Fragments of notions

*Tom Spurgeon, whose Comics Reporter site is one of my mandatory daily visits in our comics internet, has posted a short interview with Alan Buenaventura, head of Buenaventura Press, makers of high-quality prints, merchants of “Kramer’s Ergot 5”, and soon-to-be full-fledged comics publisher. Buenaventura had previously alluded to upcoming projects on the TCJ board, but now he’s made some more concrete announcements. Most exciting to me is the snapping up of Dan Zettwoch’s “Redbird” series for publication; you’ve heard me babbling about how good these books are back when I reviewed their minicomic incarnations, and I hope the Buenaventura release will be just as satisfying! This stuff is a bit farther off in the future though; up first around April 2005 will be “Spaniel Rage” by Vanessa Davis, the minicomic version of which has been sold out at the Catastrophe store for a while (there’s still time to get those Zettwoch books though), and a children‘s book by “Kramer‘s“ contributor Southern Salazar. The future will bring a collection of work from Elvis Studio, a Swiss art team who also popped up in the new “Kramer’s”, plus a Ron Rege Jr. collection and an art book, “Bloo Chip”, by Marc Bell (perhaps similar to his recent D&Q release “The Stacks”). That’s a lot of really exciting stuff; I’m pretty much guaranteed to pick up the Zettwoch, Rege, and Bell books, and that’s a damn good start for a new(ish) publisher.

Proof of Concept

This new book, a 134-page b&w production of AIT/Planet Lar, isn’t quite so much a collection of short stories as a link in a multi-media chain of communication between writer/publisher Larry Young and his readers. It originated as a contest held on Comic World News in which Young would present five short scripts (essentially fragments from thus far unproduced larger works) and readers would send in their art. The winning entries are presented in this book, linked together by a framing sequence featuring Young pitching ideas to a friend. Readers are now encouraged to choose their favorite of the five shorts, which might be expanded into a full-length book, should interest prove sufficient. Bits and pieces of the original contest can still be glimpsed here, although it appears that the non-winning entries have been taken down.

But I’m only going to examine “Proof of Concept” as a self-contained book, as that’s the way it’s going to appear to most readers glancing at it on the shelf. Other reviews have already covered the book’s educational aspect, the presentation of attractive pitches for prospective projects. But I think the way in which each story is presented in the context of the book itself is just as interesting, and maybe as educational. The book works best as tantalizing glimpse of possible projects, and the way in which these projects are presented is key to the book’s success as a cohesive work.

My favorite parts of this book are contained in the framing sequences, with art by Kieron Dwyer, depicting Young sitting in his office and chatting with his lawyer friend who makes his way through his building to his own office; the implication is that the entire conversation takes place over only a few minutes, although the reader gets to read Young‘s pitches is far greater detail. The art is attractive, although there’s only really four unique panels of Young (one of which is used only once), which are shuffled around throughout the book, with word balloons pasted over them in different positions. It distracted me for a bit, but it’s hardly a major impediment considering that ‘Larry Young sitting in his office’ doesn’t invite much visual dynamism anyway. So Young pitches ideas to the lawyer, which are then presented to us in the form of the winning art entries (even though the pitches themselves are not limited to comics form; Young and his friend sometimes seem to be visualizing the stories more as television series than comics, which are what we see, and presumably what we will get should any of these stories be selected for expansion). Young also has a tendency to write his friend as terribly impressed by all of these stories; nothing like having a character in the book itself react positively to a story to suggest to the reader that the story is indeed really good! The presentation of the 'pitch' vignettes is slightly different each time though, especially in how it interacts with the framing sequences.

Hemoglobin” is up first, a tale of the world’s final vampire being pursued by hunters, who have devoted their lives to the extinction of the vampire race and have nothing else to drive their lives; at least, this is what we‘re told by Young. The story as presented is a set-up to the prospective book‘s world, with minor characters dropping us exposition through their conversation, while the vampire is introduced. It‘s pure premise-building, with the character motivations left largely to Young‘s dialogue in the interstitials (amusingly, Young alludes to details on character costumes, as if his friend can ‘see’ the comics along with the reader, although he’s only talking on the phone). The art is by Damian Couceiro, some nice high-contrast style inkwork, with plenty of opaque black shadows and blinding skin whites. The plot itself wouldn’t seem particularly compelling to me if Young hadn’t provided a plan for the characters in the interstitials; as it is, the work that’s presented is enhanced in its impact by the promise of what’s to be done with it, the effect being similar to reading a creator’s interview online as accompanied by the first few pages of his or her latest work.

