Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wanda Gág’s picture books

Millions of Cats

This is probably Wanda Gág’s signature work. It's the book most often cited as an example of her work, at any rate.

Originally published in 1928, it won a Newbery Honor Award in 1929, which is of course awarded for distinguishing contribution to children’s literature. Newbery Awards are not often awarded to picture books, as the Caldecott Medal (first awarded about a decade after Millions of Cats saw print) is specifically devoted to picture books. (Gág would win a second Newbery in 1934 for ABC Bunny, discussed below; she also won two Caldecott Honor awards for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Nothing At All in 1939 and 1942, respectively).

Millions of Cats also established a format for Gág’s books that a few others would follow almost exactly, including the horizontal, landscape format in which images would sometimes snake across both open, facing pages in a spread, and the image itself winding and flowing across that space to simulate movement or simply a rolling landscape.

The story is a perfect little fairy tale, complete with a “Once upon a time” opening:

Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was. But they couldn’t be happy because they were so very lonely.
The very old woman decides that a cat is just what they need to feel less lonely, and so the very old man sets out to find her one (leading to one of the many two-page illustrations, showing the old man walking a long trail over hills and valley, a quilt pattern-like landscape below him, and a trail of puffy white clouds in a strip of black fleck-suggested sky above him.Finally, he comes to a hill that “was quite covered with cats,” leading to the first use of a rhythmic, song-like passage Gág returns to several times in the story: “Cats here, cats there, Cats and kittens everywhere, Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

The very old man sets about shopping for the prettiest cat, and just one he thinks he’s found it, he notices another one with some particularly pretty and unique aspect, and so he takes that one as well. Eventually, the millions and billions and trillions of cats go home with him.That is a lot of cats. Even for a cat person.

As you can probably guess, that many cats lead to some problems, particularly when they began to quarrel over who is the prettiest cat, which leads to an all-out cat war in which they apparently all eat one another (a rather grim detail perhaps, but one of the many markers of the story that indicate it was inspired by the märchen of Gág’s youth and old country, and that she would devote herself to translating and illustrating in her Tales From Grimm and More Tales From Grimm).

I won’t spoil what happens next, and I hope it’s not spoiling things too much to note that it ends happily ever after, although Gág chooses not to end it with those words, but instead with a final, novel repetition of the “millions and billions and trillions of” phrase.

The Funny Thing

Gág followed Millions of Cats with The Funny Thing, which is similarly formatted and similarly reads like a classic fairy tale, albeit a very idiosyncratic one.

The protagonist isn’t the title character, but Bobo, “the good little man of the mountains.” He lives in a cave, and sets out food for the birds and animals, specific to their tastes: nut cakes for the squirrels, seed pudding for the birds, cabbage salads for rabbits and so on.Then the title character arrives and complicates Bobo’s system. The Funny Thing, which looks “something like a dog and also a little like a giraffe,” and has a long tail and blue points along its back, and it isn’t any type of animal, but instead, it insists, an aminal.

And it is hungry.

It turns its nose at all of the treats in Bobo’s spread, in a series of lovely drawings in which the strange beast melodramatically refuses each with haughty posture and offended expressions, revealing what it most likes to eat: dolls.When Bobo objects to the eating of dolls by saying he would think it would make children very unhappy to have their dolls eaten.

“So it does,” said the Funny Thing, smiling pleasantly, “but very good they are—dolls.”

Bobo tries to come to terms with its diet, and tries to rationalize it, “perhaps you take only naughty children’s dolls,” Bobo asks, and the Funny Thing, replies, “No, I take them specially from good children.”

Unable to countenance a monster that eats only the dolls of especially good children, Bobo launches a plan, which involves inventing “jum-jills,”something he hopes will be even more delicious than the dolls of good children.

There’s much less action in this story than in most of Gág’s other picture books, even ABC Bunny, but the art is exceptionally lively, with the double-page spreads illustrations used to illustrate the twisty interior of Bobo’s deep but homey cave and a few images in which the illustrations seems as carefully constructed as they are drawn, such as the one near the front in which the various animal species come to enjoy their treats, and one near the end where a fire-brigade formation of little flying birds and The Funny Thing’s long tail form long, long lines twisting in opposite directions. In two sequences the picture-to-word ratio flip-flops dramatically, with a large illustration devoted to just a handful of spoken words of dialogue, such as when Bobo attempts to sell his aminal visitor on the virtues of his various animal treats, and another near the end in which The Funny Thing tries his first plate of jum-jills (I was so charmed by the story that I would attempt to come up with a recipe to make them, but cheese in one of the main ingredients, and thus jum-jills violate my strictly vegetarian diet).

