Friday, May 16, 2008

Termite (Sequential) Art: The Man With No Name #1

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Written by Christos Gage
Illustrated by Wellington Dias
Lettered by Simon Bowland
Colored by Bruno Hang

The movies has never been busier poaching comics for adaptable material — in the next ten weeks there's no less than five different movies directly or indirectly inspired by graphic novels — so it's only fair for comics to do the reverse. Licensed comics have rarely branched out beyond the Lucasfilm stable of properties, or whatever is the big movie this summer: a trip this week to the local comic store could net you plenty of recent comics about Indiana Jones or Speed Racer; last year, you would have had your pick of half a dozen Transformers books. But I like what publisher Dynamite Entertainment is doing by picking out some older properties that might lend themselves to graphic storytelling. They've done books about Zorro and The Lone Ranger, Re-Animator, and even projects based on comics-friendly Sam Raimi's movies like Evil Dead and Darkman. Their newest series, The Man With No Name, based on the trio of iconic spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone, is their most inspired choice yet as it's the most ideally suited to the comic book format. But the execution has a long way to go before it can be considered a worthy successor to Leone's work.

When you think of think of those classic Leone films, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars Movie (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) your mind immediately fills with indellible images. Leone's camerawork is even more exciting than the gunfights in these movies: the composition, the angles, there really is nothing else quite like it. When you see a Leone movie of this period, you know from the visuals alone. A quick Google Image Search yielded a bounty of beautiful examples:

If you can tell a story in pictures, as the great comic book artists can, Leone's mythic canvas would be a great place to start from. Additionally, the way that Leone shot his action, elongating the stillness and silence before gunfights until the audience was boiling over with suspense, also seems suited to the comics page, where time can dilate as far as the artist sees fit. The Man With No Name comic, to my mind, should be filled with huge scenic vistas, speckled with tiny men, wide angle frames with lots of play between foreground and background, huge double-page spreads that would fill my eyes with a vision of the Old West, and lots of gritty, sweaty close-ups of sweaty brows and itchy trigger fingers. This would be a comic book I would love to read.

The Man With No Name book I did read earlier this week left me a bit disappointed in comparison. The writer, Christos Gage, has delivered a premise suitable for the character. It's entitled "The Good, The Bad, & The Uglier" (though it also has a totally unnecessary subtitle called "Saints and Sinners" — just pick one guys) and it is a sequel to the final film of the trilogy. The Man With No Name — who does, in fact, have a name in all three of the pictures — is on the run from the Confederacy, who want their gold back, and the Union, who don't take kindly to people who blow up their bridges. A chance encounter with a dying priest sends him off to San Antonio to defend a helpless mission. I buy the concept, and even the dialog though there is far too much of it, particularly at the very end of the book where the normally reticent The Man With No Name starts talking out loud to himself. But I'm having trouble reconciling the artwork, by Wellington Dias, with the source material. Here's an example page I pulled from comics website Newsarama (Click to enlarge):

The image is basically identical to the printed version, save for the fact that it's missing the dialogue ballons, which are minimal (two in the third panel, one very brief one in the fourth). The problem — beyond the fact that The Man With No Name looks nothing like Clint Eastwood — isn't that the art is bad, merely that it is generic and totally indistinguishable from any other action sequence in any other comic. For my taste, it's a bit too cartoony and nearly all of it exists in the bland middleground, not in the exciting extremes of perpsective where Leone staked his claim. Leone was great at making you feel the depth in his two-dimension artform; Dias, regrettably, does not share that skill and his work has a flatness that doesn't fit the material. The only portion of the book that really approaches Leone's vision is the end, where a makeshift cross in the extreme foreground marks a grave that weighs on The Man With No Name's conscience as he gallops back and forth through the background on his horse (it's still hampered by the aforementioned soliloquizing).

Again, not the worst comic I've read but one that is busting at the seems with potential that it's not reaching. And that, sometimes, can be even more frustrating than something really bad.

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