Mark Bagley

Comic Book Improvisation

The Defenders: From the Vault - improvised comic book making (Marvel Comics)

This is something I’d like to explore more. As you might’ve noticed, I do a lot of performing with an improv comedy group called the Magic Meathands. We do shows with no script. We just make it up as we go.

And it turns out, sometimes in creating comic books, creators also have to make it up without a script.

A little back story: Monthly comic books tend to have regular creative teams but sometimes those teams fall behind schedule and the book can’t come out every month. So comics publishers will occasionally hire other creators to produce an inventory story for just in case. It’s basically filler material, but they can be fun stories and it buys the regular creative team more time. It’s a bit of a gamble because sometimes they end up paying for a story that never gets used.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2001. Marvel Comics was publishing a superhero comic called The Defenders. It reunited the Incredible Hulk, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange and Namor the Sub-Mariner (right), misfits all who had originally assembled under that name in the early 1970s. This new comic book series was written by Kurt Busiek (Astro City, Avengers/JLA) and Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon, Amazing Spider-Man) and drawn by Larsen and Klaus Janson (Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). Their editor Tom Brevoort (now Senior Vice President of Publishing) hired writer Fabian Nicieza (X-Men, New Warriors) and artist Mark Bagley (Ultimate Spider-Man, New Warriors) to create an inventory story. The two did so, collected their checks, and went on with their lives. It turns out the story was never needed, so the finished art pages were filed away.

Flash forward to today where Marvel is going through old desk drawers and publishing whatever looks ready, and up pops this lost Defenders story. Only problem is it was never scripted, which means the pages have no words on them. And apparently no one saved a copy of Fabian’s original plot outline or script. Well, surely Fabian wouldn’t mind scripting the pages now. He would surely do it except he’s under an exclusive contract with DC Comics. So, Marvel decided to hire another writer to do the scripting.

(Re-)enter: Kurt Busiek. Since the two know each other, Kurt asked Fabian for his original files to help in scripting. Bad news: Fabian lost everything in a computer crash years ago and has no idea what the story was originally about. Kurt also checked with Mark to see if he could remember anything. No such luck.

So Kurt is left with 22 pages of characters silently running around, talking, fighting, flying, leaping, punching, surfing, magicking, swimming, and who knows what else with no idea of why.

What to do? What else? Improvise.

From Kurt’s website:

So I look over the art, and Mark Bagley did indeed do a very nice job. And he’s a good enough storyteller that I can piece together an outline of what the story must be, at least in the basics. But the bits where explanations happen, where the texture and detail go that make it more than just a simple structure?

Haven’t a clue.

So I have to come up with a story to fit the art. A new story. One that might bear some resemblance to what Fabian intended, at least at the big structural moments, but other than that, it’s wide open.

And as I keep looking through the art, I get an idea. A pretty demented idea, really, based on one cryptic panel late in the book (You’ll know it when you see it. The script for that panel is “HTNN–!”). But it’s an idea that, demented as it is, won’t go away. And actually, I’m thinking, it could be kinda fun…

I tell Fabian the idea, mostly as a joke. But he laughs, and says that it sounds like a hoot, and it might even be better than whatever his original story was.

Like with live improv theater, Kurt has to accept what has been presented to him by his “scene partner” Mark Bagley. He has to say “Yes, everything here is happening, and…”. Nothing can be ignored, dropped or explained away. Then he has to build up from there, filling out the world Mark has drawn, adding details like location, plot revelations, opinions and reactions from the characters, and more. And as he goes through the pages, he’ll find a rhythm with Mark’s artwork where his new plot will seem to set up what happens in the art and vice versa. Of course, what makes it even more tricky is that Kurt is working with a very stubborn scene partner. Mark’s art is already set in stone. It’s like a stubborn scene partner determined to get their idea and agenda on the stage regardless of what else is going on. And the only thing Kurt can do is to stay open, “listen” for the smallest clue, take everything as a gift, embrace each visual idea with gusto and see where that takes him. If Kurt stays open, all of the pieces should come together to create something brand new that would never have existed in any other situation.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes out. The Defenders: From the Marvel Vault #1 will be released by Marvel Comics this summer, July 13.

DEFENDERS: FROM THE MARVEL VAULT #1

Written by FABIAN NICIEZA & KURT BUSIEK
Pencils & Cover by MARK BAGLEY

A Marvel Masterpiece from deep inside the treasure vaults can now be told! The original team of Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Silver Surfer and Namor are together again for a hidden adventure! But why was this tale lost? What happens in other dimensions stays in other dimensions, so what unspeakable secrets of the The Defenders are to be revealed? Find out at last in these pages with the illustrious words of Kurt Busiek (THE DEFENDERS, MARVELS) and the incomparable artwork of artist Mark Bagley (ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN)!

