis. Spirou and Fantasio are simply youths unburdened by responsibilities beyond caring for the pet squirrel, and thus easily positioned in any kind of caper Franquin finds himself interested in. As for Spip, the gruff rodent is depicted as speaking in these stories, and even aiding his master in cutting the ropes from time to time, but he is largely kept in the background.

Soon, it becomes apparent why, as Franquin shows his preference after having Spirou and his pet take a walk in the opening of "Spirou and the pygmies". Soon, they are interrupted by no less than a jaguar, charmingly depicted by the artist, which goes on to live with the protagonists. For the first time, their living arrangements are given a character of their own, and it serves to hold Franquin's interest for a good half of the story, before he once again steers the story towards Africa. This time around, the gags are much spontaneous, and his art livelier than ever, as it sets out to detail the fictional country, standing in for Africa's longtime problems. This time around, Franquin sets out to present a clear message, showing kinship between the two warring tribes, spurred by the white man to go to war, but he does so in a manner that borders on insulting in it's simplicity. Still, though the jaguar from the first half of the story is largely forgotten by it's end, it nonetheless presented a clear model for Marsupilami, whom Spirou and Fantasio were soon to encounter.

Still, before starting his larger narratives, Franquin was inspired to comment on the group of four, that he shared the studio space with. Particularly, he is inspired by Morris, whom he depicts as Spirou's friend Maurice, instrumental to setting up a box with with his hero and the neighborhood bully in "Spirou in the ring". He follows the somewhat longer story with a short, paying direct homage to his friend's famous "Lucky Luke" series. But "Spirou rides a horse" is still not the end of colleagues directly inspiring one another, as the trip Franquin took to America with Jije and Morris ended up inspiring structurally the most successful of his short stories.

In "the Black hats", the reporters are searching for the connection between current America and it's Wild West beginnings, and it works as a complete and original piece, possessing a style and irony of it's own. It is as if by parting with the Golden age flight of fancy, Franquin matured to finally present a story that treats itself seriously enough to both entertain its readers in numerous comedic scenes, and work as a satisfying whole. By completing Spirou and Fantasio's American adventure, Andre seemed a whole different artist than the one who took over the strip from Jije. Even though he was still a long way from perfecting his storytelling to suit his personality, he seemed confident enough to try his hands at longer works.

By concentrating on his own strengths and interests as a creator, Franquin was content to continue working for "Dupuis" to bring world wide acclaim to their characters, and moreover upon up the concept to include more of his own world view. Starting with "the Wizard of Culdesac", the artist slowly endeared with the readers the world over for his unique sensibility and a sense of character that he infused to Rob-Vel's ideas. Eventually, his relationship with "Dupuis", enabled him to retain the rights to his signature creations Gaston Lagaff and Marsupilami, which have since taken a life on their own, beyond "Le Journal", while only a rare creator was capable of leaving a lasting personal stamp stamp following his decades long run defining run on the adventures of Spirou and Fantasio.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I am legion 3 - the Three monkeys

With "the Three monkeys", Humanoids have completed their "I am legion" trilogy, which has since been published in one"integral" volume in France. Even "the Devil's due", the licensee of the translated American edition has solicited a trade paperback version of their iteration of the project, which was a 6 issue mini-series cropped to fit the more traditional comic book format. Unfortunately, the series has so far gone under the radar for a lot of the American audience, despite the presence of John Cassaday, perhaps the most sought after superhero artist today. In any event, he has completed his work on Fabien Nury's scripts, making "I am legion" at least the ambitious project that introduced the artist to a new audience.

As a conclusion, "the Three monkeys" almost takes it's tone from the German resistance operation centered around the Valkyrie protocols, that it alludes to in one plot strand. All of the hopelessly overcomplicated plans, that the characters made as a last resort, end up entangled in nothing less than a massacre. The creators have spent two dense volumes getting to this point, and in Romania all pretense of control and careful plotting gets abandoned for a very personal and chaotic finish. It is certainly unexpected to see it all converging in such a dark mess of zombies and wolves, straight out of Stoker's "Dracula".

It seems almost as if the rage clouds the last vestiges of morality for these characters, as they are set against one another, not even trying to survive. In this vein, the noblest of the freedom fighters charges the army on bloody soil, with the sole purpose of trying make some sense of the circumstances. Nury and Cassaday concentrate their big showdown on a situation which is certain not to last, but in turn promising not to left anything standing afterwards. Every shred of compassion, every human feeling that the rare few of these people have that hasn't to do with war gets taken away from them, and ends up being manipulated in the most despicable ways imaginable.

