Looking back on- and forward to- Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy

Cinematic storytelling in comics is a tough thing to pull off.  The list of artists who can truly nail it is a short one.  Cassaday, Hitch, and Quitely come to mind.  But maybe the best of all of them is Geoff Darrow.  When a new Shaolin Cowboy series was announced at the NYCC Dark Horse panel, I was both shocked and super excited.  After 7 sporadically published issues on the Wachowski’s Burlyman Entertainment, it disappeared, with intermittent rumors of an animated movie and little else to be heard for the past 4 years.  But all I wanted was more comics!  With its return apparently imminent, let’s take a look back on what made it so amazing.

Perhaps the most well-loved issue of the series was issue #6, where the titular character fights off possessed sharks in the belly of monster carrying a city on its back.  All the crazy ideas Darrow has thrown out really come to a head in this issue, and you can tell he loved drawing it.  While the fight scenes are epic, look also at the intense panels leading up to all the hyper violence.

We follow the action in an over the shoulder shot, as Darrow moves our eye back and forth across the page.  We know the attack is imminent, but he lets us wallow in the calm before the storm before we get the straight up action promised by the cover.  This is exactly how to use cinematic storytelling on a static page.  For my money, it works better as a comic than as a movie, because he uses our natural side-to-side reading movements to convey the back and forth movements of the shark.  Then, we simply wait in the fourth panel, soaking in the the artwork, which he produces at a scale much larger than the printed version to allow the insane level of detail.  Then when the action hits, it’s always big:

Yes, it’s a cowboy monk fighting a shark with a chainsaw on a stick.  That’s pretty tough to screw up.  But look at the storytelling for a minute.  While most comic book fight scenes are easy to blow by, the commitment to hyper-detail in every panel slows down the eye to digest and appreciate everything that’s going on.  And look at how expertly he leads the eye through the page.  In panel one, the Monk is leaping off screen, which continues in panel 2 with only his feet and chainsaw visible.  Panel three finds him coming back into view, and panel four finds him landing lightly on a floating suitcase.  How do you know he’s landing lightly?  The splash is contrasted nicely with the chaotic feeding frenzy going on in the background.  And when he lands, he doesn’t even scare off the mice feeding on the bloated carcass in the foreground.  The sense of nimbleness is easily conveyed, even though the the character is not exactly a lightweight.

Oh and by the way, they’re fighting in the belly of this:

Never let it be said that the man doesn’t know how to use splash pages for effect.

So if you’re in the mood for a kung-fu cowboy fighting crabs with grudges, possessed sharks, and the occasional baby, it’s officially okay to get excited now.

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Horror Comics: An American Tradition

In comics, unlike in movies, a monster cannot jump out at you, violins can’t screech, the camera can’t violently cut in and out of a grisly scene.  With all that stacked against comics, you’d think they wouldn’t be able to do horror very well at all.  Fortunately for us readers, nothing could be further from the truth.

Panels are often used much differently in horror comics than in your typical superhero book.  Instead of being packed with action or information, they can set a mood, create a sense of foreboding, or just flat out depict a horrifying image to scare the pants off readers.  Let’s take a look at how a couple of modern horror comic masters use panels to achieve their goals.

Steve NIles, perhaps best known for the series 30 Days of Night, also wrote an underrated masterpiece called Aleister Arcane for IDW in 2004.  Along with Breehn Burns on art, Niles crafted the perfect issue #1.  He tells the story of a small town late-night TV horror host who is ruined by the local parentage.  Throughout the issue, we see him befriend a new generation of kids who start to bring joy back into his life.  But when he falls ill, we know something terrible is going to happen, starting with this page:

Each panel, without going into explicit detail, reveals a little bit more that something is about to go horribly wrong.  Even the final speech bubble creates its own tension, going darker and wavier that the other bubbles on the page.  Niles can’t use sound like a movie can, but you can practically hear the terror in her voice, as all hell is about to let loose in her small town.

