Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned
by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice
Vertigo Comics 2007-2008

Hillary Brown: Oh, Vertigo. You may well be my favorite big-market imprint. Thanks for picking this out for us to read, Garrett, as I'm not sure I would have grabbed it otherwise. I know Brian Wood's rather well known for DMZ, but I haven't read any of that or, uh, any of his other stuff, nor do I know Davide Gianfelice, so I'm coming to this as I often do, stumbling around in the dark. I'd say Northlanders definitely has both strengths and flaws that are pretty obvious even to a novice like myself, though. Wood's writing (and he's known slightly more as an artist, right?) is decent at moving the plot along, and, like the TV series Rome, the story ends up examining power dynamics to some extent and taking some surprisingly pacifist (or, I dunno, utilitarian?) turns. The dialogue comes off a little contemporary in its phrasing at times, which is very difficult to avoid but should be, unless you're going to go all A Knight's Tale, and there's a little much in the way of buoyant, rosy-tipped boobies, but it's a pretty good, straightforward series. So what do you think of the book? And what do you think of my recently discovered Vertigo love? Do I just like sex and violence too much?

Garrett Martin: I like your Vertigo love. It's cute.

Northlanders is a weird one for me. I have the first ten or eleven issues, basically the first two arcs, and I like 'em well enough, but it's never been on my pull list, and I've never bought an issue the day of release. It's at the top of my list of shit to buy when NEC runs their seasonal half-off sale. That's true of a lot of Vertigo stuff, or at least of most of the Vertigo stuff that I do buy. I would've given Young Liars more than one issue to impress me if it was only $1.50. I probably even would've bought the Un-Men, whatever the hell that was. Unfortunately they order so few rack copies of Vertigo stuff that they almost always sell out before the sales. Anyway, I'll at least flip through the first issue of every book Vertigo puts out, and they're the only company or imprint I do that with.

But yes, Northlanders, and vikings, courtesy of Brian Wood and his significant internet presence. I haven't read much by him, just this and the first DMZ trade, but he's really good at establishing environments. In both books the settings are as vivid and important as any character, and isn't his comic Local fundamentally about the character's relationship to various towns? Northlanders has convinced me that the Orkneys must've been a pretty shitty archipelago back in extreme pre-9/11 days. So that's good, and so's the plot, with the intrigue and the morality and the boobs. Well, yeah, probably too many boobs, like you said. Definitely not a book you read on the train. So dude's definitely doing some things right, yeah?

Northlanders is still kind of off-putting, though, and that anachronistic
dialogue is a big part of it. I understand why Wood made the decision to have the characters speak like this, and it could've been just as distracting (and potentially Mighty Thor-like) if he tried to approximate ancient foreign speech patterns, but that knowledge doesn't make the dialogue any less vexing. Am I being petty? Should one aspect of an otherwise high-quality (and oh yes beautifully illustrated) book substantially impact my opinion?

HB: You know, there are a lot of comics out there, and I don't think it's necessarily petty to want your experience to be as good as it can be. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy the best stuff, but whenever I read any of it, it comes flooding back and I think how much I want everything to feel the same way. So, yes, I think it's okay to be annoyed with flaws. It doesn't mean throwing the whole book out the window. It just means that something that might otherwise be five stars can be docked to four. It's like Andie MacDowell's presence in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. She doesn't ruin the whole movie, but she's kind of like a fairly noticeable pimple on its face. I know we might seem like we're too picky on here sometimes, but it's important to evaluate aesthetic things thoroughly.

Enough. Off the soapbox. I think you're right to point out Wood's ability to establish an environment. I've honestly never thought about the Vikings colonizing the northern British isles before. Even in my medieval lit class forever ago, when we talked about them raiding the monasteries in the area for gold and such, I didn't think about them staying, and they're not generally thought of in pop culture as an empire-driven people. So not only is it interesting to set a story in that place and time, but it's also educational in a really good and smart way. I could, in fact, have used even more background detail about the history stuff, especially as Wood doesn't call that much attention to it. It's just sort of presnt, and if you're interested in stuff like that, you look out for it.

So, I'm trying to think of another book set in a historical era that does dialogue well. How's Age of Bronze?

