REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS

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I got a chance to work on Batman, I was 29 years old at the time and dreading the nightmare of turning 30. And So I figured Batman’s gotta be older than me. So I made him an impossible age of 50. From that sprung everything about the story”. – Frank Miller

Context: There is only one really good Batman story, and Frank Miller found a way to tell it twice. Once with The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, and again the following year with Batman Year One. In those two books he’s able to repackage the origin story and also gives the character an end point. The impact of it all is so strong it’s now impossible to avoid, and even harder to deviate from when dealing with the character. Miller’s story stays within the basic superhero parameters, but his shift in tone with the character is unique and has had a deep impact for the medium of action adventure comics.

The Batman myth has an interesting construct – he was created by a single individual but through time a broader group (writers, artists, fans) have regulated his makeup. No definitive rules are written anywhere, but there is a core story that has a definitive structure that the collective imagination has moulded throughout the years. Instinctually when reading Batman you know when the work is off the mark, and when it’s on the mark. Batman never kills anyone, rarely uses guns, sticks close to a moral code of doing good and never grows old. With the Dark Knight Returns we see Miller dutifully follow the tropes of action adventure stories, but the reason the work resonates is because of the select few rules he choses to deconstruct.

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In 1986 DC Comics were financially at an all time low, which seemed to have influenced their openness to let an up and comer like Miller do what he wanted with their beloved franchise character. Bringing him back to his darker origins and explore the quasi-fascistic tendencies inherent in the character’s set up. In doing so, the work was talked about and passed around as a “gateway comic” – something you gave to someone to show that “comics were just not for kids anymore”.

The opposite seems true to me and I will bet that its imagery and deconstructions can only really work if there is a certain familiarity with the source material – a nostalgia from reading it at a younger age. It reminds me of a Dan Clowes quote that mentions how disappointed he was that this was the chosen book that was being passed around to change people’s minds about the medium at the time  – that at the end of the day it was all pretty straightforward superhero stuff (mixed in with a Charles Bronson plot). I don’t disagree with that statement, and see what he meant in contrast to his own work – but also think some of the peak points in The Dark Knight Returns are some of the best in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Bruce Wayne is fifty years old and has retired from crime fighting. Gotham is collapsing in the face of new street gangs and the last public sighting of Batman was ten years ago. The first half of the resurrection story sees a frustrated Bruce Wayne surrender to impulses that bring him back on the street to fight. Tested by the new breed of terror, his reaction is to slip into brutality as a born again tyrant. After beating the gang’s leader, its remaining members start worshiping Batman and appropriate his ideals as their new guiding ideology towards aggressively stopping crime.

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A new Robin is found and after years of living in a near catatonic state the second half of the Dark Knight Returns marks the reappearance of the Joker. Resuscitated by the new Batman sightings, he breaks out and is able to set up a terror attack and face Batman one last time. The confrontation pushes their symbiotic relationship to its natural finality. The story ends with an all powerful Superman ordered by then president Reagan to confront and stop Batman, who’s (according to some) now spiralled out of control.

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WRITING AND STRUCTURE

Miller has talked about how the simplicity of Batman allows for many different character interpretations. As a counter punch to the lighter depictions of Batman at the time, Miller focuses on the darker implications of the character’s design for TDKR.

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By defining his persona as an extension of the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne puts himself in a constant headspace of reliving trauma. It’s a self-sabotaging impulse that fuels a masochistic tendency rarely explored in his stories before Miller. From a certain point of view, Batman’s position seems moral and righteous – but TDKR points out how he has more in common with his enemies than the people he is trying to save. Both the villains and Batman are moved by an inner struggle that haunts and pushes them to engage in brutality.

It’s interesting to see how Miller methodically guides the viewer and sets up visual markers along the way. The first two books are more conservative and the last two take larger leaps. It’s almost as if he is carving out a path … here is the Batman you know, watch me deconstruct it all and push him (and the whole of modern comics) over HERE.

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Look at how Batman’s main logo is dealt with throughout (above). Miller begins with the older, more traditional yellow insignia. Along the way, as the story grows darker the yellow oval is taken out – sharper edges cut across his chest. And by the end the logo has completely disappeared, buried along with Bruce Wayne under metal plates of armour. Bruce Wayne is about to dissolve and what Batman represents is now somewhere else.

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Robin: Another subversion Miller pulls off is changing Robin’s gender. And this time Robin choses Batman instead of the other way around. Having her in the narrative allows for an essential part of the superhero template to be showcased – the moment when they first put their costume on and go out.

For some reason we really love to see that shift from “normal” to “super” … we eat it up time and time again in comics and movies. The thrill of reinventing yourself, or better yet getting a glimpse of a character finally allowed to be themselves for the first time. Batman is the authentic expression, Bruce Wayne is the mask. Same applies for Robin.

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One of Miller’s strengths is his use of inner monologues in action scenes, an internal play by play from protagonists when put in high stress situations. Seen from the outside, heroes in comics are mostly showcasing control, power and dominance. It’s interesting to see Miller pull the character back and explore a more nuanced inner process full of self-doubt, fear and vulnerability. It also works both ways – we see how afraid the character is, but also what kind of psychological headspace he needs to get himself in when dealing with certain situations. The beast comes out and we get an uncensored view of his brutality and methods.

DK Inner Monologe.jpgTime: The commercial side of comics imposes certain restrictions in regards to how their stories deal with the effect of time. Bruce Wayne stays the same age, Batman can never loose and the villains always come back. By allowing time to affect characters naturally in TDKR Miller changes everything about how superhero stories function.

The effect of time in this context allows for a sense of vulnerability to set in – suddenly there is more at stake. Bruce Wayne is older, Batman has to adjust accordingly and no one lives forever … well, no one except Superman. With the proper contrast of everyone around him in natural decline it’s interesting to get to explore and see his true alien stamina. He is as shinny and pristine as he was on day one.

