Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On Paul Chadwick's Concrete: The Year In Comics No. 30

      

I think I've always been a touch intimated by the prospect of writing about Paul Chadwick's Concrete. One of the last truly great books which can be associated with the Third Wave of the Eighties, Chadwick's use of the tradition of the super-human in a real-world setting resulted in one of the most tender, smart and innovative comics of the past twenty five years and more. Of course, comics snobs will attempt to convince you that Concrete isn't really a genre comic at all, and that even if it is, it's got nothing at all to do with the superhero sub-genre. That Concrete's no member of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade is indeed beyond dispute, and yet Chadwick's comic does have its own contrary place in the super-book's tradition of noble, alienated monsters. That's something which I've touched upon in this week's The Year In Comics post over at Sequart - please do find it here- - though most of the post is a discussion of the contents of the quietly remarkable Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-9.

          
If you're unsure whether you want to read such a post, then perhaps the brief discussion of Chadwick's art in those first short stories that's below might change your mind. Though I've only time to touch upon four aspects of his early work, I hope I can convince the neophyte and the disinterested alike that even the earliest examples of Mr Chadwick's art are characterised by some truly impressive storytelling. (Of course, just about everyone who does know his work has long, long accepted such a contention as a given, but there may be folks reading this who haven't yet come across either Chadwick or Concrete. )

But if I can't convince you that it's worth reading further on the subject, then perhaps I might have the privilege of your company here at TooBusyThinking tomorrow, when the This Week's List feature will present 12 fine comics and comic strips which have something in common with the splendid Concrete. What that shared quality might be, I'm not saying yet, but I think it's safe to say that the list will have a great deal in it to disagree with. What else are blogger's lists for?

From "Goodwill Ambassador", 1988
        
So purposefully still and restrained is most of Chadwick's art on Concrete that it's easy to forget that he's capable of channelling his inner Kirby (*1) in a way that's every bit the equal of esteemed Kirby-charged colleagues such as Walt Simonson and Steve Rude. In the full page frame shown immediately above, a young Tibetan boy called Kirkyap is shown being convulsed with fear upon meeting Concrete for the first time. The presence of this sudden display of raw power and horror in Chadwick's art combined with the sheer scale of the piece transmits an untypically vivid sense of Kirkyap's terror. Yet as always, the key to the work's success lies primarily in the meticulous care that Chadwick has taken with the page's design. We're made to perceive events from the low-angle point of view of a Kirkyap whose chin is tilted high up in the air, which immediately accentuates his vulnerability while also emphasising Concrete's great looming mass.

*1:- Using Kirby in the sense of a metaphor for artists whose work delivers that extra umph! Other artists who offer extra Umph have long been available.

      
Our gaze is framed using the unique device of both of the key character's hands. When we first see the page, it's Concrete's outstretched, claw-like fingers which direct our attention up to the face of  what Kirkyap perceives to be a terrifying demon. Then aspects of the composition, such as the perspective on the pack on Concrete's chest and his downwardly-curving fingernails, carry our gaze back down the page again, where the boy's hands - keep deliberately simple and therefore undistracting - push us forward to see his fellow villagers through Concrete's legs. This brilliantly elegant structure doesn't just express Kirkyap's perceptions, but his actual behaviour too. The head that's been thrown back to perceive Concrete is, as it were, then lowered to see his friends and family, a closing point which reassures the reader that nothing terrible is going to happen here. After all, no-one seems particularly concerned except for Kirkyap himself. The boy's white hands of may initially seem to be in danger of being swallowed up by the darkness of Concrete's frame, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that the daylight remains and the path towards it is clear and easy to negotiate. Beyond Concrete's silhouette is a world as bright and safe as any Kirkyap's ever known, just as a fearless life awaits beyond his fear. All - "all" - he has to do is walk forwards.

From The Grey Embrace, 1987
     
From Next Best, 1988
2.

Another device that can be associated with Kirby, as well as a literal host of other creators, is the comics triptych, a sequence of three panels which portrays changes in time against a relatively constant background. (TooBusyThinking discussed Kirby's use of the technique here.) It's a remarkably rarely seen approach in today's comicbooks, but Chadwick uses it in the very early Concrete short stories to great effect. In the first example above, Concrete, responding to being called "ugly" by the young women in the scene, retreats into the privacy of the sea. His humiliation is underscored by the loneliness of his trudge to the ocean, his alienation from everyday human affairs by the fact that his absence, though achieved through remarkable means, impacts upon the young woman barely at all. In the second triptych, the sleeping Concrete's sexual fantasies are interrupted by his splendid pooch, Tripod, a choice which brings home once again how utterly emasculated Ron Lithgow is, with his brain trapped in an entirely alien body. Poor Concrete, he can't even consummate his longings in his dreams anymore. The real world and the awareness it brings of his sexless alien existence intrudes even there.

From Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous, 1986

From Visible Breath, 1989
3.