GM: Right, the history is there, but it's never thrust into your face. You'll frequently see Vertigo compared to HBO's original dramas in terms of quality (y'know, at least the good ones, from both companies), and Northlanders reminds me of Deadwood in how it uses history. Both series are complete fiction, but with a strong underpinning in legit facts. I'm pretty sure none of the characters in Northlanders were ever real people, unlike Al Swearengen, but Wood strives to be accurate on a more macro level. I know very little about this subject, but the presentation here feels believable. Only that pesky dialogue sticks out.

Have you read Age of Bronze? Great book. Greek literature and culture is such a foundational element of our own that it has to be easier to write a book like that in a way that feels conversational and natural for the time period without losing or overwhelming a contemporary reader. The dialogue there has never felt inappropriate to me.

What do you think of how Wood's structuring Northlanders? This first arc was followed up by a two-parter that took place in an entirely different year and location, which was then followed by another completely unrelated arc. Would you prefer a book that focused on one group of characters for its entire length, or a set-up like this?

HB: I haven't read Age of Bronze, but I do have it, and I think Deadwood is kind of a great thing to bring up in terms of its handling of dialogue. I don't know if Milch's take is historically accurate or not (there's a lot of controversy over this), but by god does it feel authentic. The answer to how to handle the issue is: be David Milch. Not so easy to achieve.

I'm glad you brought up the structure because it's something I really like and am intrigued by. I don't think Wood could have kept the story going were he just to focus on the one character, and the way one's interest is piqued by all the historical stuff would indeed lead a creator to continue in that direction. It's possible that it's just because I wasn't attached to any characters, but I'd be totally happy to move on and learn about something new but related. Eight issues is mostly enough for any one character/storyline, don't you think?

GM: I wouldn't say any amount of issues is necessarily enough for a character or a storyline. Ed Brubaker's first storyline on Captain America basically lasted for forty or so issues, and other than some wheel-spinning during crossovers it never felt bloated or stretched out. In this particular isntance eight issues are definitely enough, though. Maybe even too much?

Wood succeeeds more with Lindisfarne, the two-parter that followed Sven the Returned. It makes many of the same points, but more directly and concisely. Dean Ormston's art is also nice, although kinda no match for Gianfelice, another artist we've sorta short-changed on this here blog. I had some issues with Wood's writing, sure, but Gianfelice's art easily made up for whatever other problems I had. It fits the subject beautifully, very detailed and European in a way you don't usually find in mainstream American comics, even from Vertigo.

HB: Yeah. It probably could have been cut by an issue or two. Gianfelice does good hair, especially, which is kind of important with these dudes with all their braids and beards and such. I like his style mostly, and it's both detailed and (this is important) well-colored, without any of those gross-looking digital backgrounds or gradients, but I wouldn't put him in my absolute top tier of artists. Maybe it's that his people tend to be a little bit too attractive and not varied enough in body type? Or that he has little in the way of weirdness? It's rarely confusing, though, or poorly laid out, or any of the other problems that plague a lot of books. So props there.

Friday, February 20, 2009

more on the New York Comic Con

My recap of the NYCC is now up at Creative Loafing. Go take a look, if you'd like. Hopefully I'll transcribe an interview or two this weekend and post 'em over here. That'd be nice.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe
by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Oni Press 2009

Garrett Martin: Hey, here's the fifth Scott Pilgrim volume, and the first we've talked about. On the surface you'd probably think I love these books, as a comic about video games and indie-rock isn't just up, but basically is my alley. And yes, I do love them, almost unreservedly, but not because of their general concern with things I am obsessed with. Any one who tells a story that deals with dedicated subcultures has to be careful, as the vast majority of media depictions of them, whether its video games, comics, or obscure music, are off-key and horribly embarrassing to those who pursue them in real life. O'Malley, of course, gets it right, and has consistently gotten it right since the very first book. But these trappings are only valuable to the extent that they help the reader understand and relate to the characters, and if O'Malley wasn't so adept at subtle, believable, and genuinely poignant character development, then the Scott Pilgrim series would just be the shallow hipster fluff its critics accuse it of being. Or something. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe takes the series down a more serious road, focusing less on the fights and game references and more on the doubt and confusion that creeps in when you're in your mid-twenties and realize you don't know what the hell you're doing. But so, what did you think?

