Aetheric Mechancics

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Gianluca Pagliarani
Genre: Victorian steampunk detective science metafiction
Context: published in 2008 by Avatar; “a graphic novella” from their Apparat imprint

Aetheric Mechanics is one of three (I think) short books. How short? I don’t know. No page numbers. Without counting, I’d say 50 or pages. It’s a great format, and I’d love to be able to buy superhero stories in full chunks like this. (DC has tried it a couple times, of which I’m thankful, but it always seems to fizzle after a year or so.)

Pagliarani is not a name I recall seeing before, but if this was his first outing as a cartoonist, I hope he continues working in the field. There’s a texture to his work that reminds me a little bit of detailed linocut or an etching, which is great for the Victorian milieu. His faces emote well and are consistent across the whole book. This sounds like a weak compliment, but a lot of mainstream superhero artists basically rely on color to differentiate between one character and another. Pagliarani makes each character unique, and he does it in black and white.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the book. I usually don’t care about things like that, but with a book this short, plot is a pretty large part of the mix, so giving away the ending is like revealing the twist at the end of a Twilight Zone episode. I will say that, while the book starts off as a steampunk pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, it ends up being about how fiction can (and will) violently assert itself over real life.

Adventures in Oz

by Eric Shanower
Genre: all-ages fantasy
Context: published in a collected edition by IDW in 2006; originally published by First and Dark Horse from 1986-1993

This comic has page numbers! Looking back, the Act-I-Vate Primer had page numbers, too, but Abe Sapien and Actions Speak both lacked them. It’s hard for me to take a publisher serious if they don’t number the pages in their books. How are things supposed to be cited? It’s like they’re not willing to adhere to the dress code despite wanting to be taken seriously for so long.

Another important question: how am I supposed to know if I skipped a page? It’s easy enough in a book, as page turns are usually mid-sentence or even mid-word. However, in a printed comic, a page is a narrative unit. While things will occasionally cross or occur in the gulf between panels, I don’t recall ever seeing a comic story somehow cross the page turn. It’s the equivalent of having a paragraph finish on every page in a book. Given the fact that narrative jumps from page to page are pretty important in comics (i.e., page 12 ends on a cliffhanger of someone’s surprised look, page 13 cuts elsewhere), I’ve gotten accustomed to accepting that the start of a page might be in a place or time far separate from the action of the previous page. It makes it hard, then, when I skip a page, force the next page into my comprehension of the story, and don’t realize I missed a vital sequence until pages later.

In fact, awareness of the page as a unit is probably one of my prerequisites for thinking an artist is really, really great. Aragones and Mignola, (from my first two reviews) know how to do this. JH Williams does it. Jack Cole does it. Being able to stage a page clearly so that it means more than just a series of panels, being able to control the pacing and eye movement of the reader — this is the iron foundation of a cartoonist over which flash and style can be added.

End the ranting. Adventures in Oz is a really pretty book. It’s a collection of smaller graphic novels that Shanower’s produced over the years, so there are a number of complete stories. It has a “This book belongs to” plate at the beginning. If I were a kid who enjoyed Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this book would be perfect. The plot progressions and syntax aren’t challenging, but they’re not necessarily fluff, either. They occupy that sweet spot of truly all-ages.

The book is slightly oversized, which does a service to the art. I first encountered Shanower as an inker over Steve Rude (and maybe an artist of the backup stories?) in Nexus, where he was a perfect fit. Like Rude, Shanower walks the fine line between classic illustrator and quality storyteller: his realistic anatomy and technical linework don’t get in the way of the sense of motion that’s integral to comic storytelling.

This is helped by the colors. Oh, goodness, the colors. For the first two novellas, there are vibrant flat colors that match closely the nice work that First was doing at the time. The last three, though, have amazing watercolors that, to me, redefine what painted comics can be.

(‘Cause I hate painted comics. Alex Ross, while a fantastic draughtsman, will never be a comic artist in my mind. Similarly, comics with overly digital colors, with gradients and lens flares and muddy blurs that obscure the linework make my eyes glaze and dry.)

I don’t want to drag this out anymore, but I just want to say that the soft washes of the watercolor model shapes and show light while receding behind Shanower’s linework where harder paints or arbitrary digital fills would take over, respectively making the art more static or mechanical.

The Act-I-Vate Primer

Stories by: Michael Fiffe; Jim Dougan & Hyeondo Park; Simon Fraser; Roger Langridge; Tim Hamilton; Mike Cavallaro; Dean Haspiel; Maurice Fontenot; Joe Infurnari; Leland Purvis; Jennifer Hayden; Nick Bertozzi; Jon Leavitt & Molly Crabapple; Mike Dawson; Pedro Camargo; Ulises Farinas
Genre: webcomic anthology
Context: originally published by Act-I-Vate Comix; printed in 2009 by IDW; introduction by Warren Ellis

I’m never sure to rate anthologies. Is one good story enough to keep a booking hanging around my house? Should the stories be complete? (I mostly gave up on “sampler” anthologies awhile ago. It’s why I don’t have many of those Best American Comics collections.) Luckily, The Act-I-Vate Primer circumvents these problems. It has a number of complete stories. Almost all of them are at least interesting. A few of them are great.

Dean Haspiel is perfect as usual, offering up a red-soaked “Billy Dogma” story about a break-up so churning with tension and subtext that it threatens to destroy a city. It’s better than it sounds. It’s like some surreal myth boiled up in a bent spoon.