Contrast this to the next story, “Zombie Dinosaur”, which Young only provides the briefest introduction for, letting the story set itself up. Unlike the last entry, truly an excerpt, this is largely a self-contained story, with soldiers (one of them resembling Bruce Willis) flying helicopters into battle with the title beastie, and there’s a nice punch-line at the end. It reads like a cute little action short. After the story, Young then explains how the ending could be expanded upon into a larger work, although unlike the last story this one can exist as its own piece entirely divorced from the rest of the book, without losing much impact. The art, by Steven Sanders with Jeff Jones, is decent, if a little stiff. An opening bit on how characters can’t hear each other over the roaring of a helicopter is awkwardly presented, particularly since the characters don’t look to be shouting very hard even though their dialogue seems to suggest this, but once we get to the action it’s clearly presented, and the title monster looks pretty cool.

The next story, “The Camera”, is a departure in tone from the rest, featuring a bunch of kids who discover a hole hanging in the air, some sort of vortex to other parts of the world that bends space and time. They send in a camera on a string, and conduct other explorations. Unlike the other two stories, this one neither feels like a simple excerpt or a stand-alone story; it feels judiciously cut to give the reader a good overall feel of the total work, although in this case the overall work doesn’t really exist. In this way, I felt more eager to see the rest of the story, and I’d have to choose this one over the rest as the stories to expand into a full-length work. Paul Tucker’s art is very nice, with only the key details of his characters (all big-headed children) and backgrounds highlighted, and the rest of the environs only sketched in and washed over with ink. There’s also some fun use of perspective, with circular panels twirling around the page, much like the hole that the children themselves are exploring; it’s like we’re staring through our own little portal, which is basically true. Young offers very little explanation of the premise, which is fitting, as the story explains itself so well.

We run into a bit of a problem with the next story, “For the Time Being”. Young expends a larger than average amount of verbiage explaining the premise, that a time-traveling spaceship crew must chase their insane captain all throughout time to stop him from screwing up history, and then the story itself proceeds to give us exactly the same thing in comics form: the basic set-up. While in “Hemoglobin” the comic did much of the world-building and the interstitial filled in the motivations (which could only appear later in the story itself), here we only get the same information twice, which feels redundant on the page. Jeff Johns, also helping out on “Zombie Dinosaur“ if you recall, handles the art, which is prone to the same character stiffness that affected the earlier story. Johns is a bit more innovative with his overall look, heavy dark lines on white and gray, architecture occasionally abstracted, and shading reserved to his characters’ skin. But it can’t overcome the feeling of repetition; in effect, we’re simply hearing the same pitch twice, and who wants that?

Finally (or so it might seem) we have “Emancipating Lincoln”, a world-building set-up excerpt similar to “Hemoglobin”, exploring a strange world where everyone is a clone of Abraham Lincoln, including the hard-boiled detective narrator, who soon becomes caught up in the mystery of why everyone looks like that beloved President. It’s a fun idea, and John Flynn’s scratchy art serves it well, but Young even admits in the interstitial that it’d be problematic to execute, what with all of the characters looking the same. And yet, I don‘t know about that. I think some fun comments can be made about identity, and some nice tricks pulled with the art. There’s some real potential here.

And that appears to be the end of the contest, although we’re only on page 78 out of 134. Fortunately, my very favorite part of the book is about to arrive: Young finishes talking to his friend about the Lincoln story, and out of the blue his friend says “Whatever happened to that invisible girl story you did for Image?” And without further ado, we’re presented with the entirety of Young and artist John Heebink’s four-part “The Bod” story, originally serialized in “Double Image” issues #1-4 from 2001, taking up a good 50 pages! Why is this story here? It’s a largely complete work, with a definite development and ending. It’s much longer than any of the other stories. It was created years ago, rather than especially for this book. Judging from the arbitrary manner in which it’s inserted, I’d say it’s mostly here because it’s Larry Young’s book and, well, Larry Young will put whatever he damn well wants in it. And I like that spirit. I didn’t like the story though. It’s cleverly constructed, with each of the four parts covering an era in the career of an invisible woman trying to make it in Hollywood. There’s even a good thematic premise: the young lady in question used to get attention only through her looks, and now she’s ironically given attention through her literal lack of appearance. But the story is too scattershot, spending way too much space riffing on circa-2001 pop culture institutions, like Judge Judy and Jerry Springer. Actually, did once-popular stars ever appear on syndicated shows like that, right next to non-famous folk? And wouldn’t a literally transparent person find some utility in show business, even if they’re no longer popular as a performer? Even granting the invisible person premise, that’s stretching the concept a bit too far, and it‘s too unfocused to operate as a satisfying satire.

But it’s the mere presence of the story that makes me smile, another sign of Young‘s personal touch, which is all over this book. It’s inexpensive, at $12.95, and pretty entertaining as a single unit. The ‘pitches’ are mostly fun, and presented in an engaging way (well, four out of five times). While not everything is solid gold, there’s a palpable sense of affection flowing out of the book, something that’s not always easy to find in today’s comics. It really does act as a peek into its writer/publisher’s mind, even as it stands in a larger sense as a sign of his desire to interact with his fans, an interaction which will continue, as the book’s final page indicates, urging readers to e-mail Young with their choices for best story, everyone moving a little farther down the chain. Flip through it. See what you think.