Hillary Brown: I was really nervous, but I also tried not to look at anything else before picking it up. I wanted to know as little as possible going in, and this is kind of a rare approach for me, one I only go about with something I truly appreciate and love. I remember that when Hal Hartley's movie Amateur was about to come out in theaters, I avoided all reviews and press coverage, to have a fresh experience. Ditto for Kill Bill, as much as possible. Sometimes you just want to communicate straight-up with the artist's brain, and I wanted the Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe experience to be as close to that as possible. So, yeah, I was really happy to discover that it rewarded my self-denial, and while I had heard "it's darker," it's not so much darker as to be depressing or unbelievable (you know, as realistic as a series about a guy who has to fight and defeat his girlfriend's seven evil ex-boyfriends, often through the use of combat styles that mirror those in video games, can be). It's true to the tone established so far, and while I suppose there's some more growth and sadness in this installment, it's to be expected, penultimate book as it is. Scott's always been kind of a dope, without O'Malley painting him unsympathetically--that is, sometimes there are things he should pick up on that he doesn't, and sometimes there are things that are just mysteries, things that are incredibly difficult to grasp and figure out what path to take with, and O'Malley knows just how to balance those, in much the same way that he knows how to incorporate pop-culture subcultures, as you point out. It's surprisingly delicate work, is what I usually end up thinking, even though it's also fun, fast, and goofy. I've had problems in some of the previous books figuring out what was going on, sometimes, or who a particular character was, but I didn't have any of that this time, and I don't know if I'm dumb and got smarter or O'Malley's smart and dumbed it down or if SP5 is just a little more straightforward.

GM: He definitely didn't dumb anything down, but it's true that this latest volume deemphasizes the action. Most of the fights occur off-page, or in the background, while O'Malley focuses on the supporting characters. I'd think that maybe makes the plot easier to understand, right? Do you sometimes have a problem comprehending action sequences in black-and-white? I guess most b&w comics don't really have action sequences. I know I had to get acclimated when I started reading Marvel Essentials and DC Showcases a few years ago. Of course O'Malley's art is less hampered by the lack of color, as its cleaner and less cluttered than Kirby, Ditko, or Infantino panels, which were laid out and drawn with the addition of color in mind. Um, okay.

What do you think is less realistic, a comic like Scott Pilgrim, in which people behave believably in a largely unrealistic world, or something like Speak of the Devil (or Kill Your Boyfriend), where characters in intentionally mundane and believable environments take extremely unlikely and unexpected turns?

HB: I don't think it's so much the fighting in the previous volume that I had trouble following--more like plot development. But maybe, as you point out, I had trouble with it because of the interfering fights. One of my favorite sections of SP5 is the fight scene at the party that takes place almost entirely in the background, while Kim and Ramona chat on the balcony and get drunk, which kind of exemplifies that the focus of this volume isn't on that kind of action. I don't think I generally have a problem with b/w action or b/w in general, except when it comes to getting characters mixed up because they look kind of similar and I don't have the handy shortcut of remembering, oh yeah, so-and-so's hair is red while this other person's is blond. But that's, you know, my prosopagnosia, and not a fault of the comic, I think. I'm also impatient and lazy, and I like to know who people are right away and am also not inclined to look it up if I don't. All my problems, not this book's. But #5 compensates better for my idiocy and laziness and impatience than some of the other volumes did, if that's a reasonable thing to say.

Okay, so, realism. You know, I consider it so rarely when assessing works and, honestly, if I'm thinking about how realistic something is or isn't, that usually means it's failing as a work of art in some way because it's failing to distract me from that concern. So I haven't thought about it much wrt SP, but I guess I do consider it more realistic in some ways than the two other examples you mention, mostly because the way Scott and his friends laze around, play video games, and kind of act like fuck-ups (but in a nice way) reminds me of people I know, whereas I don't know any psycho killers. I hope. I think part of the reason O'Malley's series has caught on is generational identification, or is that overreaching?

