Monthly Archive: April 2016

Badger Don’t Care

Yo! Larry.  If that rallying cry doesn’t mean anything to you then you were not exposed to one of the most fun and quirky comic book runs of the 1980s – The Badger.

Badger_Badger Cover1

The central character, one Norbert Sykes, just happens to a Vietnam vet who exhibits multiple-personalities, a curious devotion to and the ability to speak with animals, a penchant for mastering various abstruse martial arts, and a total disregard for both social convention and for his own safety.  In his role as Badger, Sykes is, more or less, the familiar of a 4th century Druid wizard who goes by the name Ham since his original Welsh name is a touch too long to pronounce.

Whether Ham is a force for good or evil or just in it for a little material comfort and wealth (well a lot of wealth – more on that in a moment) is difficult to pin down, but his magic certainly gets him and the Badger into some curious and amusing spots.

The final member of our little group is a clinical psychologist named Daisy Fields.   On paper, Daisy is Ham’s private secretary, but closer to the truth, she seems to be both a moderator and enabler of the hijinks and insanity that ensue.

If my description seems murky, weird, confusing, and aimless then I shall have been true to the nature of the book.  And what a wonderful nature it is.  Rather than being a ponderously heavy and serious examination of modern life, The Badger has its tongue fairly planted in its cheek even when displaying biting social commentary on everything from annoying people in the checkout line in front of you or those who start their yard work a wee bit too early in the morning to the sometimes self-involved behavior of the rich and corporate malfeasance.  The Badger shows that a good sense of humor is a powerful tool for both entertaining and making a point.

The trio is first brought together in a state sanitarium somewhere in Wisconsin, where the central figures of these tales, Norbert and Ham, are enjoying room and board and relaxing padded rooms courtesy of that fine state.  It seems that Norbert has been committed for committing a variety of civil disobediences of the sort mentioned above.

Badger_Gets it Done

On the other hand, the state has consigned Ham to a rubber room of catatonia and vagrancy.  The former condition is a consequence of some early handling of the Druid by the angry townsfolk of the 4th century British Isles.  It seems that Ham had a nasty habit of sacrificing whatever he needed to get the magic he wanted

Badger_Meeting Ham for the First Time

Having had enough, the various peoples subdue him and, failing to be able to harm or kill him, they place him under spells of deep sleep and then hiring explorers to drop his body off the face of the Earth.  Mistaking North America as the end of the world, the explorers deposit Ham in what would later be one of the Midwest’s most interesting commonwealths.

Sharing adjacent rooms, Ham and Badger forge a psychic connection that soon blossoms into a full-fledged working relationship

Badger Ham and Badger meet in the Mental Ward

Affecting their joint release, Ham soon discovers that the magic of money may be as powerful as the magic of sacrifice.  Using his wizarding skill, he amasses a small fortune which he uses to set to build a castle in which he and Badger will use as a base of operations.  He also entices Daisy from the Sanitarium with both a promise of more money and a chance to examine Norbert and his various splintered personalities at her leisure.  He wants her part of the team so that she can help manage his growing wealth and to help manage the Badger, who is an integral part of his scheme.

Badger_Ham Does Something About the Weather

As Ham later explains to a supernatural entity called the Hodag, the Badger is his familiar

Badger_Hodag and Ham

and that connection – sometimes strained, oftentimes cordial, and always strange – catapults them into bizarre territory and unimagined adventure that allows the series creator, Mike Baron, the material he needs to explore spirituality, individualism, society, lunacy, and fun.

For example, one the earliest adventures involves a California-based energy company being a poor corporate citizen.  Wanting to build a Midwest power plant, the company has procured a parcel of land that contains an extremely old oak tree.  They plan to level the parcel in order to make way for their new power plant, thus ending the oak’s long life span.  Being a Druid, Ham desperately wants the land since the ancient oak is a powerful source of magic.  Being rich, Ham tries to purchase the land in the usual fashion – directing one of his minion’s to dig up information while he is chauffeured in his Bently by another

Bader_Norbert Banters

When he discovers that he has been too late to save the oak, Ham vows revenge.  He asks the Badger to

Badger_Badger Gnaws

Using the resulting, mystic surf-board, Ham mounts a huge tidal wave which he has aimed at the power company’s California headquarters.

