Modern Masters: Cliff Chiang

I know a little about how these books are put together. Selection of a “master” depends on expected sales (of course), so they have to have an existing fanbase; whether the subject is willing to participate, to get all the historical art and sketchbook pages; along similar lines, possession of a substantial body of work; being a “name” to the comic market (so most often, some superhero work history); and apparently, a Y chromosome. I started thinking about this, because Cliff Chiang still seems like a new talent to me, but he’s been contributing to significant comic works longer than I realized. I adore his style, and a whole book dedicated to his art was a pleasure to read.

I found it fascinating that Cliff got into comics seriously in the early 90s, and how his significant scholastic background influenced his art. These kinds of career development make for a different story than many of the other Modern Masters I’ve read — who tend to be much older creators and/or British — and younger aspiring creators will learn more from a more recent tale, I think. That background also makes him thoughtful about looking back and explaining his history to the reader, particularly with his different early career expectations.

Even though Cliff is from a more recent generation, I’m not sure his path is available any more, since he started out working on short stories, one-shots, and backups, aided by his connections from his time as an editorial assistant. Once reminded, I recalled reading a lot of his early work that had slipped from my memory in the meantime. So many books, with so many varied approaches, that were so good and yet couldn’t exist today: Beware the Creeper, Human Target, an Elseworlds, The Spectre (as a Gotham Central spinoff), Doctor 13, Green Arrow and Black Canary (as a married couple), and the lost Batman stories he describes.

I pored over this Modern Masters a lot more than I have other volumes in the series. Much of that is due to Chris Arrant’s excellent interviewing, going into details without sounding slavish. I found this response particularly telling. When asked whether he was “more attuned to the DC characters”, given most of his work has been for that company, Cliff responds:

It’s not a question of interest in the characters, it’s just that career-wise, having good working relationships is more important to me than drawing, say, Spider-Man or Superman. It’s not the company or the characters, it’s the quality of the script and the quality of the people you work with.

That’s so important and so insightful, and something not a lot of people pay enough attention to. However, there’s one major area of questioning I was immensely curious about that wasn’t asked in the book: When will Cliff write and draw his own work? Does he plan to take that on, or is he satisfied drawing other people’s stories for now? What concerns does he have tackling telling his own stories?

There are preview pages at the publisher’s website, and the book is half-off until the end of the month, which is a terrific deal. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

TwoMorrows October Releases: Two Timely Magazines With Previews + Modern Masters: Frazer Irving

Alter Ego #105

With the Comics Code in the news lately, what better time to explore the censorship effects the Authority had on comic production?

Alter Ego #105, due out October 26 (84 pages, $7.95), promises to document how the 1954-55 establishment of the Comics Code Authority “changed comics greatly … with comic art and script before and after the CCA got hold of them, with art by SIMON & KIRBY, DITKO, BUSCEMA, SINNOTT, GOULD, COLE, STERANKO, KRIGSTEIN, O’NEIL, GLANZMAN, ORLANDO, WILLIAMSON, HEATH, and many others!” (Cover shown by Josh Medors.)

I love those kinds of stories, pointing out the silly things censors often object to, although I’ve never heard any specifics about comics before. (Most of the stories I’m familiar with come from TV or movies.) TwoMorrows Publishing has posted a 20-page PDF preview.

Back Issue #52

That same day sees the debut of the newly full-color Back Issue #52 (84 pages, $8.95) with another timely subject: Bronze Age mystery comics! (“Mystery” is code for “horror”, due to Comics Code restrictions.)

The cover is by Bernie Wrightson, one of the interview subjects. The magazine will also feature coverage of “DC’s Horror Hosts and Ghosts, Charlton Comics’ chiller anthologies, and damsels of darkness Black Orchid and Madame Xanadu.”

TwoMorrows has posted a PDF preview of this issue as well.