32 PGS./Rated T+ …$2.99

(Via Robot 6)

New to Comics? New Comics for You! 7/8/09

Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?

Here’s some brand new stuff coming out this week that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.

Disclaimer: While it may seem like it, I do not live in the future. For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.

Pixu: The Mark of Evil – $17.95
By Gabriel Ba, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos & Fabio Moon
128 pages; published by Dark Horse Comics; available at Amazon.com

This gripping tale of urban horror follows the lives of five lonely tenants — strangers — whose lives become intertwined when they discover a dark mark scrawled on the walls of their building. The horror sprouts quite innocently from a small seed and finds life as something otherworldly, damaged, full of love, hate, fear, and power. As the walls come alive, everyone is slowly driven mad — defenseless against the evil in the building, stripped of free will, leaving only confusion, chaos, and eventual death.

Originally self-published as a two-volume book, this groundbreaking work receives a deluxe presentation in a hardcover edition with a sketchbook section.

* The 2008 Eisner Award-winning team for Best Anthology — Gabriel Bá (The Umbrella Academy), Becky Cloonan (American Virgin), Vasilis Lolos (The Last Call), and Fábio Moon (Sugarshock) — return with their latest collaboration, Pixu: The Mark of Evil.

“The story telling here is beautiful, creating a real sense of dread and supernatural menace. Smart, subtle and genuinely disturbing.” -Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy

A very generous 17-page preview for you. I met Becky Cloonan last year during Comic-Con for my Barbie photo-blog. She’s already incredibly talented, so there’s really no need to be that cool. I wish someone would set her straight. Anyway, this a creepy thing filled with psychological horror.

Sinfest Volume 1 – $14.95
By Tatsuya Ishida
208 pages; published by Dark Horse Comics; available at Amazon.com

AT LAST! “The webcomic to end all webcomics” has landed at Dark Horse, and we’re starting the collections at the beginning! Sinfest is one of the most-read and longest-running webcomics out there, and explores religion, advertising, sex, and politics in a way fleen.com calls “both brutally funny and devastatingly on-target.” In an era when most syndicated newspaper strips are watered down and uninspired, creator Tatsuya Ishida draws on influences ranging fromCalvin and Hobbes and Peanuts to manga and pop culture to bring us a breath of fresh air. If your comic-strip craving hasn’t been satisfied since the nineties, deliverance is finally at hand.

* The first volume of Sinfest collects the first six hundred Sinfest strips, introducing the full cast of characters and the opening installments of Ninja Theatre, beat poetry, calligraphy lessons, and the irresistible Pooch & Percival strips.

* Web traffic on Sinfest.net averages 1.7 million unique visitors per month and 300,000 page hits per day.

* “After seven years and counting, Tatsuya Ishida shows every indication of maturing into a cartoonist on the level of Bill Watterson and Walt Kelly.” –The Comics Journal, “50 Excellent Comics from 2007”

* “The best webcomic out there.” -comicsworthreading.com

* ” . . . Sinfest offers many laughs; it may be brutally funny, but it is dead honest and refreshing.” –Publisher’s Weekly

Running since January 17, 2000, the Sinfest webcomic launched and has been running daily ever since. That’s a pretty impressive run. You can go sample the entire run right there at Sinfest.net, so who cares how I describe it? Go check it out!

The Nobody – $19.99
By Jeff Lemire
144 pages; published by DC Comics’ Vertigo; available at Amazon.com

“Lemire handles the stuff of a Willa Cather novel with equal poetry . . . He renders emotion and temperment in a cartoon face with breathtaking, masterful economy.” 
— Booklist on The Essex County Trilogy

The tiny, isolated fishing village of Large Mouth never saw much excitement — until the arrival of the stranger, that is. Wrapped from head to toe in bandages and wearing weird goggles, he quietly took up residence in the sleepy town’s motel. Driven by curiosity, the townfolk quickly learn the tragic story of his past, and of the terrible accident that left him horribly disfigured. Eventually, the town embraces the stranger as one of their own — but do his bandages hide more than just scars?

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, THE NOBODY explores themes of identity, fear and paranoia in a small community from up-and-coming alternative comics creator and Xeric Award-winner Jeff Lemire (The Essex County Trilogy) in a special two-color story that’ll have you guessing until the very end.