Badger_Ham Surfs

At the last minute, disaster is averted, but not before the corporate-types are sufficiently chastised by the whole experience.

Other zany vignettes include an exchange between a flight attendant and a westward-bound Badger that reflects a point many air travelers have pondered

Badger_SeatBack in the Upright Position

and a self-absorbed, wealthy woman, who disregards the need to evacuate an upscale Madison mall when two jaguars free themselves from a mall-attraction and decide to do a little shopping

Badger_Jaguar Attacks

Along the way, the reader gets to meet some of the various personalities that make up Norbert’s psyche

Badger_Emily Lists Them All

Of particular interest, is Max, who is charming, refined, and gentlemanly in ways that neither Norbert nor Badger can be

Badger_Max Comes Out

Along the way, Mike Baron throws in a lot of esoteric modern lore, including a whole-issue (#23) homage to the Church of the SubGenius, in which the International Brotherhood of Brujos (IBOB) has sent a powerful demon, who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, to take on the Badger (a sampling of their verbal sparring shown below)

Badger_Badger Meets Bob

All told, I wish there were trade paperback versions of The Badger readily available because it was a fun read and remains quite fresh.  It would do the new generation of comics readers some good to see some of the crazy but charming ways in which a series can be both enjoyable and meaningful.  A new version of The Badger, stylistically updated to reflect the 30-years that have elapsed, is being published.  Whether it can conjure the old fun remains to be seen but if not we always have Yo! Larry to fall back on.

Consistency Matters

This past Sunday I had the pleasure to sit in on a round-table discussion about comics in general and the recent Secret Wars storyline in particular.  This book discussion was put on by a local shop by the name of Third Eye Comics, which has locations in Annapolis and Lexington Park, Maryland.

Third Eye Flyer

For those who have never visited Third Eye, it is series of three stores; two of them (Annapolis and Lexington Park) are focused on comics, manga, collectibles, and the like.  The third store (also in Annapolis), which is devoted to gaming, sports an eclectic mix of games, including the usual European board games (Catan, Ticket to Ride, Princes of Florence, etc.), collectable card games (Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, etc.), and more specialized franchises like Warhammer and Dice Masters.

The book club was held after hours in the common area of the gaming store. This type of discussion was the first of its kind that I ever attended and, I believe, the first such event that Third Eye held.  And before I share my impressions, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Third Eye staff were quite hospitable.  They brought in food and refreshments, provided swag, and were welcoming and engaging.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this experience.  As I’ve written elsewhere, my exposures to panel discussion at comic cons have left me with a bad taste.  But the conversation was here was different.  The mood was relaxed but respectful and everyone acted as and were treated as human beings.

While the majority of the discussion was on the Secret Wars, it was inevitable that other topics were introduced.  Comparison and contrast with other mega-series brought in conversation points from DC’s numerous Crisis events.  In the same vein, Hickman’s work on East of West was also touched upon if for no other reason than to note the differences in his style when he is creating his own work rather than interpreting the properties of others.

But the most interesting component was when the group started looking at the various Battleworld spin-offs and companion series that went on during the whole reboot of the Marvel Universe.  I only followed two of the numerous satellite series: Infinity Gauntlet and the Ghost Racers, and it didn’t really enjoy them.  Apparently my experience was not reflective of the rest of the group and their experiences, especially with Weird World, were quite positive.

And it was out of this discussion that I actually learned the most interesting point of the evening – consistency really matters to most readers.  I’ve always cared about consistency but I didn’t really have a sense of how much anyone else does.  If book club discussion is a guide, the answer is quite a bit.  Admittedly, this conclusion is not based on a statistically valid sample size with a carefully crafted questionnaire delivered in a well-designed double-blind fashion.  It is based on common sense and on listening to what was said and how it was said and how often.

Perhaps the most intriguing part was when the mechanics of ‘healing factors’ were explored.  The trigger for this discussion is very amusing side moments in Secret Wars when Mister Sinister loses his head, which then gets knocked around for a while like some demented sort of soccer ball.