And while all of this was foreshadowed in the previous volumes, there was no real hint that "I am legion" will turn into such a hideously gruesome story. In effect, the book serves to sum up the darkest urges of World War 2 and dramatize them on the scene of a supernatural thriller. It's just that a huge shift occurs somewhere in the middle of the storyline, as the long winded play of the intelligence agencies fades to the background, having set up the bloodbath involving Dracula's origins. When they get to "the Three monkeys", the creators seem like they have little use for the precision and architectural detail any longer.

The careful use of acronyms almost fades to a white nose, as Nury and Cassaday have their British investigator resort to threats and brutal violence, after all of his team's investigative work has literally blown up in their faces. It's as if the creators are intent to keep that entire part of the story separate, as if crossing over to the continent would mean certain death for these characters. They are, in turn, the only ones who piece together the entire truth, and through grave danger, actually have a chance at a normal life, after the Legion affair. Their survival is paralleled by a much darker and conflicted path, that of the pair of girls who have left Romania for Cyprus. The boat's passage closes the story with a twist ending, that at once both homages the book's influences, and implies that the events since have more or less followed the autenthic timeline.

The real world connection is solidified through the continued balanced use of historical players, who appear throughout the series. Once again, the actions of renowned military men make sense, and don't take away from the spotlight on Nury and Cassaday's characters, except when it comes to plot concerns. Fabien Nury never feels smug enough to fall for the common trap of using his and Humanoids' ideas as an easy explanation for truths about World War 2. He treats the period setting as immovable as the local geography, while exploring it by using the genre conventions as the story engine.

Of course, bearing the weight of visualizing the whole tale, once again John Cassaday is forced to make a few rash choices. With "the Three monkeys" being poised to carry a whole lot of well choreographed action shots, some of the surrounding figure work gets slighted, with some of the animals feeling a bit too on the model. This is nothing strange when one is to take into account his career, as superhero comics certainly train their artists to a different esthetic, than that of a period piece.

Still, for most of the time Cassaday seems perfectly suited to the semi-realism of "I am legion". His classical adventure strip tendencies that were on full display in pulpy "Planetary" enable the artist to maintain a distinctively rich, movie-like quality to the visuals, that really helps to convince the reader of the scope of situation. And yet, such an expensive, distinctively layered look, once again ends up hindering the story in a small way, by nature of Cassaday's similar male figures. It is unfortunate to be taken out of the artist's dynamic layouts even for a moment to contemplate how one of the many players in Nury's conspiracy reappers, after seemingly being killed a mere pages before. Discovering that it was a different character altogether only serves to foster confusion, but it's of no real consequence, taking into account that "the Three monkeys" spend most of it's time resolving the plot in a very direct manner.

In the end, the reader is treated with so many of Cassaday's visuals, all finely detailed, with the same amount of attention payed to the characters, cars and backgrounds, that it's easy to see why both DC and the Devil's due saw fit to publish the series on the strength of the artist's name alone. Taken as a whole, it's difficult to foresee the future of "I am legion". It is at every point a professional work, but it's difficult to gauge whether all of the energy that went into to the project eventually turned it into something that's more than the sum of it's parts. For all of it's supernatural intrigue, and the well researched period detail, the biggest difference that Nury's and Cassaday's effort makes when compared to similar offerings, is in it's detailed execution. But, sometimes, having to collaborate closely with a big publishing operation such as Humanoids, can turn what could have been a much more ambitious tale, into an endeavouring that is solely defined by the level of craft applied.

"I am legion" is certainly a work that stays it's hand in asking the bigger questions, and avoids taking the chance to delve into the nature of comics as a medium for telling broader, more important stories. It ends up being a project limited by it's own premise, that all but forces it to treat World War 2 not as the most important event of the 20th century, but a platform for adding just slightly more depth to a genre offering, told by the creators who show all signs that they could be producing much more poignant fare.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I am legion 2: Vlad

Humanoids publishing's "Vlad" is the middle part of the "I am legion" trilogy of albums, all done by Fabien Nury and John Cassaday. Having previously went to great lengths to introduce the story, the creators are content to treating it's central part as a showcase for their styles, while solidifying what was previously largely hinted upon. The resulting tale is much more concentrated on action, while admittedly constantly switching through various subplots, as they start to converge. Ultimately, the plot hinges on the story's central villain identified as a familiar fictional culture bogeyman, albeit with a twist that manages to ground him into Third Reich mysticism.