On the book front, this month’s release is Modern Masters: Frazer Irving, the 26th volume in that series. I know Irving’s art from Klarion the Witch-Boy (collaborator on that title Grant Morrison provides the one-page introduction) and the recent Xombi, but he’s also contributed significantly to Batman titles, 2000 AD, and Gutsville.

This entry follows the same, successful format of other Modern Masters volumes: a book-length interview covering the basics, illustrated throughout with art samples from throughout the subject’s history, followed by a gallery section. In Irving’s case, there’s a lot of information on digital creation, since he’s done so much on computer over the length of his career, as well as discussion of how he prefers to color his own work.

TwoMorrows has posted a 26-page PDF preview of the book that they say serves as a “good sampling of the other various interviews, articles, and art from the issue.”

Modern Masters: Jeff Smith

The usual Modern Masters subjects are most famous for their superhero work, with volumes on such well-known names as George Pérez, Alan Davis, John Byrne, and more recently, Chris Sprouse, Mike Ploog, and Mark Buckingham. While there have been fantasy artists featured in the past (see book 11, dedicated to Charles Vess, for example), the artists covered are still best-known to denizens of comic shops, with success within the direct market.

This volume on Jeff Smith is thus something of a departure for the TwoMorrows audience, as explained in the introduction by editor and interviewer Eric Nolen-Weathington. It reads a tad defensively, as though the text was taken from a memo justifying the proposal for the book to a superhero-centric editor:

Jeff Smith is an anomaly. … He became a success in the comic book field long before he drew a single page for DC or Marve. That is a rarity in this day and age, though it is becoming somewhat less so.

… So what makes Bone so special? There aren’t any superheroes, and the main characters are weird looking. … The art is so cartoony. In other words, it has every ingredient that typically kills the sales of a comic book in the direct market. And yet Bone sold quite well in the direct market.

It goes on to talk about how many kids know and love Bone, Smith’s signature work, and how popular it is. (Another piece of evidence, not covered in the introduction, is that it’s become its own franchise, with other people now working with the characters and their world.) Later in the book, they go into more detail on how Bone broke through: as books, especially once it was picked up and republished by Scholastic.

I’m curious to know (although it’s none of my business) how well this book does. Smith is an unusual choice for the series and may indicate a more diverse direction (which I’d welcome). He’s very talented, and it’s always a pleasure to look at the pictures he creates, but do his readers want to know more about him and his other work? Or do they just want more Bone? Is focusing on his art going to satisfy the TwoMorrows audience, who may not be as familiar with the basis of his success? (Note the volumes are numbered, driving the obsessive to collect them all.)

This is all quibbling, mainly because I don’t have much to say about the meat of the book. If you’ve seen any of the Modern Masters volumes, this is another strong entry in the series. Typical of the format, it contains a lengthy interview that focuses mostly on facts — biography, schooling, technique, inspirations, career path — accompanied by previously unseen art. Smith’s work on Captain Marvel and his new title, RASL, are also covered, plus there’s a 32-page art gallery, eight of which are in color. There’s nothing controversial or opinionated here, because it’s intended to be a reference and a visual treat, not something that provides new insight into what makes Jeff Smith tick.

I’m still not sure who the audience is for this. The younger Bone fan will be bored by all the copy. The type I think of as the usual TwoMorrows reader (which is likely unfairly limiting on my part) may not care about Smith as a person. They might enjoy hearing Smith’s stories about how he treated his work as a business, and the steps he took to build it, but all that, informative as it is, is no longer relevant to the market today.

I’m probably overthinking it. Like Bone itself, this is a unique story, capturing the making of a modern classic. Smith’s a very strong cartoonist with worthy inspirations, and his work is worth learning more about. If nothing else, the book is a time capsule about one of the direct market’s last individual success stories. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

Two New Modern Masters: Mark Buckingham and Guy Davis

Out this month are two new volumes in the TwoMorrows Modern Masters interview/art book series, both by Eric Nolen-Weathington, the series editor.

