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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pipeline - Why Waid & Wieringo's "Fantastic Four" Was a Winner After Two Pages


via Comic Book Resources

FANTASTIC FOUR #60

Mike Wieringo's birthday was Friday, June 24th. It's an annual observance for me to read one (or more) of his comics on that day and report back on it here in Pipeline.

This year, I only got through one issue. Even though I must have read it a half dozen times before, "Fantastic Four" #60 jumped out at me this year as a solid piece of superhero comics storytelling that deserved a full review.

Mark Waid scripted it. Mike Wieringo drew it with Karl Kesel on inks. Paul Mounts, as seemingly always, colored Ringo's art, and Richard Starkings and Comicraft's Albert Deschesne lettered it up. Tom Brevoort was the editor. The whole series fell under the Joe Quesada/Bill Jemas era of Marvel, which would later lead to a very awkward moment that is outside the scope of this review. Thank goodness.

I'll be spending this week's column reviewing the first two pages of the issue.

Two pages. Here are my 1400 words on how good the opening to this issue is:

The Dark and Shadowy -- Public Relations Department?
(or "Lots of Little Things Add Up")

Mark Waid wanted to create a clean start with his run on the series, establishing the family, their adventurous nature, and some very specific character points that he outlined in an early memo that saw print in the back of the hardcover collection of the series. (I think it was also in the Director's Cut edition of "Fantastic Four" #500, but I don't have that issue available at the moment.)

He pulled most of that off in his first two pages. It's a great framing sequence that is obvious in what it's trying to accomplish, but done with a sense of humor, a strong dash of character, and an introduction to the mystery of the issue. Even better, it doesn't tell you what the mystery is. You'll get that later. This is just planting the seeds that you might not think about at the moment.

The first page features a darkened conference room, where suit-clad business folks sit around a table watching a slide show. It's a great visual. Wieringo did a great job in using the window behind the speaker. With those horizonal blinds just a crack open, it lets in light to help rim light the speaker around his arms and head, while also providing a contrast against which to place the silhouette. It would just look murky if it was a solid black background behind a solid black shadowed figure.

The projector in front of the speaker gives off enough light to show part of his body, but is isolated enough to keep his face and identity a secret. It creates a natural tension for the reader who's walking into the unknown, while being something of visual interest.

The blinds also give the scene a bit of a noir-ish feel, which is unexpected in a "Fantastic Four" adventure comic. It's an early fake out, since there's nothing really noir-ish about the scene past this introductory staging.

The speaker is introducing the history of the Fantastic Four. It's an origin recap story, but it works for three reasons:

First, it bounces back and forth from the speaker to the slides. Those "slides" are really a projection of the comic sitting on top of the overhead projector. I finally realized that for the first time now, twelve years later. I grew up with projectors only working with light shining through transparencies. And today's kids probably only know "smart boards" and wouldn't have a clue to what a projector is. End of tangent, I promise.

The slides feature Mike Wieringo drawing in a style that morphs his own work just a tad closer to Jack Kirby's 1960s style. With the help of Paul Mounts' faded newsprint-like colors, the pictures in the slideshow evoke the history of the title and the era. It's not done slavishly. It's not like Wieringo drew Kirby Krackle and square fingertips. It's a very soft, subtle tweak to his own style to show the influences.

Second, it's telling the well-worn origin with a viewpoint that emphasizes Reed Richards' failure. That will be a key point to this issue and the series' overall arc under Waid: Why did Reed invite this P.R. firm team to come in? Part of it is still his guilt over how his mistakes changed his friends' lives in a way they may not have wanted, and the perhaps slightly left of center way he's making up for it to them.

Third, the little mystery of the shadowed figures keeps the reader's mind in an open loop. What should be a simple repetition of an already known story is instead initially cast in an unknown meeting room with a cast of characters who are as likely to be some odd accumulation of supervillains or evil business cabal as they are creative marketing folks. The reader can play along on the first page, carefully analyzing what the speakers say to figure out who they are.

Waid's script is already taking well worn superhero comics storytelling cliches and playing with them, finding little tweaks that make the story interesting. And we're still on page one! There's no taking any single page of a comic book script for granted, and Waid is not doing that here.