GM: No, that's true. O'Malley does a great job of writing characters that remind me of people I know without making it too Optic Nervy. Meaning it's still fun and breezy even when it's taking care of its dramatic business; it doesn't slip into navel-gazing. Not that the more serious elements in previous volumes felt dashed out or perfunctory, but O'Malley's never dwelled unreasonably on that side of things. It'd be very easy to reduce these characters to a grab-bag of hipster cliches, either as a parody or as a result of a creator trying too hard to make them seem "cool", but it's obvious that O'Malley knows people like this. Dude's well-versed in indie-rock, video games, and pre-responsibility early twentysomething livin'.

The flipside to that is not every reader realizes that Scott Pilgrim is kind of an asshole, I think. Sure, a totally unwitting asshole, and a guy full of good intentions, but a big theme of the series thus far has been Scott fucking people over without realizing it, which, y'know, is kind of assholish. I see people online (I know, I should never listen to people online) talk about how Pilgrim's the coolest guy ever, or whatever, and I'm pretty sure those people just don't get it. I don't want to boil it down to a standard boy-learns-responsibility, becomes-a-man deal, but that's sorta fundamentally what this series is about, right? And until Pilgrim reaches that endpoint, until he stops unintentionally dicking other people around, it'll be shortsighted to consider him a genuinely good or admirable person.

HB: Yes, that's exactly what the series is about, which is part of why it's good. It's an old theme, but learning not to be an asshole is a pretty important part of life, and O'Malley's presented it beautifully so far, without, indeed, preachiness or implying that you have to leave your sense of humor behind when you become an adult. I do get the impression both that there are people who don't think Scott is an asshole and that there are people who think he is, but that it's not intentional on O'Malley's part, and they're both wrong. And also, yeah, you're right that he's an asshole in not such a bad way. He needs to learn to treat other people with more respect, but his assholishness is totally identifiable with. Aren't we all self-absorbed? And I know I've met people a lot of times, sometimes, without remembering who they are, and I know it's not nice and so I vow to do better. It's a process that lasts a lifetime, this Golden Rule thing, and O'Malley's grasp of that--the way he creates these incredibly round and believable characters while not even making you realize what he's doing, half the time--is what makes the series better even than if it were just fun and breezy and accomplished at that. It's why people love it.


So one of the coolest things about UGA is the Jack Davis lecture, which has brought Ralph Steadman, Mike Luckovich, Peter deSeve, and Gary Baseman (among others) to campus to lecture. This year's guest was Sergio Aragones, who gave an entertaining but not hugely informative talk about his life and how he became a cartoonist (always wanted to be one, worked hard, got lucky, yadda yadda) and what some of those years at Mad were like (lots of trips to foreign countries--Sergio organized the one to Mexico), complete with stories about Bill Gaines. And all of that would have been great without the drawing, but the moment he got the overhead projector going and started taking ideas from the audience it turned super-awesome. I managed to get a little video, although it could be larger or better quality. You can see how assured his line is, and you should marvel, as well, at his construction of each drawing for an audience, waiting to draw the crucial part of the gag until the end so as to get the biggest laugh.

He also took Q&A, and that, to me, was about as inspiring as the demonstration. He said he draws every day and described his creative process: collecting ideas on a subject until he feels he has enough, then gathering his drawing materials, putting on a movie in the background that he's seen before, and drawing until he's in physical pain. He also took a question on the demise of paper comics, about which he doesn't seem particularly concerned. For an old guy, he's pretty with it when it comes to technology or at least open to being with it, and he seemed confident that comics would thrive in some form. He also expressed that although we may romanticize paper and ink, the generations to come won't, and this doesn't mean anything, really, when you come down to it. I thought it was a pretty refreshing point of view, and if I hadn't been starving and had somewhere to be, I would've hung out in the long line of people waiting to shake his hand and get something signed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

NYCC nonsense

I learned at least two things at the New York Comic Con this weekend:
1. make sure you actually take photos of people you interview;
2. make sure when you take photos, you're actually taking a photo, and not making a video.