By now, the use of the seminal horror icon Dracula has been filtered through various pop culture sensibilities, making Nury and Humanoids adamant at sticking to the historical facts as much as possible. Yet, to justify the supernatural thriller at the heart of the plot, the writer reworks the vampire legend, by using the myth to provide a set up that doesn't stand too much at odds with the 1942 setting. These elements were present from the very first volume, but, somehow, tying them much more decisively to the legend of Dracula runs the risk of turning "I am legion" to a series existing on the outskirts of a much better known phenomenon. After all, the reader was invited to a spy tale tinged with strange happenings taking their inspiration from the Bible, and having the story midstream stand revealed as a follow-up to "Dracula" brings in the reader's feelings about the horror icon. Such a high concept could even derive of their enjoyment of the work at hand, considering the reader's previous experiences with some of the many takes on the vampire concept.

From their standpoint, Nury and Cassaday treat the villain as a completely new character, covering the ground in presenting the real world Tepes' medieval past, and ignoring the tropes of Bram Stoker's novel that popularized him. After all, Vlad is not the book's only antagonist, as most of the "I am legion" story hinges on him reacting to Nazi activity regarding a related phenomena in his native Romania. And for all of his manipulations seeming too byzantine in the story's first volume, there is little cause for concern on the part of the reader this time around. And not only does "Vlad" clearly delineates between the hostiles, as they are set up for the climax in the finale, it significantly advances the plot on it's own. Taking this into account, it's all the more impressive how the creative team manage to cover three separate plots in different countries, while still providing a heavily action oriented story.

Considering the cohesiveness of the whole "I am legion" project, it would be unfair to complain about the second part lacking the novelty of the debut. Once the story was introduced though, it paradoxically raised the stakes for this middle outing, thus making the rare Cassaday panel done in a slightly looser style stand out, and some of the dialogue feeling a little extraneous and overworked. Once again, the scope of the project makes for a slight confusion, as the artist simply didn't create enough body types to support Nury's numerous players, leading to a potential confusion, when it comes to a couple of minor characters. On the other hand, his talent for body language seems much more natural this time around, with the awkwardness and bordering on caricature finding more place among his realist backdrops.

Laura Martin's colors somehow manage to turn this chapter of the story even darker and moodier, which is fitting considering the number of casualties as all sides start making direct attacks. Still, for all the advantage the forces gain by operating under the cover of the night, the artist doesn't use this excuse to skip out on the background detail, with even the darkest shadows hiding reasonably detailed layers of shacks and shrubs, growing among the snow. From the start, the artist has taken to his French assignment with a level of commitment that makes a rare repeated panel or a photographic detail in the background a completely harmless detail on amid over sized pages used to convey the highest possible amount of information.

With the change of pace, a slightly more dynamic layout peers in, with pages rarely sporting more than five panels, making every departure stand out like a double page spread in the more traditionally formatted American comic book. The long set up commando operation is undoubtedly the central action motive in the book, and unexpectedly, it feels the most artificial. Seeing the unit's highly unlikely plan working from step to step regardless of the timetable gives curiously seems like typical World War 2 entertainment package until it's unsettling climax. Interestingly, scripting this key sequence in such a way, Nury enables the book to spotlight the human tragedy of two smaller violent acts, with much more visceral and realistic consequences.

Likewise, in a book presenting a key German general as a highly malevolent and power-hungry monster of a man, it's refreshing to find a different point in one of the key cast members. Among so many cold-hearted people, it's perhaps slightly unexpected to suddenly find alternate sexuality casually dropped in as a subject, especially considering the material covered, but it still works to help define a character that was thus far used even more economically than most. Divested from their personal feelings, the cast of "Vlad" is once again constantly reminded that it is simply neither the time nor the place to show their emotions, as some of the rare ones that did before end up paying a bitter price during unexpected circumstances.

