The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli (Jay Piscopo)

The Undersea Adventures of Capt'n Eli - Jay PiscopoThe Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli is a reminder of the fun and unpretentious adventure comics of the “Silver Age” (1960’s an 70’s) and before, in this case updated with a bit of anime flavor in the way outline and flat color drawings of the characters are set against rendered and 3-D backgrounds.

Drawn and written by Maine artist Jay Piscopo, Capt’n Eli was created as a promotional vehicle for a specialty root beer company. Comics and characters created in that kind of role are often half-hearted, designed-by-committee and drawn by disinterested commercial artists. Capt’t Eli, on the other hand, is a delightful exception to that rule, and surprised me when I first encountered it to the extent that I likened it to finding a classic Fantastic Four comic in your shredded wheat box.

Capt’n Eli carries a bit of that 60’s Marvel flavor, plus some of the wonderful camp feeling of earlier “Golden Age” comics (to which it makes reference with the character of “Commander X”), plus a healthy dose of Johnny Quest, which featured the character design work of Alex Toth. Capt’n Eli is an undersea sci-fi adventure story featuring high-tech submarines, flying mini-subs, time travel, monsters, robots, nefarious villains and lost civilizations; in short, a nice mixture for all-ages adventure comics fun.

The submarines, helicopters, robots and other tech gadgets in the story are rendered out as 3-D models, giving an additional flavor of Popular Science stories on wild designs for future submarines and aircraft. I particularly like the enemy subs that have a feeling of the Nautilus from the classic Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The combination of the outline and flat color drawings against rendered backgrounds and 3-D objects may seem jarring to some, though anyone whose seen my own webcomic knows I’m completely comfortable with it (grin), and the use of that approach in Japanese animation has made it seem less unusual in recent years.

It was through my webcomic that I encountered Capt’n Eli, when Jay Piscopo wrote me several years ago and asked me to take a look at the strip, which was then available as a webcomic. I did, and wrote a nice review of it on the Zark Comics Links page. Piscopo subsequently asked me if I would like to write a foreword to the new print collection, which I was delighted to do.

It took a little time to reach fruition, but The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli has finally been released as a 104 page trade paperback (“graphic novel” format) containing two Capt’n Eli stories and a “Golden Age” Commander X story, and is available through the Capt’n Eli site for $9.99, on the same ordering page with the company’s root beer and other sodas (read “pop” for those of you in the U.S. and Canadian midwest); along with other Capt’n Eli gear. You can also find it on Amazon.

The volume features a cover by comics artist Steve Rude, and pin-ups by Rude, Herb Trimpe and Howard Chaykin. You can see a few (unfortunately small) sample pages from one of the stories by selecting “The Story Begins” at the bottom of this page. You can also read the full first Capt’n Eli webisode, The Mystery of Me, and some earlier material in the Archives (though, again, the web versions are kind of small).

The Capt’n Eli site also has a gallery of pin-ups and a bio of artist Jay Piscopo, who has a background as an art director at Tom Snyder Productions producing educational CD_ROMs like Fizz and Martina Math Adventures, created the The Scrap City Pack Rats comic for Goodwill Industries, and was an animator for the ABC Saturday morning show Squigglevision. Piscopo teaches classes in cartooning at the Maine College of Art.

The second volume of The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli is slated for release in October of this year and should be available though the web site, Amazon and a number of comic book stores.

Oh, and the root beer’s pretty good too.


Into the Woods

Into the Woods at Gallery Nucleus, Catia Chien, Chris Appelhans, Kazu Kibuishi, Robert Kondo, Yoko Tanaka
Gallery Nucleus is a gallery in Alhambra, California that places a particular emphasis on illustration, commercial art and graphic narrative (e.g. comics). I’ve mentioned them before in the course of posts about artists who were exhibiting there.

The gallery has a new exhibit opening on June 14th called Into the Woods, with a group of artists, two of whom I have written about previously, whose oeuvre includes visual storytelling of one kind or another.

Catia Chien (image above, top left) is a free-lance illustrator who has illustrated a number of children’s books and contributed to the Flight comics anthologies.

Chris Appelhans (above,top right) is a concept artist for the film industry, whose credits include Monster House and a new urban/sci-fi version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland called Underworld. He has also contributed to the Flight anthologies and has a series of short webcomics called Frank and Frank that have recently been published in a wonderfully strange format book. (See my previous post on Chris Appelhans.)

