Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

It's that time of year again, when the Gregorian Calendar is down to its last page, and we're faced with the prospect of having to get another replacement with cutsey cartoon characters, hunky supermodels or fuzzy animals gracing the months to come. Much like how Canadians are always caught flatfooted everytime it starts to snow in winter. We like to give ourselves a certain mind-blindness to the obvious, even as Global Warming has somehow convinced us that maybe this winter won’t be as bad as the last. And then the first flakes of snow starts to fall, and everybody’s caught in a traffic jam because we all decided to wait until the last minute to put on the snow chains of our cars, since we were confident of our driving ability to navigate through ice-covered roads. Right on cue, when we hit the tiniest lack of traction, we develop sea-legs, causing a traffic jam that goes on for miles.

Oh, and doing Christmas shopping too.

Likewise, the end of the year is also a time to get focused on our year-end cleaning up the house, to make room for all the relatives who’re going to show up for the New Years Party. One of Murphy’s Laws is “Any horizontal surface is soon pilled up”, and nowhere is that proven more often than our house. If there isn’t any platform that’s not the floor, chances are it’ll be swamped with newspapers, books, hastily written down notes and/or food. After 11 ½ months of procrastination, we’ve got to get some serious cleaning up done to fool people into thinking that we’re not slobs when nobody’s looking.

On the free time side, we're given the option to wallow in nostagia for a time when Christmas Specials reveal their heads for anybody who forgot them within the span of 11 months. Many of which were created decades ago, and haven't been up to snuff to the most recent attempts at producing quality holiday shows. Just compare the absymal 3D Scrooge movie to the woefully underappreciated and almost forgotten faithful adaption of a Christmas Carol. While Richard Williams gave the film its distinctive look, Chuck Jones was the executive producer, which is made even more impressive since it isn't animated in his house style of the Grinch or his WB shorts that made him famous. The fact that it has some disturbing scenes and runs for 25 minutes could explain why it isn't a Christmas staple after all these years. The length would cut into the remaining time needed for advertising, and isn't that what Christmas's all about?

Of all the comics I've talked about here, Duffy's the one that's gathered the most posthumous comments without any prompting on my own. So it seemed appropriate that I share one more relevant comic featuring him. I might do some more scans about him if interest continues to build up.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Moment of Silence

The new year hasn't even begun yet, and we've just recently lost one of the most prolific and energetic voices of the blogosphere, Dirk Deppey. Yesterday, during the usual linkfare, he announced that he would be posting his last update for the Comics Journal weblog.

I’ve been laid off from Fantagraphics. Wednesday will be my last day as The Comics Journal‘s newsblogger.

The amount of effort the man contributed to the comic company is incalculable. Like Stan Lee, Dirk Deppey put a human face on what was usually regarded a company made of pretentious comic reviewers who couldn't see the value of reading funny stuff for pure enjoyment alone. What Dirk provided was a more thoughtful approach that didn't reduce analysis of popular comics to being mainstream garbage, and a helpful understanding of the appeal of Manga. He was always a veritible fountain of comic links and commentary, and will be sorely missed.

Amazingly enough, he has no regrets in all the time and effort he's spent managing the Journalista website, much of it with no clothes on. He's even praised the founder Gary Groth for keeping him on as long as he did.

This hasn't been the first time that he took a break from weblogging. There was a time in 2004 when he didn't contribute any links in order to concentrate on being the editor for Fantagraphics, and the web was a sadder place for it. Fortunately for us, his abscense wasn't long in coming, and he eventually returned with a vengeance.

Some of the most memorable essays he wrote was his scathing rebuttal of Brian Hibb's analysis of the BookScan numbers compared to the Direct Market. Dirk had to refute Brian's claims that bookstores weren't as viable as comic book stores in terms of books sold. Eventually, he grew so disatisfied with having to create the same arguments over and over again that he decided to have one final essay on the topic, and would only reference it again when the need arose. He had better things to deal with.