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The effects are different on Batman – with the new time restriction comes a sense of awareness and urgency. Every other Batman story has let him off the hook, but TDKR forces him to face up to his ultimate dilemma. He has to kill the Joker. This means breaking his own moral code, this means self sacrifice, this means letting the Joker win.

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He also understands the symbolic impact of what he stands for, and if set up and dealt with properly he can outlive his temporal body. In other words, Batman dying in the right way allows Batman to live forever. And without the Joker to help define his own position in the world, he is now free to set up his own funeral. And he does.

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The visual impact of seeing all these iconic characters grow old and have definitive end points causes a temporary glitch in the infallibility of the fantasy world. By destroying the iconography he allows it to be seen it in a new way – giving the old story a new life.

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CARTOONING

Look and feel: Although I am a huge fan of the book, I had remembered some of TDKR to have been drawn a bit better than it actually is. This re-read made me realize how integral colorist Lynn Varley was in making it all work. The overall impact is still great – its peak points are so masterfully realized that when taken in as a whole the work still feels powerful and vibrant. Its vision and imagery encapsulates the best of action comics.

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Inks: For years some panels had really stood out for me, they were not always the most significant panels but they had a little something extra that made them more dynamic. I could never quite put my finger on it all till I read that by the end of the series Miller was reworking some of the Klaus Janson inks himself when not fully satisfied. Turns out that all the panels that stood out were the Miller inks. It makes a world of difference:

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Janson is good, but there is a scratchy and nervous quality in Miller’s inks (above) that allows the cartooning to cross over into caricature. It embraces broad exaggerations and moves away from trying to render things “realistically”. It’s these exaggerated moments that work best for me (story wise, and in the artwork). Interesting to see (below) with two pages back to back how the dynamics change once Miller passes his inks, specially on the mid page close ups and the before last panel of an empty eyed Batman.

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Miller’s contour lines are thinner than Janson’s, they have less thick and thin contrasts and make for a flatter result when looked at in black and white. But the restraint seems like a deliberate choice that allows Varley’s colors to play a significant part in the image making instead of it being an afterthought. It’s subtle, and in no way am I saying that Janson’s inks are bad – its just a slight difference that has recently been made apparent to me after years of feeling that some panels were slightly different than others. Below is Janson on the left and Miller on the right:

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Janson’s rendering is slightly more “realistic” looking, Miller more caricatural. Janson inks the shadow on the bridge of the nose, Miller leaves it open for Varley to sculpt. Look at the thicker brush strokes used on the left in comparison to Miller leaving shapes empty and letting Varley use color to create definition.

Shortly after the publication Janson is quoted as saying: “Frank and I had a complete falling out on Dark Knight, we’re not going to work together any more; the falling out was that extensive. Frank was not happy with the inking job that I did on the third book. By my own admission, it’s not the best job I’ve ever done, but it also wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done. He wanted me to quit. But I wouldn’t quit because I didn’t think that I had any reason to quit. My feeling was that I wouldn’t quit, but if somebody were to fire me I would accept that. In a nutshell, cooler heads prevailed and I inked the fourth book. I don`t regret any of it. What I regret is that I wasn’t able to show perhaps more of what I’m capable of doing, that it was artistically restricted because it was a writer’s book rather than an artist’s work. Artistically, it wasn’t my most flashy work.”

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This slight shift in visual approaches between Janson and Miller also mirrors a shift in the story, and while parts of the beginning of TDKR might have had the inclination to flirt with treating Batman “realistically” its natural end point derailed into something closer to heavily stylized operatic drama. Alan Moore’s Watchmen addresses the practicalities of what if superheroes were placed in a realistic context, The Dark Knight Returns is about what happens when superhero tropes and codes get an injection of steroids.

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Color: Lynn Varley is the unsung hero behind The Dark Knight Returns. She truly was Frank Miller’s secret weapon and a major collaborator in his most significant work. In an all boys club of macho superheroes makers, the genre’s best colorist was a woman.

All hand painted with what seems like a combination of gouache, acrylic, airbrush and possible crayon highlights. With the nuances of Varley having the final pass in the image making, Miller’s original drawings are allowed to be more sparse and economic – less lines are used and more empty spaces are left alone when carving out the foundation.

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Look how the shades and tone work completes the image, rounding out the shape of the hand, creating texture in the clothes and fully rendering the dimensions of the flat gun. It’s the proper way of seeing the cartoonist / colorist relationship, working together as the Varly completes the vision with tone, texture and mood. Not just filling in the shapes. Clearly there was a back and forth between them as the initial drawings were being done.

Bleeds and color mixes work best with Miller – his line work doesn’t adapt well to the older, flat CMYK color block printing process. The blends and nuances add fluidity to some of his ridged, sometimes stiff drawings. Kevin O’Neil is another cartoonist that flourishes when allowed to have textured color and is not allowed to reach its full potential and disappoints when not. I struggle with Miller’s recent output, and a large part of it has to do with how badly his colorists know how to handle his cartooning.

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Favourite page (above): One of the rules set up by the comics code in 1955 prohibits the Batman to kill anyone. This sets up an interesting dilemma for the character when dealing with his nemesis. If Batman DOESN’T kill the Joker, he always breaks out of jail and keeps hurting innocent victims. If he DOES kill him, the Joker succeeds in having pushed the Batman to go against his moral code. Batman is ultimately doomed to loose. It’s a loop that spins at the centre of the Batman myth and is directly addressed on this page as an end point to the conflict.