One technique that Chadwick uses that I've rarely if ever seen before is that of presenting relatively minor events in very small panels. Instead of leaping from event A to event B, Chadwick often chooses to suggest the passing of time between the two in a way which neither slows the story nor over-states the importance of the events being shown. In the first example above, Chadwick presents a montage representing a week in which Concrete must endure constant experiments before being able to set out on something of a social adventure. The designs in the second and fourth panels of the sequence represent both Dr Vonnegut's attempts to make sense of Concrete's alien body and his longing to be free of the boredom and the intrusion. The key third panel suggests the slow passing of time, in the unhurried implied movement of the clouds and the shadows. In the second sequence, Chadwick shows Ron and Maureen's reluctant acceptance of Concrete's proposal that they pretend to be man and wife, in order to make getting a motel room easier. Nothing could be less like a man and wife than Concrete's two friends response to his suggestion, with the awkward silence in the second panel followed by the unenthusiastic agreement expressed in the third. Where other artists would either avoid such moments or allocate a disproportionate body of space to them, Chadwick finds a middle way which, despite the extra burdens it places upon his workload, ensures that his story expresses a considerably greater measure of subtly-expressed emotion than is typical elsewhere.

From Straight In The Eye, 1987
4.

It could be argued that the Chadwick of this period is a far more impressive storyteller than an artist. Though already both an accomplished penciller and inker in the period during which Concrete was first published, Chadwick's pages still occasionally displayed minor problems with, for example, the fluidity of his character's movement. In the above sequence, it might also be argued that the depiction of the airplane is just a touch unconvincing; Chadwick's chosen to rely on form without embellishment and there are moments when the plane lacks a sense of solidity. Yet it's a minor problem, and the man's ability to think his way through an immensely challenging scene results in a considerable, if typically underplayed, triumph. Having set himself the task of describing two quite separate dramas in each subsequent frame, Chadwick succeeds in portraying both the plane's attempts to stay in the air while presenting Concrete's night-time plunge into a lake too. Not only are there two entirely distinct physical processes to be described in the last three panels here, but the meaning of each is different too. Concrete's fall is a lonely, inevitable tumble, and it seems to occur in an ominous silence. The plane, on the other hand, is twisting and pulling in order to right itself and escape the looming danger of the tree tops. It's progress is by contrast speedy, energetic and loud. Chadwick's brilliance here can be seen in the way in which each of the two situations not only co-exist, but compliment each other. Concrete's disappearance under the waves, for example, is matched with the plane's final escape from the scene, meaning that his lonesome mission carries a sense of an even greater isolation.

        
  • The post on Paul Chadwick's Concrete can be found at Sequart by clicking here.
  • Paul Chadwick's Concrete: Complete Short Stories 1986-9, in the larger format, is out of print, but it's available at reasonable second-hand prices. However, the complete Concrete stories, long-form and short, are currently being collected in a smaller format by Dark Horse. Five volumes are now available, starting with Depths - 1593073437 .

In September's Q Magazine

        
Just when I was beginning to believe that the greatest shock in a man's life really is growing old, I pick up another month's copy of Q and realise that I really do have a comics column in the back of it.The smallest of achievements in the grand scheme of things, I do understand, but that doesn't make it any less of a constant surprise. Nor does it mean that it ever feels like anything other than the expression of cosmic levels of good luck either. If asked for the definition of "privilege", I'd suggest "having had a shot of writing a column for Q" would just about nail it.

Why mention it here? Because I saw the new edition in our local supermarket this morning, took it from the shelf and, turning to the back, looked for whether my column was actually there. Having seen that the unlikely was indeed present and correct, I closed up the magazine and turned for the checkouts.
   
"Are you in it, then?" asked the woman who was putting out this week's mags and comics, laughing about the way I'd so purposefully rifled through Q's pages.

Did I know her? I did not. Did I smile at her friendly jest and modestly move on?

Did I heck. I couldn't help myself.

"It is." I told her, and - gawd help me - showed her the page.

I know that's shameful, but it made the moment feel real, and it made her laugh again too.

Q #314, September; I'm not suggesting you buy it because of my few hundred words. But I would suggest you buy it because it is, for my money, the best music/culture mag in Britain.  

And in this month's comics column; Saga! Crossed: Wish You Were Here! The Graphic Canon Volume 1! Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred! Judge Dredd The Complete Case Files 05!

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Monday, 30 July 2012

On X-Treme X-Men #1 (The First Time no 1)

In which the blogger begins a new semi-regular series of Monday posts focusing on the first appearance of a particular comic, character or creator;

      
Greg Pak and Stephen Segovia's X-Treme X-Men # 1 is such a lamentably poor comic-book that it's not even possible to laugh at it. Even that gloom-easing, contempt-expressing pleasure is short-circuited by the sheer weight of dubious storytelling that's on display here.