In the end, "I am legion" is still in many ways the same book it was in it's debut volume. "Vlad" continues the same sense of nuanced story that the reader has to both try their best to follow, and then trust the creators to make sense of at a future point, with a rare real World War 2 player playing a small, yet crucial role in it. The heavily researched period is once again presented with utmost care yet expanded even more so that the superstition preys upon it even more fiercely. The rich, over sized pages provide for enough room that the scene shifts regularly occur in the last panel, before reconnecting with another strand of the grim narrative, showing ordinary people trying to get a grip on the world gone indigo dark, under the Nazi reign.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I am legion 1: the Dancing faun

"I am legion" is a French comic series, published in three volumes in France by the Humanoids publishing. Humanoids is perhaps best known as the American counterpart of Humanoides Associes, the publisher associated with Metal Hurlant magazine, and the subsequent releases of creators such as Jodorowsky and Bilal. In any event, their science fiction-inclined sensibility was always in tune with the American popular culture, which has lead to the publisher teaming up French writer Fabien Nury with the American superstar artist John Cassaday. Realizing the possibility of the crossover audience, DC first started serializing the American translation of "I am legion" during their association with "Humanoids publishing", but it was only recently, that "the Devil's due" got the contract, that all three volumes of the series were finally presented in America.

Reading "the Dancing faun", it's easy to see why the original publisher found it fitting to pair these two creators together. Namely, in developing the stylings of "I am legion", Nury sticks to a very precise and complicated story, that needs all of it's audience attention to capture all of it's nuances, which are integral to the plot at hand. Fittingly, he is aided by Cassaday, a photo-realistic artist taking no shortcuts in getting across the story's settings and many characters. Together, they make the title what it is, a rare comics depiction of occult period piece, a genre most commonly found in the offspring of spy fiction.

Plot-wise, "the Dancing faun" is almost mechanical, in it's dynamic consisting of two long action scenes that both open and close the book, with a shorter chase scene in the middle, as a break from the long conversation pieces. The cold, extremely serious tone involved in the proceedings goes to show how much the creators value their assignment, and the care taken into it. It's is to be noted that the publisher retains all the rights for "I am legion" and it's characters, which stands to reason that "the Humanoids" had at least made some of the major decisions regarding the property's development, if not the basic story points of the initial pitch. Likewise, Nury almost treats his story as if it's an elaboration of a simple idea the reader is already familiar with, which may lead to an initial confusion.

This kind of a story, which starts right in the middle of the latest stage of the complicated proceedings involving a set of characters that have long defined previous relationships among themselves is typically posed almost as a challenge to the readers. Having no new reader identification characters, and being introduced to the setting only at the beginning of the final, most interesting stage of previously alluded to agendas certainly can seem alienating, but Nury and Cassaday still manage to be clear enough that the discerning reader will get all the right clues in all of the scenes, with some of the initial confusion being deliberately used for effect.

Having said that, it's still arguable how well the first volume stands on it's own. Because, "the Dancing faun" doesn't really offer a huge amount of payoff for all of the dozen characters involved. It starts by hinting a huge conspiracy, and more or less leaves the reader with the impression of it's borders and some of the occult "rules" involved. This is particularly problematic considering how much emphasis is put on a particular operation that is to start in mere days from the constantly displayed time during scene shifts. In fact, getting to the fight scene that closes the opening volume actually feels like a calculated attempt to give the reader some kind of catalyst for the tense proceedings, actually amounting only in further solidifying the hints that they've been given for the whole book, but no real release, which is shifted to a later volume.

It seems that the confidence and professionalism between Fabien Nury and John Cassaday, as employed by "Humanoids", is such that they firmly believe that the readers will return to their meticulously constructed story, and see it to it's end. This notion is by and large, grounded in details, as it's a rare comic book that has the ambition to actually set up as much plot wise. And, although the universe of "I am legion" is limited to a fight against the British secret service and it's German counterpart, the world building is so extensive and thorough that it feels completely solid. Even the glaring exception of the particular fantastic element that drives the story feels researched and cataloged in numerous sources involved with the occult history of the Reich.

Nobody can accuse Nury of providing an artistic showcase and getting out of the spotlight so as to let his renowned collaborator take the spotlight. The writer's pages typically consists of eight to nine panels filled with conversation that sometimes amounts to such specialized subjects as the devisions of the Axis secret services. Still, despite the long-windedness, most of the information is actually integral to the plot, with very rare emotional breaks providing the story with almost brutal glimpses into these characters, whose very lives are stunted by the horrible responsibilities they have to comprehend and fulfill.