Modern Masters: Mark Buckingham cover
Modern Masters: Mark Buckingham
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The first is dedicated to Mark Buckingham, whose credits include Death: The High Cost of Living, Fables, and Miracleman. Note that he did not, as I first thought, draw Ultimate Spider-Man. That’s a different Mark B., Bagley. Obviously, I need the education this volume provides.

Neil Gaiman’s introduction starts things off with praise for Bucky’s skill and versatility. The following long interview covers the basics of his career and key works, accompanied by art either rare or representative. That’s the first 70-some pages. The remaining 38 pages, 8 of which are in color, are simply art — reproductions of his penciled pages or sketches.

I found myself wishing that the interviewer was a little more willing to follow unexpected paths. There’s an early comment, when discussing Buckingham’s academics, where he talks about being willing to vary his style and be a “chameleon of comics”. The very next question is “How long were you in university?” I wanted them instead to continue the discussion of styles and whether having a distinct one was good or bad. Instead, we read about how important it is to know the right people when you’re interested in getting discovered, which is true, but a different direction. (I had no idea that Buckingham was inking Hellblazer and talking about working on Miracleman while he was still in college.) The topic of style does come up again later, but in this disjointed fashion, it’s hard to follow and doesn’t get to be as meaty as it could have been. I still, after finishing the book, don’t have a good idea of how he’d describe his work or what, artistically, makes his style distinctive. Maybe if I had more of an eye for visuals, the art reproductions would better answer that question for me.

Many of the questions are of the form “and then you did (particular comic issue)” or “you used (art technique or tool) on that story”. Thankfully, the responses are more interesting than the questions, either talking about a co-worker or mentioning artistic approaches or influences. Buckingham sounds like a great interviewee, with lots of interesting stories and large chunks of response. With art on every page, there are lots of examples of his work, too.

Many of the questions are also generic, in that they could be asked of any artist: “What’s a typical working day? What do you listen to when working?” If this book is setting out to be the standard reference on the artist covered, that approach is understandable, since the basics should be covered, even if the questions aren’t specific or particularly inspired. The bits of information I found most interesting were Buckingham’s hopeful statements about getting to finish his run with Neil Gaiman on Miracleman, now relabeled Marvelman, at Marvel. (He’s more optimistic than I am, since the section starts off by saying he wasn’t even aware Marvel was announcing their (partial) acquisition of the property. That’s not a good sign when it comes to valuing the creators, in my opinion.) I also liked the stories about working with Chris Bachalo and getting in trouble with Vertigo and then redeeming himself.

Modern Masters: Guy Davis cover
Modern Masters: Guy Davis
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I wish that these books weren’t so much “preaching to the choir”. If you already know Buckingham’s work, the chronological following of his life and work makes sense. For those of us who want to learn more, it would be helpful to have an opening section that talks about what the artist is known for, what makes his work unique, and what makes him worthy of having a dedicated book, to set the stage for what follows. As it is, these books are usually best suited to already-existing fans who want to learn more. Much of it is most meaningful for those who’ve read the stories or issues referenced, since the text assumes you already know about their content.

For that reason, I enjoyed the Guy Davis volume more, since I’d read more of his work (specifically on Hellboy-related series, but also Baker Street). Plus, the introduction here was particularly cool — it was a two-page comic by Stan Sakai!

Instead of almost instantly working on recognizable properties from big-name publishers, Davis came up through small-press publishers in … well, I’m guessing the early 90s, because there’s a remarkable lack of actual dates in this interview. That’s before he moved to Vertigo for Sandman Mystery Theatre and became known for his grotesque images and monsters.

I noticed, following the “and then I worked on this” flow, that there wasn’t much about Davis beyond what he was drawing. The interview is about career (including how they got started, early training, etc.), but I wanted to know more about whether he was holding down other jobs, family situation, the kinds of details that give a sense of the artist as a person. I think that’s just a distinction between what these books aim to do and what I’m looking for; I can’t criticize them for having a different purpose than what I want to see.

