Jul 7, 2011

An ABC Retrospective, Day 4: TOMORROW STORIES

Welcome to Day 4 of The Comics Cube!'s retrospective series on America's Best Comics. You can read about this series here.

Today, we focus on TOMORROW STORIES, by Alan Moore, Kevin Nowlan, Melinda Gebbie, Jim Baikie, Hilary Barta, and Rick Veitch!

TOMORROW STORIES was an anthology series that had four features each month. There were a total of five features, so I'm going to be taking a different tactic here from what I've been doing the last few days, and just talk about each feature on its own.

JACK B. QUICK

Drawn by Kevin Nowlan, perhaps the most imaginative of the entire ABC line (and that's saying something), Jack B. Quick is a boy genius in the fictional town of Queerwater, Kansas. Inspired heavily by Robert E. Hughes Herbie Popnecker, aka "The Fat Fury," Jack B. Quick continually took common logic and turned it on its semantic ear. So, for example, if a universe is created from a quantum vacuum, Jack decides that modifying a normal vacuum cleaner to a quantum vacuum one would make a tiny universe. Since light travels so fast, it must have been drinking. And if you'll grow up once you get to puberty, then a quick trip to the town of Puberty would change you.

My personal favorite is this one, where Jack decides that a cat with a buttered back could never fall:




Jack B. Quick is full of what I like to call "brain ticklers." There's no big idea there that will blow your mind away or provoke you, but it's full of so many little ideas that continually exercise your brain. It is quite probably the most fun of the entire lot, and for those of you who are looking for just that — fun — Jack B. Quick will be what you're looking for.


THE FIRST AMERICAN AND U.S.ANGEL

Drawn by Jim Baikie, The First American and U.S.Angel are loosely based on Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Fighting American. FIGHTING AMERICAN was a satire of patriotic superheroes, and Moore and Baikie took off from that and added a good dose of Harvey Kurtzman satire, with political, social, and other types of commentary all around. 


The Fighting American and U.S.Angel constantly broke the fourth wall and made references to how stupid they looked while completely playing everything straight. The best way I can describe it so that everyone would understand is to envision the 1966 Adam West Batman being in a comic book where he's aware that he's a comic book character, but still playing everything completely straight. I suppose it could be classified as campy, but to me, the only adjective I can find to truly, accurately describe it is hilarious.

 SPLASH BRANNIGAN

Speaking of Kurtzman satire, this strip drawn by Hilary Barta feels like a full-on Harvey Kurtzman tribute, as most Barta strips are wont to feel. From sight gags in the back of panels to the MAD-type drawings, Splash Brannigan was humor of a different kind. He was "living ink," and could therefore do anything the story required.


SPLASH BRANNIGAN stories tended to be commentaries on the entertainment industries — comics, music, movies, fine art — and because Splash had the ability to pretty much do anything, we got a lot of cool visual tricks.

Splash didn't show up until the sixth issue of TOMORROW STORIES, when he replaced JACK B. QUICK as a feature. (They would then alternate afterward.) Moore said that Jack B. Quick stories were exhausting to come up with because they required you to think too outside the box (which is saying something for Moore), so they needed an alternate feature. SPLASH BRANNIGAN was a fun, well-drawn, and entertaining feature, and we could stand to see more of him.

He could also be loosely based on either Plastic Man or that cartoon, "Out of the Inkwell."

COBWEB

Cobweb, drawn by Melinda Gebbie (mainly), is likely the strip that will connect with you least, as it's the one that connected the least with me. It's partly because it's the most experimental, and as a result, very inconsistent. The concept of Cobweb came when Moore noted that the most iconic characters don't really go beyond a symbol and a costume (for example, Dick Sprang's Batman is pretty much a different character from Frank Miller's Batman). So Moore and his now-wife Gebbie came up with Cobweb, a crimefighter who wears a see-through costume and no underwear, and has an ambiguous relationship with her servant, Clarice.

The first adventure starts off straightforward enough, and rather campy, as evidenced by the names given to the side characters.


And then half of the story is told in manipulated photographs. Further adventures of Cobweb take on different formats, such as a that of a daily newspaper strip, an illustrated prose story, and my personal favorite, "Li'l Cobweb," which shows Cobweb as a young lass investigating a crime. It combines the Little Archie look with the New Trend EC look (right down to the typeface). There's also one drawn by Dame Darcy where Cobweb treats the Little Bo Peep fable as a detective story.