I totally forgot to grab pictures of Fred Van Lente, Colleen Coover, or Chris Schweizer, all of whom graciously allowed me to waste their time with a few inane questions. The one creator I did try to photograph was a guy I didn't even interview, and instead of a photo it's a four second video with maybe half a second of Jeff Parker posing and then a three second tracking shot of my feet walking across a blue carpet. So a big win for professionalism this weekend, obviously. I'm just waiting on that call, New Yorker!

Anyway, yes, it was a great weekend, despite the tremendous foot-pain and my occasional incompetence. Everyone I met was awesome and almost unnecessarily polite, and thanks to the four folks named above for their time. We've got a new logo on the way, courtesy of Ms. Coover, and it looks amazing. Jeff Parker also did a sketch of Captain Marvel that'll pop up here later this week.

Best of all, though, I got to briefly meet Joe Simon before his spotlight panel. That was completely amazing, and more than made up for my fruitless search for copies of Prez. Before Mr. Simon entered the panel room he passed a completely oblivious twentysomething in the Torchwood panel line wearing a Captain America shirt that Simon almost definitely got paid nothing for. If I was making a documentary that shot would've made the cut.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

House of Mystery, vol. 1: Room and Boredom

House of Mystery, vol. 1: Room and Boredom
by Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham; main art by Luca Rossi with guest spots by Ross Campbell, Jill Thompson, Zachary Baldus, Steve Rolston, and Sean Murphy
Vertigo 2009

Hillary Brown: So we took a look at the first issue of House of Mystery back in May, and had fairly positive things to say, me a little more than you, because I'm some kind of Bill Willingham junkie, even what with all the hoo-ha that arose over his superhero books comments (to paraphrase: superheroes should be fine, upstanding men who defend the American way; which then people seemed to be massively annoyed at, even though, um, isn't that kind of how Grant Morrison writes Superman? anyhoo...), and I've continued to follow the book issue by issue. The first trade collection, which contains issues 1 through 5, provides a good opportunity to revisit things and see if the promise that was there panned out or not. I don't think there's any question that the art remains at an extremely high level through these five issues, a much higher level than almost any other book I can think of, including Willingham/Sturges's other productions, Fables and Jack of Fables. I've never heard of a single artist who's done work for House of Mystery prior to their appearing in its pages (and admittedly I'm not all that well versed), but by gosh they've selected some wonderful and diverse ones, from Jill Thompson's stunning watercolor work in issue #2 to Steve Rolston's candy-colored cartoony gore in issue #4. And Luca Rossi's pages in every issue are still beautiful, as are Sam Weber's darkly intense covers, which kind of combine gross and sexy on a regular basis. But enough gushing about the art. How's the story?

Garrett Martin: Disjointed, almost comically Vertigo-ish, and yet really not that bad. Right? The story-teller schtick is a fine way to bring in various top-notch artists, while also lightening Rossi's load; it's also, in these five issues at least, a big narrative diversion. Perhaps if they more closely echoed themes from the main story they wouldn't feel as out-of-place? The vignette you mention from #2, with the excellent Thompson art, is a good example; looks great, not necessarily awful on its own, but still a big old speed-bump in the on-going, overriding tale Sturges is trying to tell. Do you agree these asides could be more smoothly implemented?

HB: Yeah. I think that's a fair point. Basically, I'm still not sure where the main narrative is going, and I tend to think it's more forgettable than the interludes, which are my favorite parts of each book, but I'm glad it exists. It's kind of like the way really great TV shows, like Buffy managed to combine continuous narrative with stand-alone episodes, only it's more like you get a little stand-alone in the middle of everything else. It's possible I prefer them because they're so short (four to six pages) that they don't have time to run out of steam or exhaust their concepts, while the main narrative is a little more meandering and has to spend time on exposition. Or maybe it's that that main narrative is more philosophical. You're kind of right that they could be better integrated, but at the same time, I don't care all that much that they aren't. They're the parts I remember much more than the rest of it, even though they contain far less mystery.

I also like your business-related point about the presence of guests making Rossi able to get more books out. One of the most impressive things about HOM so far is that it's really maintained a pretty regular publishing schedule, and I think it's the kind of thing that could help get people into the book. I feel like it was yesterday that issue #1 came out, and now they're up to #10 already, as of tomorrow, which is enough for another trade. Good move, Vertigo/everyone involved.