But I am going to gripe about something else. One particular art credit in the first book is labeled “Miracleman TM respective owner. Story (c) 2010 Neil Gaiman. Artwork (c) 2010 Mark Buckingham.” All of that is either wrong or just plain useless. For one thing, a work of art is copyright when it’s put into fixed format. The art and story would be copyright 1990, when it was created. You don’t put on the date you reprint it. And “respective owner” just says “we don’t want to get in trouble or take a stand on a troubled issue”. Which I understand — TwoMorrows doesn’t want anyone preventing publication of the book. But that makes the label, which is supposed to notify users of the protected ownership, pointless. These statements already appear on the indicia page, so I don’t know why they bother reprinting them per art piece.

Note that Buckingham is Volume 22 and Davis is Volume 24. Volume 23 will cover Darwyn Cooke (and thus is highly anticipated by me), but has run into scheduling conflicts that knocked it off the release list for now. (The publisher provided review copies.)

Modern Masters: Chris Sprouse

I’m still waiting for TwoMorrows to deem a woman worthy of inclusion in their Modern Masters line of interview books, but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy this Chris Sprouse volume, co-written by our friend Todd Dezago. (The other writer is nice guy Eric Nolen-Weathington.)

Modern Masters: Chris Sprouse cover
Modern Masters: Chris Sprouse
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I find Sprouse’s clean art lovely in its simplicity, and he works incredibly hard to achieve that appearance. As with the other Modern Masters books, the text is a lengthy interview in which the subject talks about his life and work, how he got into the field, key points in his career, and his love of comics. It’s accompanied by all kinds of art samples, including early and rare work, such as pieces for his high school paper and summer jobs. Plus, there are sketches, character designs, and page layouts.

They did a nice job actually connecting the images to what’s being talked about in the text. I’ve had problems with some of the company’s magazines before, talking about things that they never show, but that’s not the case here. I say “they” because I don’t know whether to credit authors, editor, or someone else, but whoever’s responsible, thank you. Nice caption job, too, providing full identification so I’m not guessing at what an image is or where it’s from.

I also appreciated “hearing” Sprouse address the struggles he’s had, his learning curve, and his issues with perfectionism and how it affects a work schedule. He comments briefly on many of his co-workers, but the part that really struck a chord with me was when he talks about emotional impact, how looking back at certain pages reminds him of major changes in his life going on when he drew them, and how difficult it can be to keep enthusiasm going after a while.

Sprouse also walks through the full creation of a page from Ocean before the book switches to pure art gallery, including a short color section of full-page images. I’d forgotten just how much I loved his work on Legionnaires, around the time I first began reading the series. I really enjoyed this volume, going over his career and understanding better what makes Chris Sprouse the talented artist he is.

Modern Masters: In the Studio with George Pérez DVD

This DVD is a companion to the similarly named book. It’s a great idea — there’s nothing like seeing an artist work for learning more about him and his craft.

Here’s an excerpt from the back cover copy:

… gives you a personal tour of George’s studio, and lets you watch step-by-step as the fan-favorite artist illustrates a special issue of Top Cow’s Witchblade. Also, see George as he sketches for fans at conventions, and hear his peers and colleagues — including Marv Wolfman and Ron Marz — share their anecdotes and personal insights along the way.

I was most interested in the peer commentary, myself, since I’m not very interested in Witchblade. I picked this up at Heroes Con, where I spoke to DVD Narrator and TwoMorrows Editor Eric Nolen-Weathington about it. He informed me that there would have been rights issues involved if they’d shown too much DC or Marvel work, so they selected a title where they could more easily come to an agreement.

Modern Masters: George Pérez cover
Modern Masters:
George Pérez
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The DVD opens with Eric taking us into George Pérez’s studio. I noticed right off some fuzziness in the picture as the camera moved, but once they’re inside, that goes away. (And really, who cares about walking into the house? It’s just setting the stage.)

