The Old Guard #1

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.
By Greg Rucka
Art: Leandro Fernández
Colors: Daniela Miwa
Letters: Jodi Wynne

The Old Guard introduces its familiar premise with the famous words once uttered by General Douglas MacArthur, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The comic takes only the first part of that sentence literally. AndromacheAndy” of Scythia and her comrades in arms Nicky, Joe, and Booker are immortal warriors. They don’t understand the underlying cause of their immortality. But they do not age. Knowing nothing else than how to fight, the quartet has participated in numerous battles, and have yet to die from their wounds. Rather than fading away, they’re imprisoned in a self-imposed hell they don’t seem to be capable, or all that interested, in escaping.

This latest cynical take on human nature from Greg Rucka begins with Andy engaging in sexual intercourse. This scene is quickly overwhelmed by a montage illustrating the many past occasions of Andy repeatedly fighting and fornicating through the centuries. But she constantly frets over two things: She fears about what could possibly terminate her immortality. But she’s already so beaten down by the cyclical nature of her existence that she craves an end to it. “So goddamn tired of life.” Andy intones. “Of going through the motions, of killing time.”

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.

It’s an efficient enough layout, if not the most compelling approach, from Leandro Fernández. The use of deep shadows and silhouettes accompanied by deep, flat tones by Daniela Miwa reminded me of the house style that would come to dominate the Vertigo imprint in the late 90s. In short, it’s a little muddy at times. Fernández is on shakier ground when it comes to character design. Andy’s appearance is fairly generic as an attractive brunette. Nicky, Joe, and Booker are somewhat nondescript. They’re almost background characters.

But Rucka dispenses with individual characterization and moves right into the A-plot. The setup is pretty current to the “War on Terror.” The four immortals are private contractors who seem to to be regularly sought after by western intelligence agencies for their services. The assignment they accept is reminiscent to the real world events involving the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls. And then there’s the intersecting B-plot, which involves a female soldier who is part of the US forces deployed in Afghanistan. It’s apparent from her actions that she’ll eventually run into Andy, probably in the next issue.

Needless to say, things go sideways for the immortals. And the issue’s cliffhanger suggests that they’ll be forced to serve at the behest of some shady organization in the near future. But if the basic theme is a little time-worn, the fantastic elements mixing with the present political context could prove to be intriguing.


WildC.A.T.s #1

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.
By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi
Inks: Scott Williams
Letters: Mike Heisler
Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon

This post is a continuation of an examination that began with Spawn #1.

Image Comics was founded on the conviction that Marvel Comics fans would follow their favorite artists into a new publishing house because they loved their talents more than they loved the properties they were working on. So confident were they that the Image founders initially rejected working with veteran writers, or be subjected to editorial oversight. Their collective stance even set off a mini-debate at the time on which was more important for creating a successful comic: art or writing? Sounds silly, given that Image is now partially known for writers like Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughan. But at least a few of the Image founders had reason to be cocky. For example, the art of Todd McFarlane raised the sales of The Amazing Spider-Man so dramatically Marvel established a second Spider-Man title in 1990 just to keep him from abandoning the character and the company. The first issue sold a breathtaking 2.5 million copies.

Jim Lee had an even more impressive track record. His work on Uncanny X-Men was so popular he was also given his own title in 1991 where he could exercise greater creative control. The first issue of X-Men sold a whopping 8.1 million copies, considered the best selling comic book of all time. His character designs were so influential in defining the look and feel of the X-Men franchise, they wouldn’t receive a major overhaul until New X-Men in 2001. So Lee probably had as much cause as any of the Image founders to parlay his Marvel-bred success into nurturing his original ideas. Like the other founders, he established his own studio, which he named Homage. Lee then partnered with childhood friend Brandon Choi to create a new superhero team, the WildC.A.T.s.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

To anyone who was familiar with Lee’s X-Men, WildC.A.T.s would certainly seem familiar. It’s a team book. Its members call back to recognizable archetypes. There’s the boy scout leader, the berserker with a blade fetish, the psychic woman, the mountain of muscle, the amazon warrior, the rake with a mysterious past, etc. The similarities between the character designs of the two teams are unmistakeable. The WildC.A.T.s could have been inserted into Lee’s X-Men pages as background characters, and no one would been the wiser.