The ABC Bunny

This 1933 picture book reveals the depth of talent in the Gág family, and that while eldest daughter Wanda Hazel was the one who grew up to be the most successful and famous, her own talents and interests were steeped in a particularly creative household.

Gág has written and drawn the book, and the title page reads “Hand Lettered By Howard Gág,” her younger brother, and the “ABC Song” that appears with notes and lyrics before and after the main text of the story, bears the notations “Music By Flavia Gág,” one of Wanda’s five younger sisters.

The song isn’t the one preschoolers learn to sing (I can’t read music anymore, but I noticed the lyrics could be sung to that tune, although I suppose it’s such a simple tune that anything can be sung to it), but is the story of a bunny and a little adventure he has. It’s the story that the book tells.

Each page features a big, gray-and-paper colored drawing which accounts for about half of the space on the page, given a generous border of white space above and to its sides. The bottom quarter or so of the page contains a large red capital letter (the only color in the book) and a phrase making some prominent use of the letter, and a part of the story.For example, the first spread features a close, focused drawing of an apple hanging heavily from the bough of a tree, and the text “A for Apple, big and red,” while the facing page shows a sleeping rabbit in a nest of grasses, the apple swaying in the bunny’s direction, with the words “B for Bunny snug a-bed.”

The story continues in such fashion, with the next spread showing an image of the rabbit jumping from bed as the apple falls to the ground (Gág drawing a sort of comet trail of white space around it to illustrate the motion of the fall) and the words “C for Crash! D for Dash!” and on the next page we see the bunny springing down a little lane, a pointing sign on a crooked post reading “ELSEWHERE,” while the text reads “E for Elsewhere in a flash.”

Along his journey, and the alphabet, he encounters various challenges and meets other animal characters, before finally arriving at his home town in a valley.

As for the more challenging letters, Q is for quail, X is “for exit—off, away! That’s enough for us today,” (the words stretched below images of a group of rabbits leaping into their holes), Y if for “You, take one last look (below an image of a child reading a book and using the Y of the word You as a book holder) and Z is for “Zero—close the book!”

Compared to some of her other books, the images in ABC Bunny are quite large (both in the publisher’s presentation—I’m looking at an edition published by Coward-McCann, Inc of New York from what seems to be 1977 or ‘78—and in relation to the amount of page-space devoted to words and white space on each page.The art, all gray and seemingly drawn with either pencil or fine charcoal, is rather dark, and the animal characters bear quite representational forms, with great attention paid to their fur and feathers, even if their eyes and gestures betray the animation of a human-like intelligences within them.

The settings are all quite covered in similarly rendered, realistic looking foliage, although in many cases the plants are applied with a decorator’s eye, like pencil-gray frosting flowers on an elaborate birthday cake of imagery.

Snippy and Snappy

This tale of two little field mice, brother and sister, is a 1931 book in Gág’s horizontal, landscape picture book format.

The two siblings are drawn almost identically, with only the frill on Snippy’s waistcoat distinguishing her from her brother Snappy. The pair “lived with their father and mother in a cozy nook in a hay field…Snippy and Snappy liked this big grassy hay field and played in it all day long.”On one day, the pair are out playing with a big ball of string or yarn that belongs to their mother, Mother Mouse. It’s human-sized, rather than mouse-sized, and is therefore quite large. They roll it that so far away that they eventually have to stop and take a nap, at which point a human child picks up the ball and wanders off with it.

They have no choice but to follow the child, and it leads them to a human home, which the mice have never visited, but only heard their dad, Father Mouse, talk about, whenever he would read aloud to them from his newspaper.

“This newspaper was small enough for a mouse to read,” Gág writes, “and it was called THE MOUSE PAPER.”

Our little heroes have some interesting adventures in the house, which is presented as especially mysterious and exotic, effectively enough that the everyday seems a bit more magical to the reader when filtered through the mice’s eyes (and, no doubt, the decades since the story was written).

They also encounter a quite grave danger to mice, and come very close to meeting their ends, but, so you don’t worry too much about their fates between now and the time you read the book for yourself, I will tell you this—they survive and live happily ever after. Actually, they “lived happily ever, ever, ever after,” as Gág writes, echoing a poetical use of “never never never never”, formatted in a little stairway of words, on the very last page of the book.

