Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Solomon Kane #1

Solomon Kane #1, September 1985, Marvel Comics
writer: Ralph Macchio
pencillers: Steve Carr & Bret Blevins
inker: Bret Blevins
letterer: Joe Rosen
colorist: Glynis Oliver
editor: Carl Potts
EIC: Jim Shooter

The comic book is essentially a synthesis of short fiction and graphic art, and since this definition has been established and explored by the likes of Will Eisner and Scott McLeod over the past few decades, you don't need me to analyze it for you. However, considering the latter half of this definition, one can enjoy the structure of storytelling and the dynamics of character development all they want, but if a comic book doesn't have pretty pictures to support its plot, then it most likely will not capture the attention of a mainstream audience. Think about it -- comic book stores across the country are stacked with back issue boxes full of issues that didn't pass a potential reader's initial flip test, and though some of those titles will be discovered by future fans, many good stories have been restrained by a disconnect with its art. (I'm not saying that this is the sole reason comics are buried in the back issue bin, but I am identifying it as a significant factor.) While many skilled artists attempt a career in the comic book industry, true talent exudes from the ability to recreate the essence of a writer's script, to bypass the mental pictures a reader would receive from the stripped story and to establish definitive visuals that match the tone of the tale.

That's a fancy way of saying we like our pretty pictures, but we really like our pretty pictures that tell a story. Enter Bret Blevins.

Blevins has always been one of my favorite artists, and his signature style has captured beloved heroes like Batman and lesser known enigmas like Cloak, Dagger, and Sleepwalker. In fact, my first box of comics, salvaged by my dad when he worked for a moving company from a client ready to throw them away, contained years old issues of Strange Tales (volume two) and then-current copies of Sleepwalker, and my admiration for these characters was a direct result of his vibrantly visual storytelling. Both series featuring adolescents struggling with inner demons, and he balanced the frivolity of the one side of that equation with the darkness inherent in the other. These characters didn't achieve real mainstream success, but Blevins' style was just as vital in these pages as in his issues of Batman. Again, he was less a purveyor of story than he was a conduit for mood and character -- he shined a light on what comics could be, and I woke up to their true potential.

You're probably familiar with some of the issues I'm talking about, and maybe they didn't affect you the way they did me. Still, all fanboys have that epiphany, just via the pages of different comics and artists. Fortunately, my admiration for Bret Blevins was confirmed when I unexpectedly met him last December. I've talked about the experience here before, and yesterday I posted a detail of the sketch Blevins was kind enough to whip up for an old geek like me, but his comments about "the good old days" are what really stuck with me. Not that Blevins isn't doing well; a storyboard artist for WB animation projects like Justice League, illustrator for Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean adaptations, and a recent contributor to Free Comic Book Day material, Blevins is still very active in the industry, and as an artist, his contributions to the Prescott co-op where I met him are stunning. When I walked into the shop, I recognized his work immediately. The fact that he's a gentleman only helped.

But enough gushing. I mean, that was nearly six months ago, right? And sometime between then and now, I found Solomon Kane #1, an oversized first issue in a six part miniseries starring the Robert E. Howard character, co-pencilled and inked by Blevins and boasting a beautifully painted cover by his own brushstroke. Flipping through the issue, yes, found in low priced back issue bin, I was excited to find more Blevins material, but I immediately fancied that the story wouldn't be for me. My first clue? The opening caption: "Rural France in the 16th century." Each of these elements would normally dissuade me individually, but seeing "rural," "France," and "sixteenth century" together evokes an instant yawn, I don't know about you. So, I begrudgingly began reading this issue tonight, hoping above all else to simply skim its in depth illustrations . . .

But, it got me. I'm not going to discredit Macchio's script; though, like most comics from this lofty era, his captions are wrought with descriptions that over contextualize the artists' work, his insightful snippets about character or culture were reserved enough to retain the intended subtle boldness. Further, his dialogue was, to quote Sharon Osborn from tonight's America's Got Talent, "as camp as Christmas," overtly melodramatic but significantly to the point. (Perhaps because his typing fingers were tired from all of that narrative . . .?) Anyway, simply put, Solomon Kane is a Puritan nomad whose righteous trek crosses paths with a dying woman from a ravaged village, whose last words convict him to avenge her people. He finds the mastermind behind the looting gang, confronts him only to lose him, and tracks him all the way to tribal Africa, where a power-hungry mystic reveals that Kane's enemy and the tribe's chief have allied. Solomon is captured by the tribe but effortlessly defeats their towering strong man, some slayer of guerrillas, and after the mystic is also captured and raises himself from the dead to gain control of the savages, Kane again chases his quarry and duels him to the death. Man, it's strangely compelling, this primitive pursuit about the globe, and when Solomon faces the Africans' dark arts, he actually questions his own faith -- that character development I was talking about. This issue does jump the shark when the guerrilla slayer tries to kick Solomon when he's down only to face his own demise at the hands of an ape whose mate the slayer had, uhm, slain; then, Kane and the guerrilla share a silent, poignant moment over the conflict -- a strange little twist the overall story could've done without. Still, Solomon Kane took me on a journey that, like him, I won't soon forget.

Of course, I do dub Blevins the secret behind this issue's success. His cover his awesome, undoubtedly a stand-out of its peers from in '85, and while he doesn't pencil every interior page, his inks create enough to consistency to maintain the flow. The guy has a true sense of how fabric ripples and how leaves blow, a sense of natural movement even in stagnant scenes, which add a layer of depth most artists need colorists to provide. This kind of medieval stuff suits him, just as I thought his first work on Marvel's Dark Crystal adaptation would have when he told me about it a few months ago. (Yeah, you know, my old buddy Bret . . . ha.) Kane may be questioning his faith, but this issue confirmed mine, and Blevins has a fan for life. At the Comic Con this year, I'll be tracking down more of this stuff, hopefully more obscure than even Cloak and Dagger.

Speaking of whom, we'll be seeing more of them tomorrow. Their partnership reflects the synthesis of story and art in comics, each offering a ying to the other's yang, and while respectively effective, they're even more so together. Still, light captures the eye with an urgency more than darkness . . . just like the pretty pictures in comics. Yes, a talented artist captures mood and all that, but a talented reader? He sees the bigger picture.

No comments: