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Itís A Good Column, If Youíre Done Tweakiní
#Whatever: The past month, for me, has been full of good reading. Not March releases, per se, but just whatever Iíve bought and read lately, quite a few of the titles being older graphic novels Iíd been meaning to read for some time. For Seth and Chester Brown, Iíve worked backwards, reading Clyde Fans Book One and Louis Riel first, then being impressed enough to get some of their other work. Project: Superior I received as a review copy, having requested it, and Iím glad I did.
Itís A Good Life, If You Donít Weaken is Sethís only complete graphic novel, a fascinating, personally open, but structurally restrained glimpse into the cartoonistís obsessions and failings and how they both intertwine. Seth doesnít show us much about his working method here, but he does show his family dynamic, his friendship with fellow Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown, his commitment issues, and his obsessive nature. The obsession here is to find out more about Kalo, a cartoonist whose work he discovers in an old issue of The New Yorker. Over the course of the book, Seth tracks down more of his work, and finally the late Kaloís daughter, but the book is less concerned with the ďquestĒ aspect of the story as it is with giving Seth space to reflect on what he finds missing or detestable in contemporary culture as opposed to that of the '30s and '40s, and what he finds missing or detestable in himself. Seth comes off as a bit of a womanizer, a snob, a fop, nostalgic to the point of isolation from most people, and one more concerned with a well-drawn gag than in opening himself up to loving someone. At one point, he tells Brown he envies him, because his past traumas hurt him ďin a good wayĒ, and anyone whoís read Brownís work might take issue with the solipsism in Sethís statement.
But thatís the thingóanything negative one takes away from this about Seth is exactly what Seth has intended. Heís obviously put a good deal of thought into his foibles, and while that hasnít eradicated them, at least he is able here to make art from them. Seth is careful, or indulgent, if one wants to see it that way, to balance the talkier scenes with stretches of tranquil, beautiful nature. It lets the reader consider the development of the story and the character of Seth as the story is happening, or at the very least it offers ample evidence to marvel at the confidence of his line. If the book was offered without words at all, it would be a worthwhile purchase; at it is, itís a confident, revealing work from a sensitive cartoonist not even at the peak of his powers yet. Drawn & Quarterly. $19.95
Bannock, Beans and Black Tea is an act of love from Seth to his father John Gallant, who authored these memoirs his son illustrates and edits. Sethís career is based on nostalgia, and instead of nostalgia for the style and quality of the 40s and 50s, here Seth seems nostalgic for the raw opportunity presented to his father as a child, the way a young, itinerant Canadian farmerís son could survive and succeed by sheer will and resilience.
Unfortunately, though, the above conclusion is mainly inferred, as the text is entirely the elder Gallantís, a handful of hard-bitten anecdotes from his Prince Edward Island childhood. But though itís clearly a terrifically tough youth, especially growing up with a father who substituted anger and daydreaming for hard work, Gallant is an average writer at best. His hatred of his father is the most interesting aspect, but with the reserve more typical of his generation, much of this is blunted, aside from a scathing, heart-rending chapter about how his fatherís laziness led to the death of his elder sister from whooping cough. Drawn & Quarterly. $19.95.
Seth the editor stumbles as well. Despite what he claims in his introduction as a decade of work on this project, combining similar stories told to him into one, settling on one ending when his fatherís imperfect memory supplied different ones each time the tale was told, the text is often redundant or in confusing order. A misadventure with Gallantís first automobile is followed later by the purchase of that automobile, for example. And as elegant as Sethís line is, itís not the most appropriate style for tales of Dickensian poverty. Faces arenít dirty, clothes look crisp and well-tailored, not at all like the refashioned burlap sacks described in the text. And the fact that Seth uses a font based on his handwriting rather than hand-lettering the book lends a small aspect of sterility to the work for the careful reader. An admirable, attractive, but ultimately frustrating book whose sentimental back-story doesnít translate into memorable art or memoir.
In My Darkest Hour by Wilfred Santiago is one of the big sleepers of 2004, an intensely realized personal crisis accessorized with just enough style and a touch of hope at the end to make it an actual story. Itís about a Chicago guy with a nothing job who is losing his patient girlfriend because of his lack of direction and self-control. He flirts too much, eats too much, uses drugs too muchÖheís a mess, but not without charm. Though Santiago mixes up his styles enough to suggest Sienkiewicz, McKean, and Ho Che Anderson, the shifts and abstractions only rarely detract from the searing character study, and often enhance it when the art reflects the characterís own desperation and self-loathing. I remember chunks of it still, and the rhythm of it, after reading it a month ago. A gem of a book. Fantagraphics Books. $14.95.
Same Old Story by Nathan Wiedemer and Steven Mangold is a charming self-published series with a few bugs to work out but plenty of promise. Itís a slice-of-life story of twentysomethings Nick, Nate, Gwen, their love triangle and romances with others. Wiedemer is more successful drawing Gwen, Nickís girlfriend Beth, and other female charactersóall fetching but sufficiently differentóthan he is drawing Nick and Nate, their designs a little too similar, as are their names. In fact, Nick and Nate are too much alike in these first three issues, both kind of mopey, heart-on-sleeve types, willing to open up about their romantic woes to female friends. Nate is maybe a little more melodramatic, but thatís not enough, nor are either particularly funny or interesting or sympathetic. I wrote most of an autobiographical novel about a time in my life when I went through a somewhat similar love triangle thing with a good friend, pretty much while it was happening, and it wasnít until years later did I have the distance to realize how similar, and thus less interesting, my character and my friendís character were in the book. I donít know if thatís the origin of the problem here, but the result is a situation reminiscent of a review I read of SIDEWAYS, which questioned why the vivacious women in the movie would want such losers as the two male leads. I wonder what Gwen sees in Nate.
On the plus side, Wiedemer does write the female characters pretty well, although he may have made a mistake in making the initially adversarial Beth and Gwen into friends with quite a bit of common ground. I donít think they should be enemies, but he should definitely play up their differences and fill in more of their characters. A couple other missteps that can and probably will be rectified with more experience are the vagueness of what these characters do for a living. At first, I thought Nate and Gwen worked in an anonymous office environment, not an elementary school, and Iím not sure if Nick is a writer, how they all know each other, what real effect military school had on Nick other than a fleeting mention about it from Beth, etc. And itís time to dispense with full pages, or two, devoted to characters having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or showering and getting dressed. If there isnít a really vital bit of characterization coming of this, drop it. As an elementary school teacher, itís not really appealing to portray Nate as a typical slacker whoíd rather sleep in than go work/teach/inspire. Overall, though, one doesnít normally write so much about a small-scale indie comic unless thereís a good deal of potential there for something really special. Iíd recommend checking out these first three issues and growing along with the creators. Blue Rose Studios. $2.00 ea.
Process Recess: The Art of James Jean is a slim hardcover art book, similar to the dimensions of a book of postcards. While thatís a unique design for an artbook, it ultimately diminishes the impact of the artwork inside, since in most caseís Jeanís sketchbooks are reduced to the size of an open billfold. This also makes it difficult to make out the copious notes Jean makes on each dayís painting, though many of the readable ones seem merely to be ďTo DoĒ lists, unavoidable reminders for an artist carried away in his work. Still, the evidence is undeniable that Jean is a true artist, not the average comic book scribbler who can draw hot chicks and muscled battlers. Those who know him from his somewhat surreal covers for Fables will find much to enjoy here, and in a more nuanced, less slick style than there, with many of the figures he draws having small limbs and large facial features. A definite sideshow feel to this work. But there are also tender portraits of Jeanís partner ďKĒ, most often in repose, the similarity of the sleeping poses speaking of the love in drawing this person rather than just the love of drawing. An oddity, this book, but a lovely one. AdHouse Books. $25.00
2000 Flushes, Humanoid Waste:
Here's the thing. DC entered into these relationships presumably to make some money and increase market share, right? 2000AD has been around for about 30 years, their flagship title available weekly for anyone in the U.S. who cares to order it. Humanoids has been in business about four years in the U.S., though many of their books, like The Incal have been around in some form for decades as well, even being published by Marvel/Epic in the '80s. So it's not like there wasn't some awareness of this material.
And it has never sold very well.
Judge Dredd has only had success when teamed with Batman in prior DC one-shots, and only when drawn by kewl artists like Simon Bisley used to be. Humanoids couldn't move The Metabarons even when super-hot Warren Ellis talked it up. These are just facts, not a statement on the quality of the work itself, much of which I happen to like a lot.