Kazu Kibuishi (image above, center) is the editor of the Flight comics anthologies and creator of one of my favorite webcomics, copper, as well as the new graphic novel Amulet, which has recently been optioned as a feature film by Warner Brothers. (See my previous posts on Kazu Kibuishi, Amulet and Copper.)

Robert Kondo (above, lower right) is a concept artist with Pixar Animation, and has worked on films like Ratatouille. He is a contributor to the afterworks blog and part of E-Ville Press, a cooperative comics publishing enterprise with other Pixar artists.

Yoko Tanaka is an illustrator who has done several children’s books as well as editorial illustrations for clients like the Los Angeles Times. She is also a contributor to Flight.

Into the Woods runs at Gallery Nucleus from June 14 to June 30, 2008. Chien, Appelhans, Kibuishi and Kondo will be at the opening reception on June 14.


High Moon

High Moon by David Gallaher, Steve Ellis and Scott O. BrownWhen I last wrote about Zuda Comics, DC Comics’ recent venture into webcomics, I pointed out two of the new webcomics that I thought were standouts, Bayou and High Moon. Both of them are now running as features, and are prominently promoted on the Zuda Comics home page.

High Moon is a horror/western by writer David Gallaher and artist Steve Ellis, with lettering by Scott O. Brown.

The High Moon team has been chronicling their work on the strip in a blog, from initial proposal to acceptance and production of the currently running strip.

It’s a loose, stream-of-consciousness kind of account, as blogs commonly are, but it covers many aspects of the process of creating a webcomic (or print comic, for that matter). You’ll find posts on initial concept designs and character sketches, photo reference, notes on writing and preparing the project for submission to DC Comics, plot breakdowns, page layouts, decisions about word balloon placement and, of course, preparation of the final art for the pages.

There is a recent post that starts to go into more detail about that process, in which artist Steve Ellis shows how he creates the unusual look of the comic.

He draws the pencils and inks in the traditional manner and scans the art into Photoshop. This is the most common method of working in the comics field today, though some comics artists, in particular some webcomics artists (like yours truly), do all of the drawing directly on the computer with a pressure sensitive tablet.

Ellis often adds to his drawing once it’s in digital form and then applies an unusual step in that he tones the final ink drawing with color adjustments in Photoshop, giving the entire work a sepia, old-photograph look particularly suited to the story and its setting. He further adds to the gritty texture of the images by leaving some of his pencil marks in place, eschewing the ultra-smooth look preferred in many mainstream comics.

Under the toned inks go a layer of color fields, that fill in color areas for the main forms, and on top of the ink layer goes another layer of detailed color highlights and final touches to make the finished image snap.

As I pointed out in my previous article on Zuda Comics, one of the things they have done brilliantly (in sharp contrast to the history of the “big two” publishers’ less than stellar forays into webcomics) is to utilize the medium to advantage in offering the option to view the pages at high-resolution. This enables you to not only get a cinematic feeling when reading the comics, but also a more detailed look at the artwork than afforded in normal printed comics or smaller-scale web comics.

When viewing the comic pages you have the option at the bottom right of the page frame to choose a full screen mode, and then read through the pages at that size. This is a wonderful feature, and particularly enjoyable with a comic as interesting and well-drawn as High Moon (see detail from the top-left panel of the final page in the image at left, bottom).

BTW, for those of you who may be too young to be aware of it, the title High Moon is a perfect take on the title of the 1952 Fred Zinnemann classic with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly (not to mention Lon Chaney Jr.).


Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper

kazu Kibuishi - Amulet: The Stonekeeper
Kazu Kibuishi, who I have mentioned before, both in reference to his wonderful online comic Copper (also here), and as the primary force behind the Flight comics anthologies, has been hard at work for the last two years on a graphic novel project that has finally been released.

Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper is the first volume of a larger, three volume project (though it reads well as a story in itself).

The story is a fantasy adventure in which two siblings, an older sister and younger brother, must rescue their mother from deadly peril. It is something of a coming of age story in that they have the ability to take actions and effect events, but must take responsibility as well.

In it, Kibuishi combines some themes he has favored in his work on Copper and his longer pieces in Flight — the viewpoint of children, the visual textures of elements of the natural world like rocks and water, fanciful imaginative vistas, atmospheric color and eccentric flying machines.

I won’t describe it in too much detail because I enjoyed the little surprises I encountered in the story and I don’t want to deny you the same.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, though, is the way Kibuishi has chosen to create his narrative.

You’ll find no panel-length word balloons with characters expounding on back-story or setup, no caption panels, no pages of exposition; everything is shown graphically, cinematically.

