Comics You Should Own – Rex Libris
Rex Libris by James Turner (writer/artist).
Published by SLG, 13 issues (#1-13), cover dated August 2005 – October 2008.
I very much doubt you can count anything in this post as SPOILERS, but if you just want to skip the post, feel free.
Rex Libris is the tale of a butt-kicking librarian named, appropriately, Rex Libris (his name, loosely translated, means “king of books”). Yes, a librarian. Who kicks butt. This has, perhaps, all the markings of a drunken night at the pub where people come up with the most outlandish idea they can think of, which usually leads to terrible comics, but in the case of Rex Libris, it didn’t. That’s because James Turner is a wonderful comics creator, and he took what could have been a disaster and turned it into a hilarious spoof on superheroes, publishing, and pulp fiction, all while giving us some tremendous stories in the process.
The fun in Rex Libris comes from the arch writing style and not necessarily from the plots, although the plots are nifty. Turner’s scripts are amazingly dense, and the humor comes from sly asides and long build-ups, not from punchy jokes (although there are those, too), so reading the books means one needs to pay attention. Turner throws a lot into the blender, but at the center is his star, who always keeps things from spiraling too far out of control. Rex is grounded, so while the demon samurai (from issue #1) or the giant rooster and bull (from issue #10) or the zombie Nazis (from issue #8) might be too wacky for the refined reader (and a bit too tired a cliché, in the case of the zombie Nazis), Turner’s focus on Rex and his down-to-earth philosophizing (so to speak) always helps deflate the weirdness. The fact that these creatures tend to respect/fear or at least acknowledge the sanctity of the library helps with the humor, as well. The demon samurai whom Rex confronts in the first issue sets the template for this – he wants to check out Evil Made Easy but doesn’t have a library card. When Rex adamantly denies his request, the samurai yells, “You begin to anger me, unworthy one! Once I have read this book, I shall conquer this dimension, and abolish all stupid library cards!” First, the idea that a demon samurai needs to read a book about how to be evil is humorous, but then Turner gives us the nice final line, which undercuts his threat even more. When he finally meets Vaglox of Benzine V in issue #5, the warlord has thought balloons that show he is terrified of the librarian – that’s just the kind of dude Rex is! Turner takes the conventions of the superhero genre and turns them sideways, so that Rex is the object of women’s desires but he can’t respond because of his sacred trust as a librarian (which happens in issue #1) and the military consults Rex when they’re confronted by an insoluble problem (as they do in issues #11-13, when Rex has to fight Cthulhu Two, a “memetically generated duplicate” of the original monster). Turner has a lot of fun playing with the clichés of the superhero genre, mocking them gently but also using them to show the heroism of knowledge. Rex might fight as well as any other superhero, but he’s also smarter than everyone because he reads constantly. He’s always using his brain to get out of jams as much as his fists. This helps both highlight the wonder of superheroes while undermining their reliance on violence.
Turner also goes metafictional on us, as this book is ostensibly Rex’s autobiography, published by B. Barry Horst of Hermeneutic Press. “Barry” writes a column in the beginning of each book, and Turner captures the self-promotion of some larger comics companies perfectly – Barry is always going on about the expansion of the company and the comics line (My Breasts Came From Mars is my favorite, and Turner gives us a hilarious one-page “preview” of the comic in the back of issue #7) and all the other thrilling innovations he has planned. In issue #1, he and “Juame,” the creator of the comic book, provide us with a DVD commentary track at the bottom of each page, which takes a long time to read but is worth it (Turner abandoned this in subsequent issues, presumably because he didn’t want to go insane writing it). The conceit means that the story is always being interrupted by Rex sitting in Barry’s office discussing the actual direction of the book – in issue #1, Barry tries to think of clever plot twists that will shock the readers, while in issue #2 he points out that a sure way to bring in readers is … boobs! In issue #5, while Rex is hiking across the surface of Benzine V on his way to battle Vaglox, he spots a scantily-clad female warrior standing on a ridge. “But … but this isn’t possible,” Rex says. “Pulchritudinous space Amazons couldn’t exist in this environment … Dammit, Barry! BARRY!!” and on the next page, we see that Rex is once again in Barry’s office debating what’s going in his autobiography. It reminds us that there are different layers to this comic – Rex is having adventures, but the comic itself is a book about Rex’s life, and is therefore subject to editing. Barry promises “to restrict the bodacious space Amazons to environments that can support their uniquely curvaceous form of life,” which placates Rex. This also means that Rex interrupts his own adventures – in issue #7, he claims something is like the “failed Yeti hunt tale back in ’60,” which of course means we get two pages about that very same Yeti hunt. In issue #9, he tells Hypatia, the new librarian, all about an adventure he had in the Soviet Union in 1933, and at the end of the issue, Hypatia asks “What does any of this have to do with the predicament we’re in now?” and Rex says, “Well … nothing. It’s just an exciting story.” On the same page, he’s rescued from the evil Russians by Circe (yes, that Circe), who tells him when he complains that she waited until the last minute, “You want your autobiography to be exciting, don’t you?” Turner constantly undermines the text of the comic itself, making this a cheeky and more clever comic book than your usual fare.