The placement of that bubble is also different from the others on the page.  Instead of being placed at the top of the panel, where your eye would pick it up before the artwork, it’s at the bottom, signifying a long silence before she speaks, the words in the previous panel hanging ominously in the air.

That final panel also has a very dark and indistinct border compared to the 5 previous ones, as if the light in Aleister’s life goes out and the kids’ comfortable world is opening up to the horrors to come.

Nothing particularly terrifying is going on on this page, but the sense of buildup is palpable.  With such expert pacing, nothing needs to jump out at the audience to get the blood rushing.

Another master of the horror comic is Mike Mignola.  With his Hellboy stories, he’s written and drawn some of the downright spookiest scenes ever seen in a comic book.  Teaming up with Richard Corben in the Appalachian folktale, The Crooked Man, the two conjure up a terrifying image and place it right at the end of this two page sequence:

You see it as soon as you turn the page.  There’s no hiding it.  It does not sneak up on you.  In fact, it reveals itself and then waits for you to get there.  This is not a movie where you can shut your eyes or look away when you get to the horrifying part.  It lies in wait and draws your eye even as you read the panels leading up to it.

The other advantage this has over movies, is that the image does not disappear as soon as the shot is over.  It lingers there on the page for as long as you want to look at it.  And looking at it right now, it’s every bit as creepy as the first time I read this issue.

With Halloween right around the corner, I think we could all do with some recommendations!  What are some of your favorite horror comics or creators and what techniques do they use that stuck with you?  What do you think the advantages or disadvantages are of using the comic form to tell a scary story?

Is 22 Pages Our Only Option?

22 pages.  Or 20.  Or 24.  You know what I’m talking about.  The traditional American monthly comic.  Is this the best format to tell every story?  How did we end up here and what can we learn from other comic cultures around the world?

I’m told that 22 pages came from the assumption that an artist could pencil a page per day, and there are 22 work days in most months.  In Steven Grant’s Permanent Damage column on comicbookresources, he mentions that Marvel Comics had shrunk down to as few as 17 pages in the 1970s, and were only raised to 22 after indie companies started springing up offering a far greater story-to-ad ratio.

Clearly folks had gotten by on fewer pages, and before that on far more.  But whatever the official page count, the single issue “floppy” format has been the standard American comic for far longer than I’ve been around.

While this format comes with a sense of familiarity, it’s not always the best way to showcase a company’s characters or creative talent. Nor is it the most effective way to attract new readers.  When you think about marketing comics to younger readers, something akin to the British anthology format might work better than the typical $3 floppy model.

Imagine a childrens’ anthology in the 2000AD format.  Each week, you get a handful of 7 page stories, some serialized, some one-off (with less exploding heads, of course).  This would provide a higher content to dollar ratio and alleviate the month-long gap in between stories.  Getting kids into the store on a weekly basis would be an invaluable tool in creating new lifelong readers.

So far I’ve enjoyed DC’s New 52 initiative immensely.  The problem lies in the format.  Few of us can afford to try out and continue to follow 52 distinct titles.  The fact is that a bunch will be killed off without the majority of the readership having seen them. They might be served better by a format popular in Japanese comic books: the anthology or “phone book” style publication.

Manga is traditionally produced in huge, inexpensive volumes on newsprint, with the most popular series getting reprinted into collections.  It varies from weekly to monthly, with stories ranging from 7 to 30 pages, but the idea is the same.  The reader gets the chance to sample every title regardless of its popularity.

Sure, you’re forcing readers to buy more than they normally would, but by combining them cover prices would go down.  Just imagine:  instead of having to choose between the new Swamp Thing or Animal Man, I get to lug this bad boy home:

Seriously, who wouldn't buy this?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling a story in 22 pages, it’s not a catch-all for every book.  Why not give something else a shot, publishers?  What other formats would you like to see?