Thankfully, that the "Dancing faun"'s oversized pages still find room to display a lot of color and character into what would certainly be fairly similar cyphers of characters in a spy novel without the intention to focus on the descriptions, is almost solely Cassaday's contribution. And not only does he instill a lot of character into the graying heads of his tense and overworked characters, but he keeps up with all of the rest of the book's visual cues. Aided by frequent collaborator Laura Martin's colors, the artist employs the traditional realism associated with classic adventure strips, by rendering almost every building and interior to exquisite detail, and not only in the establishing shots typical of comic books. Under constant variations of blues and greens, punctuated by the splashes of red, Cassadey's sure inks never fail, even when it comes to the rare portrayal of likeness that are notoriously difficult, even for the most talented artists. It is only when it comes to distinguishing two female characters that appear to be of similar ages and build that he shows a kind of predictability to the models of his figures, potentially leading to some confusion. Otherwise, the long hours of composing the dynamic layouts and working in the details make up for an aesthetic whole that makes a striking first impression.

All in all, no matter the reader's predilection towards the subject matter of occultism and World War 2 conspiracy, the amount of craft employed in bringing "I am legion" to life in comics form is certainly impressive. Just like the best put together spy novels, Nury and Cassaday go beyond the call of duty to find competent ways of introducing the readers to their fully formed world and keep their attention to a very detailed plot. "the Dancing faun" is a great example of a very dedicated genre work that is sure to be admired by a hopefully large crossover audience in it's original sequential format. It is unfortunate that "the Devil's due" went ahead with splitting each of the albums into two roughly standard sized comic books, but considering that they have since published the whole story in this format, the eventual trade paperback editions will make their initial decision an afterthought.

Scalped #30-34 "the Gnawing"

Jason Aaron and R.M.Guera's "Scalped" has just finished it's new storyline, coming on the heels of "High lonesome", a series of mostly unconnected vignettes framed around a plot-heavy story. "the Gnawing", on the other hand, is a very tense thriller leading to the conclusion of a lot of the plot threads set up earlier in the series.

As with many of "Vertigo"'s ongoing series, it's difficult to consider the new story arc as a story standing on it's own, not only taking into account how seamlessly it fits in the overall series continuity, but also how little actual distinction "the Gnawing" has on it's own. Both the setting and the characters stay the same, and it even retains the usual perspective associated with "Scalped". Yet, none of this is to the series' detrimental, as it has always been first and foremost a serialized story. It's to the creators' credit that the plot beats are so convincing that one can hardly forget them, even though they've happened long months, and even years before.

"the Gnawing" takes it's name from the very bleak beginning showing a nihilistic perspective of the people and their world, as explained by an elderly Native American. It's difficult to see how much of the effect this thematic cue actually has on the heart of this particular arc, as the "Scalped" is nothing if not consistent in it's thorough examination of the elements introduced from the very first issue. In any event, the mythological metaphor serves to point out that the longstanding and developing conflicts are about to start developing more rapidly, as the book has officially went past the setting up phase. The book's writer, Jason Aaron has gone on record as saying that his original plan for the title was set up until this exact point, which is now marked as the half of the series' eventual run.

Yet, despite the fast pacing and rapid plot developments, the writer was sure to explain that the next several issues will mark a return to the slower, more methodical pace that has enabled the creators to flesh out so many different aspects of life on the Indian Reservation. This, in turn, makes "the Gnawing"'s particular take on the life in Praire Rose a rare, and much needed, change of pace, designed to be particularly effective coupled with the presence of book's regular penciller R.M.Guera for it's entire five parts.

Having used the preceding "High lonesome" to shake Dash Bad Horse back into the protagonist role, the creative team are keen to push him even further. By having Dash play an active role in a scenario that once again centers around his role as a double agent, it's all the more surprising to see the character actually use his more active role to relieve himself of at least a part of his problems. The hopelessly nihilistic phase indicated by the previous year in the title is for the moment abandoned, and it's impressive to see Dash that, even though he once again makes his fare share of mistakes, actually takes a stance amid all the chaos and resolves a particular conflict that has long since plagued him.

Still, for all his confusion, he is for once second to Red Crow when it comes to the rash decisions. "the Gnawing" is centered around the way Lincoln deals with the consequences of his own rather hasty way to deal with a very delicate matter that has disturbed him for some time. Yet, the creators haven't spent the past three years nuancing these familiar faces so as to have them act out of character. In fact, it could be said that there is no better showcase of Red Crow's demeanor than these five issues. The way he deals with the situation and eventually resolves it is nothing short of consistent with the way the Indian Chief has been portrayed before, but it's also extremely visual and cinematic.

Having talked of the main players and their characterization, it's important to note the violence that goes with their way of life. "Scalped" was always a character piece that took it's plot points in gritty shootouts and this volume of modern western is no exception. Guera's inks never stop using the tradition of European western artwork to etch the consistent state of despair into the mistakes the large cast of characters makes under the red-hot desert sun. And even though these people frequently move into circles, all but promising a quick and violent end, their desperation still causes for a lot of morally pointless havoc along the way. And "the Gnawing" for the first in a long while makes this apparently clear - for every scene of the characters pounding on the wall and turning to alcohol for escape, there are more than just enough shootouts to drive the plot forward, and make some changes to the story that really matter.

Of course, Red Crow and Dash's actions once more have an effect on the people most important to them, and this in particular colors the proceedings in this arc, and no doubt, many more to come. Both agent Nitz and and Carol are thus deeply affected, and by the end of the fifth issue, heavily removed from where they were before, paying dearly for their relationships with Dash. It is certainly ironic that in order for Dash and Lincoln to gain some kind of release the people they're closest to have to suffer so much, but it also speaks at length of the complicated relationships established by the characters for years ago.

For once, the incident that took place nearly 30 years ago is not referred to extensively, but that doesn't mean that Catcher has stopped playing his uniquely decisive and spiritual role. Having a thoroughly mystical character in such a gritty and realistic crime series might seem contradictory, but Aaron and Guera once again find a way to integrate him in proceedings while retaining the mystery. For all his intrigue, Catcher could have easily turned out a very annoying character, particularly considering Vertigo's tendency of inserting post-modernism and mythology into strange genre mixes, but in "Scalped" he has always been used in precisely the right way. After having slowly revealed the shocking bits of his past, proving how important this self-proclaimed outsider actually is to the series as a whole, Aaron and Guera are once again content to have him play a small but very interesting role in the plot.

Even the traditionally stunted to the side character of Shunka keeps playing his veteran bodyguard role extremely well. In fact, he is even more convincing this time around, making the Aaron promised prospect of his own two-parter storyline seem very interesting in finally revealing another part of the series' whole. More importantly for "the Gnawing", Diesel gets a definite characterization, as the situation of his imprisonment is finally resolved. This subplot is not tied as heavily into the Red Crow scenario that fuels the center of the arc, but it ends up being very important as a character piece.

The lessons these people teach one another are universally harsh and non-forgiving. "Scalped" remains a comic where Red Crow takes a former new helicopter to hunt down a man, where a truck wouldn't do, where every truth is hard gained, and in order to get to a resolution a man has to repeatedly make a lot of missteps. This is what makes it realistic, and a pleasure to read, with characters behaving not in the soap-opera cliches, but by presenting actual emotions that make their tragic lives all the more believable.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Kick ass #1-8

"Kick ass" was originally solicited as a six issue creator owned mini-series by Marvel exclusive Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. Released almost to coincide with the movie adaptation of Millar's own "Wanted", it was solicited to present a similar take on the superhero genre, albeit grounded as a nominally realistic story. Published by "Icon", Marvel's author-friendly impint, the mini-series' release schedule was constantly interrupted by John Romita jr.' obligations as the penciller on the "Amazing Spider-Man", yet the news of a fast tracked production of the "Kick ass"' own movie adaptation still kept the book fresh in everyone's memory. It finally concluded almost two years after it started, transforming into not only a two-issues longer work, but one that is clearly marked as the first book in a series, with the creator now apparently repackaging the project as an ongoing commitment.

"Kick ass" starts with the flash-forward to the story's finale, yet the over the images of the over the top violence that have since become the book's signature, are quickly interrupted as the narrator feels the need to start the story at the beginning. Thus, the reader is transported into a much more sombering daily life of a comic-book fan, trying to escape his dreary high-school existence into the fantasy life inspired by Marvel and DC's superhero lines. Even in his eager beginnings, much of Millar's cruel and cynical writing persists, as it constantly teases the promise of the bigger and more catastrophical developments.

To get the idea of the creators' protagonist, as well as the creative and marketing approach at play, it should be noted that even the main character's name was auctioned for charity. The covers are likewise adorned with bold letters making impossible proclamations, which goes hand to hand with the frankness of the creative vision - Millar and Romita jr. are violent and persistent in winning over the audience traditionally averse to new superhero properties.