Hints of fatigue was suggested back in April when he stopped posting links from the new scansdaily site. It was a pale shadow of the former site after it was shut down for copyright infringement, and was doing nothing more than naval-gazing at the decadance of S-hero comics, and Dirk grew discouraged enough to stop referencing it entirely. "Nope, I’m done with this. It’s getting too difficult to find anything that isn’t just a spoiler rundown for this week’s batch of superhero decadence. This feature is hereby retired."

One thing I was worried about was if the Fantagraphics Manga line would be able to continue without his guidance. Sure, Matt Thorn will keep translating the titles, since he's claimed that anybody else who'd do so would have to do it over his dead body. Dirk made a quick comment that the company would be able to manage on autopilot without him, but still, it’d be a real shame if the man who kept the secret of their upcoming licenses for almost four years wasn’t there to see his efforts bear fruit.

Even if the reviews of the Hagio titles are still being regulated to that same reviewer niche that’s reserved for art comix, I enjoy seeing critics trying to understand the appeal of old-school Shojo. If you’re paying more attention to finding hidden sublimal messages of the flowers in the background than the characters in the story, you’re missing the point of reading these comics. Hopefully, the upcoming Manga Wandering Son will have a more favorable response.

I was wondering what he was going to do from now on, since unlike Hollywood, there's no comics equivalent to Disneyworld. From his last update, he announced that he was going to take a two week well-deserved rest. I'd completely forgotten that sometimes the best vacation is the one where you do nothing at all. What he'll do after that is still up in the air for the forseeable future, though like some bloggers, I hope he won't limit himself to looking up and posting links. His greatest asset is his prolific essays and it'd be a shame to lose that.

So far, my greatest regret is that I won't be eligible for being a headline quote in the future. A comic blogger said that a comic blogger would only have arrived when Dirk quoted you word for word on his site. Now that Deppey's gone, I feel like I've missed the boat. On the plus(?) side, I'm in company with others who've also been passed over.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can you hear me now?

A week ago, at a dinner gettogether, we were talking about various subjects around the table, and somehow the conversation drifted to a serious medical condition my mother had when she was younger. She talked about how one day she was so sick that she could barely function. Her throat was so sore, she could barely croak out what she wanted on the phone.

Her condition was so destabilizing that she couldn't even contact her doctor properly. This was back before we had our family doctor, and she was seeing somebody else at the time. Her substitute doctor said she would call the pharmacy to send some medication. However, due to either forgetfulness or a misunderstanding, the meds were never delivered.

Finding his recommended doctor to be unreliable, my father decided to take matters in his own hands and brought her to the ER. It was a good thing he did, because there was a very real risk that she could've died from less attention, since the infection had spread from her throat down to her heart. As somebody who suffered a rare case of late-stage Kawasaki during my high-school years, I could certainly relate.

As par for the course, halfway through her story, rather than contemplate the mortality of never being born, I was already thinking of a similar comic I'd recently read. I wanted to show it to her, since it fit perfectly with what she told me. However, since I'd already returned the comic back to the library and it was closed, I had to make do with the next best choice, that being the For Better or for Worse strips shown here.

When the library opened again, I was able to find the relevant comic in question here:

Understanding what the long-winded characters are saying isn't important. It's how they say it. You just need to look at the pictures to understand what's going on here.

This is my talent. No matter what anybody is talking about, I'm somehow always able to dimly recall an obscure long-forgotten comic or funny paragraph I read ages ago. Too bad I can't include it on my resumé without fear of copyright infringement.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fables Copyright

With the release of the 100th issue of Fables, I decided it was time to reread the first 75 issues again to refresh my memory of some slight subplots that might've been forgotten or overlooked the first time around. Especially since my predictions for how that issue would turn out was far off the mark. For those of you still unaquainted with the latest Vertigo title, I'll give you the low-down. It's about a group of the most popular characters of fairy tales from your childhood; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, Little Boy Blue, the Frog Prince, etc. who're living in the "Real" world in order to escape from an all-conquoring nation taking over their lands who's only known as the Adversary. It starts off slow, but doesn't really begin to pick up steam until the 6th book.