COBWEB was an experimental strip that sometimes failed, sometimes entertained, and sometimes just fell flat. But you can't take away from it the fact that Moore, Gebbie, and the other artists tried really hard.

There's one side note to the COBWEB saga, however, and it involves a story called "Brighter Than You Think." Moore and Gebbie did a story where Cobweb just talks about John Parsons, but because of the references to L. Ron Hubbard, DC refused to publish the story. (Even though a similar story had appeared in another DC publication at around the same time.) This was one of the factors that led to Moore leaving altogether, but he bought back the rights to the story and had it published via Top Shelf Comix. It shows up in TOP SHELF ASKS THE BIG QUESTIONS.

"La Toile"is French for "web."

Cobweb lived in the fictional Indigo City, as did the character from the next feature.

GREYSHIRT

And this. This is the masterpiece. JACK B. QUICK may be the most imaginative of the bunch, but this is the one I feel was the best, all-around work of art. Rick Veitch is Moore's collaborator in this one, and while you could argue that the rest of Moore's collaborators in the ABC line really shot up in the public eye due to ABC, Veitch was already a relatively big name before this. He collaborated with Moore on SWAMP THING, and then followed Moore's legendary run on that title with his own run, which is a cult favorite. He developed the independent comics THE ONE and MAXIMORTAL, and had a whole series on dreams called RAREBIT FIENDS, a takeoff on Winsor McCay's classic strip.

But for me? I hadn't heard of him till GREYSHIRT. I was just learning then that there was more to comics than superheroes. And I had just learned of Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT and how important it was to the history of the medium, artistically and technically. And then when GREYSHIRT was announced, imagine my excitement when I heard that it would be a tribute to THE SPIRIT. You can even see it in this very Eisneresque splash page (from issue #3).


Superficial differences aside, Greyshirt ended up being nothing like The Spirit at all. In fact, Moore's gone so far as to say that the strip ended up being more a tribute to the spirit of THE SPIRIT — in that it just tried and tried and tried things that only comics can do.

The best example of this is in issue #2, a story called "How Things Work Out." Moore and Veitch laid each page out in four tiers, with one long panel per tier. Each panel took place on a different floor of a building — the same building — at a different time. The top floor was set in 1999, the third in 1979, the second in 1959, and the first in 1939.


This is the layout for the entire story. It is a wonderful and rare experience in that you can read the story in a variety of directions. You can read it conventionally. You can read all the 1999 panels first, then move on to the 1979 panels, and so on. You can read it in reverse. The fonts even change to reflect each era!

One of the cues that GREYSHIRT took from THE SPIRIT was the aspect that the story did not often feature the title character. Rather, it focused on some side characters and we had some small morality plays, with only Greyshirt as the unifying feature (except for a few, one of which was a Greyshirt musical. No kidding.). Veitch's ability to depict expressions and really set mood was incomparable. He instantly shot up to my list of favorites while he was on GREYSHIRT.

Note: Greyshirt and Cobweb crossed over in TOMORROW STORIES #12.

Of all the TOMORROW STORIES features, GREYSHIRT was the only one with a spinoff series, and it largely went under the radar. (Most of the ABC titles went under the radar as it was, so the spinoffs were even more so.)

But this is The Comics Cube!, and so we're talking about the spinoff RIGHT! NOW!

GREYSHIRT: INDIGO SUNSET

As good as Moore's run on GREYSHIRT was, it was Rick Veitch that really took the character to creative heights. In GREYSHIRT: INDIGO SUNSET, Veitch took pretty much all the disjointed short stories in TOMORROW STORIES and ties them all together in one story.


Six issues long, the first five focus on Greyshirt's origin, while the sixth is the present-day climax. Veitch draws in a variety of styles, with the story featuring Greyshirt as a child being drawn in the Archie style. The style conveys innocence, and when the fateful incident happens when he loses that innocence, the style subtly transitions to the more modern one that he uses in TOMORROW STORIES. The next issue is then drawn as a crime comic, with an apt narrative style. He also pulls off a variety of comics techniques and tricks, one of which you can see here, so it's great reading for people who like that aspect of comics too.