Sinister Head

The group started to wrestle with just how does the how thing work.  Take, in particular, Deadpool.  If he has his hand cutoff, does it grow back?  If it does, does the severed hand grow back an entire Deadpool.  Clearly this isn’t the case since there aren’t numerous Deadpools running around, but why not? How does Deadpool compare to Wolverine?  Where does the energy come from to do all this?

This line of questioning shouldn’t be dismissed as the idle musings of a fanboy.  Rather these are the normal trains of thought for intelligent minds trying to understand the world around them.  These are the sort of questions that lie at the heart of scientific inquiry.  True they deal with a fictional world constructed, only partially, by men but the point is this.  Reading comics (and reading in general) may be an escape but the escapee take his reason and his sense of cause-and-effect with him.  The writer would do well to pay more attention to consistency.  It matters – just ask Mark Gruenwald.

Story Construction: Sheriff of Babylon

Some months ago, I went into a wide survey of the various ways that comics creators actually make their comics.  The interaction between writer and artist was a particular focus and two main ways for putting the scripts together:

  • Script first – writer delineates what’s to be on each page: number of panels, dialog, action, points-of-view, etc.
  • Plot first – writer gives a general outline of the plot and the artist provides the panels to which the writer adds dialog and captions.

This week I would like to cover how the creative team on The Sheriff of Babylon does their thing.  Ironically, I don’t read the title and the material that I am presenting and analyzing is taken from the back of issue #2 of the Vertigo title The Dark & Bloody.  I can’t say why this piece got included but I am glad that it did as it is always helpful to see how someone does it.

A bit of dwerping around on the internet has revealed to me that The Sheriff of Babylon is a 8 issue limited series from Vertigo written by Tom King with art by Mitch Gerads.  Vertigo describes the comic series as:

Baghdad, 2003. Florida Police officer-turned-military contractor, Chris Henry is tasked with training a new Iraqi police force. When one of his trainees ends up dead, Chris is forced to team up with Nassir, the last remaining cop in Baghdad. Pulling the strings to bring them together is the mysterious Sofia, an American-educated Iraqi who has returned to take control of the city’s criminal underworld. This miniseries is a thrilling wartime crime drama told amid one of the most tumultuous times in modern history.

The behind-the-scenes look covers the creation of page 7 of issue #4 and is written by Mitch Gerads.  He breaks the creation down into seven steps.

Step 1:  First he gets the script from Tom King, which provides a description of action and dialog, panel-by-panel.

SB_Step1

Gerads makes a point of saying that the script arrives about a week before he even starts and that allows him to ‘live with it for a while’, by which he means that he reads it several times and plays the action out mentally before he starts forming them on paper.

Step 2: Gerads develops the layouts in a quick and loose fashion, which he calls ‘Mitch Gibberish’.  The idea here is to get the overall look and feel into the rest of the creative team’s hands.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t get into any back-and-forth that may exist where King or editor Jamie Rich may ask for adjustments.

SB_Step2

Step 3:  Gerads tries to bring a sense of realism to the book since the events are based on real-life.  He, apparently does this by looking at photography of Iraq, military hardware, etc.  He also shoots photo references in which he acts out the parts (or gets help from his family – here pictured his twelve-year-old cousin Coop).

SB_Step3

Step 4:  He says that he tweaks and arranges all of these photographs into a reference collage in Photoshop as a prelude to drawing.

SB_Step4

Step 5:  According to Gerads, The Sheriff of Babylon is done completely digitally.  So he then turns the reference layout into a digital blue-line drawing and then covers the drawing with digital inks, resulting in a black-and-white layout.

SB_Step5

Step 6:  Once the inks are done, Gerads hands off the pages to the color flatter, Joseph Franzzetta, who blocks in random colors so that Gerads can continue to draw.

SB_Step6

What I believe is happening in Step 6 is that Franzzetta gets the art carefully colored with a palette that can be easily remapped to whatever Gerads want it to be.  For example, the green sky in the image above maps to the sandy colored sky in the final done in Step 7.