As you can see from the cover, the book features the same rolling landscapes that Millions of Cats did, and there is a bit of walking and traveling in it, usually over such little hills.

Gone Is Gone; or, The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework

The gender politics of this 1935 story might seem pretty out-of-date, as does the assumption that men do a certain kind of work and women do another kind of work, but do consider that non only was it published in 1935, it is, Gág wrote in a little introduction, “an old, old story which my grandmother told me when I was a little girl. When she was a little girl, her grandfather had told it to her, and when he was a little peasant boy in Bohemia, his mother had told it to him.”

The edition I’m looking at is a tiny, child’s-sized book, akin to the Beatrix Potter books I read when I was small, and still occasionally see old copies of in libraries. It’s about four-and-a-half-inches across, six-and-a-half-inches high, and a quarter of an inch thick, and the cover is golden yellow with orange and black, as most of the Gág books I find.

Also unlike some of the others in this little bibliography I’m compiling, it is not written in Gág signature, hand-written font, but in type.

The pictures are all quite small, and none sprawl from one page to the next, but are set purposefully and comfortably within single pages; sometimes filling them entirely, other times occupying part of the space on a page, which will otherwise be devoted to bearing the text of the story.

The man who wanted to do housework is Fritzl, a farmer and father. He is married to Liesi. They each work very, very hard, with Fritzl tending to the farming, while his wife cleaned, cooked and cared for the baby.

“They both worked hard, Fritzl always thought he worked hard,” Gág writes, and so one night when he dismisses her work with a “All you do is to putter an dpotter around the house a bit—surely there’ sn othing hard about such things,” Liesi suggests that the next day they trade duties.

Fritzl learns the hard way that housework actually is hard work, as little mistakes lead to big, spectacular disasters. Whenever something goes wrong, like the dog Spitz running away with the sausages when Fritzl turns away, he shrugs off the loss, saying “Na, na! What’s gone is gone.” That’s where the title comes from, and that’s what Fritzl says more than once throughout his disastrous day as a housekeeper. Gág’s art style is instantly recognizable, but looser and more exaggerated than in some of her other works, with the animal characters especially behaving in a somewhat cartoonish fashion. There’s an extremely interesting afterword about the story, which the title page says is “Retold” by the artist, and which her introduction says was passed down from generation to generation in her family.

According to Gág, “Gone is Gone” was her favorite märchen growing up, and she just assumed it was one of the tales the Grimms had collected. Later in her life, she would go on to translate and illustrate two collections of the Brothers Grimm’s stories, and in this afterward she notes, “I could hardly wait to come upon that old peasant fairy tale of my childhood. To my surprise and disappointment, it was not in Grimm at all.”

She had found a story sort of similar, and talked to other people who remember similar stories from their youth, but the version she grew up hearing wasn’t committed to paper yet, and so she “decided to make a little book of the story, consulting no other sources except one—my own memory of how the tale was told to me when I was a little girl.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Gág’s picture book version of the classic fairy tale came out the year after the Disney movie, a movie that was so popular that it can be kind of hard for those of us born into a post-Star Wars pop cultural landscape to even comprehend.

Gág’s Snow White must have proved quite a contrast with Disney’s though, as it follows the original so much more closely. In fact, the words of it are that of the original, albeit here translated by Gág herself. Certain elements seen in the movie remain here, but if you’ve only seen the movie, then this one might seem a bit more strange, as it reduces the roles of the dwarves, who are nameless and identical, and increases the role of the evil queen, who makes several magical attempts on Snow White’s life before succeeding with the poisoned apple.

It opens with the story of how Snow White’s mother conceived of her before physically conceiving her and how she got that name, before the bit with the mirror, the jealousy, the instructions to have Snow White killed, the dwarves, the witch-attacks and so on. Gág’s illustrations are all smallish, black-and-white, and charmingly simple. Only a few take advantage of the page to great effect—like an almost-full-page image of the Queen posed with a peacock before here mirror, or an actual full-page illustration of Snow running into the woods, watched by animals hidden among the plant-life—and the work is thus more that of an illustrated prose storybook, rather than a picture book of the sort we normally think of when we hear that word.

Among Gág’s particular design choices of note here are her quite child-like version of Snow White—who is short and plump and pre-pubescent looking compared to the Disney teenager and the adolescent Snow Whites who have followed—and her dwarves with long, white beards, erect, pointy caps and simle, matching peasant garb, all of whom more closely resemble the image most of us get when we hear the word “gnome” today, thanks in large part to Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet’s gnome book and lawn gnomes.