Of course, that will make me sound like a stereotypically vile net-critic spieling out the evidence of my own inadequacy. So perhaps I might offer just a few examples of the kind of problems which make it tough to see why editor Jeanine Schaeffer didn't ask all concerned to just down tools and reconsider their efforts prior to deadline day.

           
1.

Here Pak has loaded up a tiny panel with a 60 word summary of Dazzler's private life, career and world-view. That in itself is an obvious example of a collapse of craftsmanship, but such over-crowding can prove necessary in moments of crisis. Sometimes essential information needs to be elbowed in to save a script, and it's not unknown that an artist's choices can result in pertinent material being regrettably absent from the page. Yet nothing - not a word - of this text is relevant to the story being told in this issue. It isn't even tangentially relevant to a tale which, as we'll see, suffers from a considerable number of plot-holes which could have done with a similarly excessive degree of exposition. Yet where the story's crying out for exposition, it's absent, whereas here, the panel's crammed with irrelevancies. Worse yet, Pak has just taken four slack pages to set up a nascent romance between Dazzler and a fellow musician. To waste that much space in a comic where there's so much that's ill-explained is a dubious business in itself. If X-Treme X-Men #1 really did require such a mass of backstory, then why wasn't it seeded across the preceding pages?

    
 2.

Wherever he can, it seems, Stephen Segovia is determined to use the whole-row horizontal panel. It really doesn't matter what the subject of the frame is, because Segovia appears convinced that the horizontal panel is the default and virtuous way of telling a story. To take but one of many examples, the scan above shows how Segovia chose to present even a scene of Blaire and Ito buying an ice-cream in such a narrow and elongated form. The claustrophobia imposed by Segovia's choice immediately undercuts any suggestion of romance in the situation, because the reader's struggling to make out what's going on at the same time as the frame's transmitting a sense of constraint rather than good-humour and possibility. But then, Segovia is capable of placing a tourist's entirely irrelevant and distracting shin, ankle and trainer at the eye's entrance point to the panel, meaning that the frame begins with an event that's entirely meaningless. To have Allison and Ito playing second-fiddle to a shin is surely something which the quality control folks at Marvel should have been keeping an eye out for. As a result of all these choices, the entire right half of the panel is utterly redundant and entirely uninteresting. There's simply nothing going on there which informs the plot, unless the bonnet of a ice-cream van and the simple, characterless perspective exercise which dominates the panel's last third are of some secret importance where a later issue is concerned. 

        
We can also find another prime example of Pak's throw-the-reader-out-of-the-story exposition in this panel, where the writer has Dazzler's walking partner declare; "I don't know about all that. I'm just Johnny Ito, simple country session musucian ...". To read is to cringe. Yes, of course Johnny Ito, simple country musician, said that, because that's a convincing representation of how people talk, isn't it?

Typically, the fact that Ito's a bass player, a country stylist, or indeed a musician, is again meaningless in terms of the issue.

       
It should be said that Segovia is admittedly stronger on scenes which involve lots and lots of super-people in generic fantasy environments. The above frame is undeniably very effectively done, following as it does the rule of thirds to give us a sequence of (a) Xavier speaking, (b) his colleagues responding, and (c) Howlett examining a dead alien's tentacle. (*1) It's a shame that Howlett's actions don't lead to anything which is shown in the subsequent panel. How odd that this frame functions to set up the one that follows, while nothing of what's been foreshadowed actually occurs there.

*1: It's a scene with one of the book's two great lines in it too. Pak smartly establishes Waggoner as a sweet lil'kid by having him express his delight that the Xavier-head didn't just save everyone on a threatened Earth, but their cats too. Along with a single panel's worth of bitching directed by Frost at Dazzler, it's the issue's only redeeming feature.

I'd swear that the pose given to Wolverine surrogate here is very familiar. Does anyone have any idea of what it might be a homage to?
         
3.

The above is the reader's first exposure to the "cross-dimensional X-Men" in action in the comic. As yet another horizontal panel, it does at least have the virtue of a touch more height. Yet the rule of thirds has been misapplied, unless the sight of a passive, largely unmoved Kurt Waggoner's profile is of some importance. (It isn't, and the placement of the character there does nothing to either help the scene make more sense or raise the level of jeopardy in the panel.) The shot is supposed to show the mutants facing an alt-earth-destroying danger. Yet Segovia has chosen to focus on his generically-posed victims and heroes rather than clearly establishing the peril of the situation in terms of the crisis itself. As a result, the characters appear to be running from nothing much at all, unless the reader squints and tries to make out what might be occurring there. It's a profoundly confusing start to the story which is further undermined by the placing of the text in front of the single collapsing building in the composition. Here writer, artist, letterer and editor all combine to obscure the meaning of events.

