Hello. I am here to whisk us all away, if only to sleep.
I got to do one of my favorite comics-related things the other day - digging for nonsense in the bargain bins. You see, I'd just finished reading last week's The Programme #1 from Wildstorm (VERY GOOD stuff, by the way), and someone had mentioned to me that I ought to check out artist C.P. Smith's prior work on Marvel's The New Invaders series from 2004-05, a would-be ongoing that got shot down at issue #9. The timing was right for a look in the bins -- there's a window that opens after two to three years where long runs of low-selling series tend to show up, stores wanting to clean out the back issue stock and all -- and sure enough, I picked up the whole blessed thing for $4.50. You bet your ass I'll buy comics just to track a guy's visual development at those prices!
But, much like the informative articles put in the spicy photo magazines I read as part of my serious academic studies, there's words in balloons floating all around the pictures, and... well, since I have to buy them I might as well read them, right? I don't recall The New Invaders being very well reviewed at the time of its serialization. Actually, our own Jeff Lester once called it "probably the dullest superhero comic Marvel’s ever published. It’s like watching paint dry, but without the fun of smelling the fumes." Luckily, my landlord actually is painting a downstairs apartment, so I set up a chair in the hall and huffed deeply whenever USAgent grimaced.
It was a lot of fun, and I think I figured out what was wrong with the series - of the three storylines spread across nine issues, the first two were devoted entirely to things like background-setting, riffs on prior characterizations, and/or premature, unresolved clashes with villains. There was a lot of promise of at least quasi-resolution to come, but the third storyline just barely managed to begin with that when the series got canned. There was also a Millar-era Wolverine tie-in tucked away in there, which only served to hold the storytelling back even more. Too bad, but a common trap for Marvel/DC superhero comic serialization.
And yet, reading that series really did get me thinking about serials and pamphlet-format comics. It also took me back to something I saw while wandering from bin to bin, something on the wall with all the trade paperbacks - one of the Ignatz books. You've heard of them, right? A joint venture between Fantagraphics Books and Coconino Press (of Italy)?
If Image's much-discussed Slimline format for comics pamphlets represented an attempt to restore the value and sleekness of your average comic book by dropping the story pages to 16 and the price to $1.99, the Ignatz series ran off waving its arms in the other direction - the story pages are upped to 32 (remember, most "32-page" comics are actually 20-22 pages without ads), the price is increased to $7.95, and each issue is printed on fine paper, at 8 1/2" x 11" with jackets on every soft cover. Like comic books, these little productions offer series and serials, in little bites. They're numbered both in terms of series and in general order of release, in that, say, Sammy the Mouse #1 is also Ignatz #21, kind of like the Marvel Graphic Novel series or Dogme 95, thus retaining the collector's impulse. But you'll never find them in bargain bins - their content, dimensions, and gloss are like that of trades or graphic novels, and so they stay on the shelves.
But, how do they operate? As series, I mean. If they're so damned unique.
From my reading, it varies greatly. One of my favorite things about the Ignatz line is that the people published under it seem to be selected wholly on the basis of "oh, they'd be neat to have," so you're bound to get a lot of different approaches. Gilbert Hernandez's New Tales of Old Palomar, for example, presents issue-length short stories set in various points along his larger Palomar timeline. Gabriella Giandelli's Interiorae sets its larger story's issue breaks as time jumps, so that each issue is temporally self-contained. Richard Sala's Delphine organizes itself along more typical serial lines, with all the cliffhangers at the end that you'd expect. And David B.'s Babel, well... it behaves like the new graphic novel from David B., not yet complete, and being published 32 pages at a time. There's chapter breaks, but they only seem like necessary poles planted in an onrushing stream of narrative.
My favorite operation, however, is probably Gipi's Wish You Were Here. It's only two issues so far. I don't know if any more are even planned. Certainly no more have been finished in any foreign tongue - I checked.
Gipi is interesting in general, mind you. He's an Italian artist (full name: Gianni Alfonso Pacinotti), and fairly prolific, having released at least one large (80 or more page) book per year since 2003, although he's been active since the late '90s. His online bibliography is great, offering huge previews of all his books, plus seven complete stories and twenty-four one-page pieces, albeit all in Italian. His subject matters are all over the place, although he always keeps the human element at the front.
He's also got a wonderfully varied visual style, ranging early on from moody smudges (slightly reminiscent today of Ben Templesmith), to whiplash variations between realism and sketchwork, to achingly light, lovely paintwork. Lately, he's been applying flatter colors to loose lines. A few months ago, First Second brought to English his 2005 Garage Band in the US. In a few weeks, they'll have his 2004 Notes for a War Story ready too. The two books represent delicate youthful color and war's sickly green. They are not related by plot. Both of them, however, focus on groups of young men, forming little societies to cage them off from the tough realities of the world, and looking for/reacting to paternal influence. It's all about boys and their dads with Gipi, from what I can read in English.
The two issues of Wish You Were Here cover the same theme - the fraternity among boys, and their relationships with father figures. However, they explicitly operate as part of a series of crime comics, set in a shared world, among a shared group of characters. Indeed, Gipi treats his two issues as a unified study in contrasts, using one issue against the other to establish many dualities. I wonder if a third issue would throw off the balance? Regardless, we have what we have.
Issue #1, subtitled The Innocents, takes place during the day, and is narrated via conversations between characters and the occasional sketchbook-style flashback. The plot concerns a grown man, Giulano, who's supposed to be taking his sister's kid out on a trip to an amusement park. Instead, he gets a call from a long-lost friend, Valerio, who used to run in a gang of four with him when they were kids. Valerio wants to meet, and Giulano hasn't seen him in a while; as he tells the kid on the way over, Valerio did a long stretch in prison at the climax of a prolonged struggle with shitty local anti-terrorist cops, evil father figures. They may have ruined Valerio's mind, and who knows what the now-grown fool will do. But there's a sweet, gentle touch to everything, an appreciation for white lies and letting things sit, as a means of coping with intense, sad pain.
Issue #2, They Found the Car (what a name!), takes place wholly at night, and is narrated through an interaction of omniscient narration and character dialogue. In this story, the other two members of the child gang have also grown up. We are told the names of neither. But, like in the prior story, one contacts the other out of the blue, asking to meet, although this trip will be more sinister. They did a horrible thing in the past (we never find out what), and The Car was supposed to be hidden away (we never find out why), and now people will have to be silenced in an effective manner. One of the men thinks a lot about God, a good father figure, and how he has let him down. Where there was a child tagging long in issue #1, offering innocence, there is a wife who eventually shows in issue #2, offering pragmatism. Where issue #1 is light and soothing, issue #2 is ominous and jutting.
Both of these issues work just fine as standalone stories. They offer full, interesting characterizations, and small human adventures that never seem too lean or overstuffed.
But Gipi uses the contrasts between his two issues to provide a fascinating total work, one only possible from an artist as willing to jump from mode to mode as him. Set in the same place, at around the same time, the two halves of Wish You Were Here join to present a study of opposing experiences from a shared background. All of the main characters were rough boys, street kids. All of them seem capable of violence. One gets the feeling that a slight change in circumstance might have switched any of their roles, even though the two groups of two we glimpse never interact in the present.
The time of day and the tides of fate draw two of the grown boys toward bonding, a sort of reconciliation out of violence, while the other two experience violence as a force of paranoia and separation. It is implied that a person can overcome the sins of man, the police-as-social-fathers, while they can only cope with their own sins before God, the father of all. Indeed, the narrative voice employed in each suggests the world of men, conversations mixed with human memory, and the eye of the Almighty, conversations inseparable from narration-from-beyond. There is irony in this construct too, in that the men dealing with bad fathers can find happiness, while those under the eye of the good father must struggle greatly toward an ambiguous finish.
This is the type of sophisticated technique that the pamphlet formet is well-suited for. Really! There's a vivid immediacy to short bits of story, yet a comic as a story package provides a whiff of self-collectedness, what with the covers and all. Gipi uses each Ignatz comic as a small vial of exclusive moods, which can be emptied as part of a larger series to form a whole, similar, contrasting, complete world. I can't think of any system of serialization that could do it in quite so attractive and intuitive a manner! It takes skill, and care, and publishers willing to pay out for such things, no doubt, but it's successful projects like Gipi's that speak well for the pamphlet format as a whole, however fancy or trashy it's made to look.
There is still life in the old format, aesthetic life. Comics like this remind me that we need not stuff the whole thing into the dusty bins. Some of them just won't fit inside.