Step 7: Gerads does the final colors and formats it before sending it off to the printer.  Sadly, he doesn’t provide much in the way of how he formats and if formatting includes the speech balloons.

SB_Step7

So there you have it, a quick look at how the art is done on The Sheriff of Babylon following the script-first technique.

Pretty Deadly Storytelling

I can’t say for sure whether I like the Image series Pretty Deadly by author/scripter Kelly Sue Deconnick and artist Emma Rios.  One some level I like it a lot but in other areas I find its low points so distracting that it is hard to remember the good parts.

Set in the Old West of the late 1800s, the series is as much fairy tale as it is a Wild, Weird West tale (a la East of West, The Sixth Gun, or the Deadlands).  It’s also constructed as a frame tale, in which the main story is about the telling of the real story by one character for the benefit of the other.

Our western version of Homer is, in fact, a dead rabbit who goes by the name of Bunny Bones.  The audience is filled with only one listener – Butterfly – who often asks questions and urges Bunny Bones to include something or skip some other thing.   There is very much a quality of a parent reading to a child in their dialog.

The outer tale opens with Butterfly asking about the day they both met; the day in which Bunny Bones escaped his earthly life and become something simultaneously more and less.  Butterfly is curious about his death and whether Bunny was afraid.

PD_young_Ginny_kills_Bunny

The gun-wielding little girl, as we come to know later, is Ginny, a daughter of death, and much of Bunny’s story centers around her, although she plays only a secondary role.

The bulk of Bunny’s story deals with the events that led to Ginny’s birth and the ongoing aftermath as their consequences play out.  However, the thread of the tale is tugged in the middle as Butterfly, after asking Bunny to tell him her story, urges the skeletal rabbit to skip to the other girl.

PD_The_Other_Girl

The other girl is small and dark and wears a vulture costume and has mismatched eyes.  Her name is Sissy and she’s just arrived in a western town with her hulking, ‘blind’ guardian by the name of Fox.  The pair has a strange side show that they perform for whatever change the townsfolk are willing to throw their way. In it Fox, who seems to be able to see despite his hidden eyes, stands at the rear of the stage, holding a large banner bearing the likeness of many people and events; a storyboard of sorts; with all the characters born out in Tarot Card fashion.  At the front Sissy weaves a tale, in doggerel, of the gain and loss of the wonderful woman Beauty by her jealous husband Mason.

In her yarn, Sissy tells how Mason, fearful and envious, locks Beauty up in a tower to keep her from other men.  Despite her numerous prayers and entreaties, Mason refuses to free her.  Her desperation grows until she decides death is better.  Using her own blood, Beauty begs for death; but instead being claimed by one of Death’s minions, the head man comes himself.  He is immediately taken with her and falls in love and weds her.  Together they have a child, whom Death calls Ginny.  After her birth, Death allows Beauty to depart from life, but the child, as Sissy’s ragged rhyme says,

He raised her a reaper of vengeance,
A hunter of men who have sinned—
If you done been wronged,
Say her name,
Sing this song,
Sound the bell’s knell
That calls her from hell…
Ginny rides for you on the wind my child..
Death rides on the wind!

After she’s done with the show, Sissy mingles amongst the crowd for and is soon accosted by a crafty redhead by the name of Johnny Coyote.  While outwardly he is pressing some coins into her palm, secretly he is manipulating her into stealing the Binder, a parchment or document of some importance to Death.

Fox and Sissy take a break from their journey to the next town and settle in for a night on prairie.  Sitting by the fire, Sissy idly burns the Binder and waves the flaming sheet under Foxes blind eyes.  He immediately realizes what the thing is and flees with her to the closest safe house run by a woman named Sarah.

In the meantime, Johnny, who is spending some time indulging his carnal side in the town, receives a visit from one of Death’s little helpers, a reaper who goes by the name of Big Alice.  She’s tracking down the Binder and, after forcing the information out of Johnny with a bullet placed ever so lovingly in his left thigh, she begins her pursuit.