Great Expectations

Comic books consistently demand more of the reader than any other form of entertainment.  Creators expect readers to be on a common footing in terms of both story and format.  But an explicit goal of comics needs to be drawing in new readers, and creators need to understand that not everyone has the same background.

What is expected of a reader?

The first and most obvious expectation is that the reader knows how to read a comic book.  This may seem silly, but it’s not always the case.  Many manga collections provide a detailed explanation in the beginning of the book to show how to follow the panels on a page.  Of course, this is mainly because the left to right reading method is foreign to American readers.  But the layout on many modern books could be just as foreign to someone who hasn’t read a comic since the 9-panel grid was the only game in town.

The next expectation is that readers have, at the very least, a passing knowledge of the characters in the stories being told.  In most movies the audience has no immediate anchor and has to be introduced to every element, from the characters to the rules of the world.  Comics can conveniently sidestep that introductory period and get right to the meat of the story.  Thumbing through the most recent issue of Fantastic Four, by Jonathan Hickman, I notice tons of new characters that are not Reed, Sue, Ben, or Johnny.  However, these characters only stand out as new and different if the reader knows who the FF is in the first place.  You are expected to have that basic knowledge coming in.

This makes his run stand out in comparison to other runs, but it also presents a problem for the more casual comic book reader, the type of reader I would argue is necessary for serious growth in the comic book marketplace.  Not only are you expected to know the basics of who the characters are, you are often called upon to know complicated histories of books in order to understand current developments.  Even in Marvel’s Ultimate reboots, the retelling of these stories doesn’t pack the same punch if you don’t know the way they were originally told.

What can we do to reach new readers?

Certainly the availability of collections helps matters.  When Grant Morrison began his lengthy run on Batman, it became immediately clear that he would be drawing from the most obscure corners of the character’s history.  So what did DC do?  They released a reprint of Batman: Son of the Demon, the story Morrison was explicitly building off of.  Later they came out with The Black Casebook, delving even further into the most out-there Batman stories.

The other recent development working in comics’ favor is the increasing viability of creator owned books.  Comic book readers are notorious completists.  We want to know every event a character’s been through, every relationship a character’s had.  Indie books are great at capitalizing on that feeling.  Want to read every Scott Pilgrim comic ever published?  Go pick up all six volumes from Oni.  Ditto for Ed Brubaker’s fantastic work on Criminal or Sleeper.  These writers are not interested in maintaining a property for decades on end.  They want to tell a story with a definite beginning and end point, which you can give to anyone as a commitment-free recommendation.

Mainstream comics are still the gateway drug for many of us, so it’s a good sign that Marvel and DC are starting to build on this model, creating pocket universes where anyone can jump on board.  Perhaps the Ultimate and Vertigo lines have been so successful because they’re contained stories and are constantly in print.

The further extension of the principle behind the these books and DC’s upcoming company-wide relaunch was recently suggested by Jonathan Hickman in an excellent interview with Comics’ Alliance’s Chris Sims:

I think we do comics wrong in a lot of ways. Like I almost think that when Brian Bendis comes on a book, it should be Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers, and then he does his 48 issues or whatever, his epic Avengers story, then he moves on to something else… They all have a beginning, middle and end, and that’s what we do. Here’s a bunch of X-Men books, and they’re all satisfying and not just blocks of trades… You see how much both companies are rebooting books to generate interest and we’re kind of reaching critical mass, where we’re going to have to say “all right, this is the new game. Tell your story, and when you’re done telling it, go work on a new property.”

This style of storytelling may seem shocking to long-time comic fans, but it’s already proven itself with the mainstream public in the form of comic book movies.  You take all the bits from the comics you want, regardless of continuity, and use them to tell the best story you can.  Everyone knows Marvel and DC are just going to wipe out the parts of the story they don’t want to keep after a run is over anyway, so why even bother with the pretense?  Tell YOUR Fantastic Four story, hit reset, then let somebody else tell theirs.

That’s just one of many potential solutions.  What’s yours?  Do you agree that comics demand more of its fanbase than other mediums?  And is that good for the industry or does it hinder potential growth?  I can’t wait to hear your responses.

