James's Single Minded for 11/26: Image Brings Explosively Colorful Art (C.O.W.L.,Ody-C, and Madman 3D Special)

If I'm writing about several different comic issues at once, I find that I like to talk about issues that are in at least some way thematically related.  A few weeks ago my post was all about first issues of new science fiction series involving alien species.  This week is all about books with bright, explosive art that pops off the page, both figuratively and (in the case of one comic) literally.

C.O.W.L. #6
Story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel
Art by Elsa Charretier
Colors by Rod Reis
Letters by Troy Peteri
Published by Image Comics

C.O.W.L. defies easy characterization. I've heard it described as "Superheroes meets Mad Men" but I think it's more like "Justice League meets CSI meets Mad Men meets Norma Rae meets House of Cards, with a noir twist".  Issue 6 of C.O.W.L. is the first issue of the new arc (the collected edition of the first arc is out now). Rather than just continue the story from where issue 5 left off, issue 6 does something more interesting.

C.O.W.L. takes place in Chicago, 1962.  The Chicago Organized Workers League (or C.O.W.L.) is the organized superhero union (founded by crime fighter Geoffrey Warner, Chicago's first masked vigilante, also known as the Grey Raven) that has contracted with the City for years to successfully fight crime and defeat supervillain threats. But times have changed, the supervillains have mostly disappeared, and the City (led by Mayor Richard Daley) is maybe thinking they could do without C.O.W.L.'s services. Simultaneously, the C.O.W.L. are investigating several mysteries including corruption in the city, unexplained deaths, and other strange goings on with respect to their own members. All of this culminates in issue 5 with unrest and open strife between the City and C.O.W.L., and a significant choice by Warner. Issue 6 takes a completely different approach. It exists as a comic book within the universe of C.O.W.L. and tells what appears to be the "official" story of how Warner came was born and raised in Chicago, rejected corruption in Chicago, and came to be the Grey Raven.

Art from issue 1 of C.O.W.L.
This is a fun, entertaining issue, that works on two different levels. If you're not reading C.O.W.L., you can easily pick up issue 6 and enjoy it. However, if you're reading the story, the events of issue 6 take on an added level of poignancy and irony (I'm not saying more than that).  The art here is beautiful, and apart from the fake-nostalgia factor, it's an entertaining, skillfully-made comic. The story of the rise of the Grey Raven  adheres to the general "masked vigilante" formula, but it's an entertaining read about family and full of exciting action and big revelations, particularly in a car chase at the end of the issue.

It's a gorgeous comic book, done entirely in the clean, "retro" style above which is meant to be evocative of golden and silver-age comics. The bright, solid coloring, the smiling expressions - it all feels like something out-of-time. The look of Issue 6 is all the more dramatic considering that regular series artist Rod Reis uses a dark, moody style somewhat reminiscent of the work of Bill Sienkiewicz.  The creators of the comic have also included some terrific fake ads for real comics, such as an ad for the Brubaker/Epting series Velvet done in the style of magazine ads from the 1940's or 50's. It's a nice touch, that adds to the feel of the book as an artifact from the past.

C.O.W.L #6 is a fun issue worth a look, and now's a good time to catch up on the series.

Madman In Your Face 3D Special!
Created, Written and Illustrated by Michael Allred
Colors by Laura Allred
3D process by Christian LeBlanc
Edits by Jamie S. Rich
Letters by Nate Piekos
Published by Image Comics

Do you remember the feeling of wonder and joy you got from reading comics as a kid? A great comic could really immerse you in a story full of amazing heroes or robots (or whatever the story was about).  It's more difficult as an adult to really get over our jaded, cynical, critical selves and just enjoy reading something. I'm here to tell you that if feeling jaded about comics is the problem, the Madman In Your Face 3D Special! is the solution. It's like an injection of pure joy into your brain through your eyes via the use of 3-D glasses (but don't try that at home, I accept no liability).

There are two stories in the comic, along with some bonus materials. But as fun and engaging as they are, the plot of the stories is not really the focus here. The Madman In Your Face 3D Special! is one of the most purely entertaining comics I've read in a very long time, in addition to being a remarkable technical achievement.  The first, and obvious thing to say about this issue is that the 3-D effects are terrifically rendered by Christian LeBlanc. If you read this issue digitally, it's a terrific, fun issue, but you'll be missing (at least) half of the fun.  It's got great illustrations, though frankly you may want to take a break from time to time because it's a lot of visual information. 

In the first story, Madman and Mister Excitement (another masked hero) travel through Madman's mind (or some other dimension, or maybe both), in an effort to restore Madman to consciousness.  From panel to panel, from page to page, this is a virtuoso display of Mike Allred's skill and range as an artist and designer, and Laura Allred's remarkable touch as a colorist with both big, bright tones and subtle shading in both action and expression. Many of these panels are homages to the work of other artists; one series of panels resembles Peanuts, the next panel is an homage to Where the Wild Things Are, and another panel embodies Tintin, Popeye or other classic cartoons. As Madman and Mister Excitement navigate their way through Madman's unconscious, the story is really an opportunity for Allred to show his stuff. The story, involves Madman trying to achieve a higher state of enlightenment. There are some thoughtful insights on working through the demons of your past, but you may find yourself mostly focusing on the pictures.

