The pro-am challenge

Volume One of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County series, Tales from the Farm (Top Shelf), centers on a lonely boy who, orphaned and sent to live on his uncle’s farm, takes to wearing a cape and mask wherever he goes. Grief and rural isolation force him to nurture his imaginative side, to the point that readers don’t always know what’s real and what’s wishful thinking. But one thing is clearly authentic: An eight-page comic-within-the-comic, a homemade superhero adventure whose crude drawings will look familiar to any boy who knew a frustrated dreamer in junior high.

Take that would-be cartoonist, add some years and contact with the non-superpowered world, and you might get John Porcellino, one of the smallish circle of zine-based artists whose self-published work gained enough of a following that bona-fide publishers had to take notice. Bits of his cult-fave King-Cat Comics series were gathered in the micro-memoir Perfect Example years ago. After reissuing that collection in 2005, Drawn and Quarterly has now gone whole hog with King-Cat Classix. Weighing in around 400 pages, Classix is the anti-zine: hard-bound with sewn binding instead of staples; printed on paper eight grades up from what Kinko’s puts in its photocopiers. Inside, readers who never got caught up in the “mail me $2 and I’ll send you my raggedy 12-page creation” scene can catch up on what Porcellino has been doing since 1989: bite-size episodes, mostly executed in a charmingly primitive drawing style, that range from dream journals to “what happened at work today” to illustrated inventories of the cats found in Porcellino’s neighborhood. It’s charming, oddball stuff, though of course those of us who buy it in a bookstore will miss the word-of-mouth intimacy that King-Cat’s first subscribers enjoyed.

Paul Hornschemeier has been all-pro for some time, getting work with Marvel Comics and Life magazine in between contributions to art-comic anthologies. In The Three Paradoxes (Fantagraphics), he lets us look behind the curtain occasionally, alternating his distinctively polished drawings with glimpses of in-progress stories sketched out in blue pencil, with erasures and guide lines plainly visible. He tosses in other comic-book idioms as well, recalling Dan Clowes’s Ice Haven by telling different angles of his story in different graphic styles, but the use of unfinished drawings drives home the fact that the story we’re engrossed in is about a working cartoonist for whom comics are no longer a hobby or indulgence but a way of processing the world around him.

Ah, the fun of seeing a comics page before it’s inked! In the mainstream comics world — where the assembly-line approach often has one artist sketching panels and a second painting them to make finished drawings — fans of a particular artist know very well the difference an “inker” can make. Fans of the legendary Jack Kirby, for instance, have long sworn that inker Vince Colletta wasn’t nearly as subtle as he should have been in prepping the King’s art for printers: When inked by other artists, Kirby’s weird angles and otherworldly action have more character. A tiny minority, though, like From Hell artist Eddie Campbell, argue that Colletta’s rep suffers from crummy reprints that don’t capture his skills.

A new chapter in that debate opens with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, a series in which DC reprints the late-career epic that introduced a new, ’60s-flavored cosmology to comics. (Volume One is now in stores.) Not having the original comics, I can’t compare them to this, but the publishers certainly seem to be making a good-faith effort to present the art respectfully. (Though I’d prefer a reproduction of the original Pop-Art-style Zip-a-tone coloring to the computer-enhanced, full-color printing here.) And on that evidence, I have to side with Colletta’s detractors: The galaxy-spanning scope of Kirby’s narrative and the weird invention of his art is dulled a bit by black outlines as thick as maple syrup.

One way out of this dilemma would be to skip pencils altogether, as Jeff Lemire appears to have in Tales from the Farm, whose skritch-scratchy chiaroscuro panels look to have jumped straight from a fevered pen. In Kirby’s day, of course, only so much deviation from the corporate norm could be tolerated. Thank goodness today’s comics gene pool has so many DIY auteurs diving in to keep things interesting.

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