The First Book of Allred

The Vault of Michael Allred #1 (of 4)

This is an imposing package to run into at your local comics shop: a 64-page, full-color, $6.99 pamphlet-format production, with another three installments promised. A cursory flip-through will give you an idea about whether you want it or not; this book is stuffed with material, images and text crammed into every nook and cranny in the manner of a personal scrapbook printed out for Direct Market distribution. Through it all are comments in bright red caption boxes, stamped atop shreds of detritus and tucked into the corners of sketches, a narrative seeking to make sense of the spread.

Clearly the titular “Zane” Michael “Dalton” D. “Doc” “Spike” Allred (as he signs the inside front cover, combining roughly every name and nickname of his career into one for the occasion), who also self-publishes the book through his AAA Pop Comics, is aware of what Direct Market denizens might demand; his introduction happily tackles several potential qualms directly, confessing that such a project might initially come off as madly self-indulgent, and immediately fessing up to the fact that many of the included text pieces are reproduced at a small size, and may be somewhat difficult to read. For the latter concern, Allred asserts that he wanted to save space for the art, unseen pieces most readers would be interested in, and that text readability necessarily had to take a hit. And as for the issue of self-indulgence:

I’m trying to provide the kind of access and insight that I would like to have of the artists who inspire and excite me. In fact, I’m hopeful that if this experiment is successful, then other artists and creators will be moved to do something similar.”

And truthfully, you didn’t even have to read that; your original, aforementioned cursory flip-through was no doubt powered by whether or not Allred ‘inspires and excites’ you, and your decision was likely already made in a second. With this volume of sheer miscellany, it’s more a matter of how the material satisfies rather than if it crosses the purchasing threshold of the devout Allred fan. And it satisfied this one, crowded presentation and the occasional misplaced caption box aside.

Actually, what becomes evident very early on in these heavy pages is how the term ‘Allred’ rarely refers to just Mike; it’s part and parcel you run into Laura Allred, Mike’s wife and creative partner for the totality of his career in comics. She began as the letterer on Mike’s work, but quickly moved into the role of colorist, and anyone who’s seen Mike’s lines colored by a different artist knows that Laura is an absolutely integral part of the Allred ‘look.’ The colorist’s role in comics is routinely a thankless one; so much of the most immediate visual impact of the page in color comics lands due to the hue of the art, which saturates and coats, and can lend original effects to guide or stay the eye, and leaves so much of the afterglow of the finished page in the mind’s recollection, yet the title ‘artist’ is often reserved exclusively for the person providing the line art, sometimes just the penciller. And when a colorist is performing on the level of Laura Allred, who has over the decades become one of the best in show, you can actually sense their own influence in the various works they touch, especially when they’ve developed as distinctive a visual signature as Allred has; even apart from Mike, Laura imbues line art with a sense of the visual quality often acknowledged as the mark of 'artist Michael Allred.'

What that means for this book is that on many pages it’s as much an overview of Laura’s progression as Mike’s, especially when those pages indulge in a bit of time-travel collaboration, with Laura 2006 coloring heretofore unseen bits of work by Mike 1986 (or so). Old prospective comics covers (and an entire six-page Grendel story Mike put together following a call for submissions) are newly colored, “to help enhance your enjoyment and help hide my embarrassment” as Mike writes. It’s a strange effect, seeing these uncertain early efforts so expertly colored that they become unstuck in time, certainly different in tone then the other pieces of early art that bedeck these pages. Frankly, they possess an identity all their own now - it’s a little object lesson in the colorist’s art, which is capable of rendering otherwise fledgling efforts striking.

But Mike’s opening comments about the importance of the art aside, there’s actually quite a lot of text in this book, much of it small and slightly fuzzy to my eye; it seems that the Allreds have collected virtually every review, interview, or mention their work has ever attracted, and many of them are included, apparently scanned from printed copy. I think it’s well worth pressing your nose against the book to read all of this stuff, as it provides a wealth of off-hand comics history that’s sure to entertain both those reading comics between 1986 and 1994 and folks who weren’t around for much of the scene. An anecdotal history to be sure; an archeology of comments. Thrill to a local newspaper patiently explaining to its readers the wild notion of a single person both writing and drawing a comic! Enjoy your view of the Eisner and Harvey ballots from selected years (amusingly, whoever supplied one of the Harvey ballots had marked in their choices, preferring Julie Doucet to Mike and Hate to Graphique Musique)! Reminisce about the other comics that inevitably get showcased alongside Allred’s work once Madman hits it relatively big (ooooh, Punisher 2099 cover feature!).

Indeed, Mike’s very presentation of all these articles is informative as to the growth of attention surrounding a new and increasingly ’hot’ artist; the book proceeds in mainly chronological order, so the reader’s experience moves gradually from newspaper clippings to order sheets to ads and selected reviews to a deluge of attention once Madman hits the stands. A deluge of positive attention, rave upon rave upon rave, at least until the wave crashes mightily against Rich Kreiner’s often forcefully critical analysis of Allred’s body of work thus far in The Comics Journal #164, the same issue that sported Allred’s big cover interview. Both pieces are included in their glistening entirety; I’d actually managed to hear of Kreiner’s piece before (I think Dave Sim mentioned it in some anecdote somewhere), and it was interesting to see its effect here. It’s both not nearly as negative as I’d been led to expect, yet bracingly sharp for its positioning at the end of a long line of short blasts of hype and praise from so many other segments of the industry (it very nearly concludes this issue, which is fitting). And as with so much else in this book, I expect Allred is aware of it all, cheerfully admitting that he agrees with “virtually every word” of the critique today, though he still bristles at the suggestion that DC might have deployed an uncredited inker to bolster the lines in some of his Vertigo work. And it goes without saying that the Journal’s interview is by a wide margin the most revealing of any text piece in the book; it says so much about Allred’s early life, there’s hardly a need for those new red caption boxes to fill in many blanks.

Sometimes the scraps in the book speak for themselves. It was good to have them put together, and it's worth reading through for fans, not that I need to tell them.