Monday, November 02, 2009

Five O'Clock Shadow in Four Colors

My copy is signed. And pierced.As I'm sure I've mentioned before (such as in the "where I buy comics" section on the right), I get my books from the fine folks at Stand-Up Comics, hands-down the best comic shop in Chicagoland. It's through the fine, fine people at Stand-Up Comics that I met the also fine, if stubbly, guys behind Unshaven Comics, a very independent comic company. Some time ago (the first Saturday in May, in fact), Marc Fishman (1/3 of the Unshaven crew) asked me to review their Free Comic Book Day offering, the "Disposable Razors Sneak Preview."

As with everything I do, naturally, it's taken me far longer than it should have to get around to it. I have some excuses, and I really did want to wait until I could give the book my full attention, but I really should have had this review done a considerably long time ago. So without further ado, I present "Disposable Razors: Sneak Preview."

The issue consists of six teasers and a couple of advertisements (one of which is for Stand-Up Comics, clearly the best comic shop in Illinois and Northern Indiana), of varying length and, frankly, quality. I'll tackle them in order, with some wrap-up thoughts at the end.

Saving the world from libido-quashing snacks since 2006.Our first story is near and dear to me, featuring Stand-Up Guy, the superheroic mascot of Stand-Up Comics, the greatest comic shop in the Midwest. Stand-Up Guy is in reality Stanley Dupgui, a mild-mannered reporter and frequent Stand-Up Comics patron and spokesperson. So far, he's appeared as an action figure (with chase variant!), a trading card, and the star of two comic book stories, in that (approximate) order. You can check out his backstory for yourself, as explained on the back of his official trading card.

This makes the Stand-Up Guy story in "Disposable Razors" interesting, because it seems to take place in an alternate continuity for the character--one in which he is a part-time weekend cashier, and his origin is somewhat different (or he's confused about it, which can be No-Prized away with an appeal to the whole mindwiping thing from his backstory). I can't help but be reminded of how the 1940 Superman radio program began with an origin story that wildly contradicted the established comic continuity, which had existed for less than two years. Perhaps this backstory dissonance is a subtle commentary on comic book continuity issues, who can say?

The story itself is built around an amusing premise, where Stand-Up Guy fights his nemesis, Improf Komedy, in the Stand-Up Comics shop, while the owners and proprietors watch (and comment). There are some good ideas here, but overall the story feels like it tries too hard. The humor is too forced, and I can't help but think it might have been better for the Unshaven guys to sit down with the Stand-Up guys and just toss out crazy ideas in conversation for a few hours until something resembing an absurd plot would gel. If nothing else, the humor would be more suited to the coveted 18-25 Illinois Comic Blogger demographic.

Moving on, the second story is an excerpt from "The March," Unshaven's first published graphic novel, about the immigrant experience in America. "The March" came out a few years ago, and just moving from the first story to the second makes that clear. The art is a lot rougher here, and while it's clear that the artist has a great eye for framing shots (whatever the comic book equivalent of direction is in movies), it's even more clear that he's grown quite a lot as an artist since the work was published. The facial expressions are awkwatd, the inking lacks nuance, being largely all-or-nothing, the coloring is inconsistent on the character's skin. Where the art isn't dealing with detailed people, it's spot-on, but the character work is pretty rough. Also, it's kind of weird to see the f-bomb done in comic book censorship style in an indie comic. That's nitpicky, but it kind of sticks out as odd; there's no Comics Code to hold you back, and the current trend seems more toward the "black bars" school of censoring.

That seems overly negative, but let me repeat: just by going back to the previous story (a more recent effort), it's clear to see how much the art has grown. There's still the same eye for well-staged panels, and while some of the faces and bodies are still a bit awkward, the art, coloring, and inking is far more polished in the Stand-Up Guy story.

I apologize, by the way, for doing this review without scans of any sort. I don't have access to a scanner at the moment, but I may come back and re-edit George Lucas the post when I do.

