Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Change of Art: Looking at CP Smith in Ten Grand

J. Michael Straczynski's Ten Grand had a bit of a road bump in its projected 12-issue first season when artist Ben Templesmith fell off the map a few months ago. Templesmith owned up to it and C.P. Smith came aboard to illustrate starting with last month's issue 5. Templesmith's stuff on the title was some of the best of his career, and I was sad to see him go. The essential feel of the comic was rooted in Templesmith's gritty, dark, twisted grotesqueries, Straczynski's scripting a perfect match for Templesmith's distinct brand of noir supernaturalism. The story - about a dead hit-man who made a deal with some shady aspect of the afterlife to do their bidding in order to see his lost love for a short period of time - had a perfect executor in Templesmith's particular and unique visual voice, a spot-on vision of memorable demons and street thugs, back-allies and demented afterlife. Templesmith, especially on Ten Grand, revels in shadows, not chiaroscuro but the darkness that exists underneath things hidden from the cleansing light of the sun, crawling and worming and indistinct, at the edge of your periphery, scratchy lines in deep reds and browns and highlights of un-light.

Needless to say, in art, C.P. Smith is nothing at all like Ben Templesmith. But, then again, few are. I was skeptical that the title could survive such a drastic midway change. Shuffling art teams happen far too often in mainstream comics, and always as a disservice to the larger story (where there is one). The distinctness of Straczynski's narrative, so rooted in such Templesmithian thematic territory, couldn't really be served by anyone else. So, perhaps a happy structural coincidence, the narrative feel shifts on its axis a bit in issue 5 and C.P. Smith just nails it.

Now, Straczynski isn't exactly breaking new thematic ground here. The horror-magic-noir setting, wedged between heaven and hell, both unreliable and untrustworthy, supernatural forces skittering around a wise and hard-boiled interlocutor (and so on) is far from unique. I don't think the genre has a name, but it exists in many forms. And some of the emotional thematic ground Straczynski touches upon here is also covered in his superb Midnight Nation with Gary Frank. But the overall flavor and execution of Ten Grand's story just works. A frequent (and innacurate) comparison I've seen to Ten Grand is the John Constantine character. But the goals of each book is different, the characters are different. Same genre, certainly.

C.P. Smith doesn't bother with constraining himself to the same stylistic visual territory as Templesmith, instead being true to his own freaky self. His art is a little odd - but the setting of Limbo is appropriately odd. The people caught there are presented as the negatives of weird 3D constructs. Smith uses a lot of these constructs in his art, but it's at least consistent. The story and the art really sinc up about halfway through. After Joe runs into the time-displaced Limbo-trapped version of himself ("I hate quantum existentialism," he says) he comes to a big ole metaphorical river he must cross on Death's canoe.

Death - it's probably Death, though never specified as such -  with visible skull and skeleton hands and feet, is sitting at the edge of the river, in full cloak and hood, wearing an almost glowing yellow reflective life vest over the cloak. He's wearing sandals, but they look like flip-flops on the skully surfer dude wearing a life vest and a hoodie. Death isn't presented as surfer dude, but certainly as disenfranchised, and jaded in his task. He's tired of encountering pathetic people who took the easy road in life, tried to make few mistakes, took no risks. Joe Fitzgerald has a double advantage: he's alive, and he's made so many mistakes, enough to make the trip very, very bumpy. Death relishes the opportunity, and takes Joe on a rough, surf-battered journey across, to the fork in the road between heaven and hell. The art reflects and absorbs and re-presents the potential silliness of the visuals in clever and straightforward ways. And Straczynski, in a very tight space, essentially has Death distill Straczynski's own personal philosophy and a returning theme and leitmotif in his work, that of choice and trying and never accepting and defying convention and authority. All the while foreshadowing a ton of unpleasant stuff to come. The issue ends on a nice twist, though we're certain Joe will find a way out of the predicament. (That said, Straczynski has surprised me by diving right into the all-out big story, unusual compared to his super-delicate pacing style.)

I can easily imagine Templesmith illustrating these sequences, but I can't quite imagine it working as well as it does in C.P. Smith's hands. Another artist altogether could have done better, but it seems unlikely that they could have done it as quickly or as efficiently as Smith does here. His art in these sequences reflect the very cool, slightly off-feeling, casual epicness of the story.  

Ten Grand solidly survives the art change and speeds forward in its story. Issue six is scheduled to come out next week and the trade paperback of the first six issues shortly thereafter.

As an aside, Walking Dead has also recently had the most profound art change in 110 issues with the beginning of the "All Out War" storyline. Joining the usually slapdash Charlie Adlard on pencils is the superb inker Stefano Guadiano. Guadiano gives a weight and detail to the work seen at no point in Adlard's run on the book. Cliff Rathburn's coloring (it is credited as gray tones, but it is coloring) is the unknown all-star of the series and meshes Adlard's defining take of the characters with Guadiano's powerful inking in the best looking story of the series.

[As yet another aside (a postscript!), I completely wrote this review and then somehow it got entirely deleted. Perhaps I angered the writing gods. Anyway, what you read above is a half-assed second go based on my own shifty recollections of my own dodgy writing. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are on the metric system.]

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