Not for the first time, Sergovia's work seems to here contain a conspicuous homage. The figure of Frost reaching down for her coat appears to be one originally designed to show a standing woman beating on a prone character. The fact that the coat that Frost's reaching for actually lies not below her hand, but behind it, certainly makes it look as if this figure has been adapted, and not too successfully either, for the scene. Perhaps it's just unconvincing work, of course.
 
4.

Here we've Sergovia on the more secure ground of a punch-up in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along setting,  and yet it's notable how askew his priorities are. While Dazzler is being dragged through a "portal" by a fearsome monster, the newly arrived X-Treme X-Men are shown pausing for Emmeline Frost to pick up and pull on her coat. Not only that, but there's time for wisecracks and disdain too, which again, as is common in this book, entirely punctures the tension in the scene. It's actually quite possible to forget that Dazzler's there at all, because she's portrayed as a relatively irrelevant matter crushed up in the top right-hand third of the page. How weak and slow, the reader's forced to wonder, is this monster's not-so-deadly pull? Instead of directing us towards the drama of the scene, Sergovia points us instead towards Frost's lusciously athlete body, which is obviously of central and yet mysterious importance to the narrative at this point.

Note the key absence of .... another portal in the frame!
         
It's a page which makes it hard not to wonder whether Sergovia was working from a full-script or not. Because either he was, and he managed to ignor the sense of what he'd been presented with, or Pak has scripted the scene in a way that would inevitably confound the reader. "Aw, man. Another portal?", he has Dazzler declare, although there's no second portal in sight. Indeed, there's no mention of such a thing anywhere else in the book. Both Howlett and his comrades and the tentacles arrived through the same phenomena, and both leave through the same one too. Perhaps Dazzler's referring to a "portal" or two that she's encountered in previous tales, although, in the absence of context or even a footnote, all that's created here is the opposite to clarity. A sequence which should be taut with tension is quite undermined by confusing dialogue and fatuous storytelling.

Five alt-Earths and a scene in the time-stream too; this is a book which doesn't pause for breath or sense.
5
 
Problems with pacing bedevil this book. The already-mentioned uselessly elongated courtship scene takes up almost a sixth of a comic which badly needs that space to make sense in. The cramming in of the destruction of one earth, the saving of its population, the attack on Utopia, Dazzler joining up, and the arrival on an apparently god-filled alternative Earth would probably defeat anyone's attempts to portray in a satisfying way. But Pak and Sergovia keep straying in irrelevancy and space-consuming money-shots, and the result is a comic which reads like an scrapbook summary of four or five different issues.

An exceptionally odd angle to shoot this frame from. Xavier is ordering the X-Men to go kill almost a dozen men, and yet their power is emphasised through the low-angle shot rather than his. It does succeed, however, in making Xavier seeming like a cartoonish idiot, mind you, since it has "his" X-men apparently treating him as a tiresome child while he's ordering them to go kill lots of other people.
       
6.

How is it that Pak's script has managed to reach the presses in such a sloppy and baffling fashion? The comic's full of moments where the experience of reading is derailed by an obvious problem with events on the page. How has Cyclops come to suspect that the X-Treme X-Men are in trouble when he clearly can't communicate with them? Why does Dazzler throw her lot in with bodyless Professor X's team when she herself presents a damn good argument for doubting the information she's being given. Just five panels before she apparently commits to the assassination of "ten different Xaviers", she's shown declaring that "X-Men don't kill". The explanation for why she changes her mind is, staggeringly, entirely missing beyond the suggestion that Dazzler will go off and slaughter folks out of a loyalty to anyone claiming to be X-Men. Why would she do this, when she's just received news that life on each of these super-people's Earth's is different to that of her own? What does the fact that they've all joined a version of the X-Men on different worlds mean under those circumstances?

No you don't Charles. You don't "believe" in infinity. You're well aware that the multiverse exists and no-one around you doubts the fact. The fact your pompous head is looking for is "know". You "know" that a multiverse containing an infinity of other parallel universes exists.
        
But then, how has this floating mutant head managed to deduce not only the existence of his evil counterparts, but the universe-saving need for their murder too? This is, after all, a character who Pak not only has speaking pretentious waffle, but absolute nonsense. " ... I believe in infinity", Pak has him announce, which, in a multiverse, is as sensible a comment as one of us declaring that we accept the existence of space-time. That's not a mark of a smart man, or even a useful narrator; it's either the sign of either an idiot or a bullshiter  who can't tell the difference between belief and knowledge. When the supposedly smartest person in the room is made to speak like a pretentious sixth-former after his first two inhalations of ground banana peel, it's always going to be hard to take the narrative seriously.


           
X-Treme X-men is a shoddy comic book which makes the Rob Liefeld's recent efforts for DC look entirely professional by comparison. (It's a comic which certainly doesn't make the Liefeld work seem any dumber either.) How is it possible that Marvel has produced a book by a writer as gifted and capable as Greg Pak that's as inept as this? Once again, the reader who's spent their money is left wondering just who it is in the corporate chain that's supposed to be paying attention to the quality rather than the hype of the product. If editor Jeanine Schaeffer isn't responsible for making sure that the comic which bears her name at the very least makes sense, then who is? Is it Nick Lowe, who's listed as "group editor", or Axel Alonso, who's "editor-in-chief", or Joe Quesada, who is after all "chief creative officer", or even Alan Fine, who's apparently an "executive producer", whatever that may mean.