Many sequences are presented wordlessly, or almost so, relying on the flow of sequenced images to convey the narrative. This is where a comics artist’s skills as a visual storyteller are tested, and Kibuishi shows that he has studied some of the masters, probably both in comics and in film, where many of the same problems must be resolved. In both the set up and handling of the story you can see the influence of Anime masters like Hayao Miyazaki.

The drawings of the characters in Amulet are simplified, almost cartoonish; delineated with thin, single-weight outlines, and filled with areas of flat color or gentle gradations. Again, this is very like Anime, but without the slavish projection of Anime’s exaggerated stylizations to which so many young comics artists are inordinately prone.

The panel backgrounds in Amulet are often more implied that realized, with muted suggestions of detail overlayed with gradients of textured color. The exceptions are the dramatic establishing panels where the details of the background are important. There, of course, Kibuishi has a chance to show off his fertile imagination, in both fantasy and “real world” settings that are rich with texture and detail.

Throughout, his linework is controlled but retains a casual feeling; lines that accidentally cross another form or a panel border, and would normally be corrected, are left in place; nothing is ruled; even the panel borders are rough edged. Overall, the line, color and visual tone of the drawings are perfectly suited to the story.

One of the decisions about the presentation of this story that I’m not so fond of is the size of the book. The paperback edition is about 6×9″ (15x23cm), somewhat smaller than traditional comic book/graphic novel size. The book reads fine at that size, but I just prefer the larger canvas (which is why I really like the European graphic album format which is over twice the size of this volume).

The book is published by Scholastic, and this is the same format as their color editions of Jeff Smith’s Bone. In both cases it may be a compromise to keep the price of a 200 page color graphic novel down to under $10; which, for work of this caliber, is a tremendous bargain.

Kibuishi has created a page devoted to Amulet, in which he collects many of the posts from his Bolt City blog that have chronicled his work on the book; although, like many comics authors and artists, he has been so close to the project that he has neglected to include introductory information for newcomers.

As a better introduction, there is a 12 page excerpt from the beginning of the story (non-spoiler) on the New York magazine web site (who now has a terrific regular practice of excerpting recent graphic novels on their Comics Page). There is also an interview with Kibuishi about the project on Newsarama.


Zuda Comics (update)

Zuda Comics: Bayou by Jeremy Love and  Patrick Morgan;  High Moon by David Gallaher, Steve Ellis and  Scott O Brown
When I first wrote about Zuda Comics back in July, DC Comics’ venture into creating an online comics community and developing a commercial line from it was barely more than a web page and a promise.

In the intervening time, however, the promise has begun to fill out, and there is now a substantial presence, with some 20 or so webcomics running, and more competing for viewer votes to gain a slot in the roster.

Basically, anyone can submit a webcomic, registered site visitors can then vote on the comics. There is also a provision for leaving feedback on the postings of individual comics and a more general message board.

Those whose submissions are chosen to run as features are offered contracts for a certain period, over which they agree to produce a certain amount of material. Unlike a lot of webcomics, there is actual payment and the potential for royalties here, though not at the same scale as in traditional print comics lines.

I have to point out that I have not read their terms and agreements in detail, and those interested in submitting webcomics for consideration should, of course, carefully do so. There are three agreements listed in their FAQ, and submission instructions here. I would be particularly cautious in making sure you understand the rights being assigned and how that is applicable to your ownership of the material.

On the reading side, after more than 12 years(!) of crabbing about how monumentally clueless Marvel and DC have been about how comics can work on the web, I have to admit that Zuda, at least, is getting many things right.

First of all they seem to finally be aware that computer monitors are horizontal, not vertical like a comic book page, and have created a standard size horizontal format within which all of the comics are presented.

The way the comics are presented is also well beyond the usual clueless interface disasters the the big companies think are appropriate for presenting online comics (which are usually focused on preventing you from “stealing” the pages, and shoving ads in your face in the process).

The presentation of the Zuda webcomics is within a very nicely implemented Flash interface. (This is not a contradiction in terms as my previous rant may suggest, such things are actually possible!) I’m not sure who designed the interface, but someone who worked on it had a good grasp of interactive information design and it works very well.

You can advance through the pages of an individual comic with slide-show style arrow controls, supplemented with a pop-up bar of thumbnail images. The interface tells you what page you are on and indicates the total number of pages currently available for that comic. The entire navigation can be tucked away at will. The Flash module even remembers where you are in a story if you click away and return.