However, while rereading that 6th book, I began to notice several panels seemed familiar. It started with the 36th cover issue. A seemingly innoculous patriotic recruitment cover from the Adversary. Pay attention to that center red goblin, because you're going to see him often.

This sort of thing could be considered a form of subliminal advertising. I know that every time I saw this Goblin's mug again, I could practically hear him bellowing out a "JOIN" whenever he appeared.

In addition to that particular Goblin who'd been reused several times throughout the series, I also noticed several poses that seemed unusually unorthodox. Look at how Bigby Wolf's posed in the first panel there - that's a very unusual stance to take, and it got my attention, since it "sounded" familiar, but I couldn't quite place it until I went through the other books to find anything that looked similar. So, not only is Bigby's bending position suitable for carrying a sword, it's also useful for carrying farming buckets, planting dynamite and shoveling snow.

This leads me to suggest that the original pose was a lunging one, and was only reused for this instance multiple times. With a stock position, the artist can reuse these styles over and over again without anyone being the wiser. There's only a finite number of ways the human body can contort itself, and artists can tire themselves out if they have to think up new ways to portray their works.

From there, it was a simpler matter to find reused faces, even if they were flipped or not. Frau Totenkinder, the Black Forest Witch of Gingerbread House fame is equally notorious for having limited facial expressions.

However, she pales in comparison to Pinocchio's unusual stiff upper lip. Say "Hi", Pinocchio.

The only things that change are his eyes and hair, but his face remains the same. Much like the Goblin whose tongue was of varying lengths with every appearance.

Another single-issue example is where Beauty is standing with a sour expression next to Beast who's jutting his shoulder out.

While there are occasional panels of Beauty & Beast moving around, they eventually revert back to their stock position while Prince Charming is the only one moving around the place. Eventually, Prince Charming gets tired of the two of them standing still and opts to push them apart, even while the Beast's still in a stiff position.

Even the feared Emperor of the Adversary isn't immune to this symptom.

I didn't include samples of seeing him from behind or front facial profiles, since those were easy enough to find for anyone paying attention. Here you can see how the Emperor only has his arm position changed. Otherwise, he's reduced to tight close-ups to avoid temptation from copying his whole body all over again.

However, the worst offender has to be Geppetto. The shadows are constantly casting an omnious look over half of his face so often that it looks like he's purposely putting himself in these overhead lighting places to look meanancing whenever possible.

It's not just limited to the main characters either. Secondary characters who make rare appearances can be shoddily reinserted into unnatural positions whenever possible. Compare the Djinn's swooping pose to his organizing several tanks in the second panel below:

On a lesser case, there's the helpful giant in Cloudland.

There are subtle differences in the giant's clothes and arm, but the same colour scheme and profile makes it look very similar.

Considering that most Vertigo titles are mercifully canceled around the #50-60 isue mark, with Sandman being a rare exception, ending around issue #75, and Hellblazer going 250+ issues strong, Fables is the most recent contendor to join a small number of adult fantasy comics that're enjoyed by multiple readers. So it's hardly surprising that other artists would be rotated out to give the main artist Mark Buckingham a rest. The day he collapses from exhaustion is the day Fables unique style ends. Sure, another artist could pick up the slack as so many others have done, but the overall tone won't feel the same. There was general disappointment when the cover artist, James Jean left after the 81st issue to pursue other interests, leaving the daunting task of summarizing the interior issue to João Ruas, who's done a pretty good job so far.

Mark Buckingham is hardly the only artist to reuse panels. Manga artists have used this photocopy shortcut too in order to keep up with their insane deadlines.

Even legendary creator Naoki Urasawa isn't immune to this symptom. He's not above reusing a face with intense close-ups in order to avoid redrawing the same guy over and over again.

At first glance, these panels below look almost identical, but there are subtle differences in the man's angle of glasses, overhead wrinkles and number of eyebrow strokes.

Now for the biggie - can you recognize which faces have been used in this cropped spread here?

If something isn't done sooner rather than later, we'll all be condemned to limited facial expressions in the future, just like everybody else. Any parting words on the repeated images, Pinocchio?