So this is your first at-length experience with the Sturges-Willingham team and, indeed, with Willingham (not to minimize Matt Sturges; I think he's a really good writer on his own, but he doesn't segue as nicely into what I want to talk about), right? How does it color his statements on superhero books? Does it?

GM: I read the first three, maybe four trade of Fables, a couple years back. I eventually started to like it a lot; I meant to keep reading 'em, but just forgot to, or something. I also read the first year or so of Shadowpact, which Willingham wrote, and Sturges' recent issues of Blue Beetle. Never Jack of Fables, though; is that the only other thing they've cooperated on? Setting Fables aside, I definitely enjoy Sturges' superhero stuff more than Willingham's; Shadowpact was a drag, something I never would've read if the issues hadn't been super cheap. Shadowpact's setting, a bar for magic-users that exists between dimensional folds (or whatever the hell), reminds me of the House of Mystery a little bit, but only on the surface. Sturges' Blue Beetle has been really good, though, and a fine successor to John Rogers' great run. It's a shame the book's been cancelled. Like with a lot of folks who flit between Vertigo and DC or Marvel, though, it can be hard to compare the work. There are basically no similarities between House of Mystery and something like Blue Beetle, outside of both being comic books.

The whole hub-bub over Willingham's column is just goofy. On a fundamental level I basically agree with him, and don't see why there's any controversy; yes, superheroes should be good people! They should do the right thing! They can be flawed, have tragic pasts, whatever, but when you get down to it they are supposed to represent traditional notions of what's right and just. That doesn't mean Captain America or Superman should always be stooges for whoever happens to be in office. That's where I hop off of Willingham's boat, I guess.

Anyway, I don't see much of a connection between House of Mystery and what Willingham espouses in that column. As he states at the very beginning of that thing, not all comics are about superheroes, and obviously House of Mystery is one of those that doesn't. And I didn't notice anything particularly conservative or Limbaughian here, did you?

Despite complaining about the short stories breaking up the flow of the main narrative, I agree that the latter isn't too engrossing. The whole thing feels a little empty, like they're devoting too much time to what's basically a framing device, not leaving enough space for the stories they're framing to develop into anything all that interesting. Initially I thought those short stories were taking away from the book's main thrust; maybe it is the other way around?

HB: It's not conservative at all! That's why I find the hoo-ha weird. I mean, it's possible Willingham is some kind of secret NRA-nut, God-hates-fags, crazy, fascist effer, but it doesn't seem super likely, and it felt like a lot of the people getting bent out of shape about his comments hadn't actually read any of his stuff. Anyway... HOM is totally apolitical so far (other than its feminism, which seems present and smart).

As far as the main narrative versus the stories goes, I'm not sure what the balance should be. Part of me wants it just the way it is, with the main narrative given space to unfold slowly (but not too slowly) and the stories kept brief to maximize liveliness. Basically, I'm not annoyed enough yet with the former to abandon the book, and, in fact, I really need to pick up #6-10 to see how it develops. Maybe this was just a slightly clunky introduction to get all the characters established (sort of) and explain what's going on, and further issues will pick up a new and better story with the same folks and setting. I certainly have a lot of faith that it will. But even if I didn't, I'd probably keep reading it just for the interludes.

GM: Yeah, I'm interested in where the book is going. Maybe not enough to spend money on it, but I'd definitely borrow it or check it out from the library, or something.

So I know Willingham is only on the book for a short period, to help launch it; will Sturges be writing the entire thing at that point, both the main and back-up stories? If so, maybe the latter will be more consistently complementary to the former?

HB: Sturges took over exclusive writing duties with issue #8, so I presume it'll continue on that way. I guess he's able to handle writing at least three books simultaneously, so sales may be the only thing to interfere, unless he has a nervous breakdown. But I've been impressed with his multitasking abilities so far. As far as whether the stories will intertwine or grow closer in quality, I can't really venture a guess, but I do know he's done a great job with Jack of Fables, so it's not like I don't have confidence in him.