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It’s worth pointing out something Miller does as a build up to the page. It’s subtle, but definitely present. As any other normal comic, Miller uses white dialogue balloons when showing characters talking. But for inner monologues, he sets up a color code system, where each character has his or her own color.

Superman is blue:

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Robin is yellow:

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Batman is gray and Joker is green:

Batman_Gray_2.jpgThe narrative building up to the moment on my favourite page has Batman chasing the Joker in a tunnel. He catches up to him, they fight and Joker is left crippled on the floor. Still alive he takes it upon himself to crack his own neck, fully realizing the impact his corpse will have when the police find it and link his murder to Batman. It’s a grim ending that finds the Joker celebrating, but there is another slightly off-kilter take on the events that I find interesting.

Batman and Joker fight in a tunnel, both seriously injuring each other …

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Witnesses are around, running away while calling Batman a killer.

DKR_29.1.jpgAnd this is where an interesting shift happens … Batman and Joker are now alone, side by side after hurting each other and the Joker starts talking. But instead of using normal white dialogue balloons, his are gray. So that means that on the same page we go from reading Batman’s gray coloured inner thoughts to the same color used for Joker talking out loud. It’s easy to miss at first and it could very well be a mistake, or a choice used to reflect a darker tint because they are in a cave – but it could point to something else.

I love the idea that in a half delusional state Batman would be able to talk himself into believing his own lie. A lie that absolves him from breaking his moral code and allows him to walk away with his psyche still intact. He didn’t kill the Joker – the Joker killed himself by snapping his own neck. Batman is doomed to loose, but found a way out. When is reality, in Miller’s world – superheroes grow old, villains are murdered and when it comes to the last Batman story, things are different.

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Favourite panel: I’ve cheated a bit by picking the cover to the third book and not an actual panel in the comics, but not only is this my favorite image in The Dark Knight Returns – I think its my favorite image ever made in the action adventure superhero genre! It really sparked my imagination when I first saw it as a kid, and I’ve had a hard time finding anything that tops it in mainstream comics.

The wrinkles are great, the desperation and build up of anger is great, the claustrophobic cropping is great. I love how the washes of colors are unsaturated but the blue still has a vibrant pop that makes it seem like it was painted on an animation cell or something.

Seeing a bruised up hero is nothing new (at one point in every spaghetti western, Clint Eastwood gets beat up) but I love the creative use of proportion in this, how Miller depicts the symbolic aspect of Batman’s larger than life mythos in a real and literal fashion. His fists are as big as his face, and he’s shaped like a grizzly. Comics have this unique elastic quality that allows a manipulation of form to project psychological states. It’s one thing that comics can easily do and films can’t, and this this case Miller stretches the familiar enough to make it feel like a reinvention.

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SAMMY HARKHAM ON CRUMB

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“Reading Crumb, and thinking about Crumb … it’s kind of crazy because you realize he’s the first alternative cartoonist, really. And he’s so good that an entire industry forms around him. Where you have people that were not publishers become publishers to publish him with the stuff he was doing in San Francisco. And then all these publishers asking other people to make comics, so they can keep publishing and making money off the back of Crumb’s reputation. Basically they sell a bunch of Crumb comics and then these head shops or records stores or whatever want more and then suddenly you have an entire industry being built up around one guy. And he’s so good – he’s got the craft and skill set of a John Stanley or Carl Barks mixed with this really primal, personal, intense content. So you can’t deny him – he’s the first cartoonist, he’s the best cartoonist – he’s yet to be surpassed I think”.

– From the Comics Journal

COMICS REVIEW: HARD BOILED

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I felt much more like a junior partner with Geof Darrow in most of my collaborations, because his point of view was so distinct that he dominates. It’s like being a wrangler at a rodeo, you’re riding a bucking bronco and the best thing to do is hold on”. – Frank Miller

Context: Due to a bad herniated disk I was flattened out a few weeks ago and asked to stay horizontal for seven days. So with a head full of painkillers and limited mobility I was in a unique state of mind to spend time in Geof Darrow’s hyper brutal and elaborately dense drawings. Hard Boiled was Darrow’s American debut and was released four years after the superhero comic industry was transformed by the darker tones of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The work takes its marks from these pillars of comics and further pushes the boundaries and explorations of mature themes and violence in the action adventure genre.

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Story: Set in a bleak dystopian future, Hard Boiled operates in a world of excess and depravity reflected down from its heartless corporate domination. One such conglomerate, called Willeford Home Appliances has put into action a paramilitary army to wipe out any opposing corporate values. Not only do they build products for your home, but also build people. Artificial intelligence that look, think and act like normal humans but are secret corporate assassins. Unknowingly, a robot called Nixon is one of them. Completely reconstructed to think he is a regular husband and father called Carl Seltz working as an insurance investigator, Nixon’s fits of rage and faulty programming get scrambled up in a secret robot revolution that finds him at the center of its possible victory.

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CARTOONING

Influences and background: One of the deciding factors that separate Darrow with your regular American cartoonist seems to lie in a broad international influence. I don’t know what kind of comic shop was around when Darrow was growing up but it was more expansive than what is usually felt in action comics. Moebius is the obvious towering influence, even to the point that they collaborated together (Darrow drew, Moebius inked) on a series of images called La Cité de Feu (above) now impossible to find and a Holy Grail amongst collectors. Influences of Ku Fu films and Monster movies are also in the mix along with a good dose of Hergé’s sensibilities to form and colour.

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Look and feel: It’s as if Hieronymus Bosch had infiltrated comics – decadence and detail. The kind of astonishment and kick in the gut you get from coming face to face with extended volume and ornamentation. At the heart of Darrow’s art is a fundamental exploration of contrasts: big versus small, many versus one, fast versus slow. This creates an interesting push and pull. Full of action and speeding ahead, the plot of Hard Boiled is intentionally designed to be quick and lean. This encourages a fast reading of story, while the image making knowingly jams the breaks demanding full stops. It’s a musical thing – melodies and rhythms that push the narrative against the pull of the heavy visual bludgeoning. It has a dizzying effect, specially when seen in black and white.