             
Seriously. Where does the buck stop? Who is ultimately responsible for the problems in the storytelling in X-treme X-Men #1, and who is going to ensure that these problems - if they're credited to exist - are unlikely to occur again? For if we're not supposed to consider such things as important, then where does that leave the publisher's responsibility towards the folks who buy their books?

Because this kind of glossy and yet fundamentally bumbling comic is all too typical of a great deal of today's comics, and the problem doesn't seem to be going away.

        
Addendum

I removed the following on the kind advice of Malin Ryden - thanks ! - who explained to me that what I thought was some kind of aniomatronic device in the book was actually a street performer. I'd discounted that for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I'd assumed that such a performer would have been shown in context, with the various tricks of the trade around her. I'd also assumed that the fact we never see the figure's feet meant that it/she/he was stationary,, which hardly suggested a human performer. (Once again, that shows the limitations of those horizontal frames again. Why choose a type of frame which doesn't allow a decent establishing shot?) It also didn't seem to make sense to me that, in the last moment of the figure's appearance, human or not, it/she/he fails to respond to the real Dazzler bringing the performance to an end with a light show. Surely a character who's just been enveloped with such a remarkable experience would be at the very least surprised? (See the final scan in this post below.) Still, my mistake indeed, and despite removing it due to its inaccuracy, it remains below, where, if nothing else, it establishes both that this is often a perplexing comic and I'm a shamefully fallible reader. It strikes me that it'd be more shameful to remove the paragraph entirely than it is to have made the mistake, although it feels like a close run thing at the moment. Mea culpa.

       
"But perhaps the most outstanding and perplexing example of not making sense in what is, after all, just a single 20-page book, occurs in the scene begun with the above page. Pak's script seems to intend for us to grasp by the second panel that we're looking at some kind of aniamatronic Dazzler, though why it should be placed in the streets of San Francisco isn't explained in Segovia's art. Perhaps we were supposed to be shown a Marvel-Earth branch of Madame Tussaud or the likes, or perhaps there's a series of these wonders scattered along the pavements of the city. Whatever, it shouldn't be left to the reader to try to make sense of the situation. Indeed, given that lifelike statues of super-heroes are no more and no less human-looking than the folks staring at them in a comicbook panel, this page actually gives the impression that it's the real Dazzler that we're looking at. Segovia's art certainly gives the impression that the retro-disco star has taken, for whatever reason, to performing to small crowds of tourists and locals alike. Any slight doubt in such a reading can only be cancelled out by the page's fourth panel, where we're shown the figure's eyes for the first time and presented with the fact that her arm appears to have lifted her microphone to her lips in the space between the second and fourth frames. Unless Marvel expects us to be perpetually asking ourselves whether we're looking at aniamatronics or "real" superheroes, this is an entirely confusing page. Pak's smart scene-opening moment of doubt has become a scene-undermining problem."

Here the real Dazzler livens up her impersonator's performance with a light show. Yet the impersonator doesn't seem at all surprised by the situation. (Is she supposed to have her eyes closed during this climatic moment?) This was part of what led me to assume to assume that this was a device rather than a person. Still, two pages on, Ito does say that if he'd had "impersonators and magic powers", then he'd be "show-offy" like Dazzler has been. By that point, I assumed it was a reference to the events of some other tale. This is not transparent storytelling. The idea that a scene several pages before was being explained never entered my mind. (Mr Brigonos, in the comments below, raises the possibility that this is actually a female impersonator, which the chest in the first panel above would seem to support. I'd presumed that masculine chest was a sign of the figure's mechanical origins, but I find Mr B's explanation far more convincing.)
  .

Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Steve Gerber's Defenders: Why Buy? (No 1)

In which the blogger begins a series of posts - to run every Sunday in August - discussing the considerable virtues of Steve Gerber's work on the Defenders;

From The Defenders #24, by Gerber, Buscema and McCleod
          
1. On How Steve Gerber's Scripts Seemed To Bring The Best Out Of His Collaborators

Steve Gerber's stint as the writer on The Defenders resulted in one of the most remarkable superhero team books that there's even been. Yet the success of that radical, thrilling run of just 26 precious comicbooks was the consequence of Gerber's collaboration with a series of artists who even in the day were all-too-often regarded as, at best, journeymen and, at worst, hacks. Only once was Gerber partnered on either the title or its extra-sized spin-offs with an artist who was either one of the industry's elite storytellers or an obviously gifted penciller from the coming generation, and that was when he worked with Jim Starlin on Giant-Sized Defenders #3. But the irony is that was in many ways a cursed project, thrown together by necessity at the very last moment, with Starlin able to do nothing but offer layouts which were then finished off by a team of three very different inkers.(*1)

*1:- Gerber did have Gene Colan and Tom Palmer on his team for the covers when the Defenders appeared in the Howard The Duck Treasury, but that's far, far more of a Howard tale in comedic tone and broad satirical purpose.