Who is Wanda Gág...?

If anyone ever asked me what I do for a living, the answer they would get would depend on the year in which they were asking me, as I’ve had a variety of different day jobs, the only constant during my career being that I write—although I’ve only had two jobs in which I made my entire living off of writing and writing-like activities, like editing. In general, I make part of my living off of my writing, and part of it doing something else.

If someone asked me what I do for a living today, the answer they would get is that I work in a public library, a job I love in a field I love. During the course of that job, books from every department of the library are constantly passing through my hands, and I keep a special look out for picture books that interest me personally as something I would like to read...or as something I think my nieces would like to read... or as something that I could write about on Every Day Is Like Wednesday, since picture books overlap with comics as two distinct media which nevertheless communicate through a combination of the written word and static drawings or images, printed on paper (Although that’s changing with comics now).

One day I noticed a big book entitled Nothing At All by Wanda Gág, which seemed to be about a puppy that was born invisible. Curious about such a strange, magical realist-like premise, I took it home to find out what it was all about (And, as it was about puppies, I knew my nieces would likely like to give it a look too).

I wrote about it here, but to say I was impressed would be an understatement. It was a little masterpiece of a book, and the jacket informed me that it was quite old, and that its author quite renowned in the world of children’s literature, despite my having made it to almost 35 without ever having heard of her.

I looked her up online, curious about what else she had done—perhaps I have read or heard of some of her work, and just didn’t remember at the moment—and to see what nationality she was, as Gág seemed such an unusual name.

As it turned out, I had made it to almost 35 without ever having read any of her books or even ever having heard of her. And “Gág” was a Bohemian name; her parents were artists who met in Germany. They went by “Gag,” but Wanda added the accent as an adult to avoid mispronunciation (“It should rhyme with jog, not bag please!” Wanda told her fellow New Yorkers after she moved there, according to the author’s note in the back of Deborah Kogan Ray’s picture book about Gág, Wanda Gág,: The Girl Who Lived to Draw).

The few details of the artist’s life that I had picked up doing just a cursory search online fascinated me.

As I said, she was Bohemian, her parents hailing from a place that has taken on a sort of magical quality, as it no longer even exists as a place. It’s not as fantastical as, say, Atlantis, but like Atlantis, it’s a place you can hear about today, but can’t visit.

She was the first of seven children.

She was born on the same day as me, only in 1893, and her childhood reminded me a bit of my eldest grandfather’s, although he would have been a boy just old enough to read by the time she was first publishing her children’s books (Which he wouldn’t have read or liked).

Her parents encouraged her and her siblings to be creative, although on his deathbed her father called the then fifteen-year-old Wanda to his side to deliver his very last words: “Was der Papa nicht thun konnt, muss die Wanda halt fertig machen” (“What Papa was unable to accomplish, Wanda will have to finish”).

Wanda and her family used to visit “The Grandma Folks,” her mother’s family, who lived on a small farm near an immigrant enclave fool of geese that resembled the old-world so much so—or at least the old world as Wanda would have understood it, having never been there—that visiting Goosetown was like visiting the setting of the märchen she was read and would then read.

As a teenager, she somehow managed to help her then quite sick mother keep the household together, raise the six younger children, attend school and make money by selling drawings and teaching art before she could go off to school. From her birthplace in New Ulm, Minnesota, she went to school in St. Paul, and then she moved to New York City.

Despite the constant hard work, of the sort that is difficult for an American born after World War II to even imagine, she still found time to work on her art—for pleasure and for commerce—at the ends of extremely long days.

And, most interestingly, she was seized with occasional “drawing fits,” during which she couldn’t help but draw and draw and draw.

I wanted to know even more about Wanda Gág.

I reserved every book in every library I had access to by and about her, and I’ve been reading and reading and reading.

I’m still reading, and I’m still learning about her. I’m not sure exactly why I find her so fascinating, beyond some of the dramatic reasons and coincidences and synchronicities I mentioned above, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with the knowledge I’m amassing, as an entire life, an artist’s entire output is such a very, very big thing.

I’ve certainly read everything I’ve could by particular writers before, but I don’t think I’ve tried to read so much about a particular writer before. Or anyone, really, save maybe Jesus, of whom there are so many things being written about, and The Mothman. (Although in the case of the former, he is more of a symbol and movement and cultural axis than an person-person with biographies and diaries to read and, in the case of the latter, his/its entire life is only about 13 months long.)