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The brutality of it is hard to take in, but the tone and excess of Darrow’s vision really ties in with the story’s overarching theme of corporate culture growing out of control. Logos, product placements and pop culture references like the Flinstones, Astro Boy, Nancy, Porky Pig, Batman, Tweety Bird, Homer Simpson, Ed the Clown, Duran Duran, Hanna Barbera, Popeye, Tintin, Psycho and Bambi are plastered everywhere. Along with Ramones bumper stickers, cars named after Stallone, Eastwood and Norris, highway signs named after Goldie Hawn, giant Pepsi and 7up cans on cars, snickers, butterfingers, Baby Ruth, Milky way, Cheetos – total excess and abundance, the more absurd the better. Although I can’t spot exactly where it is, but Darrow has mentioned in interviews that he even has a battle scene that has one character with a shirt saying Godzilla and the other saying King Kong. It’s a crazy mix.

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I recently read cartoonist Daniel Clowes talking about how much attention he’s given to study how folds work when drawing clothes. How it takes time to understand and take under consideration the points of tension and release. Darrow indulges in this and there is something delightful in seeing his folds worked out with such complexity – wrinkle over wrinkle over wrinkle. Interestingly enough Darrow gives as much care and attention to folded fabric as he does to twisting metal. Car after car crashing, folding and intertwining into each other in the same way that Nixon’s trench coat folds and flows when in motion. For a lot of cartoonists drawing cars seems to be a serious problem to tackle and sometimes its avoided altogether … must be something about the geometric shapes of circles and curves in perspective that proves to be tricky – but Darrow is the opposite. Many MANY cars.

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It’s slapstick Looney Tunes violence gone ballistic (a man gets his arm ripped off and then stabbed WITH it). Almost to the point of being able to read it as a cyclical commentary of how comics had become plagued with gritty hyper violent stories after the influence of Miller’s late eighties work. It’s almost as if Miller and Darrow are addressing this by going all the way with it as a marker for and end point. You want to play this game, here is as far as it can get pushed in commercial comics – now move on and bring it somewhere new.

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Colours: An international comics influence is also apparent in the thinking of its colours. Darrow’s colourist, Claude Legris uses a mix of softer pastel combinations against brighter tones that creates a unique contrast when framing its violent content. And like European comics its size was bigger, the colours more complex and was printed on a heavier stock paper. The entry point to each issue (the covers) where unusually white and minimalistic, offering a sense of design and vision to the whole. These production values really made the book stand out at the time. Even just on the shelf, next to other comics Hard Boiled dominated and bullied its way into your hands.

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When looking at the colour work next to the black and white pages it becomes apparent how important the colour is in directing the eye where to go. The original ink work is so dense that the viewer is lost (which is not unpleasant as a curiosity in the deluxe edition) and totally dependent on the colours to come in as a guide, giving focus points to decode its proper pacing and direction.

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At times the blasts of colours are blood soaked and bright red, but on some pages – the more extreme ones, the blood is black (below). It reminds me of Scorsese talking about how he had to desaturate the colours at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating. I’m wondering if there was a call on the publisher to tone it down, which seems a bit odd given what else happens in the book.

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WRITING

Frank Miller said that he had to change his whole approach to writing the book when seeing the first three pages from Darrow. So much so that the overall tone had to be completely rethought. The attitude went from being a serious science fiction story to a dark bombastic satire. Miller had to play straight man to Darrow’s visual gymnastics. Look at how this straightforward plot element (main character is chased by police) changes in Darrow’s hands:

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Darrow not only draws the police car bigger (big vs. small) but draws it 12 TIMES bigger! Many times in the story Darrow’s art sets up visual jokes that play on the above mentioned big versus small / many versus one / fast versus slow dichotomies. Another one has the main character needing to get passed a series of security men. A trail of bloody agents leads to a full double page spread that has Nixon locked in and surrounded by the enemy along with the battles casualties on the ground. The damage is not just a few dozen injured men but 578. I counted them all.

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Miller doesn’t deviate much from standard science fiction themes – artificial intelligence rebelling against humans. But something about its tone does feel refreshing. When trying to readjust to Darrow’s art he says “Finally I happened to write down the words “come and get it you bum” and realized that it was going to be a comedy”. That bleak comedic edge might be what sets it apart – in the original letter pages of the individual issues (fake or not, all funny) they ran angry letters almost exclusively complaining about its violence and lack of morality. Truth is the story itself does seem a bit slim at first, but as previously mentioned the best Darrow story is slender and compact, and here Miller’s trimmed the fat considerably.

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Favourite page: (Above) Oddly enough I’m not sure exactly why this is my favourite page other than the look of it feels right. The second issue of Hard Boiled came a few months later and double the size of the first. In my copy, because of the staples and binding design it always folded open at this spread. It was the first issue I bought and always the first thing I saw when I picked it up. It’s not really about the dialogue plot point or action sequence, but more about how the tone of the colours homogenize the page as a thrilling piece of design.

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Favourite panel: (above) For me the dread of the whole thing is summed up in this one image. It’s all a sham and Dorothy can’t go back home anymore. Not smart enough to notice his part in a possible robot revolution, Nixon’s finally cornered and given a last chance. “You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Not a fan of Lewis Carol, Nixon gets to keep working in the insurance business – happy ending and all.

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Fun Fact: Miller says he used Darrow’s likeness as the template for Sin City’s flesh eating murderer in the first book in the series called The Hard Goodbye.

