Lady Shiva

Yet another Who's Who entry I have no memory of writing. And drawn by the great Damion Scott and inked by Robert Campanella, no less.

North 40

I recently stumbled across a couple blog posts I wrote years back about North 40, the great series by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, and discovered that since the old WildStorm blog where they were originally published is now pining for the fjords, the posts exist only on my hard drive and the wayback machine.

Not that my posts were any great shakes, but the series was. And while Fiona has obviously gone on to be the unanimously lauded, acclaimed artist of the Eisner Award-winning series Saga, writen by Brian K. Vaughan, the more stuff about North 40 on the internet, the better. So here 'tis. 

Oh, and North 40's now available in trade paperback. Go buy it. In fact, buy a bunch. You'll be glad you did. 

***

July 2009

So here’s how it all happened.

I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, checking out the various booths when I spied my old pal Rob Simpson, a former Marvel editor, former DC editor who was then working at Dark Horse. He introduced me to the couple he was talking to, a friendly pair named Aaron and Cristi Williams. I was under the impression that they were old friends with my old friend but later learned it wasn’t true—they were just friends with pretty much everyone they met. Cristi offered me copies of Aaron’s books and not wanting to be impolite and because I’m a huge fan of free swag, I oh so kindly accepted.

Rob and I caught up and then I had to run for a meeting with another old pal, Eddie Berganza, to discuss the DC/WildStorm crossover DreamWar. Unusually for me, I was actually a few minutes early. As is not unusual for SDCC, Eddie got caught in the crush of people trying to leave the con, and called to say he’d be a few minutes late. As all I had to read were these new Aaron Williams books I’d been handed, I opened the first one…and was instantly sucked into the world of PS238

I immediately discovered that Aaron had created a world populated with classic comic book characters, all of whom had been tweaked and tilted and turned just enough to be both completely, instantly recognizable and yet utterly new. They were old pals you’d never met before. And then Aaron grabbed ’em and put ’em through their paces, crafting stories that were clear and accessible and never went where you thought they were going and yet managed to be completely satisfying. Not to mention funny, which they were in spades. Great characterization, great pacing, great dialogue. The series was the real deal. By the time Eddie arrived I had a new favorite comic book series.

Naturally, I asked Aaron if he had anything he’d like to pitch. This is sorta like asking a shark if it likes to eat…only not really. In fact, you know what? That was a lousy analogy. Because while it’s a half-decent comparison in that, like that shark and eating, I get the feeling Aaron would cease to live were he somehow stopped from telling stories, so let’s all fervently hope no one stops him from doing so, and why would anyone anyway? But the other thing is that it’s clear Aaron loves the art of storytelling. Whereas I’ve never heard any convincing evidence that a shark really loves eating, as opposed to simply doing it because it’s a biological imperative.

And, see, the thing is that PS238 is absolutely wonderful. But it’s not exactly WildStorm material, not in the way most folks think of WildStorm, at least. I mean, yes, the quality level is there, but it’s kid-friendly, and while it’s dramatic and has its tense moments, it really does seem, superficially at least, to not be our cuppa. And yet I could tell that a storyteller as imaginative and skilled as Aaron could almost certainly work in a bunch of different genres and styles. People who can tell stories are a rare and valuable thing and not to be pigeonholed.

Anyway, I asked Aaron to pitch me. And he did. He pitched me North 40 pretty much complete, with the first story arc plotted and paced, broken down issue-by-issue, and the characters already in place. It was kinda crazy, actually, how finished an idea it already was. I mean…it was all there, down to the theme he wanted to explore with the series. The slightest of nips and tucks and we were good to go.

Now all we needed was an artist. And it took even less time figuring out who’d be perfect for that.

I’d worked with Fiona Staples on the adaptation of Trick ’r Treat, the Michael Dougherty Halloween film which was, at that point, awaiting a release date. It was, I believe, the first full-length comic Fiona had ever drawn, although she’d colored some stuff, and it was insanely great work on her part. So great I immediately offered her a project which could not have been much more different than the claustrophobic horror book she’d already done for me: this time I offered her a superhero book that spanned the globe, hopped back in forth in time and, oh, yes, was actually a film noir tale in spandex disguise. Pretty much the polar opposite of her previous gig. And yet I had not the slightest doubt she’d hit it out of the park.