Similarly, Kick Ass keeps constantly name checking the superhero titles that inspired him, which at first seems harmless, but once again turns into a much more calculated and direct device. In striding to make a wider point about would-be heroes being one and all inspired by the mainstream superheroics, Millar actually sticks to the pattern established in his previous work. Despite no doubt deliberately mentioning movie-friendly well known superhero icons, he is once again shamelessly exploiting his core audience, just like he did with "Wanted".

By providing a grotesque version of the real life troubles he feels that his fans can identify with, Millar is both providing the shocks of R-rated action-movie entertainment, as well as a sly commentary meant to take up the space where the book's heart and meaning should reside. This is a particularly dubious tactic which could well be taken as an insult to his own audience, if he wasn't so smug and open about it. In the end, the morale of the story ends up being just manipulative enough to make the reader sit up and take notice in all the right places, but to do no other thinking post closing the book, except for remembering to follow Millar's next highly commercial creative endeavour.

By combining bad taste and idealism, Millar is purposefully calling out the confusion and anger in his readers, but it's largely unwarranted once one really gets down to the specifics. The reality of Kick Ass' world is defined by caricatures of American teenagers decades removed from the writer's own Scottish upbringing, that are once again subjected to constant referencing of current Internet perephernalia, in a desperate attempt to appear convincingly modern.

Of course, the chief device Millar employs in depicting the reality of the main character's coming of age relationship is defined by his homophobia. Once again, the writer shows no subtlety in teasing the reader with a longstanding paper-thin negative conception regarding the irony between the costumed heroes larger than life adventures and their stereotypical shy and socially awkward audience. This concept, more than anything else, serves to drive home the reality of Kick Ass' civilian life, as he is prone to repeating in endless narrative captions. Of course, in reality, this is just another attention grabber, along the likes of fake documentary footage that appeared on the Internet in order to promote the book. It is to Millar's testament that he manages to squeeze enough drama with this part of the plot to keep the reader caring, and tide him over to the next scene.

The best part of "Kick ass" still comes from this bitterly satirical portrayal of everyday life, as Millar somehow manages to keep to the reality of the world where no superpowers exist. Likewise, the parts where his protagonist openly reveals the need to get to the center of the attention along with his first steps in the world of costumed vigilantism by doing no more than trying to help out the tenants of a burning building and then hurry up home to his computer to see the message board reaction feel somewhat inviting in reaching the honest tone that Millar and Romita Jr. constantly strive for.

Yet, where it all gets problematic is when it comes to depicting the violence. From the start, the reader is made certain that this is a "mature-readers only" book as despite the profanity, the vulgarities depicted at every turn serve as a constant reminder. Bluntly, the Romita jr. depicted pages are regularly filled with the details of black-eyes and blood and snot exiting the characters' mouths, and that is only in the pages depicting "Kick ass"' quiet periods. The celebrated "Spider-Man" artist is routinely called forward to show gangs of thugs from all sizes and colors ganging up on the protagonist and his eventual associates, proceeding to try their best to beat him up to the point of death in the goriest and most bloody way.

If one believes that the scenes are taking place in what is almost the Punisher's semi-reality of New York city, which is what the artistic cues seem to point at, there is still little actual maturity behind the bloodshed. The gangsters' heads are split open like watermelons, while their guns seem constantly set to stun and injure, providing their lives to be as cheap and familiar as the well worn bad guy types they so strongly emulate. This is the shocking promised in the book's title and it just seems endless and repetitive, while nevertheless constantly kept in check by the video-game-like rules of such encounters. What little reality can be gleaned behind the purple tinged, indigo-like shadows falling across everything, comes from the aforementioned injuries. Still, their treatment and general presentation are once again in tune with the familiar superhero cliches of the vigilante needing to protect his identity even while suffering grievous injuries. Instead, they just read like a laundry list of almost every possible injury one can sustain in a fight, and never actually survive combined, much less get up and fight crime again.

The little nods to the protagonist building up the physique are quickly forgotten, while his actually mastering a particular fighting style is never really explored in the first place. His determination seems enough, as indicated by the image of a still growing-up teenager getting across the neighborhood in a wet suit, and trying his hardest at fighting with makeshift weapons. This is not because of the space taken by his relationships with school kids, which except for his love interest keep being left out in the backgrounds, in order to focus on the superhuman movement that springs along with Kick ass' step. And except for the nods toward the already existing portions of subculture exited to get dressed in garish costumes,this is where the book is actually at it's most unreal.