I’m still trying to figure out who exactly Wanda Gág is and what exactly I want to say about her and how (and why I want to say anything at all, and why I want to know anything at all), but as with certain other obsessions of mine, I’ll likely be doing some of that figuring out here on Every Day Is Like Wednesday.

I’ve been putting together a post of reviews of Gág’s various picture books that I plan to run later this week, but before I did so I wanted to offer a little bit of context. In the near future, I will also have a few posts about her Grimm collections, a few adaptations of her work by other artists, and a few children’s books that have been written about her, including the previously mentioned Kogan Ray book.


The above image of Gág is from the Minnesota Historical Society's collection, and was taken circa 1916-1917, when she was 23 or 24

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Discovered: New source of Bryan Lee O'Malley comics (Also, some Hope Larson comics)

Did you know that in August of 2009, 11 months before the highly anticipated release of Bryan Lee O'Malley's sixth and final Scott Pilgrim comic and a year before the film adaptation of his seriesScott Pilgrim Vs. The World debuted in theaters, Little, Brown and Company published a short story anthology featuring seven full-page, black and white comics drawn by O'Malley? (And seven comics drawn by Larson?)

I did not know this until just a few days ago, when I happened to flip through a copy of Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by two popular YA writers who have dabbled in comics: Holly Black, who has written a series of graphic novels entitled The Good Neighbors that were drawn by Ted Naifeh, and Cecil Castellucci, who wrote the Jim Rugg-drawn ogn The Plain Janes for the (too-)short-lived Minx imprint of DC Comics.

I'm a little confused and mildly annoyed that I did not know about this, as a fan of O'Malley's and Larson's work, and as someone intensely curious about what O'Malley would be doing next, after Scott Pilgrim ended. Did the comics blogosphere (including me; I was writing thrice-weekly link-blog posts for Blog@Newsarama back then) fall down on its job of reporting any and all new comics work from O'Malley? Or did people cover this, and I just tuned it out because it's a book primarily devoted to prose by prose authors?

Well if, like me, you did not know about the existence of this book and its comics content, and find that it is information you would like to have, allow me to inform you of it now: Geektastic features 14 pages worth of comics, drawn by O'Malley and Larson.

They are all so short that I don't want to scan and post any of them, so here's a simple sampling of some of the images.

First, O'Malley:

And here's some Larson:Neither of the two writer/artists wrote the comics that appear in here; Black and Castellucci are responsible for that part of equation, while O'Malley and Larson do the drawing.

I should also note that none of the comics are really that great either. They are all kind of silly and meant to be funny, but I personally didn't find myself rolling around on the floor while reading any of them. (Actually, the text beneath the Larson panel featuring the two monsters, pictured above, did make me smile).

After reading them, I also wasn't terribly sure if they all count as comics, exactly. They have panels, and contain both words and pictures, but they read a bit more like charts. Essentially they all seem like the sort of sidebar, infographic type features you might find in a magazine, with the subjects revealed in the title, and the panels devoted to listing the answers through a series of words and illustrations.

For example, "How Look Cool and Not Drool in Front of Your Favorite Author," "How to Cosplay with Common Household Objects," "What Kind of Geek Are You?" and so on.

I can't vouch for the prose contents at all. There are 14 stories in here, from very popular YA writers whose names I recognize but whose work I've never read, including Scott Westerfeld, Garth Nix, Lisa Yee, Barry Lyga, M.T. Anderson and Sara Zarr. The only one I've read so far was Black and Castellucci's "Once You're a Jedi, You're a Jedi All the Way," about a young Klingon cosplayer and a young Jedi cosplayer who hook up at a convention. It was rather amusing, but having never watched a single episode of any Star Trek ever*, I was acutely aware of the fact that I was not getting a lot of the jokes.

I might try a few more of the short stories when I get done with the other not-comics books I'm reading, but YA fiction, even YA short fiction, isn't really something I'm terribly interested in.

Certainly not as much as I'm interested in comics by O'Malley and Larson!