My other favorite is Ulises Farinas‘s “Motro.” I see his work more in magazines and on books covers these days, which is too bad (for me, but probably not for his bank account). His style is similar to Geoff Darrow or Seth Fisher (and maybe even Brandon Graham and James Stokoe): it’s cluttered, but the lines are clean. I’ve seen it called “fusion comics” (named after fusion cuisine) as it blends manga stylings with European sci-fi sensibilities like Valerian or Moebius’s work. Motro is about a nameless boy from a tribe of people living in an icy wasteland. There are some truly awesome drawings of a giant icy deer of death. I can’t explain it.

Anyway, the other stories are good, too. Nick Bertozzi has a tragic little fruit-themed story. “Vishnu & Vuclan” is a wordless short that, while not quite as good as Sergio Aragones, is still neat. Even my least favorite story, a seeming fragment about a Victorian gossip rag, is bolstered by awesome Molly Crabapple art. It was also my first exposure to Roger Langridge, one of the best cartoonists ever.

The Act-I-Vate website has all these stories (and more!) for free. Igor Kordey! (who gets a terrible rap in American comics) Scott Shaw! Way more. It’s worth the price of admission.

Actions Speak

by Sergio Aragones
Genre: wordless humor
Context: published in 2002 by Dark Horse; sequel to Louder Than Words

I don’t know how much I have to say about this book. Sergio Aragones has been working for years on MAD’s marginal doodles, drawing Groo the Wanderer, and more. While his these books aren’t my favorite work by him (which would be his autobiographical stories from Solo and Funnies), this book serves as an almost-perfect example of how to tell a story in pictures. Each page is a single gag done without any words. This sort of thing sounds really easy until you actually do it.

How do you lead the reader’s eye to the important parts of the action? Aragones fills his panels with figures and background, but he still manages to compose each drawing so that the important action or story beat is set off.

How do you show a character’s feelings? Drawing pitch-perfect expressions is pretty difficult, and it’s even harder when you don’t have any dialogue or lettering styles to bolster that expression.

What choices do you make in what exactly to show? Do you show the exact second of slapstick violence? The second after when someone is reeling? The second before, implying the impending humor?

Each page of this book contains hundreds of conscious choices that Aragones made, and there’s barely a bad choice among them. His panel shapes and layouts are varied and experimental while always remaining readable and ordered. Even if you don’t read humor comics, there’s a lot to get out of Aragones’s work.

If you still don’t believe that this book an impressive feat, try it for yourself. I read somewhere about an assignment given (School of Visual Arts? Center for Cartooning Studies? Kubert School?) where the class had to draw the story of the Tortoise and the Hare without any words. Plot it out in your mind. Where do you start? How do you lay out the rules of the race? How do you show motion?

Here’s an image search of pages from the book so that you can see what I’m raving about.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning

Writer: Mike Mignola
Artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Genre: occult adventure
Context: published in 2002 by Dark Horse; part of the Hellboy/BPRD line

I’ve had multiple friends who say they don’t read comics because they don’t know how. They don’t know whether to look at the pictures first or the words. They worry that they won’t know how to read the art or miss which parts are important.

I bring this up because Mignola starts The Drowning with a poem stretched across an opening fight scene. How much weight should the poem have in relation to the larger story? I think that, in my younger days, I would have read the poem as something akin to an opening voiceover monologue in a movie, reading carefully in order to extrapolate its relation to the book as a whole.

This time around, though, I treated it more like a soundtrack. The words, individually, just that important. What’s important about the poem in relation to the story are the broad images. Think of the music in Wes Anderson movies — how all that pop music, cultured and structured but with the earliest rumblings of cultural revolution reflects the purposeful dollhouse sets and repressed characters.

With “You Gentlemen of England” in The Drowning, it’s obviously about the tension between the dangers “out there” in context of the safety at home, but more than anything, it’s about the rhythm.

(Just now, looking up the full poem, I found out that it’s actually a song, so my “awesome” analysis of a poem as a song in a comic becomes less cool. But continuing…)

I’m not sure if Mignola lays out the pages before Alexander draws them, but there’s a rhythm to the pages that matches the books that Mignola draws himself, and the song matches that rhythm so well that you can almost here the record scratch as a line repeats itself three times, unfinished, before the final words fall at the end of the flashback. This effect is helped immensely by Clem Robins’s sound effects. Their clean, almost-hand-lettered style normally meshes quietly with Mignola’s art in Hellboy, but when juxtaposed with Alexander’s inky, murky art, it’s like a rock beat with an orchestra of strings. That’s a compliment.

An attempt to capture the rhythm of the book with my webcam. It would help if the captions were legible.

The art is great. Lots of ink brushed and dripped all over the place. It’s perfect for an aquatic character on an island adventure. The story works well. It’s Abe’s first mission without Hellboy, and things go pretty terrible for him. He learns lessons. You know how it goes.

The thing that I like most about the narrative is that there aren’t really any bad guys and no one really does anything right and the possible antagonists end up dealing with each other. While the story superficially breaks the rules I learned in high school about having the protagonist struggling and overcoming on his own, it ends up working for me.

Abe, despite being a fishman, is a pretty regular guy who ends up thinking a lot about things regular guys think: What do I want from my job? How will I handle failure? Is failure inevitable? What do I do about all the forces beyond my control? It’s blue collar existentialism by way of that fairy tale process where things happen according to an internal logic that remains forever just out of logical grasp.

Mignola’s ability to capture that dream-like sensibility, contrast it with the everyday bureaucracy and everyman sensibility, and craft it all into a cohesive whole is always pretty neat to me. The two attitudes interact, but the supernatural is never properly filed, numbered, and exposed. For every piece of information the bureau collects, more questions are raised (or more agents are lost). It’s a messy job.