Lee, McFarlane, and Image co-founder Rob Liefeld were developing a distinct new drawing style at Marvel when they decided to jump ship. One that resonated with fans of the late 80s and 90s. It eschewed the naturalism of the previous generation of artists for something more stylized. More mannerist. There were differences between them, of course. If McFarlane emphasized mood and atmosphere, Lee was all about grandiose action. And WildC.A.T.s pretty much embodies Lee’s approach to storytelling, meaning that the first issue is a mess.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

The comics starts out with two pages filled with irregularly shaped panels that are keen to impart a sense of chaos. But the panels are so small and confusingly composed on the page, they effectively obscure some pertinent details. This includes the story’s macguffin. Characters and word balloons are crammed tightly together as leave little breathing space.

But these are hallmarks of Lee’s style even when the rest of the story is drawn with more conventionally-shaped panels. Lee is one of those artists who fears the negative space, so he tends to minimize it with a combination of close-ups and word balloons. He also often resorts to heavy cross-hatching as a substitute for actual background detail or just leaves the space blank, both time saving devices which mimic contemporary shonen manga being translated into english.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

Lee’s unwillingness to illustrate proper backgrounds results in a comic that possesses no clear establishing shots, let alone any sense of the space the characters are supposed to inhabit. If he has to pull back occasionally in order to communicate a wider view of the setting, Lee almost always shrinks the panel, basically sidestepping the need to draw complicated details while minimizing the possibility of being bogged down by the challenge of rendering tricky perspective.

Off course, this makes for a comic informed by an underlying flatness. There’s no variation in mood or emotional content. The pacing is monotonously rushed. Characters are introduced and shuffled of the stage to make way for the next set of characters. This is where the text comes in. Lee inevitably relies on text-heavy narration to properly relay what his art could not. This rereading revealed that he’s a lot chattier than I remembered. But his large cast has yet to find its voice and gel into a compelling ensemble at this point.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

But if WildC.A.T.s is a poor showcase for Lee’s abilities as a storyteller, it exploits his appeal as an artist. The coloring used by Joe Rosas isn’t anywhere as advanced as that found in Spawn, but it manages to convey a shiny world bathed in primary colors that works with Lee’s individual aesthetic. The Image founders drew figures that were highly exaggerated, resulting in action scenes seemed bigger. The behavior of the heroes and villains became more operatic. But if McFarlane’s figures were grimy and had a hint of the grotesque, Lee’s were lithe and flamboyant. It points to the influence of the hyper-real sensibilities of Japanese anime. And Lee is probably the slickest figure artist among the lot of them. The Image style would set the tone for mainstream comics for the next decade, as both Marvel and DC Comics would attempt to replicate it for themselves.

The premise of WildC.A.T.s is a war between two alien factions, although it isn’t examined much in this issue. Rather, this comic is mostly concerned with gathering the heroes tasked with protecting the Earth from their evil counterparts, the Cabal. The WildC.A.T.s founder/benefactor Jacob Marlowe gets the lion’s share of the dialogue. And the other males of the team get to talk more than the female members, especially the gun-totting Grifter. But they’re not exactly the main source of interest. Lee structures the flow of the comic around panels that do double duty as pinup imagery. With the introduction of each female character, their panels noticeably take up more space. When the final member Zealot makes her grand entrance, we’re treated to a glorious two page spread of her poised for battle while accompanied by Grifter’s appreciative commentary. This sacrifice of narrative efficiency for glamour shots which satisfy the fanboy gaze is the organizing principle behind Lee’s popular X-Men tenure. Fanservice follows it’s own narrative logic.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