By the way, each story ends with a pixilated sprite portrait of the author, with a comic book dialogue bubble in which their bio appears. Here's what O'Malley and Larson look like:


Wait, I didn't want to print any whole comics, but this one is only one panel long, and I wanted to share it because it has naked elf girls, skulls, a bat and a 20-sided die, and is thus an all-around perfect piece of art:

*And I've never seen any episodes of Doctor Who either, although I can pick a Dalek out of a police line-up, if it ever comes to that. I am not a very good nerd, I know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Comic shop comics: Nov. 23

Aquaman #3 (DC Comics) Geoff Johns has started dropping more hints about Aquaman's new origins and future storylines, continuing to stage flashbacks (which get drawn with soft, feminine product commercial lighting), introducing a former colleague of Aquaman's late father, and a portentous line of dialogue regarding Aquaman's trident. Around these hints the story of Aquaman and Mera slaughtering the flesh-eating fish-people from beneath the ocean floor continues, as does Aquaman's struggle to earn the respect of surface-worlders, whose main experience with the superhero and Justice Leaguer seems to have been repeats of Super Friends broadcast into the DCU from Earth-Prime.

Portraying Aquaman and Mera as unlikeable assholes isn't a strategy I would have expected, but I have to admit it's kind of funny, and I'm enjoying the silliness of it. Here they are when a man whose help they are seeking opens the door to them:(The man apparently attempted to kill Aquaman at some point in the past, but yeesh; Aquaman's apparently trying to out-Namor Namor, and Mera's out-Naomring Aquaman's out-Namoring attempts!)

As someone who both noticed and was disappointed that the superheros are taking fewer prisoners than the demon armies of the dark god of evil in the new, "New 52" DCU, I was happy to see the issue at least ends with Aquaman debating whether he has a right to wipe out The Trench creatures. Mera, on the other hand, suggests genocide.

Captain America & Bucky #624 (Marvel Entertainment) It's the end of an era, as the final work of on this title from co-writer Mark Andreyko and artist Chris Samnee sees print; co-writer Ed Brubaker will be joined by new co-writer James Asmus and new artist Francesco Francavilla for next month's issue. And what a short era it was, too: despite the high number on the cover, this is actually only the fourth issue of Captain America & Bucky, as it inherited Captain America's numbering in one of those weird number schemes Marvel seems to delight in.

Samnee's presence was the main motivating factor for me in giving this book a try, and this issue offers another great example of why. The story is more or less a review of what long-time Cap readers probably remember from a few years back in Brubaker's run, when Bucky's survival to the modern day as a brainwashed Soviet super-soldier code-named Winter Soldier was revealed.

Samnee's solid, stunning, sexy and, um (what's another s-word...?) sophisticated art work renders any concerns about having been-here or read-this before superfluous. If some of the contents are familiar, or at least not new information, they at least look better (and more comic-booky) than they ever have before. The writers do provide a call-back to their first issue, so that the four issues of their run do form a decent, self-sufficient story of Bucky telling his life's story to a loved one, but it's ultimately how good that story looks and how well it reads visually that makes it worth reading.

Normally I would bail at this point, although Marvel's chosen another rather talented artist to take over for Samnee, so I think I'll stick around at least another issue to see what Francavilla will do with Bucky. I'm curious about where this title is going, though. Despite the title, the guy who gets top-billing doesn't appear at all in this issue, and if Captain America has his own book, and modern-day Bucky is going to be starring in the upcoming Winter Soldier monthly and C&B is jumping from the past setting into the present Marvel Universe, what's the point of the book, exactly...?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I suppose I might as well read Astonishing X-Men Vol. 5: Ghost Box

Having previously read the rest of Warren Ellis’ run on Astonishing X-Men (Astonishing X-Men Vol. 6: Exogenetic and Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis), I figured I might as well track down Astonishing X-Men Vol. 5: Ghost Box as well.

This was Ellis’ first arc on the series, following the four arcs/volumes by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday. For it, Ellis was teamed by Simone Bianchi.

Now, reading the series more or less backwards through the collections isn’t the way I’d recommend doing it, although each story arc is self-contained enough that it doesn’t matter overmuch. Reading them all now, and putting them in order in my memory, it’s clear Ellis was working through a series of big action plots stemming from the events of some of the mutant-centric events (House of M’s decimation of the homo superior species, the “Manifest Destiny”-branded move to the West Coast, first from San Francisco and then onto a little island apparently un-ironically called Utopia, etc). But, more importantly, while he was doing that, he had some broad characterizations of the main cast—the cast of Whedon and Cassaday’s run, minus Kitty Pryde and Colossus, plus Storm—and some ongoing conflicts that several of them would really wrestle with, including Cyclops’ struggle to be a Professor X-like leader during a time when a Magneto-like leader might be more successful, and Beast’s struggles to scientifically un-do what the Scarlet Witch magically did to mutants way back in House of M.