EDIT - Bigby Wolf takes over where Muddlecock left off and finds some more glaring examples both before and after these issues present.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Animal Crackers

Been awhile since I talked about Sunday comics, even though it's the theme of my blog. Figured I should return to that well again, before I diverge off into tangents about other comics.

I only had the strip Animal Crackers for a year before it was replaced by Doonesbury when it came back from its hiatus. For a long time, I thought Animal Crackers was just one of those strips that'd made their brief appearances before disappearing, much like so many other comic strips. So when I decided to check for any more information about the strip online, I was surprised to find out that it was a legacy strip with had a long history. It first made its debut in 1967, and was drawn by Rog Bollen until 1994, when it was overtaken by Fred Wagner.

Of the characters I was familiar with, the wiki page also described another character I'd never heard of, Lana, the supposed love interest of Lyle Lion. Until I read her entry, I wasn't even aware she existed. She only appeared in one Sunday strip, and wasn't even facing the camera in that one, which leads me to think that she wasn't a major player in the Sunday strips.

Other reoccurring characters were the highest-jumping peeper frog, a snake similar to BC's, and a sponge. When an inanimate piece of plant life gets more attention than a woman, you've got your priorities elsewhere.

For a jungle populated only by animals, it certainly got its fair share of tourists. This woman was the only human you were likely to see on a regular basis. Because of her size and sunglasses, I thought she was a Hollywood director at first.

There were also attempts to "educate" the audience in a manner that was eventually mastered and improved by The Far Side.

So why am I bothering to bring the memory of this strip back if it's not that good? For one thing, while the jokes may be rudimentary, the cartooning is still consistent throughout. Another plus is that the dialogue while simplistic, also feels natural. Also, I suspect that the crocodiles were a major influence for the crocs in Pearls Before Swine.

Part of the joy of reading old comics is finding how other comics have influenced others through subtle means. Sure it's easy to find a Calvin reference these days, but finding the bedrock for older strips done BC (Before Calvin) is a bigger challenge.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

License Request: Pauvre Lampil

With the inevietable success of Bakuman showing the workings of the Manga industry, it could also be the chance to translate a French comic about working in the BD industry.

Brian Michael Bendis and Robert Kirkman may be well renown for their impressive writing chops across several genres, but they haven't reached the heights of diversity that Raoul Cauvin's done. He's mostly written short page gags of all sorts involving nurses (Les Femmes en Blanc), cops (Agent 212), cupids (Cupidon), gravediggers (Pierre Tombal), psychaitrists (Les Psy), photographers (Les Paparazzi), and schoolchildren (Cedric). In addition, he's also written longer stories, such as American bodyguards during prohibtion (Sammy), and before that, got his major start by writing about two soldiers during the Civil War (Les Tuniques Bleues).

The Bluecoats, (also known as The Blue Tunics) were created to deal with the loss of Lucky Luke who left Spirou magazine to join Pilote magazine, who produced comics such as Asterix and Achille Talon. While basing a humourous comic on the Civil War seems like a risky proposition (especially with all the bad blood it brings up), Cauvin doesn't restrict himself on whether the war is justified or not. Like M*A*S*H, the series takes the theme of war as a backdrop for historical context. It focuses on two men in the army; Sergeant Cornelius M. Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch.

Blutch wants nothing more than to get out of the army and find ways to desert with minimal risk to his life, while Chesterfield sees his war position as a noble figure capable of great missions. Despite their conflicting viewpoints, they manage to remain close friends who've saved the other's lives multiple times. Even though Blutch rebels against authority, he won't hesitate to fight for his men, and while Chesterfield is proud of his war wounds, he's unnaturally clumsy and shortsighted.

It's this conflict of interest that manages to make the Bluecoats more interesting than your typical jingoistic army story. In fact, European comics have more western cowboy comics than Americans. It's rather ironic that foreign comics do a better job of retelling American history than they could do on their home soil.

When Louis Salvérius, the main artist for the Bluecoats suddenly died after completing the sixth book, he was replaced with another artist, Willy Lambil. Since then, he's drawn all the Bluecoat albums to date. He must be doing something right, since it's reached its 53rd volume with no sign of slowing down.