The comics can look slightly pixelated in the window at first. This is actually because they are being scaled down in Flash. The comics are posted in high-resolution and they can either be scaled with a zoom slider within the default window, or toggled to full screen mode. In full screen mode only the comic is visible against a black background, and even the navigation bar can be hidden, leaving just a full screen of high-resolution comic page. This is a wonderful feature and my hat’s off to the Zuda team for making this call and carrying it through with such aplomb.

Of the 20 or so comics currently available, there is some variety of subject, approach and level of ability. If you roll over the comic’s panel in the selection page you get a brief synopsis and creator credits, with more detail provided to the right on the comic’s dedicated page. I haven’t had a chance to read through all of them in detail but there are a couple of standouts.

Bayou (image above, top), written and illustrated by Jeremy Love and colored by Patrick Morgan, isn’t afraid to take on topics like depression-era race relations in the American South, mix them with actual character development and throw in characters from fiction like Br’er Rabbit. The story is well paced and nicely drawn, particularly in zoomed-in or full screen mode, where you can appreciate the use of coquille-board style crayon textures. As of this writing, Bayou is up to 47 pages and feels like it’s just gaining momentum.

High Moon (image above, bottom), written by David Gallaher, with art by Steve Ellis and lettering by Scott O Brown, is only up to 8 pages so it’s hard to judge the story, though it seems to suggest “High Plains Drifter Meets the Werewolf”, but the art by Ellis is just terrific. Again, use the zoom or full screen feature to see his expressive line work, shape-defining hatching, solid draftsmanship and emotionally effective use of color and texture.

These two alone are enough to keep me coming back to Zuda, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more from this fledgling online comics publisher, and I hope this turns out to be a successful paradigm for the presentation of new comics stories and fresh talents.


Gareth Hinds

Gareth Hinds - BeowulfI have to admit that I’m becoming a little tired of movie CGI, particularly when used with motion capture to portray fake humans; so I haven’t bothered to see the Robert Zemeckis Hollywoodization of the classic Northern European epic poem Beowulf.

Apparently millions of people who just fine with movies full of fake actors, probably inured to the effect from watching hundreds of hours of low resolution fake people in video games, have made the movie a hit. Of course every action/adventure movie of a certain stripe and degree of success has to spawn a movie adaptation in comic book form, and Hollywood’s Beowulf is no exception. These are usually imbued with all of the imagination and visual excitement of the legal contract on which they’re based. I took a cursory glance at the one on the comic shop shelves last week and didn’t see anything to immediately change my mind.

I was reminded however, that I had seen a gripping, well drawn, imaginative and worthwhile retelling of the original Beowulf story in graphic novel form a few years ago (and regular readers will notice I’m using the term “graphic novel” here without my usual complaint about its common misuse).

Gareth Hinds is a gaming concept artist and comic book artist who I had the pleasure of meeting at a Small Press Expo in Maryland several years ago where I was promoting my own graphic story.

Hinds took on the Beowulf story before it was fashionable, and gave it his own unique touch. In addition to his personal vision of the tale (which is pretty quirky as mythical legend type stories go), Hinds took a unique graphic approach, dividing the story into three sections, and approaching each with a different style and set of materials.

For the first he worked in pen and brush and ink, then scanned the pages and colored them digitally. The second was drawn and painted on wood panels with technical pen, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil. The third section, like the first, was drawn in pen, brush and ink, but then colored using Dr. Martins dyes (long a favorite for comic book coloring before the process moved to digital), with touches of white chalk. (Images at left, top to bottom, show a page from each section.)

The story was originally self-published in three volumes, which Hinds re-published in one volume as The Collected Beowulf. It was later republished by Candlewick Press as simply Beowulf. I’ve given Amazon links here, but you can also purchase either version directly from Hinds’ site (sorry, unintentional pun).

Hinds’ web site also showcases his latest, even more ambitious literary adaptation into graphic novel form, King Lear, in which he is again experimenting with materials and techniques. His Lear will be followed next Spring by The Merchant of Venice.

You can also find some of his shorter published comics as well as links to Deus Ex Machina, his experimental online comic. It was one of the early ones, appearing on the web in 1997. You can still read that story on the site in its entirety.

There is an interview with Hinds from Sequential Tart from 2000, in which he talks about the creation of his Beowulf graphic novel.

So if you want a graphic story version of the classic Beowulf tale that hasn’t been filtered through Hollywood’s hyperkinetic, star obsessed lens (a CGI generated Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother? Excuse me?), try Hinds’ unique and original vision.