The next story is something called "The White," and the lettering and art lead me to believe it was produced between "The March" and "Stand-Up Guy." I feel like an evolutionary biologist, trying to organize fossils by their traits--it's comic book cladistics. The story--such as it is--follows a young comic fan hipster-type after he falls through some wormhole into a dimension that functions a bit like The Bleed, with portals looking into other worlds. Our nameless protagonist is guided (and mocked) by a Skeets-lookalike robot whose name can be acronymized to "AESOP" (though he's never actually called that--although they hang a lampshade or two on the Skeets appearance) There's some great art here, although the figures and faces are still awkward. Inconsistencies in the protagonist's clothes and hairstyle are handwaved away by an in-story appeal to infinite possibilities and limited perception, but the inconsistencies aren't quite frequent or extreme enough to look intentional. At the end of the story, AESOP changes his appearance to become a floating face instead of a floating robot thing, but the reasoning is kind of odd.

I imagine that this is the pilot story for an anthology-type series, where the protagonist and The White are vehicles for alternate-universe morality plays, making this a kind of Twilight Zone-meets-Sliders concept. That much is cool, and I hope to see Unshaven Comics expand on the idea. Unfortunately, "The White" reads like a brainstorming session rather than a story. It feels like the script and art were done largely together, while the actual universe was still being built, which would explain AESOP's skin change at the end and such--it had to fall in line with the next iteration of the story. It reminds me of stories I wrote as a kid--or portions of my NaNoWriMo novel from a few years back--where I just wrote without really knowing where I was going, and worked out the kinks of the universe through the characters' dialogue. It's not necessarily a bad idea, but it doesn't make for the most compelling read.

I keep ending these reviews on such down-notes, and feeling like I have to do the "criticism sandwich" thing. As I said, the idea is good, it's the execution that needs work, and I have little doubt that this idea will work when there's a story to tell, and not just a framing device to set up.

The next story is the one that stuck most solidly in my mind after first reading the comic months ago, and consequently it's the one I've most looked forward to reviewing: "Ironside: Living Will." The narration in the story is in the form of a somewhat (intentionally) rambling letter from aging World War II-era soldier-superhero Ironside, to his superhero son. Having watched his whole unit die of old age and disease, Ironside is prompted to power up and go down fighting. The characterization is spot-on, as the narrative letter moves from the news of his friend's death, to the realities of war, to advice on superhero costuming, and finally to grudging respect and a final goodbye. It's six pages, but just from the narration we get to see a nicely multifaceted protagonist.

While this is going on, the art is telling its own story. The art and narration are parallel for a page or so, but eventually diverge, as Ironside powers up and puts on his fatigues, then foils a bank robbery by some thugs from 1-800-GO-GOONS and a lame supervillain wearing the Power Glove and Mega Man's Mega Blaster. He brutally assaults the thugs, and it's at least implied that he kills the villain. I've talked about my love for this kind of storytelling device before--Robert Kirkman has used similar devices a couple of times--where the words and art tell separate stories. It's something that really only works in comic books, and it's nice to see the medium's idiosyncracies being used as an asset. The narrative/art divide drives home the apparent point: that Ironside is going to go out not like a hero, but like a soldier, brutally taking down the supervillain enemy one by one. There are some elements to the story--and not just the protagonist's metallic skin--which remind me of the "Tarnished Angel" story in Astro City, and that's a pretty positive connection to build.

The art here is black-and-white, in contrast to the rest of the book, and I think that's a good thing overall. The inking is a little heavy (as it is elsewhere in the issue), but that works out well here with the darker story and the metallic protagonist. Some work could be done on the faces in some panels, but overall this is the most artistically polished story in the book, and the most compelling one to boot. I hope Unshaven Comics follows up on this story in the future; they have at least one guaranteed customer if they do.