COMICS REVIEW: THE KILLING JOKE

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_1Brian Bolland did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting.” – Alan Moore

It’s probably well known that John’s choice of colors turned out to be startlingly at odds with what I had in mind” – Brian Bolland

Context: Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989 and got lots of kids picking up comic books for the first time, me included. My dad brought me to a comic shop he had found during a lunch break and bought me The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (seen below). It had a cover by Brian Bolland, which looked great. But to my disappointment none of the art inside, which was all drawn by different cartoonists was as good as that cover. A few months later I saw The Killing Joke on the shelf, fully illustrated by Bolland and written by Alan Moore. Thirty-seven of its forty-eight pages feature drawings the Joker. And as much (or as little) as that sounds it solidified Bolland as the definitive artist for the character.

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When The Killing Joke came out the superhero revolution had happened a few years before with Frank Miller doing The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore on Watchmen. Both books brought a darker perspective on the superhero genre, which influenced Burton’s take on it and flooded the market with violent, gritty anti-heroes. Bolland was unhappy about its final color treatment by John Higgins and Moore (who generally likes bigger more far reaching ideas) felt a smaller story between the iconic Gotham characters didn’t lead to anywhere interesting. No big ideas. Interesting to see a book loved by so many but looked down upon by its creators. Moore has pretty much disowned it and Bolland got to recolor it the way he originally intended in a 2008 deluxe edition re-release.

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Story: The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, takes over an old dilapidated Carnival playground and terrorizes Gotham with a simple premise – all that’s needed for someone to snap and go insane is one bad day. That everyone is one bad day away from being like him. He chooses to prove his point by singling out the commissioner as his test subject, first crippling his daughter with a shot to the spine and then submitting Gordon through a series of humiliating events and eventual witness to his daughter’s horrific suffering. Throughout the story we are shown several flashbacks that propose to be the Joker’s origins: the one bad day that lead him from being a normal husband who is trying to support a pregnant wife, into a green haired sociopath.

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CARTOONING

Influence and background: Like many cartoonist of his time Bolland was heavily influenced by the superhero visions of George Perez, Joe Kubert and Neal Adams. Adam’s cover for Batman issue 251 has been noted as a direct influence on him to want to draw a Joker story. Bolland’s art school background aligned itself with creating art that had, as its foundation a deep understanding of anatomy and perspective – something not easily found in a lot of comics art. Early work includes finely crafted black and white pages for Judge Dredd and British sci-fi magazine magazine 2000 AD. And along with British artists Dave Gibbons and Brenden McCarthy, Bolland broke into the American comics market in the eighties but now has the luxury of mostly only doing comic covers. He has stated that after working with the best (Alan Moore) on Killing Joke, it would only be a step back to draw any stories for anyone else.

Martin Dupuis Killing Joke_17Look and feel: I’m flipping through the book and surprisingly enough my first reaction is that it’s all very normal looking. Nothing too obtrusive, panel after panel of un-frivolous comics pages. He must have stood out at the time in my collection because from an early beginning it was the heavily stylized art that got me picking up comics. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen. Bolland stands out from all of them. In fact, that’s what saves him now – maybe it’s the fine arts background.

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Lord knows I’ve spent many a teenage Friday night drawing superheroes – the “fun” stuff is always the dramatically exaggerated fight stance, the power poses. But if you learn to draw comics by reading comics you’ll only really know how to draw those kinds of dramatic moments (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen) and will be completely lost when having to tell a proper story  – where people have to sit at tables, open doors and walk down the street. Mapping out all that anatomy and perspective stuff is tedious, most action cartoonist avoid it as much as they can.

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And the truth is that Bolland draws those small moments with as much focus and detail as the more grandiose ones. All within a very structured grid system that trusts the story and allows for a visual system to support it rather than trying to show off. It brings a sense of reality and balance to the more fantastical elements of the story and ultimately renders it all the more terrifying because of it. Comparing it to other artwork done at the time, even next to Dave Gibon’s masterful pages in Watchmen has only solidified how strong Bolland is in Killing Joke. And I’d challenge anyone to hunt down any comics of its time and find better panel to panel cartooning in a mainstream book. It’s deceptively good.

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WRITING

When I picked it up I must have had a bit more money that week because it spotted a 4.50$ cover price. Triple what a normal cover cost at the time. Right next to the price tag was a “suggested for mature readers” label, which either the shop owner didn’t see or didn’t care. At 13, I brought it home and its tone was unlike any other comics I had. To a young reader, its mix of violence and nudity was startling, revolting and titillating at the same time. A strange mix to take in. I hid it in the back of another comic and carefully placed it in my collection so that no one could see.

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The smaller and more intimate design of The Killing Joke is part of what attracts me to it all. The way Moore loops up the ending as the start and vice versa, its construction is effective and condensed – not grandiose. His scripts are infamous for being completely mapped out and fully detailed when it comes to what should be drawn in each panel. I’ve read that smart cartoonists follow instructions step away and do their best to follow his vision.

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I’m not a big fan of stories that explain motives and back story so much, Moore addresses this by making the Joker mention how he often remembers his past in different ways – choosing to have it as multiple-choice. This introduces the subtle idea that he’s been an unreliable narrator in portraying himself as an innocent victim of bad circumstances.

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The story jumps from present to past in effective visual transitions (a part of the image always repeating itself when jumping from past to present). Some of these flashback sequences involve two gangsters and a naïve pre-Joker trying to put together a heist. These are by far the least interesting parts of the story and carry with them an amateurish tone that point towards a possible open affection for the bad acting and dialogue often found in old film noirs.

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The story element that is most referred to when speaking about the book is the treatment of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. The Joker assaults her and breaks her spine with a gunshot. The sequence in which this happens is well paced but terribly violent. It alone is jolting, but it’s the extra touch of darkness when the Joker unzips her top to take photos that gave me the feeling I was reading something I shouldn’t have been as a 13 year old kid.