From The Defenders #38, by Gerberm Buscema & Janson
         
Yet there was something about Gerber's work which seems to have inspired the less-renown and acclaimed artists that he worked with. The comics fandom of the time may have often expressed frustration with and even disdain for the work of Sal Buscema, George Tuska and Don Heck, and yet Gerber was having nothing of that. He always expressed, for example, the most sincere of regards for the younger Buscema's capacity to tell his out-there stories in a way which meant that they were both effective and accessible. Similarly, when Harlan Ellison and Gary Groth managed to define Heck as the worst artist in comics, Gerber gently yet determinedly expressed his respect for the contributions the artist had made to several issues of Giant-Sized Defenders.

From The Defenders #33, by Gerber, Buscema & Moody, in which a superhero's body inhabited by a colleague's spirit attempts to steal back Nighthawk's brain, which has been lying around in a dish!
         
It would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that Gerber's stories on the title succeeded despite the quality of his co-creator's efforts. It's undeniably true that artists from the front rank of the industry, such as Neal Adams, or young Turks such as Walt Simonson, would have helped transform Gerber's plots into crowd-pleasing, cognoscenti-inspiring masterpieces. But Buscema, as Gerber's main collaborator, Heck and Tuska helped ground Gerber's often experimental and always daring tales in ways which made his work approachable for a mass audience. When, for example, Gerber produced a tale in which Nighthawk's quite literally mindless body is accidentally possessed by his acquaintance Jack Norris and then used to steal back its original brain, the clarity and energy of Buscema's layouts ensured that no-one was either confused or disinterested in the deliberately farcical events.

From The Defenders #24, by Gerber, Buscema and McCleod. The black and white reprints from the Marvel Essentials series are often far clearer than the pages of the original comics, which I've why I've often used them here. (Note how the loss of the publisher's info from the reprint seriously unbalances the composition, which was previously claustrophobically topped and tailed by blocks of text.)
        
An artist treasured by Marvel's then-editorial staff for his ability to produce four and even more complete books of layouts a month, Sal Buscema's only-partially-completed pencils obviously relied heavily on the quality of his colleagues. In the opening splash for The Defenders #24, for example, his work was finished off by inker Bob McCleod. (The colour version of it is at the head of this page, the black and white straight above.) The quality of both composition and finished work is immediately evident. The sense of the situation is wordlessly precise and fiercely charged with jeopardy; the Defenders have been trapped by their enemies and no good at all is likely to come from the situation. At a glance, protagonists, antagonists, set and conflict have all been instantly spelled out, with an extra level of claustrophobia and menace supplied by the way in which the faces of the bound heroes are shown pinned between two threatening, metallic serpent heads.

          
Buscema's design here is a storyteller's delight. The first figure that the eye encounters after taking in the meaning of the shot as a whole is that of Dr Strange, whose prone figure instantly informs the in-the-know reader that there's going to be no easy teleport away from the crisis. From the off, therefore, the matter of when-will-the-magician-wake-up is fixed in the audience's mind. Even the mood of the crowd of super-villain cannon-fodder is emphasised through the simple and yet elegant choice to show us the teeth-grimacing minion at the front of the picture plane in profile. Added to this is the meticulous, fine-lined inking of McCleod, who ensures that Buscema's guidelines are transformed into work that's distinct, recognisable and compelling. With the inker's well-judged use of screentone on the Serpent's helmets, for example, a degree of flash and perspective is added to the solid, first-wave Marvel virtues of Buscema's art. 
    From Giant-Size Defenders #4, by Gerber, Heck & Colletta

    The veteran artist Don Heck joined Gerber for the final two Giant-Size issues of The Defenders. (*2) I've written about Heck's collaboration with inker Colletta on Too Cold A Night For Dying before - find it here - so I'll not repeat myself. But it remains a fine example of two craftsmen whose styles were reaching the point of commercial obsolesce rallying and achieving a great deal. Given that Gerber's story is a wrenchingly sad tale of a disordered super-villain and the niece that he ends up mutilating, the understatement of Heck and Colletta's work succeeds in establishing pathos while avoiding the tritest of melodramatic excess.

    *2:- The Giant-Size issues were an experiment which lasted barely 18 months. They were essentially annual-sized extra comics which appeared once a quarter in addition to the regularly-scheduled title they were associated with. This meant that a title like the Defenders, for example, would actually have 16 rather than 12 issues over the course of a year, with each Giant-Size issue containing roughly 30 pages of original material plus reprints.    