Which she did. She teed off on Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor like it’d just insulted her mother and then ran over her puppy. She smacked the bejeebers out of it and left it sobbing in the corner, begging for mercy as though it were a minor mafioso and she were a Robert DeNiro character in a Scorsese flick. Which is to say, she did a really, really nice job.

So when North 40 came around, I immediately thought of Fiona. Oh, sure, she hadn’t yet drawn a small town. And she hadn’t had to design many new characters. And North 40 is essentially a western with fantasy and horror elements. In fact, basically, except for not having funny animals, North 40 is pretty much everything Fiona hadn’t yet drawn for me. And did I have any doubts this time around?

I did not. One glance at any North 40 image will illustrate nicely why I was as sure she’d be perfect for this as I am quite confident the sun’s going to rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow. (Well…except perhaps in Conover County. You can never tell for sure what’s going to happen there.) 

I sent Aaron’s proposal to Fiona and a day or two later I got some preliminary sketches. Aaron and I conferred on what changes we’d like done and concurred that they’d look a bit better without the saliva we’d accidentally drooled on them (quite independently and several thousand miles apart, mind you), and that beyond that they needed no tweaking. A few days after that I received the colored versions. Aaron designed a tasty little presentation and I submitted it. A few days later I got the green light.

Needless to say, this is not the way projects normally go. The entire birthing process is usually a much more arduous one—not always, but generally. I mean, a comic book series is a serious investment of time and energy and resources. Everyone involved in the decision-making takes it mighty seriously, and evaluates each property from a bunch of different angles. And all that’s a good thing, and it takes time to do it right.

But it’s been apparent to everyone at both WildStorm and DC Comics that North 40 is a most unusual book, in the best sense. It’s unusually original, unusually well written and unusually well illustrated. Even the response has been (very pleasantly) unusual, in that I’ve been getting emails and calls from pros who’ve gotten sneak peeks and gone out of their way to rave about it.

Which is extremely pleasant and very gratifying but, I must say, not really as surprising as it might normally be. This book has been in the works for a while and we’ve known pretty much exactly what we’ve had for a year now. And we could not be happier to finally be able to share it with the rest of you. Or, given the subject and tone of the book, mayhap it would be more accurate to say we’re pleased to finally be unleashing it upon the world.

North 40. Grab it while you can. But some caution is advised. Because there’s somethin’ mighty big and bad lurking just around the corner and you’re gonna need all the help you can get. And used properly North 40 might be just what you need.

Or…it could just be the beginning of the end…


***

Here're two of my favorite sequences of the entire series, smooshed together. Other bits from the series got more attention, but I just always loved what Aaron and Fiona did on these pages. I mean...the ghost looks terrified of the things walking past. How awesome is that? And, all things considered, absolutely understandable.






What States Taste Like

I assume I'll get tired of these maps at some point.

But, to misquote the king, this is not that point.


Shocked to discover Massachusetts gets it the most right, although Virginia, Louisiana and Utah are no slouches.

Why I Love Dick Grayson

Here's a piece I wrote for an upcoming book—the first ever!—on Dick Grayson, the original Robin and, depending upon how you define the term, the first sidekick, and certainly the one who became the archetype, defining the role for future superheroes. The book's editor, Kristen Geaman, talked me into writing something, even though I felt a little trepidation, given that most of the book (I believe) is going to be something of a scholarly, academic tome. Nevetheless, never one to disappoint, I wrote a piece for her...which promptly got cut for length. Isn't that always the way? I shook my fist at the heavens, cursing editors...and then remembered that that's how I've spent much of my professional career.

