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Amazing Montage Magazine

for July, 1999

Mainstream Month

Copyright 1999 by Erik Larson Amazing Montage Magazine is dedicated to the independent comics scene-- so why are we devoting an entire issue to non-independent corporate comics? Basically because we felt like writing about them this month! But it's worthwhile comparing them with the independent comics scene; and we're focusing on the tiny handful of quasi-independent artists who've somehow staked out little alcoves of self-expression on the factory floor.

'Non-independent' refers to an arrangement by the four largest companies to be exclusively distributed by one distributor, thus shutting out competition in that area. The distributor in turn provides these publishers with promotional and discounting arrangements which prevent smaller companies from ever competing effectively. This puts the conscientious comics fan in a quandary; the largest companies are an oligopoly which should not be allowed to benefit from our consumer dollars; however, for most cartoonists to make a living, they have to work for these companies. So, more often than not, to follow the career of a favorite artist means that you eventually have to start buying comics from the enemy.

The system of non-independence has many other implications. In most cases, the artists do not own or have control over the use of their work. The majority of non-independent comics are devoted to keeping their licensed properties in print. 'Licensed' in this case does not refer to poetic license; in fact it's just the opposite.

Licensed properties are 'characters' such as Batman and Spiderman whose appearance on lunch pails and T-shirts constitute a major source of company income. Vast resources of talent and inspiration are devoted to the absurd effort of trying to create art and entertainment while straitjacketed by all the constraints in using these licensed entities.

Fortunately, many artists have worked over the years to open up the companies to new ideas and innovations, and artist-owned content now appears occasionally in corporate publications. In fact, one prominent writer, Alan Moore, has negotiated a 'firewall' between his work for America's Best Comics and the parent company (DC) that publishes it, so that he apparently is able to operate completely free of their interference!

This issue looks at the best of these quasi-independent corporate comics. We also have a rather amazing interview with Erik Larson, one of the most successful corporate artists who owns his own series, The Savage Dragon.

Erik Larson Interview

A co-founder of Image Comics and the creator of The Savage Dragon, Erik Larson is interviewed by Austin English. Larson talks about his beginnings as an artist; how he got his first professional break; his years with Marvel; the genesis of Image Comics; his views of the industry; and his efforts to keep The Savage Dragon on track as a popular series. Click here for page 1 of the interview!

Note that Austin English has also recently posted an incredible interview with Jeff Nicholson (THROUGH THE HABITRAILS, COLONIA) at the Indy Magazine website-- check it out!

America's Best Comics

Alan Moore appears to be on the fourth leg of his tour of the superhero genre. With Miracleman, he asked the question 'What would be the moral and psychological implications be of being a superhero?' With Watchmen, he explored the sociological impact that would result if superheroes really existed. His series 1963 was an attempt to recreate the early years of the Marvel Comics. (I'm not familiar with his superhero work on Supreme.)

ABC comics seems to merge the Watchmen and 1963 approaches together. They are for the most part sophisticated comics with some realistic considerations about their fantastic premises; but they seek to recapture the innocent sense of wonder that early comics had.

Moore uses the deliciously retro term 'science heroes' for his protagonists, and seems to have a common theme in each book of an alternate universe stranger and more fantastic than our own. Several of his books are set in the 1990's, but have futuristic trappings side-by-side with familiar contemporary lingo. It remains to be seen if the books are part of a larger epic, but at the very least, Moore has managed to build some synergy between the titles.

The books are also remarkable for their craftsmanship, using solid professional artists working at the top of their form. The stories are either self-contained or have a strong sense of continuity from issue to issue. The writing is especially tight, and the plots move quickly, so you get the satisfying feeling that each issue has half again as much content as a normal comic.

Retailers report that the entire line of books are doing very well; Moore could be well on the way to becoming the next Stan Lee...

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Copyright Alan Moore and Kevin ONeil Tough-minded Victorian divorcee ?? has been given a daunting task-- assemble a team of the strangest and most dangerous men for a mission to save the British Empire!

Her recruits include Jules Verne's Captain Nemo and H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and half of the appeal of the story is seeing Moore satirize these literary legends. It's also a delight to see a world in which Verne's and Wells' imaginings turn out to be literally true.

The art by Kevin O'Neill is crisp and energetic, rendering Victorian style with an appealing brashness. His art has a somewhat abstract feel that makes the fantastic events easier to accept.

Reminiscent of both Watchmen and 1963, the back pages of the book consist of text fiction and Victorian-era advertisements, some of which are hilarious. It's really nice to have some extra material to ponder after finishing the main episode!

All in all, it's a pleasure to see an offbeat premise like this being given such a top-of-the-line treatment.

Tom Strong

Copyright Alan Moore and Kevin ONeill This superhero satire has a strange metafictional displacement. The first issue consists of a young boy reading a comic about Tom Strong, and most of what we see is that comic; but the 'real' Tom Strong is meanwhile fighting hoodlums right outside the window.

Tom Strong stands apart because of the care taken in developing its' SF premises; but this is contrasted with giving Strong a character much too innocent and pure to be believeable. Two of his sidekicks, a steam-powered mechanical man and an intelligent ape, are hardly credible. And the rest of his heroic team is filled with family members, his wife and daughter, giving the series a corny 'Captain Marvel' kind of feel.

What makes it all work is once again tight writing (Moore has so far made each issue a self-contained story) and fantastic artwork. Chris Sprouse is really making a name for himself here with beautifully-planned layouts that smoothly convey the narrative; the pages fairly glow with elegantly-rendered technology and nobly-proportioned heroes. Sure, its all too good to be true, but we don't mind being kidded along evey once and a while.