The two spend some time looking at the artwork on the walls. What’s shown is mainly pinups of scantily clad female characters; again, the DC/Marvel issue may be in play here. There is an amazing copy of the poster from History of the DC Universe, signed by many classic creators, and a Legion of Super-Heroes character sheet. Oddly, when they’re explaining the history of Crimson Plague, focusing on how everyone was based on real people, they don’t show the item that George is pointing at and talking at length about except in a brief cutaway, probably because it’s surrounded by DC items.

After that, it’s off to MegaCon, where a wordless sequence establishes that he sits at a table and has fans lining up for him. I can’t imagine someone buying this DVD who isn’t already familiar with Pérez, so I’m not sure what purpose this serves. After a slow start, though, the disc gets into its promised meat, with scenes in the studio alternating with footage from other venues, a good choice to keep viewers interested. Much of the time features George pencilling a page (on CrossGen-branded boards, heh) and talking about his artistic choices.

He draws much more slowly than I expected, by the way, but it was interesting to hear him briefly mention the conflict between Witchblade as a “warrior woman” and her sexy costuming.

Technically, I had some problems with the disc. The Scene Selection screen didn’t work at all on my DVD player (a two-year-old Panasonic), and the text on the Biography screen was near unreadable. It looked as though it had been vertically squished (or horizontally stretched). The Pictures section was navigable, but only if I used the Enter key. On movie discs, I’m usually able to use the left and right arrow keys to navigate through similar sections, a feature I missed. As with the Bio section, text was painful to try to read online.

The Pictures consist of cover roughs for the four JLA/Avengers comics, a Crimson Plague pinup, 12 pages of the unpublished Crimson Plague #3 (that appears to be all that was done), a mislabeled sequence showing three stages of a JLA/Avengers page from pencils to inks, and a handful of pages of very early work. I didn’t check to see if these pieces are duplicated in the book (because I can’t find it right now).

Jim McLaughlin shows up in one of the MegaCon segments delivering a public service announcement for ACTOR. Turns out George is one of the organization’s Board of Directors and has done an incredible amount of fundraising for them, but I spent several minutes wondering what the connection was before it was explained. There’s also a full interview with Ron Marz, the writer of the Witchblade issue George is illustrating.

Mark Waid appears in the convention scenes. Bless him for starting by introducing himself and providing context for everything he says for those who don’t recall all the details of George’s career themselves. (Marv Wolfman, on the other hand, seems to assume a great level of knowledge on the listener’s part.) Waid is also animated and fun to listen to.

Phil Jimenez appears last, talking about how to balance his fan love of George’s work with the need to be professional while now working with him. He nicely explains some of the key points in George’s career. Jimenez is in a unique position, being the artist who most obviously has been influenced by George’s style, and his ability to coherently explain his thoughts about that result in a segment that’s my favorite on the disc and an excellent choice for a conclusion.

Some might dismiss this as “two hours of George muttering to himself”, but it’s a valuable attempt to provide information about an artist and his process in a different format. It requires a lot of patience and a high level of interest in his work to not fast-forward some of it, though. I also wish that they’d shown the final piece we’ve seen George working on all this time.

Cliff Chiang Modern Masters Finally Due Out This Month

I’ve been anticipating this entry in the TwoMorrows Modern Masters series since it was announced last spring. I don’t know why it was delayed, but I’m anticipating some lovely art examples and the typical lengthy interview. Modern Masters: Cliff Chiang is the 29th book in the series (by numbering — it’s actually 28, because Volume 23, Darwyn Cooke, never came out). Its new release date is January 29, three weeks away, and there’s a preview available at the publisher’s website. (Or according to Amazon, you can get it next week from them.)

I’m still waiting for them to dub a woman a Modern Master, by the way. There’s gotta be someone who has enough sketchbook art to put out a book and enough interested fans in the direct market to buy it. Colleen Doran? Jill Thompson? Pia Guerra?