I’m really wanting this. I could post a preview, but I’ll do y0u one better because you deserve it. Here’s a teaser trailer of The Nobody:

North 40 #1 – $2.99
By Aaron Williams & Fiona Staples
32 pages; published by DC Comics’ WildStorm

Somewhere in Midwestern America was a place called Conover County. When the old book was opened, and the runes therein used in haste and ignorance, a place of farms, simple folk, and small-town dreams became a den of monsters and nightmare. NORTH 40 is the story of those who survived and came to confront an even greater evil on the horizon – one that wouldn’t just consume their flesh, but their souls as well. Heroes arise with power to bring against the dark: Wyatt, an unwilling protector of his former tormentors; Amanda, an apprentice to forgotten arts; and Sheriff Morgan, whose bonds with Conover County go back farther than even he can remember. See where it started, and watch where it’s all going in NORTH 40 #1. 

Created by Aaron Williams (PS238, The Nodwick Chronicles) and Fiona Staples (SECRET HISTORY OF THE AUTHORITY: HAWKSMOOR).

I like the visuals on the cover. Here’s a 3-page preview. Crazy horror monster attacks middle America.

Wednesday Comics #1 – $3.99
By everyone
16 pages; published by DC Comics

In July, DC Comics gives a fresh twist to a grand comics tradition with WEDNESDAY COMICS, a new, weekly 12-issue series by some of the greatest names in comics today! 

WEDNESDAY COMICS is unique in modern comics history: Reinventing the classic weekly newspaper comics section, it is a 16-page weekly that unfolds to a sprawling 28″ x 20″ tabloid-sized reading experience bursting with mind-blowing color, action and excitement, with each feature on its own 14″ x 20″ page.

Spearheaded by DCU Editorial Art Director Mark Chiarello, whose past editing credits include BATMAN BLACK and WHITE, DC: THE NEW FRONTIER and SOLO, each page of WEDNESDAY COMICS spotlights the continuing adventures of DC heroes, including: 

• BATMAN, WEDNESDAY COMICS’ weekly cover feature, by the Eisner Award-winning 100 BULLETS team of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso 
• ADAM STRANGE, by writer/artist Paul Pope (BATMAN: YEAR 100) 
• METAMORPHO, written by New York Times best-selling writer Neil Gaiman with Art by Eisner Award-winner Michael Allred (Madman) 
• THE DEMON AND CATWOMAN, written by Walter Simonson (Thor, MANHUNTER) with Art by famed DC cover artist Brian Stelfreeze 
• DEADMAN, written by Dave Bullock and Vinton Heuck, Art by Dave Bullock 
• KAMANDI, written by Dave Gibbons (WATCHMEN, GREEN LANTERN CORPS) with Art by Ryan Sook (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ARKHAM ASYLUM: LIVING HELL) 
• SUPERMAN, written by John Arcudi (The Mask) with Art by Lee Bermejo (JOKER) 
• WONDER WOMAN, written and illustrated by Ben Caldwell (Dare Detectives) 
• GREEN LANTERN, written by Kurt Busiek (TRINITY, ASTRO CITY) with Art by Joe Quiñones (TEEN TITANS GO!) 
• TEEN TITANS, written by Eddie Berganza with Art by Sean Galloway 
• SUPERGIRL, written by Jimmy Palmiotti (JONAH HEX) with Art by Amanda Conner (POWER GIRL) 
• HAWKMAN, written and illustrated by Kyle Baker (PLASTIC MAN, Special Forces) 
• SGT. ROCK, written by Adam Kubert (SUPERMAN: LAST SON), ilustrated by legendary comics artist Joe Kubert 
• THE FLASH, written by Karl Kerschl (TEEN TITANS YEAR ONE, THE FLASH: THE FASTEST MAN ALIVE) and Brenden Fletcher, illustrated by Karl Kerschl
• METAL MEN, written by Dan DiDio with Art by Ian Churchill (SUPERGIRL) 

WEDNESDAY COMICS will arrive in stores folded twice to 7″ x 10″, with the first issue set to reach stores on July 8.

Another exciting release from DC Comics. In the early 1900’s, one comic strip would take up an entire page, instead of the compartmentalized square inches of today. Strips like Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo had an entire newspaper sheet to stretch out and experiment, still even larger than modern comic books. That expanded canvass returns here in a bit of an experimental format, which is always risky with habit-entrenched comic readers. Some huge talent has been brought in to work on these stories, all guaranteed to be completely accessible superhero adventures. Seriously, this is more like it. The only stumbling block is the price but hopefully you and others will be taken by the novelty of experiencing comics like this for the first time in decades. Heck, USA Today is excited by it, and if they like it…!

Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me and Other Astute Observations – $16.99
By Peter Bagge
112 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

Fans of Peter Bagge’s generation-defining, satirical fiction may not realize this, but the cartoonist doubles as an opinionated cuss, and has been contributing provocative (but still hilarious) comic-strip opinion pieces to Reason magazine for the last several years… finally collected in this volume.