The next story is a four-panel comic strip called "Ra: the Happy Sun God." I really can't describe it without going far too long-winded, so I'll just say that it feels like it'd make a pretty fun webcomic. That's not meant to be a knock on it, by the way. The simplified art is well-done, and I think the rest of the stories (with the possible exception of "Ironside") might do well to take a page from this style. The linework is clean and simple, a stark contrast to the often sketchy linework of other chapters. Again, this sounds more negative than it's meant to be; "sketchiness" is a stylistic choice as well (see also: John Romita Jr., Tom Mandrake, Bill Sienkewicz), but I think a little cleanup in the inking stage would help out in a lot of places--and this little strip is proof of that. The one complaint I have is that there are a lot of faint horizontal lines in each of the panels, and I;m not sure if that's an artifact of the paper or the scanning or what. In any case, it almost makes it look like the strip was initially drawn on note paper, which doesn't look particularly professional.

"Chasing Daylight: Prologue" is a one-page introduction to what appears to be a vampire story, narrated from the vampire's point of view. The art is great here, with just the right amount of detail, just the right amount of inking, and some very good coloring. There aren't many faces here, which makes it hard to compare to the other stories' biggest trouble spots, but what's apparent looks like an improvement. The biggest flaw I notice is in some wonky perspective on a car door in the first panel, which is a pretty minor detail. There's not much to the story, just a guy abandoning his car to try to escape a vampire on foot (and naturally failing), so I can't really evaluate that. I can't say that the preview does too much for me; it's too short to provide any interesting twists or tweaks on the vampire genre that would draw me in, and I think the market on bloodsuckers is largely saturated right now. I'd certainly be willing to re-examine this opinion in light of longer stories, but I doubt I'd get as excited about this as I am about "Ironside."

The final page is an ad for "The All New Samurnauts," which looks like a spacefaring Power Ranger-style team led by "an immortal samurai monkey." I'd have to know a little more about the premise before I could say anything about the series--particularly how seriously it's going to take itself--but monkeys, astronauts, and evil dinosaurs sounds like the recipe for fun comics.

Oh, and before I forget, I really like the cover.

So, overall? It's a mixed bag. "Stand-Up Guy" is fairly fun, but with limited appeal. "The Stand" has some rough art, but I can't say much about the story based on this excerpt. "Chasing Daylight" has a nice look to it, but I'd need to read more before anything would hook me. "The White" looks and feels pretty rough, but I think it'll work well if/when it's not the focus. "Ra: The Happy Sun God" would make a fun backup feature or webcomic, though I'm not sure it could carry its own issue or series. Finally, there's "Ironside," which I recommend without reservation.

The bottom line is that the Unshaven Comics crew have quite a bit of potential. At times, that potential comes through full-force, and at times it feels rougher and less refined. You can piece together a pretty clear learning curve throughout the preview, and that bodes well for their next release.

Speaking of which, I've just received word from Unshaven Marc that said release, which follows through on "The White," "Chasing Daylight," and "Ironside," will be released in time for Christmas. "Ironside" alone would be enough to make me run out and purchase it, but I'm curious to see where "Chasing Daylight" ends up, and how well "The White" works as a framing device (by the way, I totally called that). If you're in Illinois or Indiana, it's only a short trip to Stand-Up Comics, the best comic shop in America, which is guaranteed to be carrying Unshaven Comics in December, or you can watch the Unshaven Comics website for further news. Based on the preview, I recommend giving their upcoming release a shot, and I'm curious to see where it all goes from here.

1 comment:

Fish said...

Thanks for the review Tom. I have to say your sluething in terms of the order of production is pretty spot on. As for your remarks re:the art of the cover and Chasing Daylight.. those were the two spots I did the art. It makes me question whether I should be doing more art chores in the future. Hard to say. Should you be in on the southside sometime soon, Unshaven Comics would love to show you some of our materials going into the book, so you can see some of the process too, in case you're every interested.