Promethea

Copyright Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III Fleeing from assassins who've slain her father, a young child confronts two ancient Egyptian gods. They proclaim that that only way they can save her from her pursuers is to subsume her into the realm of myth and legend where they themselves exist.

The child, Promethea, henceforth lives her life through the imaginings and writings of artists inspired by her; and occasionally is able to assume human form in the body of a particularly-fervent admirer.

This appears to be a second-tier title compared to LOEG and Tom Strong. It's storyline is not as distinctive, and the art style is not as polished. But it is heads and shoulders above other current comics, and promises to be a lot of fun. Artists J. H. Williams III and associates have crammed an enormous amount of detail into their futuristic 1999, and the page layouts are generally effective and eye-pleasing. The concept behind the book has the potential for really mind-bending metafictional swerves up the road.

Note, I just got issue 2 yesterday, and it appears to be substantially better than issue 1!

TOP TEN

Kind of an ASTRO CITY racheted up to the Nth degree, this series deals with a city in which virtually everyone is a super hero of some kind. A homeless man is some kind of Human Torch; a waitress wears a halo and wings; a cab driver is a blind man able to navigate the road through super intuition.

The story focuses on an 87th-PRECINCT style group of cops, who also have super powers. ?? is a rookie whose first day on the job is chronicled in issue one. Her captain is a man-sized Doberman with mechanical limbs; her partner is a giant-sized muscle-bound character with a taciturn disposition. Fellow officers include a peacock man and a woman whose skin changes colors constantly as if she had some kind of epidermal screen-saver going.

Sounds like fun, but the first issue at least is just too much-- too many characters, too many powers, too much detail crammed into every panel. The sheer effort by the art team (Gene Ha and Zander Cannon) is quite amazing, but the story is hard to follow; and in this case, Moore doesn't seem to have much of a story to tell.

Tommorrow Stories

Bent on proving that he's a one-man-army of superhero inventiveness, Moore premiere's four additional caped capers in this tight little satirical book.

Jack-B-Quick, with art by Kevin Nowlan, is the standout, with a rural tale of the fantastic reminiscent of R. A. Lafferty's SF humor.

Teaming with Rick Veitch, Moore creates an EC-esque twisted tale only tangentally concerned with his detective hero Greyshirt.

Jim Baikie provides the art for The First American, in a jab at Jerry Springer. And in The Cobweb, perhaps the most unusual entry in Tommorrow Stories, Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie use a nice effect called 'Doll-o-Vision' in a pointed commentary on misogynistic sex fantasies.

The World Below

Taking a break from Concrete, artist/writer Paul Chadwick (with inks by Ron Randall) has launched this full-color SF series for Dark Horse. Inspired by the fantasies of novelist Jack Vance, Chadwick's comic suggests an updated version of Challengers of the Unknown.

Six adventurers are sent on an underground expedition, finding a mysterious subterranean realm populated by strange creatures and technology.

The high point of each issue is the discovery by the team of yet another new form of life with wildly eccentric habits (such as a creature that pulls off one of its heads and attaches it to a recently killed enemy, which is revived as another of itself.)

Chadwick tries to individualize the characters and create some kind of atmosphere of mystery and suspense. It all seems pretty contrived and far-fetched, but has a kind of goofy charm nonetheless, as if Jack Kirby had been reincarnated as a sensitive new-age guy.

Cosmic Ray

Artist/writer Stephen Blue sidesteps from the occult (Red River, The Awakening) into a unique style of retro-SF in this new series from Image.

Most SF comics jump right into interstellar travel and alien contact, not appreciating how overworked and stale these situations have become. Blue, on the other hand, seems to be taking his role as a futurist seriously, projecting reasonable, believable milestones of progress for the late 21st century setting of this saga. We're in space, but haven't colonized beyond the solar system yet. And for a much-diminished U.S. Federal government on Earth, these colonies are where it retains most of its clout.

Series hero Raymond Mann is a fed attached to the Stellar Police Force. In the first issue, still haunted by an accidental shooting, he takes on the assignment to track down a murderer who's stolen a bio-synthetic lichen described as 'The Holy Grail of Terraforming.'

With a plot that's equal parts Chandler and Mack Reynolds, Blue treats us to scenes such as having Mann detect fingerprints with 'Geiger Vision' goggles, and intercepting a telephone call on a crime victim's two-way wrist-band radio. Fun in and of themselves, these details are nevertheless part of a total world that Blue's creating with credibility and care.

Heavy Liquid

I haven't been tracking Vertigo titles very closely, but this seems to be somewhat of a depature, giving an artist his own copyrighted title in a unique (duotone) format-- and without any ads in the back! The artist is Paul Pope, and given his reputation for fierce independence and bold experimentation, the arrangement with Vertigo doesn't seem that surprising; but I bet it makes a lot of DC comics veterans hopping mad!

The plot seems uncomfortably derivative of the screenplay for Naked Lunch-- instead of bug powder, this saga's narcotic of choice comes in the form of a thick paste that the hero smuggles around in an exterminator's empty rat poison cannister. It likewise has a dual purpose, being malleable into junk trinkets of art gallery caliber. There's even a Kafka reference, with the hero's single-letter name, 'S'!

Pope gives us a 'trip' sequence, but it seems pretty subdued. The opening scene segway from a Christmas day parade to a screetching kettle on the boil is more hallucinogenic, as is a chase scene where the pursuer is wearing a Picasso mask.

My main interest in the story is determining if it constitutes an open endorsement of drug use by the publishers of Superman. But the art is top-notch, the most disciplined and impressive work by Pope so far, and an interesting use of a limited palette.