As with the other Image titles released that year, WildC.A.T.s was a massive bestseller. But just as with the other co-founders, Lee and Choi could not sustain a regular monthly output. The series would fall further and further behind. This chronic lateness from most of the Image titles is often cited as the main contributing factor to the comics direct market crash of the 90s. Lee would eventually leave WildC.A.T.s in the hands of more capable storytellers and initiate other projects. Homage was renamed Wildstorm Productions, and would become the most prolific Image studio. The “Wildstorm Universe” effectively replaced the stillborn Image Universe, until DC purchased the studio and Lee’s creations in 1998. The WildC.A.T.s and the rest of the Wildstorm Universe would be incorporated into the DC Universe after the New 52 initiative. As for Jim Lee himself, the young artist who left Marvel to work on his own characters is now one of the chief architects of the DC Universe. For the last several years, the look and feel of some of the world’s most iconic superheroes has borne the stamp of an Image co-founder.


Spawn #1

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.
By Todd McFarlane
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Colors: Steve Oliff

Image Comics was born in 1992. Unlike the present-day publisher of high profile, creator-owned works such as The Walking Dead and Saga, the original Image was a very different beast. Founded by seven fan favorite artists who left Marvel Comics because they wanted to exercise greater creative control over their work, the whole enterprise seemed poorly conceived at the time. Almost all the founders would head their own studios, which were free from editorial oversight. But each comic book series they produced was meant to be part of a superhero-style shared universe. To this jaded comics fan, those actions and their underlying motives came across as juvenile and derivative instead of courageous and original.

This impression was further cemented with the behavior of Todd McFarlane, perhaps the most outspoken of the Image founders. According to Neil Gaiman, he once compared Marvel and DC to slave plantations, and the Image founders were slaves who had freed themselves from captivity. This tone-deaf analogy would come back to haunt him when he became embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to characters Gaiman created for Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane’s studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Image founders were a group of young men informed by a climate of increasing awareness of the abuses publishers heaped upon individual creators (such as Marvel’s troubled relationship with Jack Kirby). They married their clumsy understanding of creator rights with a Marvel-honed grim n’ gritty superhero aesthetic influenced by the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They were quickly gaining “rock star” status. And unlike their predecessors, no corporation was going to screw them over. Not if they could help it.

McFarlane’s contribution to the first wave of Image titles was the occult-themed comic Spawn. According to Wikipedia, the first issue sold 1.7 million copies, and the series would go on to become the publisher’s most consistent bestseller during its early years. Rereading it now, what’s immediately apparent is that the comic openly wears its influences. McFarlane’s most famous work at Marvel was on Spider-Man. And Spawn basically looks like Spider-Man if he were redesigned to look more Metal. The impossibly billowing Doctor Strange cloak, those Punisher-style skulls, random giant spikes, leg pouches that contained nothing, and the chains. Those stupid, non-functional chains. This excessive 90s ensemble was at least held together by a sleek red and white on black design that made him look part-ninja.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

The first issue reads like a homage to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (McFarlane dedicates this issue to Kirby, one of Miller's idols). The story begins at nighttime. New York’s buildings are oddly shaped, craggy silhouettes. The gloomy urban landscape is punctuated by flashes of lightning, revealing our hero Spawn doing his best Batman impression by skulking precariously on the city's rooftops, because why not? Completing the noir setup is a brief introduction to a pair of homicide detectives named Sam and Twitch. Their Abbott and Costello routine can’t quite hide a family resemblance to James Gordon and Harvey Bullock.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