I never liked Robin.
I knew I was supposed to. I distinctly remember being quite young and thinking, “I’m supposed to identity myself with Robin.” Maybe those weren’t the exact words, but they were close. I was meant to be able to relate to Robin because we were both kids. I understood that from the first. It just didn’t work.
The Batman I grew up with was the Adam West television show. My weekdays were centered around the repeats shown on our station in Dallas. We moved to Connecticut, shortly after my fifth birthday, and that was it for my daily dose of Batman, and it was a serious loss. I loved that show with all my heart and soul. On the other hand, they had snow in Connecticut, and since I didn’t have to shovel it, that was pretty great.
They also had comic books. Our local grocery store had a spin rack, and once in a great while, my mom would let me get, if I’m remembering the economics correctly, a three-pack of DC Comics for a dollar, at least one of which would probably be Batman-related in some way. And sometimes the universe would align just so and the library would suddenly have a hardbound collection of old Batman comics. They were from the 1950s and if they didn’t work for me nearly as thoroughly as the newish ones in the grocery store—and they didn’t—they still thrilled me through and through. Any Batman was way, way better than no Batman. Really, for me, any Batman was way, way better than pretty much anything else in the entire world.
But those old comics drove home even more solidly my reasons for disliking Robin. He made stupid jokes. Batman rarely made any jokes—his mission was a serious one—but on the rare occasion he did, they were at least genuinely funny. Okay, sure, Spider-Man made jokes too, all the time, but his were funny, and often self-deprecating in a way I appreciated, and not just lame puns. And Robin seemed to always be doing stupid things and getting caught and captured and then needing to be rescued by the Batman. Oh, sure, sometimes it was the other way around, and it was Robin doing the rescuing of the Batman. But those were the exceptions to the rule.
Listen, I was the youngest of five. I was fully aware of the physical and cognitive differences between, say, an 7-year-old and a 14-year-old, or an 11-year-old and an 18-year-old. All it took was playing stickball with my older brothers for a few minutes to make crystal clear the gaping chasm between our skill sets. So extrapolating from that: a little kid and the Batman? Partners in crime fighting? The willing suspension of disbelief was one thing. I was all about the willing suspension of disbelief. Denying everything you know about everything is quite another.
But a weird thing: I had to admit that, in color especially, Batman and Robin looked good together visually, with the yellow of Robin’s cape contrasting wonderfully with the dark blue of the Batman’s. The jokes still bugged, and the short shorts were kinda goofy, but still: he looked pretty cool, and they looked good together.
And then I stumbled across an issue of The Batman Family, an anthology book from the mid-70s. And in that story, my old nemesis, Robin was suddenly…cool. Like, really, really no kidding cool. He was a college student now and he was tall and smart and his jokes were funny and he rode a motorcycle. And he could do anything. Well, maybe not anything. As far as I could tell, he couldn’t fly or teleport or sling webs. But it seemed like pretty much anything the Batman could do, Robin could do. And even a little bit more: my boy Dick Grayson seemed to have grown up to be quite the suave, debonair bon vivant. I mean…he and Batgirl team up to defeat the devil in the story. Seriously. And then? And then? ‘cuz, you know, it’s not like beating the devil’s enough. No, then it got good: Batgirl kissed him. Batgirl, the first woman I ever loved, kissed him.
So…Dick Grayson was handsome, intelligent, funny, attractive to females, and able to do the most outrageous physical feats. And—and this was huge—unlike the way most characters with those attributes were generally portrayed in stories, he wasn’t a jerk in the slightest: just the opposite, in fact.
Oh, yeah, now here was a character I could totally like. 
Click through to her site to read the entire thing.

Batman & Robin Adventures #7

Saw this online:


Now that’s how you depict the Ventriloquist, someone to whom Scarface is very real, and not real at all, both at the same time, and doesn’t see anything odd about it.
and I really loved that analysis of the character. 

I own this page of original art. I won't say I stole the page from Rick Burchett....per se. But I will say it’s one of the finest examples of storytelling I’ve ever seen. 

It all starts with great writing from Ty Templeton, and without his wonderful script, of course, it's not likely we'd even be talking about it. But the thing that makes it work as staggeringly effectively as it does is that pan down, a pan created entirely by Rick’s judicious use of gutters. It forces the reader to slow down—something difficult to do in comics, and virtually unheard of these days—so the bloody hand, which is the key and obviously there the entire time, isn’t revealed until the third panel. Amazing. Simple yet simply brilliant. 

Also noteworthy is fantastic coloring from Linda Medley. Linda is, of course, the incredible writer/artist/creator of the magnificent Castle Waiting books, but despite that, she colored a number of comics for me in the 90s. (But not nearly enough—never nearly enough. Still and all, I'm grateful she agreed to color any.) 

Detective Comics #726

Ran across this today. I think of this issue often, for a number of reasons, but I'd forgotten about this particular page. Which is kinda funny, since it features the Batman choking me out.


That's right, I'm the one Batman's choking with his right hand.


Also featured on this page are some of artist Brian Stelfreeze's other favorites, such as Cully Hamner, Karl Story, Jordan B. Gorfinkel (twice! boy, he must have really hacked off the Dark Knight), Darren Vincenzo and Mike Cotton.

Kinda weird that I sometimes forget about this page. Probably a spot of brain damage due to oxygen deprivation.

Jim Aparo, master storyteller

I'm currently working on a new project which has had me looking to try some approaches I haven't really used much before. I've been talking over various storytelling techniques with my co-creator, the artist on the project, and as will happen, we've been discussing artists that were formative influences on us. Which in my case leads me back, time and again, to the great Jim Aparo. Here are just a few of the pages that we've found especially interesting or useful.

Looking at these, I'm amazed at how much he can fit on a page without it ever feeling cramped. The storytelling is so clear yet so dramatic. 10 panels and yet it still somehow manages to breathe.

And Jim obviously wasn't hesitant to go for panels that probably weren't all that much fun to draw, yet which did exactly what was best for the story—I mean, how clean and clear is this sequence with the motorcyclist? The way the locked-off camera adds to the tension (no pun intended) as the biker draws nearer and nearer to his doom?

How dynamic yet efficient are these upshots of the Batman and the KGBeast leaping over the alley? How great is the first combination of panels, with a closeup of the Beast and the Batman in the foreground contrasted with a dutched long shot of them in silhouette in the background, followed by the bird's eye view? That's a lot of camera movement, and yet there's never the slightest doubt what's going on and where. 


Check out these Milleresque vertical panels—curiously underused these days, yet utterly perfect for the actions involved in this sequence: climbing an elevator shaft, dropping cinder blocks down an elevator shaft...basically, the things one does when near an elevator shaft. 


These quick cuts are so effective. Notice how tight Jim pulled in for most of them, and why not? It heightens the drama, and it's not like there's any way for anyone to mistake who either of the faces on this page are. (By the by, that curving shadow from the Batman's ear? That is, in fact, the proper way to shade the Batman's cowl. For the record.)
I love the stat-and-repeats going back and forth between Bruce and the Joker—like the classic Clint Eastwood/Lee Van Cleef/Eli Wallach standoff from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Also, that Joker chin, man—so awesome. 

I loved Jim Aparo's art from the very first time I saw it. But the longer I study it, the more I admire it.

Detective Comics #710

So I had reason to look at this page today, pencilled by Graham Nolan and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, from a script by Chuck Dixon. It features what may be my single favorite drawing of the Batman ever, or at least his head. The whole page is great, but just look at that very first panel. The Batman looks lean and tough and dangerous and impossibly cool—I mean, he looks like he could take out a small group of assassins just using his ears. You don't get any more badass than that.


The Killing Joke

I was talking about this with Kelley Jones the other day and even after all these years I still think this is probably the single greatest house ad I've ever seen.



In Which Bruce Timm and Paul Dini Congratulate Me on My Nuptials

When I walked in to my office at DC Comics one day in May 1994, after being away for a week on my honeymoon, this was waiting on my desk.



Not a terrible way to start the working day. In fact, between that and being married, it was a pretty good way to start the week.