    From Marvel Two-In-One #6, by Gerber, Tuska and Esposito
          

    Gerber also worked with George Tuska on the two issues of Marvel-Two-In-One which crossed over with The Defenders  #20, his debut script for the title.. By the mid-Seventies, Tuska work had long since been characterised by a series of stock shots which still succeeded in expressing an impressive if not innovative sense of vigour and power. Indeed, Marvel's Roy Thomas has more than once noted that Tuska's presence on a title was guaranteed to raise its sales well considerably, which suggests that his work was far from out of step with the readers of the time, if not the critics. In the above page from MTI0 #6, there are aspects of the penciller's work which seem more than just over-familiar. The figure in the first panel who's shown falling back behind Stephen Strange is one likely to be encountered in any Tuska story of the period. Yet Tuska's work here has three not-to-be under-estimated qualities. The first is a palpable, genial sense of wonder. The entirely unexpected explosion of the woman threatened with being crushed beneath the subway train showers the page's panel with a gently magical spectacle. The second is the impressive degree of competency shown in the scene of the train pulling into the station. Tuska had there been handed a complex and difficult task which might challenge a less able and experienced artist. Not only does he have to show the train and, within it, its drivers, but he also has to deliver the occult pyrotechnics and - and! - show each of the travellers on the platform reacting to the situation. Lastly, his work projects a undeniable charm, with the tramp in the third panel and the curious woman in the fourth standing as curiously sympathetic figures.

                    
    Despite the presence of some desperately workmanlike inking during Gerber's Defender's run, Buscema's art was blessed by some particularly impressive interpretations too. We've already mentioned Bob McCleod and, despite the common prejudice, Vince Colletta, and in the panels above can be seen two striking images from Jim Moody's short run on the title. Known far more now for the romantic amiability of his work on features such as DC's Supergirl in the Sixties, Moody was a gifted inker capable of producing work which belied his own apparently favoured style. (*3) Both panels above, for example, are impressively threatening, with Moody's use of chiaroscuro accentuating the dangers facing Dr Strange and his allies. In the first panel, Strange is shown emerging from a self-induced magical trance. Buscema has ensured that the moment of returned self-awareness exists without a need for exposition, but it's Moody who captures the sense of disturbing dislocation on Strange's face. In the second, Moody's brave use of such a prominent, unbroken block of shadow lends his subject an impressive authority as well as insisting that fearsome dangers lie before the Defenders. It's a choice which accentuates the gravity of the situation, which gives Gerber the freedom to add dialogue speculating upon the theft of Nighthawk's brain, a touch which a less foreboding panel might have rendered more ridiculous than unsettling.

    *3:- Of course, the beautifully moody inking which Moody contributed to The Amazing Spider-Man, over John Romita in particular, is often unjustly ignored when it comes to noting the best artists who've worked on the character.

    From the first Defenders Annual, by Gerber, Buscema and Janson
          
    Finally, an example from the partnership between Klaus Janson and Sal Buscema which saw out Gerber's tenure on The Defenders. Once again, Buscema's design is wonderfully clear and informing despite the immensely complex challenge that Gerber had set him. In the foreground we see a huge magnifying glass suspended over the "ant farm" into which both The Defenders and their foe Nebulon have been imprisoned. Beyond that are the full-sized figures of the Headmen, those purposefully absurd and yet fascinatingly repellent villains created from one-off characters found by Gerber in a 1974 Marvel horror reprint title. There's even considerable space left in the design for each of the supervillians to have their say. To Buscema's clarity has been add the richness of Janson's original style, marked by lushness, a great mass of detail and a commitment to making every character and event as distinct and significant as possible. Compared to the beautifully conscientious and strangely still quality of Bob McCleod's inking, to which it has a great many similarities, Janson's collaborations with Buscema created a more dramatic flavour to events. In fact, Janson's inks can seem at times to be trying to reframe Buscema's work in a more intense way than the original layouts will allow for. It's a choice which accentuated the difference between the two men's styles, which is something which McCleod's finishes never did.Yet it's a tension which seems entirely appropriate where Gerber's distinctly weird and yet recognisably 70's Marvel-style work is concerned. For it's a contradictory and energetic quality which reflects Gerber's achievement on the Defenders as a whole. He was, after all, smartly creating tales which were both distinctly of their time and yet invigorating strange too.

              
    Coming next Sunday on "Why Buy?"; The Red Guardian, the most feminist superhero of them all, and Steve Gerber's consistently expressed loathing of racism.

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    Here's Your Scorecard! The New Too Busy Thinking Schedule For August 2012

    From X-Men #22, by Roy Thomas, Werner Roth & Dick Ayers (1966)

    Sunday - Why Buy?

    The "Why Buy?" posts will take a particular run on a comic and offer entirely partisan reasons why every single reader ought to adore it. Each month will see a different book being discussed, and each Sunday will bring two more reasons to purchase and enjoy it. August will feature Steve Gerber's Defenders, with the current Journey Into Mystery and the 1980's Atari Force likely to appear in coming months.

