About to get free...

*Oh hey, remember long, long ago when there was word that a new series of hardcover color EC reprints was coming out, purportedly designed after the DC Archive Editions line?

The date is now officially October for the first release, the 212-page, $49.95 Weird Science Volume One, collecting issues #1-6, complete with all the original house ads, editorials, and letters. The coloring will apparently be completely redone, “based on the originals, but utilizing new methods of shading and texture to enhance and improve each story’s impact.” With a forward by George Lucas; gosh, I hope that’s not an ill omen regarding the updated visuals!

A new tome will appear every month, with Shock SuspensStories Volume One (forward by Steven Spielberg), Tales from the Crypt Volume One, and Two-Fisted Tales Volume One to follow most immediately.

*Truth in Advertising Dept: I’ve gotta hand it to Virgin Comics, they’ve gone that extra step beyond what’s typical in today’s comics world, and actually secured the services of a genuine director for the debut of their Director’s Cut line of books, launching with the John Woo-conceived Seven Brothers this Fall (it’s the only title in the line revealed thus far). And what’s more, said director is being refreshingly up-front about his role in the book’s nitty-gritty creation in the attendant press release - Woo happily admits to contributing “a seed of an idea I had” to be worked over by (actual) writer Garth Ennis. No interior artist has been yet announced, but Yoshitaka Amano(!!) is set for the covers; I can’t say I’d expected to see him teamed with Ennis in any capacity at any point, but life is full of surprises.

The book’s content will involve “famous Chinese folklore” in the context of “a modern, global story.” Having flipped through that Virgin Comics #0 (yes, I did giggle a bit) preview book a ways back, I’ll have to chalk this up as the first book in the line that I’m interested in.

The Escapists #1 (of 6)

One of my all-time favorite formal tricks pops up here - the old ‘vintage comics art with the word balloons filled with a separate continuous narration’ stunt, made immortal by Chris Ware in his 1991 contribution to RAW Vol. 2 #3, I Guess. As can be readily observed, Ware's piece is a fascinating volley of text/image dissonance - mixing a Golden Age-style superhero story with a melancholic autobiographical narrative - veering wildly from ironic commentary on the futile escapism of pop entertainment to affirmation of the same's power to quietly, vicariously relieve young concerns through the drive of spandex pageant. It's always been one of my favorites from among Ware's pieces - and created so early in his career! Such a simple exploitation of the comics form, and pulled off with such grace (I've no idea if Ware was the first to produce such a story, of course); I wouldn't want to see another piece just like it, but I'd be interested in other uses of similar techniques, the straight-up toppling of the most basic of sequential art expectations.

And so it appears here, in probably a more 'mainstream' context, though greatly simplified - and the final effect is educational as to how careful one (or two) must be in approaching such techniques. The Escapists is a new Dark Horse miniseries, set in the fictional universe of Michael Chabon's much-loved prose novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The main character is a young, eager comics fan by the name of Max, who also narrates. The use of the aforementioned technique appears in a three-page sequence illustrated by Eduardo Barreto (his only contribution to the issue), in which we see an 'authentic' Golden Age excerpt from the fiction-within-fiction exploits of The Escapist, comics hero and creation of Chabon's titular duo. All of the dialogue and sound effects, however, work to provide narration by Max, speaking of his interest in the character.

And it doesn't work very well at all.

While Ware's use of the same technique worked as a very nearly dizzy juggle of conflicted feelings toward the newsprint pop of his provided artwork, Barreto and writer Brian K. Vaughan approach their own piece in a far simpler manner. We're reading an Escapist comic, and the narration is telling us about an Escapist comic. The unseen narrator is affirmed by the work, and the art politely provides us with images of such - the wriggling off of chains, no less. There's bits of anger, words about an English teacher having never heard of this beloved former icon matched with an image of Our Hero socking a wicked woman across the kisser. There is very little to it beyond that, and the final effect is tinny, even cutesy - surprising to me initially, given my affection for the trick, but I ought to be aware that techniques may or may not work in different contexts, from different hands.

Also, in this book the technique is only used for three pages, while in Ware's piece it is the complete work. A 24-page comic must be evaluated on the might of its whole, though frankly such considerations don't do this book any favors. If I was to select any one word to summarize the feel of this issue, it'd have to be precious. I mean that in the 'obviously contrived to charm' sense. Loaded with perky characters and winking industry in-jokes and contrived 'quirky' situations, what we've got is half a watery sitcom pilot's worth of lite pathos and aggressive winsomeness, following dear Max as he loses both his parents, and cashes in his mom's insurance payout to buy the rights to the Escapist and start up a self-publishing concern. But not before he meets cute with a punky girl artist (in his abortive day job as an elevator repair man, since he loves to help people escape, you see! - don't worry, in case didn't get the joke on your own Vaughan explains it via narration too), who only reads indy books like "Sin City, Eightball, Love and Rockets, that kind of jazz." Such a list sort of throws the timeline of the story into question, though a LARPing joke suggests that we're probably looking at the 21st century, as does the mention of Bendis and Azzarello as (impliedly) comics big guns.

We add onto that Max's letterer friend, whose future role is suggested at first by mention of his passion for copying entire books by hand via his gifts for calligraphy - he's also a bit of a jock, who saved Max from bullies in school back in the day and now is caught up in a wacky scheme to drum up publicity for the new comic via costumed Escapist appearances. The stunned gleam in our girl artist's eyes suggest a possible love triangle in the future, as Max turns to the reader and grins "To be continued." If that's not enough self-referential stuff for you, there's also a page with Max drawn initially in bare pencils and gradually filled in, as he tells us about his ambitions to work in comics - as is obvious, his comics ambitions are what he's literally composed of.

Couple all of that with the above-detailed Barreto sequence, and the overall reading experience is too cute by half. More than half, probably. I can understand how the creative team behind this comic might be shooting to appeal to the same general public that enjoyed the Chabon book, keeping everything as basic as possible so as to ease readers into the art through the use of obvious visual tricks and well-worn storytelling devices, but I can only say such an attempt backfired quite badly for me. Nearly everything I can recall about this comic came off as either contrived, simplistic, or desperate to mug. I will say that primary artist Philip Bond contributes some attractive visuals and appealing designs, but it's awfully telling when reaching a back-up essay concerning the collecting of 'real' Escapist comics feels like a relief. I'm sure there's only the best of intentions behind this book, a single dollar's fee for its first issue, but even that seems a bit too much.