Moore now talks about the sequence as possibly being too extreme for the time, and I might not disagree. The mix of violence and titillation often seen in horror films is used to similar effects here, but looking back its darker implications give weight to Joker’s main objective. An earlier draft (above left) of the photos in question shows that they had pushed it even more with a center drawing not only suggesting nudity, but outright showing it.

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THE ENDING

Even for it’s biggest supporters the ending of the book has often been a moot point. Some tolerate it, while others downright loathe it. The story climaxes with Batman saving Gordon and confronting the Joker in a fight. It ends in the same way it started, after years and years of fighting each other Batman wants to stop the cycle and genuinely reaches out to help the Joker. Man to man, one on one. It’s as tender a moment that they will have together, and with a sense of helplessness and defeat the Joker declines and offers up a joke in return:

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!

To which Batman chuckles at, and like two old friends they fall into each others arms laughing as the final panels show the police arriving to take the Joker away.

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After such violence, possibly the most brutal seen in any Batman book, how could it end with Batman laughing it all off? How could Moore end his bloodbath on a joke – and one that isn’t even funny? Taken at face value the joke seems to trivialize the previous events, but its underlying message is poignant.

Dressing up like a bat and running around fighting crime is as unleveled an activity as one can think of. Certainly as odd as dressing up like a clown creating havoc on others – “two guys in a lunatic asylum”. Batman offers to reach out and help: “I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me“. But the Joker sees through the well meaning gesture and points out the obvious – Batman is as crazy as he is and might not be the most solid of anchors to rely on : “Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!“. 

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This reading of the ending satisfies me and seems fitting, but a few years back comics writer Grant Morrison (Batman Arkham Asylum) brought a whole new perspective to the ending:

No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. That’s why it’s called The KILLING Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it. But he did it in such a way that it’s ambiguous so people will never be able to be sure, which means it doesn’t HAVE to be the last Batman Joker story. It’s brilliant.

Listen to full Fatman on Batman episode 44 segment here:

I find this take on it terribly exciting and if it isn’t what the original authors intended, maybe it should have been. Presenting the book as an origin story, and at the same time killing off the character on the last page is a great idea. The ultimate loop. But nowhere in Moore’s script (see below) does it hint to anything more than the two longtime adversaries leaning on each other in a quiet moment as they are allowed to laugh at the absurdity of their eternal struggle:

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And if killing the Joker was intended, it might of happened in a very subtle fashion, perhaps as an in-joke just between the two creators that Bolland eventually let slip out in his 2008 intro to the re-edition. He hints at what Morrison mentions above – but Batman’s arm stretched out is clearly not on the Joker neck in the final illustration.

But all this fact checking doesn’t take away from the validity and impact of Morrison’s suggestion. In fact there is an odd tone to the story right from the beginning. Batman wanting to put a legitimate stop to their feud – obsessing over the idea of death and possibly putting into gears the self-fulfilling prophecy of one dying in the others arms.

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And it would, in a backwards way completely prove the Joker’s main point. That given the right circumstances people can be pushed to the edge, go crazy and burst out in violence. His broken neck would be the punch line to the joke that killed. The commissioner might have had a hint of this when he warns Batman that he wants the Joker brought in “by the book … in order to make him understand that our way works”. To which he gets the unconvincing reaction above.

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And it wouldn’t be the first time Bolland would be attached with a Gotham murder. He shoots Batman in the head in a short story he wrote and penciled in 1996. So maybe he is daring enough to pull a fast one on us all – it’s true that without the Joker around after the Killing Joke, having Batman is useless.

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Favorite page (above): I love the pacing and classic grid system of the layout. Real Slow. The way Bolland gradually reveals all the elements of the joke, beat per beat. Pink elephant, handshake and weapon that land on the poisonous punchline. A hint of Joker’s madness is showcased as we see that part of his delight lies in the flirt and buildup. The ownership of the circus has already changed hands well before this chat, but he still strings along the owner as long as he can to meet up and talk. The yellow teeth and bulging eyes are the result of the deadly handshake attack, but not much of a challenge. Harder will be the trial up ahead – setting up the right circumstance for someone to end up with the same blank stare of psychological defeat, but getting there on their own without the old gag prop at hand.

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Favorite panel (above): Drenched in rich pinks and popping purples, I’m attracted in the image’s strength to underlining how ridiculous the idea of dressing up as a bat is – much sillier than dressing up as a clown. The bat mask sliding down, the Joker is in full swing unleashing years of unfair feelings of how his oddities have been vilified while Bruce Wayne’s championed. Both are as crazy as the other, one has found a socially acceptable way to focus his psychotic tendencies, while the Joker keeps getting put away. Both locked into a cycle of doomed patterns, needing one another to define themselves.

CRITICISM

DC Comics released a deluxe edition of The Killing Joke in 2008. Bigger page size, new design and according to Bolland’s wish – was completely re-colored by the artist. Unfortunately none of it works as well as the original version, even down to the logotype re-design.

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Graphic design: The original design credit (above) is given to Richard Bruning, who’s bold center aligned type layout brought a strong sense of branding in a medium that rarely allowed for sophisticated design work. As they went into further printings, the logotype changed colors – making the typography an active participant in the impact of the opening image. Smart stuff.

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In comparison, the type design in the new deluxe edition seems dull and uninspired. On the cover (above – top) a bold slab serif font is mixed with thinner condensed typeface- a big step down from the original. The type design inside the book (above – bottom) doesn’t even match up with the cover, showcasing an even worst layout with a default looking font, bad kerning and terrible spacing considerations. Look how unbalanced the space (too tight) between “BATMAN” and “THE” is compared to the space after “THE” and “KILLING” … and how they forced the line under to align with “BATMAN” and “JOKE”, opening up the kerning in between the letters even more. None of it seems to be working together, none of it works. Which are also my feelings about Bolland’s recoloring job.