    From Frank Bellamy's Dan Dare (1960), as reprinted in P R Garriock's "Masters Of Comic Book Art" (1978)
               
    Monday - The First Time

    A semi-regular feature briefly discussing a particularly interesting first issue from comics history. It may be anything from the inaugural appearance of a creator to the initial appearance of an important character. It could even be a comic which is new this week. Candidates for future pieces include the opening chapter Brian Michael Bendis' Avengers Dissembled books, the Neal Adams' redesign for Green Arrow which debuted in 1969's The Brave And The Bold # 85, and the premier issue of Baron and Rude's Nexus.


    From Brian Michael Bendis & Marc Andreyko's "Torso" (1998)

    Tuesday - The Year In Comics

    The TooBusyThinking tradition of chin-stroking, longer-form comics analysis will continue every week over at Sequart, with a shorter post on an associated matter appearing on this blog too. On this coming Tuesday, for example, the topic will be one of the 1980's  best-loved Third Wave books, with the artwork which distinguished its pages being celebrated here on TooBusyThinking.

    From Buffy Season 8:2, by Joss Whedon & Georges Jeanty
           
    Wednesday - The Weekly List

    A selection of at least 10 comic books or strips connected in some way to the topic of the preceding day's The Year In Comics post, posted with the intention of encouraging visitors to the blog to suggest their own favourites.

    Thursday - The First Half Of The Weekly Reviews And The Next Round Of Reader's Roulette

    From Brendan McCarthy's "Spider-Man: Fever"
            
    Friday - The Also Rans

    A semi-regular feature featuring comics which are making both their debut and their final bow in the recycling bin. Why are they getting the chop, and was there anything which made their purchase worthwhile?

    From Durham Red, from 2000AD #1785, by Alan Grant & Carlos Ezquerra
             
    Saturday - The Second Half Of The Weekly Reviews

    Brevity training for the blogger, in which the remainder of the week's comics are each discussed in a lousy short paragraph each.

    From Thief Of Thieves by Kirkman, Spencer & Martinbrough (2012)
          
    The new TooBusyThinking will begin on August 1st, 2012, with the exception of the first "Why Buy" post, will be up in the afternoon of July 29th. Why am I saying any and all of this? Well, it's so that I've got everything planned out and to ensure that I trap m'self in going through with the change.

    Anyone with the strange and indeed inexplicable desire to learn why TooBusy is changing so radically for a period can find the answers here. Features which were begun and not completed, or promised, will be attended to following the 11th of September.

    And though the idea may seem closer to hubris than mere arrogance,should you know of anyone who might enjoy the new TooBusyThinking, please do consider letting them now. It would be very much appreciated. (I've been told to be more pro-active in my, forgive me, networking.)

    From Scalphunter, by Conway, Ayers & Tanghal, in "Weird Western Tales #69 (1980)
          
    Acts of God, bank holidays, new opportunities and helping the Splendid Wife whenever her Splendidness may wish will, sadly, require an alteration of the above. Please be assured: YOUR LIVES WILL NOT BE ALTERED IN THE SLIGHTEST BY ANYTHING THAT YOU'VE READ HERE!!!

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    Thursday, 26 July 2012

    Readers Roulette: Round Three

    From the Dr Strange Fate by Ron Marz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez & Kevin Nowlan
           
    As I rattled on about earlier today - here - TooBusyThinking's format is going to have to change for the month of August and a few weeks beyond too. Nothing of any importance to the world beyond the tall, thick brick walls of the Splendid Wife's country estate, of course, but it's a matter of some modest concern to your blogger. Temporarily changing the site to a relatively straight-forward reviews format, with the exception of The Year In Comics and The Weekly List posts each Tuesday, means that your advice about what's worth writing about from next week's releases would be very much appreciated.

    From Secret Origins #47, by Grant Morrison, Curt Swan & George Freeman
         
    Of course, visitors to this blog have already been tremendously generous this year with their recommendations of the books which I really ought to be paying attention to. Between the comments to the previous Reader's Roulette posts and the 28 Comics Of The New Golden Age piece, I've got a pretty clear idea of where I ought to be looking. But if there is anything from the list of next week's books which you specifically think I ought to be paying attention to, then I would, as always, be grateful for your ideas. (Next week's page at Comiclist can be found here.) You can recommend as many books as you like, and I'll be raiding the comments at noon on Tuesday 1st August.

    I have a terrible sense of going to well once too often here, and yet, it's hard not to ask for good advice when it would undoubtedly be of benefit. Regardless of whether I should hear from you, or indeed anyone, here, I do hope that the day has been treating you with conspicuous kindness. Thanks for popping in.


    Please do rest assured that all outstanding reviews as nominated by the splendid entrants to the name that merchandise competition will also appear next week.

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