The plot in this storyline was a lot more complicated than those in some of the later volumes Ellis wrote, perhaps not necessarily in terms of a summary, but rather in terms of presentations.

That plot basically boils down to this: the mutant super-team stumbles upon a secret war between two factions of super-mutants that can’t possibly be of this universe (given what the smart mutant knows about science) and they must save the world from an overwhelming invasion force, discovering along the way that someone from their past is heavily involved.

But Ellis introduces it in a rather twisty and turny way, which makes the read surprising and engaging, at least when read in a trade collection. I imagine it just read boring when a reader had to way 30 day to 30 months between late installments.

When the San Francisco Police Department find an exceptionally exotic corpse, apparently killed in an exceptionally exotic manner, they call in the X-Men to consult, and they start following the clues, which takes them all around the world and fighting some mad-science monsters and invaders and encountering tons of Ellis-style super-science, while trading withering remarks with one another.

It’s essentially a perfect script for an X-comic.

I was exceptionally—or should I say X-ceptionally? Ha ha ha (NO. No I should not say that)—surprised by Bianchis’ artwork, which was, in terms of rendering, better-planned, better-thought-out and overall better drawn than much of what you might find on the super-comics shelves, more closely resembling a European album comic than Big Two artwork. Bianchi and Andrea Silvestri provide ink washes over the pencils, which no doubt adds to its painterly-like look, and Simone Peruzzi, Bianchi and three others all provide colors, although the three involved seem to be among Marvel’s better colorists.

Now, while Bianchi’s design and rendering skills are pretty incredible, I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind about the overall quality of his work after reading this one story. It’s not always clear what’s going on, and he makes extremely interesting choices, particularly in laying out his panels and depicting action (Near the climax, for example, the team splits into three sub-teams, and each fights a different threat; only the Wolverine/Armor fight scene is terrible legible, and that’s mostly because it simply involves a guy kneeing and stabbing another guy using his knife-fist, rather than gymnastics or lasers or super-powers).

But even if the flow of a page gets all-tangled up here or there, or if it’s impossible to understand why Bianchi chose to draw a page’s worth of action in the format he did, they are always interesting-looking pages to take in, consider and figure out.

I loved the way the characters looked, and I loved reading the art—even when I was trying to read it as much I was actually reading it, if that makes sense.

Let’s look at the images, shall we?

First, I wanted to draw special attention to Storm’s costuming:Bianchi does redesigns for all of the characters, some major and some extremely minor, and his Storm is perhaps the more radical one. As I mentioned of Phil Jimenez’s version of Storm in a letter volume of the series, it’s a combination of her original costume with her ‘90s embrace of the color white, but Bianchi adds a great deal of filigree, suggesting a sci-fi super-goddess and the Queen of a sort of African above-ground Atlantis like Wakanda.

The back of the book includes some design sketches, and I’ve just included The Storm one, as it offers the best view of the whole shebang. I should note that Bianchi’s drawing of it is the first time I ever understood what exactly that weird shape in Storm’s hair was really supposed to be.

I always thought it was some sort of huge goofy pick or headband, but now I see the strange shape is merely suspended around a ring that encircles the head, which makes more sense.

I was kind of alarmed by the first page of the book, which opened with a three-panel grid, the top one of which featured a panel approximating Armor’s Twitter account, and I worried that it would be a device that runs through the entire story. Luckily it didn’t, but those first few pages are awfully off-putting, no so much grids, as panels of various shapes stacked Tetrisly, even Dr. Mario-like on the white pages, with elements bleeding out of certain borders, and some black matting effects below certain panels.

The craziest thing about the page, however, in which we’re first introduced to Armor, Wolverine and Beast, is the Wolvie intro:I guess maybe I’m just not familiar enough with San Francisco to recognize what the hell is going on, but is Wolverine in the San Francisco Zoo or something? Or is there a place somewhere in which there’s a pagoda and some bison? And what’s up with that one laying on the ground? Is it dead? Do Buffalo sleep like that? Or did Wolverine kill it? Or just tip it, like rural teenagers might do to a cow?

(Help me, San Francisco-based comics retailer and writer-about-comics Brian Hibbs!)

As cool as it would be if Wolverine’s actual superhero costume was just a pair of black briefs, Bianchi’s redesign is actually a version of the yellow and blue scuba-diving suit with a cowl shaped like Wolverine’s hair-style.