With his grey hair and mustache, Raoul Cauvin is like a French version of Stan Lee, only without the shameless huckerism the Marvel spokesman is well known for. And unlike Stan, Cauvin respects his artists and is able to back up his claims. He's recently made several cameos in his latest comics, but considering the man's output for over 40 years, it's well deserved.

But enough about the man behind the comic, how about the comic itself? Well, it's drawn by the same artist who did the Bluecoat series. Careful readers will recognize that Lampil's name is an obvious pseudonym for Willy Lambil. Strangely enough, while the main cartoon artist and writer's names are thinly veiled caricatures, the other cartoonists are referred to by name without hiding their identities.

My lack of knowledge of French artists probably reduces my ability to appreciate this spread, but that shouldn't detour anyone else from trying. Most people don't know what their favorite artists look like either. The series is also slightly autobiographical in nature, as it shows the shaky relationship between artist and writer, as evidenced by the interior cover image:

While Lampil might harbor some resentment towards his partner, it doesn't stop him from remaining good friends with him. Blutch and Chesterfield manage to remain on good terms despite having different ranks and conflict of interests.

The offending line while watching the Bugs Bunny cartoon was "Why can't you write something as funny as that?" Lampil's wife is saying something along the lines of, "We had a lovely time!"

For the most part, Lampil is prone to bouts of exasperation and depression. Despite being in a profession that most people think is fun, a lot of the cartooning process is hard work. Not to mention that for the most part, even in a country that respects the ninth art, there are some artists who are better admired than others. Below is a situation that any artist at a comic convention can easily identify with. Lampil is paired up with another artist at a bookstore to do signings for anyone who's interested in their latest album. In addition, the manager's done the courtesy of surrounding them with various flowers to make their table more attractive. So the two of them sit and wait... and wait... watching the various people go by, hardly casting them a glance... when one customer catches their eye.

"How much for that plant?"
"Excuse me?"

Once the florist's sold everything there is to offer, he asks the cartoonists if he wouldn't mind signing one of their albums for him? We don't get to see what they drew, but they obviously got their little revenge, since the clerks say there's no way they could show the books to their children.

In another example, Lampil wants nothing more than to paint in peace and quiet. Privacy that he gets none of, since everybody and their mother wants to give their comments about what he's doing wrong. Getting critical feedback with somebody over your shoulder is not the most productive creative process as any artist can tell you.

So, after making his complaints known and explaining his problem to Cauvin, he proposes an unique solution:

"Why don't you go paint in public?"
"Are you off your head? Why would I want to do that?"
"Why not? If you're going to be interrupted while trying to paint in private, then you should get some thick skin in the middle of a crowd of people. That way, you can tune out their comments and be able to work even in a war zone."
"Actually, that's not a bad idea!"
"What do you have to lose?"
"Allright then, I'll start painting for the world to see!"
"That's the spirit!"

So Lampil hesitantly goes out into town and plunks himself right into the busiest intersection...

And nobody bats an eye, thereby defeating the whole point of the exercise.

It doesn't only focus on Lampil, as we sometimes see things from the author's point of view. As it's well known, our writing process is greatly influenced by what happens to us in our day-to-day life.

"What're you up to?"
"Thinking up the next Bluecoats script!"
"So! What're we gonna do now?"
"Quiet! I'm thinking!"
"Yesss? Oh, helo Mr. Lampil! Yes, yes, he's here... / Dear! It's for you!"
"Yeah, hello?!"
"When are you going to get the script ready? I want to tackle the storyboards!"
"I was in the process of outlining the story when some idiot derailed my train of thought..."
"Oh, okay! I got it!"
"Hey! What am I doing here?"

An hour later, the cast has grown to include dozens of characters in search of a plot that has yet to reveal itself.

In addition, it's short - only seven volumes long. The references to the Bluecoats might be problematic, since they're not as well known as other European icons such as Asterix, Tintin, the Smurfs and Lucky Luke. Hopefully, if Cinebooks gets more successful with their comics line than other companies, we could see Lampil in the future.