Turner does good work with the other characters, too. Rex’s pal Simonides was once a human being, but was turned into a bird 2000 years ago and isn’t too happy about it. He’s a megalomaniac, too, so it vexes him that he can’t take over the world in his bird form. He’s quite funny and rude, and when Rex takes him to Benzine V, he realizes that he can mold the inhabitants (who are sentient snowmen) into an army and take over that planet … but things don’t necessarily go as planned. Later, in issue #10 (he returns to Earth because he “wasn’t getting any panel time” on Benzine V), he tells the story about how he stopped a giant cock and bull from wreaking havoc, a story that is, naturally, wildly embellished. Meanwhile, Circe, who turned him into a bird in the first place, works in the library and is acting as a mentor to the new employee, Hypatia. They have a nice, natural relationship that features some of the best writing in the book – Turner deliberately makes Rex a classic tough guy stereotype, but with Circe and Hypatia, he just has fun with their dialogue. Hypatia is almost as capable as Rex is, as she and Circe help thwart an invasion of Vandals (the actual tribe from the fifth century, not people who vandalize things) in issue #4 (well, Circe does most of the work there) and she battles weird monsters in issue #8. She finally gets to go on a mission when they fight Cthulhu Two, and she’s integral in defeating that menace. She even faces down Mr. Blumenkohl, a super-villain we met in issue #1 (who’s a parody of the head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.), when he shows up in issue #7. Blumenkohl has a friendly relationship with Rex, as long as he’s not practicing evil in the library, but Hypatia doesn’t know about this and when she discovers he was responsible for her parents’ death, she kicks him out. It’s both a funny and tense scene, something Turner writes very well, and it shows how tough Hypatia can be.
As you can see, Turner’s art is very idiosyncratic and obviously computer-generated in some way. I have no idea how he created it, so I asked him. Here’s what he wrote!
Rex Libris is built in Adobe Illustrator, a vector graphics program. It’s a bit like a working with paper cutouts.
I used to do rough sketches or thumbnails of page layouts, but I don’t always follow the roughs. I can shift things around in Illustrator and sometimes come up with something better as I work.
Complicated characters I’ll draw in pencil, scan, and then trace over in Illustrator with the ‘pen’ tool.
Individual elements [in Illustrator] can be constructed and then reused, scaled, and rotated as needed. The flexibility of the program offers many advantages, although organic forms can be more difficult to do. The results are often flatter and more mechanical looking than work produced in Photoshop (particularly if you’re using a pen tool in that program, which varies line weight with pressure, just like with a brush). In Illustrator, I find the pen tool frequently lays down wonky, excess bezier points which require a good deal of editing. Bezier points are the control plotting points that anchor lines in Illustrator; a square, for example, has four bezier points. A triangle [has] three.
There are two ‘views’ in Illustrator: Preview and Outline. In preview mode, you can see blends, colours, line weights, and effects. Outline modes shows only the shapes constructed with bezier points. And type. The early versions of Illustrator didn’t even allow you to modify artwork in Preview mode. You had to switch back and forth: modify, look at the result of the change, modify, rinse, repeat.