He's already transformed a talking heads scene into something visually interesting for the reader to look at and for the artist to draw. I'm sure Mike Wieringo wouldn't have been thrilled to start his run on "Fantastic Four" with two pages of people sitting around a table in suits and ties and talking to each other. The first two pages include just as many drawings of the classic Fantastic Four as of the suits chatting. Even then, the suits aren't just sitting around a table blabbing; they're starting off mysteriously in the shadows, with enough joining in the conversation to allow Wieringo not to just draw the same two heads talking back and forth at each other.

The Transition

The best trick to this, though, is the transition. At the top of page two, the lights come back up, but Waid's script doesn't call for an immediate reveal of the people. We'll get there three panels later, when Waid brightens up the room, reveals a conference table surrounded by well-dressed professionals, and delivers the gag: this is a public relations firm that has been hired to boost the reputation of the Fantastic Four in the public's mind.

It's how Waid segues from shadowy talking heads to lit conference room that works so well for me. It's a completely visual trick.

We go from a series of panels in the previous page at mid-range to two close-ups, as the speaker's hand tosses a "Fantastic Four" comic to the table, surrounded by other F4 tchotchkes. Then we look back up and zoom out to see everyone around the table in bright light.

This is all in Waid's original script. You have to give him credit for that. It's a great transition. You can see the movement in your head, keeping the page from being static with such a simple move --- a hand taking a comic off an overhead projector and onto the table.

In addition to being an action, it also transitions the scene from dark to light, from single presenter to room full of people collaborating, from close-ups to wide angle. It's almost like a new scene just broke out in the middle of the current scene.

The little things like that add up, and Waid knows what he's doing. He's a student of the art of comics, and he knows to keep things moving.

Wieringo does his part, too, in carrying that action through. Look at the position of the hand in both panels. It's coming in from the left. First, it's pointing down to throw the comic down to the table. In the next panel, it's an open hand facing down and away, the comic making an impact on the table. It's almost, but not quite, a literal point of view shot for the reader. Keeping the hand in roughly the same spot with the tight angle sells that motion. It's like the speaker at the head of the table is now throwing the discussion open to the room, with the comic being the physical representation of that.

Or I might be overthinking it, though I still stand by the action being done well as a transition device.

The End (of Page 2)

Long story short, this sequence ends with the boss assigning Shertzer, the young kid with all the nervous energy, to the Fantastic Four account, and he is to go to New York City immediately to meet with them.

The page ends on a dramatic upshot of the boss giving Schertzer his new assignment. Waid's script describes the panel as being "TIGHT ON THE HEAD HONCHO, A MISCHIEVOUS GLINT IN HIS EYE."

I'm not entirely sure Wieringo sells me on "mischievous" here, but there's something to that look that piqued my curiosity, so he still accomplished his mission.

Oh, and check out the boss' hair. There's something I love about it. It has a great shape, with the black areas working around the highlights coming from a light source above and to the left. Check out the shapes of those black areas. They give the hair shape and volume. It doesn't need all the feathering or small details to sell it. It's a great example of doing more with less.

Wieringo does other little interesting things in this sequence, too. Our official introduction to Shertzer includes him restlessly playing with paper clips at the conference table, not taking notes with the pen and paper in front of him.

That panel with all the F4 merchandise and press on it is described by Waid in his script like this:

FF LICENSED PRODUCTS (T-SHIRTS, MUGS, AND SO FORTH), MAGAZINE COVERS WITH FF MEMBERS ON 'EM, A DAILY BUGLE FRONT PAGE WHERE WE CAN READ A PARTIAL HEADLINE ABOUT THE FF. WE CAN SEE THE COMIC BOOK IN SUCH A WAY THAT WE CAN READ THE OLD FF LOGO AND THE BLURB "AMAZING ORIGIN ISSUE!" ON THE COVER.

He draws the cutest Thing bobble head doll. For the mug, he has the smart idea of drawing the Human Torch all fired up on a mug that holds hot coffee. The suggested comic book gets statted in, and there's not nearly enough room to put everything on the table that Waid suggests, but Wieringo picks a good enough sampling to get the point across.

Just the Beginning?

I could go on.

No, seriously, I have enough notes that I could analyze this whole issue scene-by-scene or page by page. There's a great artistic call-back near the end, Waid and Wieringo's inspirations for Sue Storm, Reed's guilt, Johnny's lack of responsibility, the adventures into the unknown, Wieringo's shadow definitions, a great triangular storytelling sequence that flows down a page, the Wright Bros' unexpected cameo, square bubbles, proof that Reed Richards is a Mac user, a poke at 90s comics, and so much more.

The issue is only 22 pages.

Let me know if you'd like to read that. I'm ready to write it, but would going into that level of detail for the next four of five weeks just be too much? Let me know. Drop me a line or post on the Pipeline message board, where there's already a thread started.

FOLLOW-UP: MANIFEST DESTINY

I had such a good time reading the first two volumes of "Manifest Destiny" for last week's column that I immediately read the third the next day. The third trade was so impressive that I kept going, reading the two single issues that have come out so far in the fourth storyline.

The book only gets better, the deeper it goes. In particular, the third volume builds nicely on all that's come before it from a character point of view. Writer Chris Dingess provides new insight into Lewis' thrill seeking self-destructive streak, that possible romance I mentioned in last week's review, and new horrible horrific horror-filled deaths and dismemberment. The horrors!

But we also get one of the funniest surprises about half way through the book, only to be followed with one of the most jaw-dropping tear-jerking surprises. It's a book that really is a roller coaster ride, and every page of it is fun.

Also in volume 3, Stefano Gaudiano (of "Walking Dead" ink fame) and Tony Akins come on board in the second half as full-time inkers. They're great. I'm sure they're helping to keep the production of the book moving along, but they also do a great job in blending their styles in with artist Matthew Roberts'. There's no noticeable drop or change in the style of the book, no doubt helped by Owen Gieni's eye-catching colors that might distract from find ink line differences. There had been a point about halfway through volume 2 where Roberts' art changed and simplified a little, like he was drawing on smaller paper or leaving out some details. I'm sure bringing in the inkers will help prevent that for the rest of the series. It looks great.

Second, my concerns about the series becoming too much of a mythology arc instead of a sharp monster of the month type of thing gets put to the test. There's a diary entry at the beginning of volume 3 that's set in a previous expedition along the same lines as Lewis and Clark's. That storyline blows up for the fourth volume to share much of the page time. We're only two issues into that six issue story arc, but I can't wait to continue reading it now from month to month. I'm converted.

So, yes, I've read all of "Manifest Destiny" that's in print now. And not a page of it has let me down. It's a beautiful book with a captivating story, where the horror drives the narrative and provides some thrilling moments, but works best for bringing out the characters' true personalities.

I hope there's an oversized hardcover collected edition in the future of this book someday. I'm not placing bets on that happening, but I can dream.

LET ME HELP YOU LEARN TO DRAW

As you might have noticed here over recent years, I do my fair share of doodling on the side. Last year, I started to use the Clip Studio Paint application to draw more, digitally.

It's a great program that's helped me do a lot of interesting things with my "art," but it always sparked loads of questions. The user manual isn't that great. There are lots of tutorial videos out there, which definitely helped, but it was always a struggle to search around for just the right answer to whatever question I had that day.

I kept notes on what I was learning as I went, though, and now I'm starting to post the answers to my own questions, along with lots of other stuff I've learned about Clip Studio Paint along the way. The more I play with it, the more I learn.

Last week, I threw open the doors on LearnCSP.com, a new site dedicated to answering specific questions and showing all the tips and tricks I've learned along the way. It's not meant to be a user manual replacement, or a tool-by-tool dissection of the program. I'm sharing what I've learned and writing about related issues along the way. I'm working on some video tutorials, too, which should start to publish in the next week or so...

If you're new to Clip Studio Paint, I hope LearnCSP.com will be helpful for you. If you're a grizzled expert, it might not be that eye-opening, but you never know what I might sneak in.

Let me know what you think! Thanks!

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TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, fantastic four, mark waid, mike wieringo, skybound, manifest destiny, chris dingess, matthew roberts, tony akins, stefano gaudiano

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