So, going into this, it would stand to reason that the DC decision makers would know these facts, and would have come up with a sensible marketing plan to somehow get readers interested in these properties, right? And it also stands to reason that DC would understand that such an enterprise would take some time to develop, and that the direct market -- already established as hostile to this material -- should not be the only market for this material. Still with me? Logical?
But, while I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of DC's marketing department, or how DC worked with 2000AD/Rebellion and Humanoids, it is pretty clear to me that little sense, creativity, or planning went into these launches. As with most new DC books, the 2000AD and Humanoids trade paperback reprints just seemed to be dumped on the market, at a rate of about four a month, each, for a total of eight. That's eight books a month, at an average price of about $15.00 -- a lot to throw at the average fan, or even the egalitarian fan looking for new things.
What would you do with the macho SF of 2000AD and the bizarro SF of Humanoids, if you were DC? What would make sense? I'm not a marketing guy, but I think common sense would suggest a kind of three-pronged marketing attack -- make the weaknesses into strengths; highlight the aspects of these books/characters that are similar to stuff that already sells for DC; and tie these characters to DC. Note: these spitball ideas are pretty much for the direct market, as I have no idea what goes into getting booksellers interested in ordering trades.
Weaknesses - Humanoids stuff is weird, dark and violent. Solicit it as such, "too dangerous" for the average fan. Challenge their manhood, essentially. You could do something similar with the 2000AD stuff as well, emphasizing the creepiness of Frazer Irving's rendition of Judge Death, the bad-assedness of Jock's take on Dredd. Emphasize the heady ideas of Humanoids with Ellis and Morrison quotes in house ads. Fans have been able to handle their ideas.
Accessibility - DC had something of the right idea by collecting the young Mark Millar's Red Razors, because though it's not one of his better books, he's a hot writer right now. But why not go farther, collecting Jock's Dredd stuff, since he's making a name for himself on The Losers? And stories like Caballistics, Inc. and 13 were very much in the spirit of Vertigo books, so why weren't they solicited to draw those kinds of comparisons? Why not previews of these in the backs of Vertigo and WildStorm books?
Tied Together - One thing that bugs me about DC's section of Previews is that the various imprints are so separate and ghettoized. If you didn't know anything about 2000AD or Humanoids, it was very easy to avoid them, or even skip over their minimal pages by accident. A better idea, I think, would be to front load the section with ads and full page previews for the big cool books, and not just the DC ones, but one from each imprint. How does the Millar fan know about Red Razors if there's no ad for it, just a small solicitation in an already cramped section? Why isn't there a mention of Geoff Johns' Humanoids graphic novel in the JSA, Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash solicitations?
In addition, and I know it's easy to say, I would have put more money into this venture. You have to spend some to make some, after all. I'm not talking about TV ads or anything, but why not a Vertigo: Winter's Edge type of low-cost sampler for these lines? I appreciate that the John Cassaday-drawn I Am Legion one-shot was affordable, but it was the first of a proposed graphic novel series that would have probably not continued with Cassaday art, and now it's canceled, and there was no promotion or awareness of it from Planetary or Astonishing X-Men fans. Just dumped on the marketplace.
That's really what it comes down to, an ill-considered, overly ambitious launch that expected consumers to embrace product they'd previously spurned, merely because now DC was kinda/sorta behind it. $15.00 for 150 pages of material as opposed to $15.00 for 50 is a smart move only if you can change people's perceptions that it's not three times more shit they didn't want in the first place. The lack of any new product, such as maybe a loss-leader collection of Metal Hurlant or 2000AD material from creators known to DC readers, or collections of recent, good material like the aforementioned Caballistics or 13, is a strong indication DC didn't have the faith in the material they should have. Maybe they thought the only work they had to do was repackage the books, which is a ludicrous thought given the reception the material received the first time. At any rate, it's a shame and a waste, and hopefully 2000AD and Humanoids can go on having learned some things, to find more success not splitting any money with DC.
You can find my cantankerous, baiting early rant on this topic at Cognitive Dissonance, and my apologies to poor Alex Segura, Jr. from The Great Curve for taking my shrapnel and Butterfly McQueen impressions.
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