The second story is one continuous battle between Madman and his friends, and some alien-fish-mouth creatures (which look exactly how they sound) who have captured Madman's friend and ally It Girl. This entire story takes place as a series of double page spreads. Even without the use of multiple panels, Allred tells a great sequential story and clearly shows the progression of action in each one of these spreads. Even more than the previous story (where Allred showed his ability to draw in multiple styles), this story shows his abilities as a visual storyteller. He illustrates motion dynamically, as Madman is shown jumping, running and flipping during the course of these spreads.

The issue features pinups by talented artists such as Marcos Martin, Paulo Rivera, Emma Rios, Ming Doyle, Nick Dragotta, Declan Shalvey, Sean Murphy, and others. Additionally, in what feels like almost an embarrassment of riches, the issue also contains the one page strip Madman in Slumberland which was included in the Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream project. 

There's a lot to enjoy in the Madman In Your Face 3D Special!, and I highly recommend it (particularly if you can buy a physical copy).

Ody-C #1
Story by Matt Fraction
Art by Christian Ward
Color Flatting by Dee Cunniffe
Letters by Chris Eliopoulos
Design by Christian Ward and Drew Gill
Pubished by Image Comics

Homer's epic Greek poem The Odyssey is one of the most enduring, influential stories in Western culture. It's a story that is been told and retold in multiple formats over the course of many years.*  The new series Ody-C from Matt Fraction and Christian Ward is big, ambitious, interesting, visually stunning (almost overwhelming sometimes), and epic in the truest sense of the word (i.e., a long poem narrating the heroic deeds of legendary figures). Stated in the most reductive manner, Ody-C is a gender-flipped version of The Odyssey set in space**. That, by itself, would make for an interesting comic, particularly with art as compelling as what Ward provides, but the sense one gets from this first issue is that there is (and will be) depth and twists and surprises for readers.

What greets the reader when opening a physical copy of this comic is an eight-page spread depicting the horrors and battle of the war that has taken place prior to the events of the first issue; it's vivid and dark, and conveys that the protagonists have been through a terrible ordeal. On the back of the eight page spread is a detailed timeline of the events taking place in this universe from the birth of all of the Olympian gods, leading up to the "present" time of the story, along with a detailed cosmology chart showing the location of the various star systems and planets of importance in the story. It's a lot of information, but it's presented skillfully in an appealing, (mostly) accessible manner as designed by Christian Ward and Drew Gill (and a little reminiscent of the work of Jonathan Hickman).

The planet Ithacaa over the course of 100 years has successfully defeated the planet Troiaa. Odyssia seeks to return home to her beloved bride and child. The gods have decided that this war has represents the hubris of mortals, and (as led by Poseidon), determines to make Odyssia's journey home more difficult. So, as Odyssia and her Swiftship crew (who have a complex, interesting hierarchy and structure in the story) travel through space, they encounter (and will continue to encounter) obstacles and threats.

There is something of an emotional distance between the reader and the characters in the story, but that is in keeping with the larger-than-life feel of the book. The protagonists seem more than human, and so a feeling of distance between the reader and the characters makes sense.  This sense of distance is further conveyed in a number of instances by presenting dialogue in caption boxes rather than in traditional dialogue balloons (with great work from Eliopoulos). This conveys a sense that what you're reading is verse, rather than a typical comic.  However, as the issue progresses, we get a glimpse of Odyssia's inner life, her longing for home, and weariness even as her lover/companion feels (and the reader also feels) that Odyssia is somewhat removed.  Fraction's best work is some of his most emotionally intimate (Sex Criminals, Hawkeye) so it will be worth watching to see how he strikes the balance between epic and introspective.  

The artwork in the story is striking. The colors from Ward and Cunniffe in this issue are explosively bright, vivid and in many places quite jarring. The book has a psychedelic feel to it throughout the story and some of the images look like they belong on the wall of the college dorm (which I mean as a compliment).  This is a book that you'll want to read through multiple times, as there is a tremendous amount of visual information that you might miss the first time around if you're just following the story.  Every page feels like an explosion of colors, and there is some unsettlingly great, bright and discordant imagery throughout the first issue.  When we see Odyssea and her fellow warriors in action, they are effective, brutal and efficient. Similarly, the gods seem exaggerated, almost like caricatures, and Odyssia's ship hums along on multiple levels like a beehive.

The level of artistic detail varies from scene to scene (depending on whether the focus is closer-up or more distant), and in some cases the outline of objects (such as Odyssia's ship) is not sharply drawn, and in other scenes is sharply defined.  This feels like a deliberate choice, but is occasionally distracting.  Character design is ornate and exaggerated (these are science-fiction type costumes, not necessarily meant to be evocative in any way of ancient Greece).  In character design, Ward showcase not only some imaginative costume design, but also a diverse representation of female body types. Odyssia is depicted as a powerful, striking warrior, and the gods are depicted as strange, and larger-than-life. Zeus is a extremely large, buxom (I might say zaftig) woman who commands a presence and respect. The one male depicted in the story (known simply as "He", the analogue for Helen of Troy) is shown being led on a leash in what looks a little like bondage gear.

It's fair to say there's a lot to absorb in this issue.  Ody-C is very successful at conveying "bigness" which is something that feels necessary in a science-fiction retelling of an epic story such as The Odyssey.  When gods and worlds are at play, the story, the art, the setting should all feel, larger-than-life and important, and in that regard, Ody-C does quite well.

* Full disclosure: I haven't read The Odyssey but am familiar with the broad outlines of the story. Some of my favorite interpretations  include the film O Brother, Where Art Thou, and the graphic novel Infinite Horizon by Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto.

** In this story, in the distant past, Zeus destroyed almost all males in existence. There is an additional gender known as Sebex that is also part of this society.