Because by jumping through the down time, Millar gives his protagonist no time to remain in the spotlight for long enough, before the make up of the rest of the so-called superhuman scene takes the stage. This is perhaps what lead to the series being extended beyond the original plan, as the writer and the artist try to take time to provide glimpse into the lives of their other costumed creations, seemingly inspired by Kick ass' actions in the first half of the book. It is not only that their character designs bring to mind much more familiar and generic forms of superheroes, it is that their arrival feels to soon. If Millar and Romita jr. indeed suddenly changed their plans and turn their concept into a series of mini series, then they still should have kept to their protagonist in this early, introductory phase. Perhaps they felt the need to keep up with the plot of the movie, and didn't want their original presentation to be seen as lagging behind the developments introduced in the cinematic version. In any event, the creators' experience helps them integrate the rest of the characters into the story on the plot level, leading to the proceedings taking a much larger scope, even than the flash-forward that starts the book out. Millar's constant referring to the next stage of Kick ass' superhero life also helps smoothen out the transition, along with the characters' cameos before they officially start teaming up with one another.

The book is thus transformed into a much larger and filled with the choreography that mimics that of the traditional superhero titles. Having debuted, Kick ass' imitators all have their own agendas, leading to the extended conclusion where they all set out against a clear villain. It goes without saying that these new superheroes are also much more gratious and offensive in what passes as a shorthand for their characterization.

Beyond their capacity for violence, Hit-Girl, Big Daddy and Red Mist come designed with their own sense of mystery and surprises, much of it forcefully tied into the book's thematic structure. A particular plot point regarding the origin of one of Kick ass' cohorts might have actually benefitted from the intermittent serialization, as it appears glaringly obvious when the mini-series is read as a whole. In any event, it is difficult to think that the book might have reached such an impossible overblown conclusion without their presence, so there's little sense in second guessing the creators' original intentions.

Instead, it's the page after page of bloodbath at the big showdown with the local gangsters that will stick to the reader, and decide on his or her eventual acceptance of the work as a whole. Millar and Romita jr. decide only to tie up some of the loose ends afterward, in a manner that is clearly not meant to be definitive. The book ends on a splash page directly teasing the plot of the second stage in the development of the concept, in a reasonably logical way. Before that happens, the movie adaptation theatrical debut will no doubt prove to be be critical to the concept, and it's eventual development by millar and Romita jr.

Still, despite "Kick ass" being a very visual comic book collaboration it's hard to shake the feeling that John Romita jr. is somewhat shunted off to the side, to make way for Millar's manipulations. It is his sure hand that renders all of these characters and scenes, and the veteran artist shows signs of improvement everywhere. Seeing his depictions of school life, gang-related violence, and the over the top superhero portions of the story, actually creates the story from start to finish. His clear layouts and the emotions he conveys in the cast, coupled with the writer's cynical delivery of the dialogue, really make a lot of the captions superficial.

Once again, it's hard not to imagine how the story would have looked like, had the creators not deemed it necessary to rush through the recovery scenes, before settling on the scenes involving the greater plot of superhumans versus a key mob figure. Letting Romita jr. render the miserable days the teenager wanting to be known as Kick ass recovers from his mistakes, instead of mostly being told about them in captions, would not really rob the series of it's action packed scenes, as there are more than enough of them that take center stage in the book's initial chapters.

Overall, it depends to be seen where the creators feel fit to next take the property's original comic book iteration. It is more than possible that they will continue to keep creating a guilty pleasue package tinged with bitter irony, or if they will employ a different form of sarcasm in the adventures of the somewhat older version of Kick ass. Hopefully, now that they've established their audience, and gauged out the shape of the project, they will settle into just creating a coherent story, despite probably keeping a healthy dose of controversial surprises. At this point, "Kick ass" is exactly the cross-media developed comics property that the industry hasn't seen since the 1980s, and will no doubt help secure Mark Millar's reputation as a talent capable of coming up with the high concept ideas of his own, and developing them in a very distinctive way with the help of some of the industry's most beloved superhero artists. After all, no less is to be expected from the man who markets his own book as the product of collaboration between the writer of "Civil war", and the artist of "World war Hulk", who never forgets just how to manipulate his initial audience.