One of the benefits of vector graphics is that with images constructed from points relative to each other, no data is needed for all the space in between. This means there’s a lot less information needed than in a bitmap version of the same image. A bitmap image is a giant grid of pixels. Of course, extremely complicated shapes in Illustrator, with thousands of bezier points, would negate this advantage.
(Few bezier points and large image = small file size.
Many bezier points and small image = large file size.)
Adobe Flash is another vector based graphics program, used for animation and websites. Quite often arms and legs will be created and then ‘tweened’; you just move the object over time rather than redrawing it every frame. Think of the old Flintstone cartoons. In Illustrator I can do much the same thing by repositioning the component on the page, into another panel.
For early issues of Rex, I wanted to keep the look very simple, flat, and graphic. Large blocks of flat ink contrasted with line.
Over time, I built on the initial look and added blends, effects, and so on, as well as stripping away outlines. After issue six, line work is still used, but much less frequently, until in Warlord of Io [Turner's follow-up comic] it is deleted entirely. Everything is defined by gradients and blocks of ink.
It’s worth noting that Turner also commented on the artwork when I reviewed Warlord of Io, which although it’s about a different book, is probably relevant to Rex Libris, especially some of the later issues:
The vast majority of the artwork was created in Adobe Illustrator CS3. The 3-D elements were made in another program called Swift 3D. It can output vector graphics, but I found the bitmap output better. It seemed a risky move at first, but I think they integrate very well with the Illustrator-generated material. Finishing touches were added in Photoshop.
Obviously, this is a lot like drawing something, with the exception that it’s all done on computer. Turner makes Rex a solid block with, as Grandpa Simpson might say, “a haircut you can set your watch by,” but that’s because of who Rex is – he’s a traditionalist, a protector, and a gruff warrior. He doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and the way Turner draws him typifies that. As Turner mentioned, about halfway through the book he started using the solid line work much less frequently, and the art’s tone changes. He uses shading much more effectively, softening Rex slightly but also adding more nuance to the art. Look at the scans above. The first one is the first page of the comic – note how sharp the contrasts and the lines are, how stark the shading is. The next two are from the latter part of the book, and you can see how different the shading is and how much softer the art looks. Turner uses “special effects” better in the second part of the book, too – because the effects are often bursts of light or other more ephemeral things, they look more in place in the second half of the comic. The change in art darkens it somewhat, which is unfortunate, but it also makes the art look more organic – in the first half of the comic, the movements of the characters is somewhat awkward, which disappears as the book moves toward its conclusion.
What can Turner achieve with this kind of artwork that, perhaps, would be more difficult for a traditional artist to achieve? Rex Libris is a busy comic, demanding the readers’ attention more than many comics, and it’s partly because of how Turner creates the art. By the time the comic reaches the Cthulhu Two storyline, Turner is packing the book with panels, many of which are jammed with characters and creatures. While this might sound overwhelming, the precision of the artwork allows Turner to sprinkle these weird beings throughout without calling too much attention to them but giving them rich details. In many comics, the artist skimps on the smaller details in a panel because it’s a pain in the ass to draw such small stuff, but Turner doesn’t have that problem, or if he does, he ignores it. The final page above is a good example – the soldiers in the foreground are carefully delineated, while in many comics they would be colored blobs. Turner is able to fill this comic with wonderful details, and it’s one reason it’s such a delightful read. Obviously, this kind of artwork isn’t to everyone tastes, and there are pros and cons to it, but Turner is very good at it, which elevates his work above others who do this kind of stuff.
I have left out a lot of the hidden treasures in this book, because there’s so much to discover on your own (the dead body in the stacks, the mystery of who ate the cookies, why Rex talks to plants) and I certainly don’t want to ruin anything. Rex Libris is a hilarious comic that manages to be very exciting and thrilling. Turner gives us interesting characters who interact very well with each other, and he throws them into wild plots that aren’t too original but are still done well. I’ve never read a bad comic by Turner, so you could get any of them, but Rex Libris is collected in two handy trades, so you can always start with this title if you’re looking to catch up on your James Turner bibliography!
Hey! Look over there! It’s the archives! You can give those a look while waiting for the next installment. Savvy readers might know what’s next in this series!