McFarlane imitates Miller’s heavy use of first-person narrative text framed as a series of artfully arranged captions. He even resorts to that Dark Knight staple, multiple talking heads appearing on television screens, to supply some of the exposition. Not that this very wordy comic explains a whole lot. Spawn was a soldier Al Simmons who died under mysterious circumstances, but was reanimated with a supernaturally powered body after striking some kind of Faustian bargain in the afterlife. Al just doesn't remember any of its pertinent details. The only heroic act he performs with his newfound abilities in this issue is to beat up some street thugs who were about to rape a woman. The resulting energy expenditure causes a drop in the readings of a glowing numerical counter found on the panel margins. It all looks very much like a display from a video game.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

The story conveys the sensibilities calculated to appeal to morose teenagers, and reads as if narrated by someone who might not be emotionally that far off from being an angry adolescent. Like Wolverine, Al only recalls fragments of his former life. And he’s also just as driven by extreme emotions like love and hate. McFarlane’s obsessive lineart enhances the claustrophobia Simmons feels when struggling to comprehend his strange new body.

But if the story is lacking in originality, the production values certainly don’t disappoint, even when considering technological advances that have taken place since. Spawn was the first comic I read that truly exploited the digital workflow for artistic effect. The end results were something that stood out from anything released by Marvel and DC at the time. That cover impressed me with the use of gradients to model the figure. The use of bluish lighting to delineate Spawn’s red cape is an appropriately eerie effect. For all intents, Steve Oliff was inventing a new vocabulary which would be exploited by subsequent colorists. The same could be said for letterer Tom Orzechowski. Digital lettering allowed for the accurate reproduction of a wide variety of fonts. The production line utilized by mainstream publishers traditionally treated the coloring and lettering stages as secondary to the lineart. But McFarlane, Oliff, and Orzechowski demonstrated within the pages of Spawn the potential for these visual elements to achieve a more integrated and balanced relationship.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

Unfortunately, none of this could completely conquer my utter disinterest in Al’s life story. Nor could it overcome the weaknesses in McFarlane’s writing. Spawn is still being produced by Todd McFarlane Productions. But McFarlane has over the years hired numerous creators to help with the writing and art, including the aforementioned Gaiman. To use his own words, McFarlane's studio had become a plantation. I couldn't care less. Like all the titles created by Image founders, Spawn has since dripped from its lofty perch as massive bestseller. Changing tastes render what was once dark and edgy somewhat silly now (not to mention subject to The LEGO Batman treatment). The Image universe quickly collapsed as the Image founders started squabbling with each other or drifted apart. Younger creators have since become the new industry rock stars. And the production techniques pioneered by Spawn have since been widely adopted and further refined by the rest of the industry, making this comic seem less striking by comparison. It's a slick product that's nonetheless kinda ugly to look at. But for better or worse, McFarlane and Spawn were instrumental in establishing what has now become the most successful American comic book publisher outside of Marvel and DC.


More NonSense: You’re gonna make it after all

Cover variant for Civil War II #0, revised, by Phil Noto.
Go to: Twitter, by Phil Noto (via Mark Seifert)

Punching Nazis in the face goes viral.

The comics community loudly and repeatedly responds to President Donald Trump's arbitrary immigration ban.

Zach Weinersmith pens an eloquent response to the ban.

Mark Medley on the recent closing of The Beguiling.

Heidi MacDonald on the history of the NYT graphic novels bestseller list and its recent cancellation. Abraham Riesman on the reaction from the comics community.

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore (December 29, 1936 – January 25, 2017). The 20th Century keeps slipping further back into the rear view. Tributes from Bobby Finger, Dana Stevens, Willa PaskinJennifer Keisbin Armstrong, TwitterJohn Swansburg, Tatiana Baez.

R.I.P. John Hurt (January 22, 1940 – January 27, 2017), another beloved actor.

R.I.P. Jack Mendelsohn (November 8, 1926 – January 25, 2017).

R.I.P. Dan Spiegle (December 12, 1920 – January 28, 2017).

R.I.P. Masaya Nakamura (December 24, 1925 – 22, January 2017), video game pioneer.

David Harbour’s acceptance speech at the SAG Awards are the inspirational nerd-filled words of the month.