The most noticeable modification is the holes for Wolverine’s ears, but what really struck me was the eyes:Sometimes Bianchi depicts them like Alex Ross draws Batman’s mask, as a sort of perfectly-fitted affair in which just enough material has been cut away to allow only the hero’s eye-balls and nothing else around them to be revealed.

Other times, it looks like maybe Wolvie has really wide eye-holes, and has simply painted the area around his eyes, although I can’t see any borders to suggest eye-holes.

So I don’t know exactly what’s up with Wolverine’s mask but, again, I like it despite being unclear about it. It’s a very expressive sort of depiction, in which the character is both wearing a mask and not wearing a mask at the same time, and Logan the person and Wolverine the superhero, the skin and the costume, the representation and the emotional content overlap.

One of the funnier parts of the book was probably unintentional. When the team gets the call to go consult on a crime scene, Cyclops announces “Street tactical gear,” and then we see them all dress like…this:Cyclops explains to Storm that the idea is to not have on superhero costumes, as cops associate costumes with vigilantes and, given the state of the Marvel Universe the last few years, people associate them with “government flunky or illegal combatant, which is one step away from being a flying terrorist.”

I don’t quite understand why their “street” clothes look so goddam garishly insane though. Only Wolverine seems to be dressed “normal.” Couldn’t they just wear, like, suits, or dress business casual? Why all the cargo pockets and vests and boots? Why does Emma Frost look like she’s wearing a white version of a Operation: Desert Storm uniform, with a choker, for some reason?

Let’s look at some of Bianchi’s interesting panel lay-outs, from two non-consecutive pages:Note the jumbled nature of the first page, and the apparently randomly shaped panels that it consists of.

I chose the bottom example because it's one of the many instances in the story where Bianchi embeds a panel within a figure. Here, there's a panel with Cyclops' face in it, within the borders of Cyclops hip. (If it weren't so late at night as I type this, I would pause for a few minutes to think how to set-up a "Cyclops is literally talking out of his own ass" joke at this point).

And here’s one of the previously mentioned unintelligible action scenes: It's probably even harder to make sense of out-of-context like this. It's Beast fighting a "chameleonic" mutant (And saying "RRAAAAHHRRR"). The bad guy is the thing that has the green netting all-over it, like an unfinished special effect from a few years ago. Beast apparently jumps into it and makes it explode somehow. Note all the little Beasts all over the page though. Generally, less-solid figures would show where the character was in the recent past, so the one saying "RRAAAAHHRRR" is the second most recent Beast, while the one kicking is the final or "present" Beast. The others are all older Beasts. I can't really follow the actions they are meant to depict though, not in any chronological, linear fashion. The lack of background sure doesn't help any, either.

I’d highly recommend the book if you like superhero comics, particularly ones featuring Marvel’s mutants. (Or if you have any curiosity about them; Ellis’ entire run seems to have a particularly low-threshold of X-knowledge and -appreciation necessary to enjoy, and to boast some fairly great artwork, the ugly coloring on Exogenetic aside).

After writing a few more paragraphs, doing a heck of a lot of scanning and looking more closely at all those pages, I’m still not sure how good Bianchi’s art is, but its definitely great, and fun to read and to look at.

Oh, it should also be noted that the collection features a few vignettes from a two-part miniseries Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes that Marvel published, apparently to keep some AXM content on shelves during delays. They are written by Ellis, and are kinda sorta related to the main story, but I had trouble making heads-or-tails of them, as they move in and out of different alternate realities. Clayton Crain, Kaare Andrews, Adi Granov and Alan Davis and Mark Farmer draw the various scenes, and those are about as different as any four art teams assembled can be. They’re each good in their own ways, the Andrews and Davis/Farmer ones especially so, but they all clash violently off one another, and I found the story-like sequence they form confusing to the point that trying to read it was practically upsetting.

I guess it is fun to see what Davis does with Bianchi’s redesigned Storm costume though…

In addition to writing great comics, short stories, novels, picture books and blog posts...

...Neil Gaiman also writes pretty great blurbs.

That's from the back cover of That Is All, the recently-released new prose book by John Hodgman, who pictured wearing a mustache and ascot, below Gaiman's blurb.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Human Torch just set the paper on fire, obviously.

Here's a fun holiday activity you can do with your friends while the comics blogosphere (or at least the U.S.-based portion of it), slacks off over the next few days.

Can you match the hand turkey to the Marvel hero who created it? You can find the, you probably don't need the answers. It's not that hard.




Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading!