Yesterday, I went out to a cafe with the intent of getting some work done on Drowning City. Instead I just sat there doing a couple of smaller things that needed doing and staring glumly at the last few pages of chapter 1 that don’t have a rough yet; I just had no energy. So I went over to Phoenix Comics and looked for some inspiration.
These cost more than I care to admit.
The first thing I read was Frankenstein Underground (script: Mike Mignola, art: Ben Stenbeck, color: Dave Stewart). It is a story in which Mignola’s version of Frankenstein’s monster wanders around an underground world, punches a lot of monsters, deals with weird old mystics, and worries about Being A Monster – basically, it’s a Hellboy story without Hellboy, and all the overarching end-of-the-world doom Hellboy carries on his back.
I opened it to a random page and took this photo. About half of the book is stuff like this.
Stenbeck does a really nice job of capturing the spirit of Mignola’s distinctive style without being a slavish copy; the whole book is full of shadows. He adds in more detail than Mike usually does, without getting lost in it like I find some of Mignola’s followers do – there’s a nice sense of life to most of the drawings in this book. And Stewart’s colors continue to add a delicately nuanced flavor to these tales of thud and blunder; he colors pretty much anything Mike’s involved in since like the second Hellboy collection. There’s nothing special or world-changing here; it kinda feels like a return to the core values that Hellboy was built on top of. There’s sunken-faced Victorian revenants, there’s ancient dark tentacle gods, there’s a rich dude with vampire minions and a collection of curiosities, and of course there’s a big, sad-shouldered monster running around punching the snot out of bigger monsters in an assortment of tenebrous spaces. It’s exactly the kind of supernatural pulpy nonsense Mignola’s built his brand on. And it’s a really solidly made piece of that supernatural pulpy nonsense. But it’s not doing anything mindblowing or new.
Rating: ★★★☆☆. A solid piece of Mignola methadone to tide me over until the collected Hellboy in Hell comes out. The finest quality ANSI-standard monster punching money can buy.
Then I decided to check out The Wicked + The Divine (script: Kieron Gillen, art: Jamie McKelvie, colors: Matthew Wilson). I’ve been hearing good things about it but hadn’t read it yet; as I opened it I tweeted “Things I know about Wicked + Divine right now: 1. There was a cute Asian boy at Geek Girl Con who dressed as Pearl from SU one day, and one of the characters from this the next, and had the good taste to buy both volumes of Rita. 2. Also it is about a bunch of gods being reborn in the modern day as various aspects of David Bowie. Which reminds me to go buy his new album.” So I pre-ordered that (it comes out today, still haven’t quite listened to it), put on my current favorite Bowie album (Outside), opened a bottle of beer I had hanging around (because this felt like a book to read with a beer somehow) and got to reading.
Five pages in, after a the prologue about a few nattily-dressed people sitting around a big table being oblique, I was looking at this:
A few pages later, I was looking at this.
Someone sweat blood (probably Gillen, judging from the process notes at the end of the second collection) thinking about the structure of these spreads, making sure it reads sensibly if you read the left page followed by the right page, and if you read four panels in a row straight across the whole spread. When I got to this spread I basically sat up and started really paying attention; the original notes for Decrypting Rita had me planning to have all four stories running in parallel across “standard” comics pages. This is a trick I narrowly avoided having to do for about two hundred pages in a row; my brain aches just thinking about that. There’s a nice awareness of full-page and full-spread design in the comic in general; this trick repeats every now and then (sometimes with the 1-2-3-4 motif in the first spread I excerpted, sometimes without – it’s also a recurring bit of dialogue), as do some really lovely super-symmetrical layouts when the Gods are being all Godly. I suspect there will be some Very Important Pages at the end of the whole story that, if read one way, just conclude the story, and if read another will deliver an Important Message About The Thematic Point Of The Whole Story.
Anyway. There are a dozen of people running around who are earthly incarnations of various deities, who are also all rock stars. They are all going to die after two years of this, and they are all connections to The Source Of Creativity for all of mankind. There is infighting between them, there are rock festivals, there’s one lonely ancient immortal who finds and trains these gods, and there is a hunt for a few deities who have not manifested their earthly avatars at the outset of the story. There’s a nice double bait-and-switch about one plot element in the second volume, that ends on what is probably a huge downer if you’re not possessed of a casual acquaintance with some of the major stories of Greek myth.
There’s some nice color tricks going on too – most things have a fairly representational palette, but whenever the David Bowies do something Divinely Magical, the colors go all pure process and start getting a huge halftone thing going on, as they wield the power of Pure Holy Pop Art.
This is a story that is intensely aware of the fact that it is A Comic Book, in a very good way. I’m now eagerly awaiting the third trade, which should be coming out pretty soon. I should probably ask Phoenix Comics to hang onto a copy for me and bug me when it’s out.
I want to compare this to The Invisibles (writer: Grant Morrison, art: like a dozen different people over the course of the run) a lot. It’s got the same awareness of Being A Comic at it’s core, and it’s rooted deep in a distinctly UK pop-culture sensibility.
Rating: ★★★★★. I have a Doug Winger-sized comics-formalist boner for this thing. It’s also a sharply-written, fast-moving story with a lot of well-defined characters. Recommended.
After reading that, I still had more to read – the interesting-looking Private Eye, which I know nothing about except that Em at Phoenix recommended it (and that it was a full third of the cost of my purchases thanks to being an oversized hardcover), and all five issues of the Brandon Graham-edited anthology Island – but the massive comics-formalist boner I had from reading The Wicked + The Divine meant that I was fired up to go work on The Drowning City.
So I put together a playlist full of music I’d always thought was the soundtrack (the Numan), stuff I was listening to when I was the self-hating guy I was in the nineties and early 00’s and coming up with the basic outline of this story (the Puppy and NIN), and some other gothy moody stuff I felt would evoke the right general attitude (the Crüxshadows, Aphex Twin, and Bowie). I’m surprised I hadn’t done this yet, to be honest. And I sat in front of the computer, pulled up one of the remaining pages without a rough, and started drawing.
This is the top half of page 8 of the first chapter of Drowning City. Yesterday evening it was just script. So that’s good. These are super messy roughs that are going to require a lot more work before they’re finished panels, but they’re enough to start with. There’s a lot of me scribbling and feeling around here; lots of drawing stuff at whatever size it came out of my hand, then resizing it down to fit into a section of the page without being incoherent. Well. Right now some of these panels are pretty incoherent if you don’t have the script next to them. But they’re scribbles I know I can turn into images that fairly unambiguously read as “1. The leader gallops up to Alecto as she darts to the hopeful freedom of a parking lot. 2. Horse rearing, he glares down at Alecto, blocking her with the flat of his spear.” – and so on, and so forth.
So that’s what I did last night. When I got up and turned on some music, iTunes was still in the Downing City playlist, so I decided to take this from an assortment of tweets about me reading these things and write up something less ephemeral. It’s essential to take inspiration from outside of comics, but I need to remember that sometimes it’s good to just go read some good comics and get fired up to make more of them.
Anyway. As I was writing this, iTunes finished the Crüxshadows album it was in the middle of when I got up, and played the first track of the new Bowie album. I’m gonna go get some breakfast and listen to that, then get to some comics – probably Drowning City, as that’s what I’ve been doing for most of this week.