Saturday, October 31, 2009


Perhaps out of some misguided allegiance to my youth (when I was a “reader-collector” of Marvel and DC comics), or even out of some need (equally misguided) to prove to myself that I'm not an “art comics snob,” I've long been scanning the new comics racks for a mainstream-superhero title that I could “follow.” With the exception of Marvel’s Omega the Unknown (by a team fully outside of the mainstream stable of writers and artists), nearly every comic I have purchased or read in the store (a lot) has been a disappointment, especially the horrible Jimmy Olsen one-shots of the past year. Even the work of Grant Morrison (I just stopped reading his Batman and Robin), is a kind of letdown. I have been told for decades, and once believed, that Morrison is not just a great writer of comics, but a great writer. In his current Batman series, Morrison creates villains who are pretty creepy, scenes that are somewhat disturbing, and avoids most of the clichés that bury other writers. Frank Quitely’s art is stylish, but his line is so thin at times that it seems to disappear into the color. The comic’s solid, but that’s about all I can say for it.

I have been reading another Batman series, one that rises above corporate sub-mediocrity to the level of interesting and successful entertainment: Batman Unseen.

[click images to enlarge ]

What first attracted me to the comic, and one of the main reasons it works, is Michelle Madsen’s coloring, which manages to be both “moody” and bright, almost garish (attractively so) in its gloss. She avoids the coloring clichés that plague many current superhero comics, such as "muddy brown scene with indistinguishable characters" means “this story is seriously intense and grim.” Here is her "signature" in first panel of issue #2: a stained glass window with blocks of bright colors.

The way that artist Kelley Jones designs the white spaces on some of the pages functions in concert with Madsen’s color schemes. Jones uses a lot of white space and large gutter-like areas to ensures that all of the elements of the layout are easily read. And the pages often have an "airy" and open feel, a look that's surprising in a comic that uses so many horror tropes:

While computer fonts typically clash with the natural hand of the artist, Madsen's bold coloring of the sound effects here integrates them into the look of the panel and page by echoing the colors of nearby objects -- I still prefer hand lettering, but the coloring helps:

The comic evokes the simple and blocky color patterns of silver age superhero comics and makes use of computer-based shading effects in a manner that's unobtrusive:

Though Jones’s art often creates the dark atmosphere typical in Batman comics, it always displays a nice blend of comedic exaggeration and horror tropes; so the story never gets weighed down, trying to tell us visually that we must take it seriously, even when we are seeing some fairly dramatic images of Gotham:

(I like how the areas of red and yellow stand off against the grays and blacks. Even a night scene that's dense in Jones's trademark shadows and thick black areas somehow becomes bright.)

The humor in Jones’s art is not ironic or parodic -- the story is a crime drama and works as such; but again, there’s something about the cartoony aspects of his art that keep the brooding within bounds, as in this dutch angle panel with angular shadows:

Subtitled “A Lost Tale of Bruce Wayne as Batman,” Batman Unseen appears to be completely outside of the cosmic crossover continuity chaos that makes so many current mainstream comics unreadable for me. It’s a bit of a throwback, a very pulpy comic with a mad scientist-invisible man, and some two-bit hoods directed by a super-villain type. But writer Doug Moench never overplays his pulp hand in a self-conscious way, and nothing is being revised, rebooted, etc . . . There’s very little pretense: it’s far more entertaining detective fiction than collectible superheroic drama, and it helps that the comic focuses more on the cast of criminals than on Batman.

One pulpy feature that works very well is the way that Moench and Jones open each issue’s many chapters with an image of Batman as a kind of host-narrator, a silent version of the horror comic convention of the comedic narrator. There’s a light humor to many of these set ups that, for a moment, takes us out of the narrative's continuity and contributes to the comic's "ludic sensibility":

Here’s a two-page spread from issue #1: an ad for a DC comic (Blackest Night) followed by the last page of the Unseen story. It offers an unintended contrast, one that sets Jones's approach side-by-side with the typical machismo that pervades many superhero comics. In the ad, all of the characters' hand and mouth gestures and poses evoke, in their "extreme attitude," the unfortunate excesses of the 1990s Image comics house style. Jones uses some similar gestures and poses, but renders faces, hands, and bodies very differently. And the attractive, light and loose lines he employs to draw the disappearing scientist and his lab materials shows an artistic playfulness and stylishness absent in the ad and comics like the one it's selling:

So far, Batman Unseen has been an entertaining comic.


Inkstuds said...

I have a dorky soft spot for Kelly Jones' Batman work. My Batman comic collection is something quite obscene. I will check these out.

Ken Parille said...

yeah -- I think Jones's style really works well here -- It's worth checking out.

Frank Santoro said...

gotta love Kelley Jones. he does a better Wrightson than Wrightson.

www.españ said...

It won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I think.

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