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Coloring: The original colors by John Higgins have real flair, popping out on the page and giving an offbeat tone to the drawings. Bombastic and surprising at times, the dark tale is told in splashes of oranges, reds, greens and purples. While detractors say it shows signs of its time, I say the baroque palette elevates the hyper nature of the mania into a pseudo-psychedelic light show.

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Bolland chooses to go in the opposite direction – stripping down the colors and bringing it all down to a more muted, lifelike palette (above right). I fully understand the exercise of trying to ground the visuals to a more realistic standstill in hopes of making the story even more palpable – but the end result lack vividness and excitement. Look how the original colors (above left) bring an urgency to the action, soaking them in a spastic fever dream. Something in the nature of the Joker’s character allows for the more frantic approach to work more effectively.

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In Bolland’s revision, the flashbacks are contrasted with the story told in he narrative’s present tense by totally desaturating them of color. All black and white. The function of making a clear division between the two time-frames is not uninteresting, but it all seems too easy and somewhat cliché – like a bad TV show that makes the screen fuzzy to indicate a dream sequence, or black and white to indicate the “past” or a “reenactment”. He also adds another bothersome element by highlighting one color a la Schindler’s List that seems gimmicky and frivolous rather than helpful.

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Bolland really layers on the gloss and Photoshop slickness when coloring lips in the book, especially for the the Joker (above right). It’s a micro detail and I guess it’s to add realism – but it has the opposite effect for me. Looks fake and sticks out like a sore thumb. Much prefer the elegance of Higgin’s more subtle colors and touch of white paint (left) to indicate a highlight.

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And call me old fashion, but a pet peeve of mine in comics today is the homogenous look of computer coloring. Everything looks the same when flipping through mainstream action stuff. The hand rendered, sometimes hand painted craftsmanship is replaced with overly glossy, slick, web 2.0 soft gradients and machine-like thinking. Not all of it is bad, but enough to look back at some of the pre-computer color designs, however primitive they were with a certain amount of affection. Look at how the grassy background on the left is highlighted and accentuated with tone and texture in the original – seeing the human touch of the brushmarks completely affects the mood.

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I’m really curious to know what was behind Higgin’s process for a panel like this – it seems like a mix of older CMYK plate color techniques with slight painterly touches on top (above left). Not 100% sure. The background gradient seems like an airbrush effect, layer of purple looks like a more traditional flat color plate and Batman has touches of what seem like had painted brush details. Love the small splash of white on his chest, really adds personality – something the Bolland’s recolored version on the whole (right) is lacking. The design, coloring and vision of the original was better left alone.

COMICS REVIEW: GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE

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Moebius was a genius. Because he was not only an artist with incredible capacity, but he was very quick. He was superhuman.” – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Context: Jean Giraud is a French cartoonist who also worked under the name Moebius. The name Giraud was used for his more conservative works while Moebius was used when doing more mature experimental pieces. At the time, these included: La Deviation, Le Bandard Fou, Arzach and Le Garage Hermétique. The latter was started in 1976 as a serialized story in a magazine he co-founded called Métal Hurlant and took four years to finish (34 installments in all). There are only a handful of names in comics that command international respect and Moebius is one of them.

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Story: The world of Le Garage Hermétique is governed by a semi-god like figure called Major Grubert. He takes on different physical attributes during the story, but is mostly seen as a mustachioed man wearing an old colonial uniform. Pointy helmet and all. Grubert’s labyrinthine world is composed of three levels: the unconscious, the conscious and super conscious.

The plot involves a mechanic accidentally blowing the fuse of an important machine and running away to avoid his boss’s retribution. This mistake ultimately triggers a manhunt that unifies a cast of characters from all three levels. This includes Major Grubert who ends up being forced to personally investigate all the levels of his own creation looking for a possible saboteur. Worlds manifest into other worlds, characters change names, personalities and even gender in a miasma of fantasy that aims to blow up the inner workings of the medium while celebrating its action adventure origins.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_14Writing: Le Garage Hermétique started off as an unambitious double page strip. 2 pages. It was drawn just for fun and got filed away without plans to continue. Months later when asked to hand in a small piece for a magazine, the strip was dug up and published. To his surprise, he was asked to write a follow up and handed in the second installment without referencing or remembering the previous story.

Part self dare and highly self-confident, he continued writing the story in this spirit – putting himself in a corner and seeing how he could juggle all the open endings he was setting up. Like a jazz musician improvising on stage, pushing ahead, going off key for stretches of time only to come back to the main riff. Some melodic build ups work, others are dead ends. This also allowed Moebius to work through all of his favorite childhood adventure stories, projecting a love of the genre while fully embracing its clichés. The writing and narrative of Le Garage Hermétique doesn’t always work, some parts are weak but the fluidity and ambition of the blast more than make up for it.

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Influences & background: Usually it’s the name Moebius that gets mentioned by other cartoonists as an influence. With Brandon Graham leading the way, there has been a slight resurgence in the kind of science fiction comics he pioneered years ago. But oddly enough, after reading many interviews with him I can’t easily recall specific names as direct influences to his work.

I’m sure there are, and maybe many (and to totally contradict myself, above is a page layout homage to Will Eisner’s use of typography) but my feeling is that there was an early leaning towards image making that came out as a natural extension of who he was and how he communicated. Maybe that is what makes his work seem so genuine and personal, even if he is dealing with spaceships and aliens.