Good Comics at the Comic Shop February 12: Beautiful Darkness

Here’s what I found worth drawing your attention to this week from your local comic shop. Sorry this is a day late, but I’m imagining that customers for these works aren’t “gotta have it within two hours of release” types, anyway.

I’ve already talked about The Bojeffries Saga (Top Shelf, $14.95), so let’s look at the other major graphic novel release this week. Beautiful Darkness (Drawn and Quarterly, $22.95) isn’t out in bookstores yet, but comic shops (at least, the good ones that stock significant indy works) have it. It’s a very strange book, one that will appeal to lovers of fantasy grotesque. Written by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrated by the team couple called Kerascoët, I was reminded, at various times reading it, of Lord of the Flies, Mean Girls, Toy Story, Cinderella, and some weird kind of hipster neighborhood parody.

Aurora and her many doll-like friends find themselves abandoned in the woods after the human girl they were apparently living in (!) dies. While Aurora tries to ensure everyone is fed and sheltered and makes friends with the local wildlife, other inhabitants are engaging in their own selfish pursuits. Some are babyish, crying and whining so others take care of them. Many are self-obsessed, demanding their every whim be satisfied, no matter the cost to others, even causing their deaths. Most are unequipped to survive, playing games and engaging in distractions instead of feeding themselves or taking care of injuries.

It’s all gorgeously illustrated, with lovely illustrations of the natural world and the decaying body. The publisher calls it “a dark fairy tale about surviving the human experience”, which is accurate. A cynical person might take away the message that prettiness is a childish fantasy, that everyone degrades to survive. Others might call it realism, survival of the fittest, and recognizing that you’re better off by yourself than with those who drag you down. Beautiful Darkness is definitely something you’ll be thinking about long after you read it.

For a book really for kids, not one that just mimics the form, there’s Tippy and the Night Parade (Toon Books, $12.95) by Lilli Carré. When Tippy sleeps, she dreams of wandering through various landscapes, collecting animals as she goes. When she wakes, her room’s a mess, with hints of her various followers left behind for little readers to identify. It’s a wonderful nighttime adventure, with different locales to spur young imaginations, portrayed simply in monochrome (blue for night, orange for day). The book is structured cyclically, with Tippy at first awake, then dreaming, then awake again, in a sequence that could be infinitely continued with different creatures.

If you’re interested in books about cartoonists (instead of those by them), TwoMorrows has a long-awaited new edition of their Modern Masters interview-and-sketchbook series. Cliff Chiang, current Wonder Woman artist but illustrator of so much more, is the subject of the 29th volume ($15.95), and since his work is gorgeous, I’m greatly anticipating learning more about his career and influences. (I’m not sure we both worked at DC Comics at the same time, but it was close, which gives me another point of curiosity; what will he say about his time there?)

More historically, MAD’s Greatest Artists: Dave Berg: Five Decades of The Lighter Side Of … (Running Press, $30) is a time capsule for anyone who read MAD magazine from the 1960s to the 1990s. Berg’s themed contributions were visually distinctive, often featuring a self-parody in a safari jacket and smoking a pipe, the suburban male confused by the modern world and dealing with it by making gentle, old-fashioned wisecracks about “Money”, “Women”, “Hobbies”, “Sex”, or other big topics. For all that they were safely comfortable gags, they were also immediately understandable and recognizable, an anchor in a magazine pushing boundaries elsewhere. This hardcover also includes photos, an interview with Berg (who passed away in 2002), tributes by other artists, and examples of his work in other areas.

Ok, if all that’s too expensive, try a periodical comic. Oni Press is taking The Bunker ($3.99) by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari from digital to print with an over-sized first issue. Five friends just out of college bury a time capsule. When they later go to dig it up, they discover instead a bunker with letters from their future selves, talking about how their actions destroyed the world. It’s fascinating science fiction with a distinctly human component and recognizable characters I want to know more about.




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