Fox and Sissy, having rested at Sarah’s, decide to press on into the night.  But before they go, Sissy teaches the summoning song for Ginny to one of Sarah’s kids.  A good thing too, since Big Alice soon arrives with her crew and begin to take Sarah and her farm and family apart.  This ruckus stops when the rhyme is said and Ginny arrives.  Ginny soon kills the crew and destroys Big Alice, who returns to Death disembodied but otherwise, apparently no worse for wear.

Back in the town, a talking raven, by the name of Molly rouses Johnny to take action.  He soon starts his own pursuit.  Meanwhile, the pair Fox and Missy continue their flight.  Missy tells Fox of a woman she barely remembers, who gave her something – a key.  It isn’t clear at this point what significance this interlude has and, unfortunately, it doesn’t become much clear later.

PD_She Gave Me Something

Eventually Missy refuses to go any further until Fox explains what it’s all about, why they are fleeing and who is pursuing and why.  Fox reveals that he is the Mason of her story and then he tells the rest of his tale with Beauty and Death, the part she’s never heard.  He tells how, when he learned she had died that he wanted to follow her to death.  He tells of how he dug and dug and dug until he found his way into Death’s realm.  Death refused to grant Fox/Mason release and is ready to send him away when Mason becomes aware of Ginny.  He invokes his right to the child since Beauty was his wife.  Death rebuffs the claim but offers a deal:  Mason must go to a river of blood where

PD_River of Blood

Once there, if he kills the beast, Death will bind Ginny to the spirit realm and Mason will live out his normal lifespan and once he has dies, Death will allow Mason to meet his wife and ask for her forgiveness.  Should Mason refuse the deal, Death will unlease Ginny on him to exact revenge for Mason’s ill treatment of her mother.

When Mason arrives at the river, he sees that the beast that is birthed is a small girl with mismatched eyes

PD_River_spawn

and he refuse to slay her.  Instead he cares for her as his own.

During this revelation, rain waters swell the river next to where they are standing and a flood soon separates Fox (Mason) and Sissy.  Johnny finds her and somewhat explains the Binder.  He admits that her tricked her into stealing it but he thought she would read it and not burn it.  That is the unspoken reason why the song sung by Sarah’s boy brings Ginny out when all the times the song was sung by Sissy nothing happened.

Johnny vows to give Sissy straight answers but as he starts to explain things about her the scene changes to Death’s domain.  Like Mason before him, Death too can’t let Beauty go but her words and company are no comfort.  She tells him that she knows that each Death must live and must die and that his time as death draws to a close as his cycle is ending.  She offers him the comfort that when he dies he can join her.  But Death has other plans

PD_Deaths looks to the end

At this point, it seems likely but remains categorically stated, that Sissy is the replacement and that Death’s hope in sending Mason to kill her was to prevent anyone ever becoming Death, thereby stopping the natural order of things.

The one flaw in his plans is his wayward child Ginny.  Now released, she soon tracks down Fox.  Together, they enjoy a gentle father-daughter moment wherein they try to bash each other’s brains out.   During the course of their ‘debate’, Fox begs for Ginny to spare him long enough to save Sissy.  He tries to sway her by letting her know that she had visited Sissy in her dreams (hence the mysterious key discussed above).  After a great deal of brawling, Fox is able to gain her sympathy by having her understand Sissy’s fate, and perhaps by waking Ginny’s own hostility towards Death, who keeps her mother as much a prisoner in death as Mason did in life.

PD_Fox and Ginny have a Fight

Eventually, everyone reunites and heads to Death’s realm.  His guardians, the Day Maid and Night Maid, allow entrance to his realm since they recognize Sissy as the new Death ascendant

PD_Sissy is Become Death

the being who reunites them again as a single entity.  Apparently the world has been torn by the machinations that Death is employing so that he may be with Beauty forever.

The rest of the tale is actually easier to summarize if not to understand.  Ginny retrieves the key from Sissy (but why?); Ginny stops Death by running him through with a sword; Death dies; Sissy takes over as the new Death in a Vulture guise and the Soul of the World (whatever that really means) is healed.