Although a libertarian by inclination (hence the Reason gig), Bagge (who lives in the fuzzy-headed, liberal capital of the Northwest, Seattle) is hardly dogmatic, and many of the pieces undermine traditional party lines in favor of a rather personal, rational and informed take on hot-button issues that will force partisan Democrats and Republicans alike to rethink them. And of course, Bagge’s well-researched comic strip “essays” crackle with the same energy and wit that propelled him into the collective Gen X consciousness with his comic book series Hate.

Favorite topics include the erosion of our civil liberties (whether the post-9/11 Bush administration’s gradual erosion of the Bill of Rights, the insanity of the war on drugs, or nanny-state meddling), ongoing boondoggles of the American public (for professional sports stadiums or ineffective public transportation systems), the Iraq war (Bagge is vociferously against it), so-called art and so-called entertainment, the homeless, the mall-ification of America, politicians both in general and in particular (including the 2008 presidential race and a revelatory one-on-one with Republican not-so-hopeful Ron Paul that soured Bagge on the candidate forever), the conservative/religious war on sex and drugs, and whether citizens should be allowed to own bazookas. Each piece features the voluble Bagge himself front and center as the puzzled, indignant, or deeply conflicted everyman-on-the-street trying to make sense of this 21st Century.

And of course, every panel is delineated in Bagge’s glorious, laugh-out-loud stretchy 4-color cartoon style, making even his disquisitions on some very serious topics go down as smoothly as Buddy Bradley’s latest escapade.

“Like all good political cartoonists, Bagge can be cruel. But he’s also willing to skewer himself when he deserves it… as libertarian polemicists go, he’s a lot more fun than, say, Ayn Rand.” – The Washington Post

I don’t always agree with his position, but his exploration is always great. And hearing other opinions and positions (especially well-informed like his), is almost always worthwhile. I remember the Ron Paul incident, which even got a little bit of mainstream(-ish) press right in the middle of the Presidential debates. Here’s a 12-page preview.

New Warriors: Classic, Volume 1 – $24.99
By Fabian Nicieza & Mark Bagley
208 pages; published by Marvel Comics; available at Amazon.com

His parents dead, Dwayne Taylor — a.k.a. Night Thrasher — set out to create a new family for himself and ended up with the premier super-team of the 1990s! Marvel Boy and Firestar! Namorita and Nova! Speedball! All they want to do is change the world! Decide for yourself how well they managed it in their trials by fire against Terrax and the Juggernaut! Also featuring anti-heroes Star-Thief and Psionex! Guest-starring Thor and the Inhumans! Collecting NEW WARRIORS #1-6 and THOR #411-412.

Look, this is my website, and I’ll recommend whatever I want! OK, look I’m not immune to nostalgia. This is the first superhero comic I was seriously devoted to and it really opened up my love for comics. This isn’t the series at its peak, but here is where it all started. At 14 years old, I was thrilled by these stories, mostly because it was like a Saturday morning cartoon with the most personal and realistic characterization I had encountered up to that point. These were kids my age or a bit older with “real” problems like divorcing or abusive parents, awkward crushes, and a still-developing sense of self. And then they used their cool powers to go on fun adventures, so it wasn’t entirely consumed by teen angst. I was hooked. For years. Heck, I still am.

Asterios Polyp – $29.95
By David Mazzucchelli
344 pages; published by Pantheon Books; available at Amazon.com

The triumphant return of one of comics’ greatest talents, with an engrossing story of one man’s search for love, meaning, sanity, and perfect architectural proportions. An epic story long awaited, and well worth the wait. 

Meet Asterios Polyp: middle-aged, meagerly successful architect and teacher, aesthete and womanizer, whose life is wholly upended when his New York City apartment goes up in flames. In a tenacious daze, he leaves the city and relocates to a small town in the American heartland. But what is this “escape” really about? 

As the story unfolds, moving between the present and the past, we begin to understand this confounding yet fascinating character, and how he’s gotten to where he is. And isn’t. And we meet Hana: a sweet, smart, first-generation Japanese American artist with whom he had made a blissful life. But now she’s gone. Did Asterios do something to drive her away? What has happened to her? Is she even alive? All the questions will be answered, eventually.

In the meantime, we are enthralled by Mazzucchelli’s extraordinarily imagined world of brilliantly conceived eccentrics, sharply observed social mores, and deftly depicted asides on everything from design theory to the nature of human perception.

Asterios Polyp
is David Mazzucchelli’s masterpiece: a great American graphic novel.

This is another huge release. Maybe the biggest one here (after New Warriors Classic of course). David Mazzucchelli is a great talent whose releases are criminally few and far between. Superhero fans know him from his collaboration with Frank Miller, Batman: Year One, but that doesn’t matter next to this.

This is a great week for comics. Almost something for everyone: horror, humor, heroes. Plenty to choose from! As it should be. Enjoy!