Selecting An Artist

To a new writer who’s trying to break into the industry, finding the right artist is a daunting task: their work will be everyone’s first impression of your work.  Unless you’re Robert Kirkman who went to high school with Tony Moore (I know, not fair, right?) you’re going to have to hunt for the perfect collaborator.  How do you strike a balance between quality and price?  Do you make someone sign a contract or will that scare them off?  What happens when the whole thing goes belly up and you have to start all over again?  Hopefully I can use my small amount of experience to help the potential writer navigate this minefield.

Next to writing your script, choosing the artist is the most important step you’ll have to take.  This individual will be your actors, cinematographer, costume and set designer, and every other film analogy you’d like to throw in. Keep in mind: nobody knows who you are yet!  How many times have you passed over a potentially great book on the shelf with a no name creative team for the new book by your favorite writer or artist?  Before you ever get the chance to wow someone with your script, they need to not only pick the book off a rack filled with other shiny, colorful comics, but flip through it and decide if it’s worth their hard earned dough.  Only when you’ve cleared these hurdles does someone even get the chance to read your work.

This next point, I cannot stress enough: do not be afraid to break your piggy bank to pay the artist as much as you can afford.  You can make all the promises in the world of ownership and future profits; these things do not pay the bills.  A good artist will want a page rate and it builds good will for the future.  Save up your money and be able to pay on a schedule you can both agree to.  We will usually do half upfront, half upon completion of a set amount of pages. This makes the the payments a little less painful for us, and gives the artist incentive to finish as quickly as possible.

When discussing a project with a potential artist, make sure this is someone you can communicate with.  Mutual interests and influences go a long way to serve as a touchstone when discussing your ideas.  And while every artist on the internet is at your disposal (devaintART and Penciljack are great resources), don’t underestimate the advantage gained by hiring someone local.  Asking around at your comic shop or local art school can yield great results as well.  Being able to get together with an artist and see their progress over coffee is incredible, but just being in a nearby time zone is very useful too.  If you can talk on a regular schedule, even if it’s just sending IMs, you’ll build a rapport that can keep you both energized and invested in your project.

Once you’ve found the perfect collaborator, make sure you get a signed contract.  If it scares off your artist, you probably shouldn’t be working with them in the first place.  It’s the professional thing to do, and it guarantees protection for the artist as well.  Here’s a good template to start with: dyingcowproductions.com/DCPcontract.pdf

Even with a contract in place, you will lose an artist.  At some point in every writer’s career it’s just going to happen and there’s not much you can do about it.  The most important thing to remember when that happens is to not get frustrated.  We lost one artist already because he made the leap to the Big Leagues.  In our search to replace him, we found not one, but two future collaborators and have two pitches being prepared instead of one.  Neither of these dudes would have even entered our radar if we weren’t on the hunt for someone new.  Now we know a pro and two hungry up-and-comers.

Believe me, it’s an uphill battle, but if you fight through the adversity, the reward is incredible.  Seeing an artist bring your script to life is such a satisfying feeling.  The amazing thing about comics is that you can make them happen!  It doesn’t require a gigantic budget or a huge crew or the support of a studio.  Tell the story you want to tell and then get out there and make it a reality!

CADAVER Preview

I suppose anybody can talk about making good comics, but if we’re going to talk we better be willing to throw our hat into the ring.

Here’s our hat!  I present to you: CADAVER

Art by the awesome Brad Arnold: http://bradsboards.squarespace.com/

Letters by the also awesome Jeremiah Lambert: http://www.jeremiahlambert.webs.com/

Matt and Brad will be at SDCC all weekend pitching this preview to publishers.  With any luck, we’ll have some great news up here shortly.

Also, if there are any publishers reading this who want to read the whole pitch – please get in touch with us here.

Feel free to contact us with any questions, comments, or critiques, or if you want to meet up at Comicon!