If you understand these last bits you are quite a bit better than I am.  This whole arc has a mythic, fable-like quality that has a great deal of charm.  But much of this charm is marred by poor storytelling.  The reader must interpolate between scenes or read additional information provided on the back cover just to understand character information (e.g. why Johnny knows Death, why he holds a grudge).  Most grievous is the fact that new information is place into the previous-issue summary.  Why should a reader, who has already read the previous issues, be required to read the front page summaries in order to get critical exposition?  And why does the story found in them change in subtle ways from issue to issue?  This lack of craftsmanship severely detracts from what could have been a good slice of myth.

Nonetheless there are some good bones here and perhaps Pretty Deadly will mature into a fine vehicle for storytelling.  I haven’t given up on it yet but if Volume 2 is like this one, then the cycle will end for it as well.

Dramatis Personae

PD_dramatis_personae

Clockwise from upper left:  Fox, Sissy, Night Maid, Johnny Coyote, Sarah, Molly, Death, Day Maid, Big Alice.  In the middle are the storyteller and audience:  Bunny Bones and Butterfly.

 

Do It Yourself Colorist

Walk into any Barnes and Noble bookstore and you’ll find, prominently displayed on a table near the front of the store, a host of adult coloring books and supplies of brush markers.  It seems that adult coloring is a new pastime.  I’ve tried it and it is a lot of fun.  To be clear, I never gave up on coloring the old way (crayons and kids coloring books), so maybe I am biased but whatever.

At first, the only available books featured complex geometric patterns or stylized animal prints or nature scenes – you know… adult things.  Fortunately, comics publishers have been jumping on the bandwagon and one can now get coloring books with content ranging from EC’s horror line to everyone’s favorite moral reprobate: Deadpool.

All of that is well and good and I have purchased coloring books of both stripes – sober adult content and cheeky adolescent fare – and have enjoyed coloring in each kind.  Up to a point.

Of course applying crayon or marker to page has its drawbacks.  The most notable one is that the original unfilled image is lost forever once you start coloring unless you buy another copy or you photocopy, scan, or otherwise digitally reproduce the original.  Personally, I don’t want to indulge in the former and much prefer the reproduction route. But if one is going to do that, why limit oneself to what the publishers deem appropriate.  Branch out.

And so that is just what I did.  Using a smart phone (or digital camera or a scanner), some photo-editing software, and some of those DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials black-and-white reprint volumes, you can make your own custom coloring book and get started practicing as a do-it-yourself colorist.

For this post, I photographed an image from Essential Captain Marvel, Volume 2 in which Thanos first reveals that he possesses the cosmic cube.  To capture the image, I used Genius Scan on my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (old but powerful and much beloved).  I like Genius Scan since it corrects for some curvature and rotation automatically. The page was in the middle of the volume which is a thick as an old-fashioned phone book from a mid-size city.  The raw image looked like this

raw_Thanos_and_the_cube

I then loaded the image into the GIMP and cropped it to

sized_Thanos_and_the_cube

The next step was to start coloring.  For this quick and dirty approach I didn’t use layers nor did I try any tools except the bucket fill.  This was a bit clumsy as certain regions that looked closed often had small gaps due to the publisher reproduction, the printing process, or the image capture.  Whatever the reason, when a small, undesired gap was present the bucket fill would sometimes over fill as in this image

oops_color_Thanos_and_the_cube

At times like this, the undo (ctrl-Z) I your friend.  Repairs involve the eye-dropper (color-picker) tool and the brush.  Simply grab a gray/black from some point nearby and close the gap using the brush (soft and diffuse seems best) and color again.

Using this rather primitive process, it only took me about 10-15 minutes to color in the image to

final_color_Thanos_and_the_cube

Clearly the image needs work, especially around the crenellated chin of the Big-T.  But all, told it didn’t turn out too bad given that layers and brushes and other sophisticated tools were totally ignored.

So there you have it – a three-fold win: 1) a fast way to create your own digital coloring books using your favorite art, 2) a new use/justification for buying the cheap B&W reprint volumes, and 3) a path to learn to be a real colorist without the need to find an artist and inker.