As Moore says in his introduction, "Curt Swan silvering or Kirby kracklefests, gunslingers or G.I.s, furry funsters or fashion floozies, there remains no obscure corner or cobwebbed and discarded genre of comic book history that this creator has not poked, prodded, or pitched his tent in for a while." Moore goes on to say that in INDIGO SUNSET, we see traces of comics greats John Stanley, Dan DeCarlo, Charles Biro, and Jack Kirby. Rick Veitch was and still is a master.

But it doesn't end there. INDIGO SUNSET also has a feature called THE INDIGO CITY SUNSET, a newspaper with a variety of features. There's a headline and a full story to go with it (which always had Greyshirt), other stories on the side, letters to the editor, comic strips (Veitch created seven original strips just for this feature, and imported one from PROMETHEA), interviews with some of Indigo City's personalities, classified ads, and more!


Sometimes these additional features will have bearing on the stories, and sometimes they won't. The fun is finding out!

AND it doesn't end there. Every single issue of INDIGO SUNSET has an additional short backup story where Veitch collaborates with someone from the industry (except for the first issue, which he does solo). From David Lloyd drawing a short tale to Dave Gibbons writing one, the backups are also all a treat. And like the newspaper, some of them have connections to other things in the story, and some don't.

INDIGO SUNSET is such a well-executed work of art, and I'm absolutely proud to have it on my bookshelf. When I took it for David Lloyd to sign, he pored over it, marveling at the fact that he rarely sees it given to him, because it's such a good story.


TOMORROW STORIES SPECIAL

 Moore wrapped up his tenure on the ABC Universe with the two-issue TOMORROW STORIES SPECIAL, which incorporated just about every character from the ABC Universe.


The two issues had a Jack B. Quick story, Cobweb's origin, a two-part Johnny Future/Jonni Future crossover, a really long First American story that lampoons the Bush administration, a Little Margie in Misty Magic Land story (see tomorrow), and the only full adventure we see of ABC's superteam, America's Best:


Seen in issue 2, America's Best has Tom Strong, Johnny Future, one of the Prometheas, Splash Brannigan, Cobweb, and new character Fancy O'Keefe. Their team has been alluded to many times in issues of TOM STRONG and PROMETHEA prior to this story, and here is the only full adventure of theirs you'll see, drawn by the incomparable Rick Veitch and written and drawn as a homage to The Silver Age. Even the paper is colored slightly yellowed to get the feel of the old comics!

But the real gem in this series comes from issue #1, again with Rick Veitch on art duties. Moore and Veitch did "A Greyshirt Primer," where the entire story is told in the form of a poem, each stanza spotlighting a different letter. Greyshirt walks with an "awful-book" artist whose face is never shown, but if you didn't know who they were paying tribute to, it's obvious the moment you get to the letter S.


That's right, it's a tribute to Will Eisner, who had just died earlier that year. It's a beautiful story, a fitting tribute to "The Zeus of our pantheon," as Moore calls him, and, in essence, the best way to end your reading of ABC, as ABC was really about the spirit of experimentation, and thus, the spirit of Eisner.

TOMORROW STORIES SPECIAL has, as far as I know, never been collected in paperback form. But believe me when I say that both issues are worth searching for.

For your convenience, TOMORROW STORIES:

2 comments:

Ice said...

Thank you for these write ups! I've been reading a lot of Alan Moore currently and it's great to see some coverage of the universes he created.

Tom Siebert said...

You really outdid yourself with this entry. Big kudos to you for recognizing "Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset" as the true work of art that it is, the pinnacle of Rick Veitch's career (which is really saying something). It truly deserves to stand alongside the Alan Moore volumes, which you can't really say about Peter Hogan's Terra Obscura books, which are fun but not transcendent.

I'd have to go back and read them again, but I recall thinking that each of the "Greyshirt" books was a tribute to a different kind of comic genre -- horror, sci-fi, gangster, and finally superhero. I do remember Greyshirt was always my favorite of the Tomorrow Story entries, and I was psyched when he got a solo shot.

I actually have, framed, Rick Veitch's original B&W finished drawing of the cover of Greyshirt #4 (http://bit.ly/1DIAvU8), which is IMHO the greatest single cover in comic book history. I think this and "Batman: Year 100" are the two best limited series run comics of the past decade. Thanks for hailing it.

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