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Drugs and exploring different perceptions of reality is also part of his make-up. He refers to an influential year off living in the Mexican desert as being a deep source of stimulus. Its dreamlike vision is a reoccurring pattern in the work: environments reflecting internal psychological states that take the shape of barren landscapes and empty deserts.

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Look and feel: Hatch marks, hatch marks, hatch marks. Thrilling to look at – obsessively covering the surface of his masterful page designs, they make the flat pages curve up, create dimension and form. Even rocks and clouds (ESPECIALLY rocks and clouds!) in his backgrounds are exciting to look at, and whether or not you’re a fan of the genres he works in (sci-fi, westerns) it is hard not to get dazzled by his drawing abilities and seduced by his ardent dedication to the art of cartooning.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_9Like cartoonist Gary Panter, Moebius is easily able to shift drawing styles. Altering perspectives according to plot points, new settings and psychological states. It creates a schizoid template that allows for an amalgam of unexpected images. Serious and carefully rendered at one moment, elastic and spontaneous the next – a completely malleable world building ability.

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When he worked on more conservative pieces (most notably a western series called Blueberry) the impression is that that original artwork was carefully gridded out, penciled and then inked. But when working under the pseudonym Moebius, it is said that Giraud rarely did any preparation pencil drawings underneath. Straight to black ink on the page. It wouldn’t matter to me either way, but I am curious to see original pages to see what kind of template and safety net he was using. It seems a bit crazy to think that images like these could get done in ink alone.

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Favorite page (above): One of my favorite pages in the book has the story coming to a climax when a triggered explosion disrupts the foundation of the 3 worlds. Formally speaking it’s a gorgeous page to look at, and what excites me the most about it is its execution of tonal shifts. The move from calm blank white water to hatch mark clouds, curving into crosshatching mushrooms that end in jet black inks. Its balance and harmonious design is admirable. The ship also seems to point towards Le Garage being an influence on George Lucas, this being published before the original Star Wars film was made.

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Favorite panel (above): After much build up and secrecy in the plot, Moebius finally shows us an image of Jerry Cornelius. He’s a major personality in the story, but not an original Moebius character. He was taken from science fiction writer Michael Moorcock. As previously mentioned, many of the characters throughout the story change names, styles and even genders. In a bravura performance of cartooning Moebius uses many different drawing techniques and also decides to give him strong feminine traits.

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Hatch marks meet crosshatching in bold moves that render the drawing spontaneous and precise at the same time. He even brings in elements of pointillism to soften up the face. He has to juggle the shading of the image itself (characters are looking at an old photograph) and the shadow marks in which are imposed on the photo by the characters hands and pipe.

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Possible use of Patti Smith and Amelia Earheart as inspiration.

COLOR vs. BLACK & WHITE

Context: His books are not easy to find, French editions exist and English ones are rare. Marvel Comics published collections of his work under the Epic imprint in the eighties. This is where I first read him. These included English translations and a full color treatment (Le Garage Hermétique was originally in black and white). I had been looking for the original French B&W edition for years, and recently found a great set of new reprints by Les Humanoïdes Associés. I read them side by side, one page at a time.

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Page flow: The first thing that stands out between the two versions is Epic’s (English / color) decision to break the original design of the spreads. Because of their written introduction, the story BEGINS on the right page, while in the original work the story spread STARTED on the left page. This seems like a small detail, but ends up completely throwing off the whole rhythm of the book. It’s always a page behind.

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See how the flow of the original black and white (above ) has a much more harmonious feel – Major Grubert on left page looking to his right, pushing the eye towards the next page. Starts with light pen marks on left and pushes towards a heavier hatch marked end point on bottom right corner.

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While the colored version has Major Grubert looking away to the right, pushing the flow off page and breaking the movement. The color palette of the two story segments don’t necessarily clash, but the mood of the spread would have been much more effective if only composed of the soft greens and bubbly pinks of the odd aquatic hippo ride.

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Beautiful use of heavy blacks and contrasting empty space pushes the flow nicely as the above clearly shows how the spread was designed to work together, and becomes messy when tampered with.

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Color pallet: For enthusiastic Moebius fans, there is nothing like seeing his original black and white lines uninterrupted by color. But it is also important to point out how lush and beautiful some of the off kilter coloring choices are in the 1988 Epic version.

At the time, traditional (American) super hero comics often worked with very crude color plates, not always being able to catch the subtleties some artists needed. Call it a European sensibility, but how refreshing it was to see soft pastel pallets challenge the usual macho context. The colors sometimes get in the way of the art and at other times make it POP and snap vibrantly – right down to seeing the crackling on some pages from the paint application.

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The use of the color extractions on the very last page of the book (above) is a brilliant touch only a colored version could pull off. The shift happens as Grubert is being hunted down, eventually escaping the colorful world of Le Garage into the lifeless black and white of the “real world”.

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Coloring hatch marks: Interesting to see that Moebius’s line work alone is strong enough to suggest a sense of dimension and light without the help of color. See how well the image reads with the hatch marks making the foreground closer in the B&W version – guiding the eye towards the two figures walking, making them pop out on the stark backdrop. The color struggles to deal with the extra lines and opts to make the (darker) foreground colors paler and (lighter) background colors darker.

Ultimately the addition of color, more often than not ends up flattening out the line work of the pages. Not to say that Moebius’s work is not adaptable to color, only that the original piece was conceived in black and white and feels more complete in its original state.

Martin_Dupuis_GH_24Criticism: While I like a lot of the story developments that deviate and make us face dead ends, other story points don’t feel as well rounded as they should be. Specially near its end point, when having to deal with a climactic confrontation that resolves itself suddenly by a convenient interference from an outside source. But maybe action adventure stories always end that way, so maybe he is playing within the genre. An easy way out, or maybe I need to re-read it again.