In living color (or its absence).

*The Digest Format is Not a Magic Bullet Dept: The situation having been brought to my attention by Dan Coyle a few days ago, I decided to inspect the freshly reissued Pocket Edition collection of John Ney Rieber’s and Jae Lee’s 2003-2004 miniseries Transformers/G.I. Joe, from the now out-of-business Dreamwave Productions. Apparently Dreamwave really wanted to court the manga market with this thing, since Lee’s art does not grace the cover; instead, we get an anime-flavored image by Dan Norton and Don Figueroa, originally used as a holofoil variant for issue #1 of the miniseries (the two artists also provided character and mecha designs for use by Lee). Actually, Lee’s name doesn’t appear on the cover either, and neither does Rieber’s, or anyone’s for that matter - the license is very much put first in the curious consumer’s mind.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this $9.95 production is maybe worth buying for the crazy Jae Lee fans out there, but not for reading - actually, the book continually teeters on the edge of utter incomprehensibility. You see, it’s all in b&w, which isn’t to say that Lee’s formerly color art is printed in b&w, but that Lee’s inked art is provided in pre-color form. And it’s quite an educational object lesson in how much an artist like Lee calibrates his personal artistic contributions to the strengths of his colorist (June Chung, who retains her colorist credit here, presumably for the cover art) - get ready for a ton of white space, patiently waiting to be filled in by textures and effects. For example, check out this page (part of a great Jae Lee art gallery), offering comparisons between the colored and b&w versions of several early pages. The b&w art in this book is almost identical to what is seen here, save for the addition of sound effects and word balloons, and some details have been obliterated, perhaps due to the shrinking of the art down to digest size.

Note how on the uncolored page 1 there’s space left in panel 3 between the pieces of the shattered wall, the white matching the sky. In the colored version, that space is filled with a more definite explosion, which was barely visible before. In this double-page spread, note how difficult it initially is to tell that the Cobra soldier is picking up the orb in panel 1 and carrying it around - you really have to squint. The color version reveals that much of the storytelling ‘weight’ of this point has been left to the colorist, the orb’s shimmer absent from the b&w art but very pronounced (even dominant) in the color image. The entire splash is thusly changed - in b&w, it seems the Cobra soldier is running around in fear, looking for a way to escape, and cruelly blocked by the large Decepticon. In color, the Cobra soldier confronts the robot, the radiance of the orb acting as a shield - perhaps the robot is lashing out in futile anger. And page 3’s image of the Decpticon breaking free from the wall that holds him is remarkably difficult to suss out, until the pure white radiance of the color version is provided. The wall matches the energy matches the uniforms matches everything, because the application of color is anticipated.

Such color does not arrive in this book, which makes things especially fun in, say, panels where characters tumble into water, since Lee often does not provide differentiation between the sky and the sea save for the tiniest of air bubbles - and why should he? The color is going to handle that. I’m certain that if Lee was specifically working for b&w, his finished inks would look quite different, but here it can’t be denied that art looks simply unfinished. Because it’s not finished. Some art will suffer less from this than Lee’s, as some artists probably don’t anticipate the application of color in quite as comprehensive a way as Lee does. And many artists don’t work on quite as sweeping, operatic a scale as Lee, and might translate a lot better to the shrunken size of the digest form; coupled with the heavy shadows of his characters and the gobs of blinding white on his pages, as well as the scale he’s working on, shrinking Lee’s art here renders it very nearly incoherent, at least as a breezy read. You’ll have to examine many pages two or three times simply to discern what’s going on. And that’s no fun.

And yet - Lee fans just might want to buy this anyway, as it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes type look at production process of the book. Think of it as a comprehensive (albeit frustratingly shrunken) look at the artistic process rather than as a finished work; yeah, you’ll have to put up with the added sound effects, and dialogue balloons, but I bet there’ll be some interesting comparisons to make with your color trade version. Notice that I haven’t covered Rieber’s script at all, and I mean no disrespect by that - he’s done no favors here either, as difficult art damages any story. This isn’t a book to buy if you want a reading experience - by virtue of its halfway status, the attention can only be thrown upon the visuals.

Local #3 (of 12)

This is a nice issue. It seems that every new release in this series is determined to play around with a different approach to presentation - we had the repeating imagination structure of #1 and the long silent stretches of #2, and now we have a drifting mass of events floating from one member of a recently-disbanded musical quartet to the next, as all of them attempt to engage with a post-band life. And each of them illustrates a different facet of a frankly communal situation that all are submerged in, having returned to lovely Richmond, VA for a little settling down.

Involuntary narration is provided by the band’s singer/guitarist, who spends way too much of his day talking on the phone with a music journalist, who largely seems intent on relating everything going on now to the band’s past. Why did you leave Virginia? How was your sound changed? What do you think of your fans’ reactions? Writer Brian Wood quite nicely handles the tenor of the interview, the journalist adopting an apologetic stance for tough questions, gently flattering the subject to get him back on track (“Happy birthday.”) - I’ve listened to the recordings of interviews like this. The singer/guitarist thus represents the inescapable presence of what’s gone on before, (literally) stuck dealing with his and his bandmates’ own past accomplishments.

Elsewhere (as the narration continues), we have the group’s bassist/vocalist, who’s attempting to restart a relationship that got shunted aside for the sake of her art. We have the drummer, who’s dealing with the economic side of things, hawking off his old works at inflated prices (nominal series protagonist Megan makes a cameo here, and it’s nice to see that artist Ryan Kelly still has her wearing her apartment key, as covered in issue #2). And we have the (non-singing) guitarist, who’s playing a solo set at a small club. All the while, the conversational narration continues, sometimes complimenting what we see, and sometimes contrasting with it. It’s ultimately clear that the realities of the breakup situation and the ephemeral qualities of recognition are so great, that the only truly lasting pleasure comes from the act of creation itself, and only one band member is ultimately glimpsed in what can be read as a state of unrestricted happiness.

It’s a good, low-key little story, possessed with authenticity of theme, and willing to allow its themes to simmer. The space-spanning narrative structure allows for some nice local color, and Kelly continues to do a good job with the atmosphere. For bonuses, there’s the expected essays, two pages of designs and roughs, a pair of pin-ups by Richmond-connected guest artists Chris Pitzer and Rob G., and two pages of the new ‘My Local’ feature, in which readers can send in pictures and words about their own surrounding environs. Still a nice package.