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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 303: Violent Messiahs #1

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be showing pages that are either scary or are part of “scary” issues (as scary as a comic can be, of course), because it’s October! Today’s page is from Violent Messiahs #1, which was published by Image and is cover dated June 2000. Enjoy!

The scariest thing about this page is the digital effect work!

Violent Messiahs was a strange title about two different serial killers and the cop who tries to stop them, and it was the first time I had heard of either Joshua Dysart (who wrote this) or Tone Rodriguez (who drew this). Dysart has gone on to be a pretty darned good writer, and Rodriguez got much better even over the course of this title and went on to work on a lot of Bongo comics and Zenescope comics. Now that’s a dichotomy!

This page begins the epic (it ran eight issues, with a four-issue sequel), and it sets a pretty good tone for the book. Dysart uses an interesting word – “lungs” – to describe the house’s interior, which puts us in mind of breathing, of course, anthropomorphizing the house pretty well, with the image of a house sucking in great breaths a bizarre and disturbing image. Dysart points out the rosewood door (rosewood is a symbol for inner beauty, which, if Dysart was aware of that, takes on an ironic meaning in this comic), and then addresses the reader directly, which isn’t a bad trope to use, as it draws the reader into the freaky atmosphere. We can’t really hear anything, of course, but by addressing the reader, Dysart is trying to spark our imagination, because most of us know what shuffling feet or an old dog sighing sounds like, so when he abruptly goes a bit metaphysical on us with thing “sniffing at this side of the world,” we’re a bit more prepared for it. Dysart helps subvert the cliché of using a door by confronting it directly – he calls it “fitting” that we begin the story with a door, because doors lead us into other places, and the implication is that this other place is not a pleasant one. It’s a handy way for Dysart to acknowledge that he’s trafficking in some clichés but still get away with using them. Lots of writers do this, and it’s not a bad trick. At least they’re aware of it.

Rodriguez’s art almost lets Dysart down, however. The turn of the century was when artists were beginning to really embrace computer effects, and a lot of it recalled movies with computer effects – it turned out badly. (Steven Spielberg could get away with it in 1993 because the dude had more money than anyone to work with, but once he opened the floodgates, it became cheaper and cheaper and filmmakers began cutting corners, so we got – and still get – a lot of hackwork in CGI.) Some artists were very good at this kind of thing, and I doubt if this is all on Rodriguez – some of the poor effects are probably the work of Travis Smith, the colorist – but it’s still not great. Obviously, we still see stuff like this today, but a lot of good artists have figured out to blend things a bit better, so it’s not quite as egregious as it is here. Anyway, Rodriguez shows the house in Panel 1, in a deep background, and its placement plus the very murky colors make it a bit difficult to see. The house is framed by two lousy effects – the too-big moon (I’m still annoyed by making the moon so big in fiction, but I’ve gotten used to it) is Photoshopped in, and the spray of water looks like it’s somehow digitally created. The way Rodriguez lays out the page, it’s hard to tell where the house is – it’s on the edge of a cliff, but the water looks like it’s too far in the foreground to be anywhere near the house, unless it’s a truly giant wave. Proportionally, the panel is way off, and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the page. I understand what Rodriguez is trying to do – this is an establishing shot, of course, and it’s supposed to put us in a Gothic horror mood, but the poor effects rob it of its impact.

Panel 2 continues this trend. With my poorly trained eye, the only parts that look penciled are the window frame and the dead leaves on the right side. Some of the interior has been drawn, because we see it in Panel 3, but Rodriguez is obviously using the same image twice. The wall is an effect, and the interior has, of course, been blurred because we’re seeing it through a window. Again, the storytelling isn’t too much at fault – Rodriguez has gone from establishing shot to moving toward the room in which the door is placed – but the execution is muddled. Smith goes from far too dark in Panel 1 to a fairly light Panel 2 – I assume it’s still night, but we can see everything much better in Panel 2. Panel 3 gives us the room, and this is another example of effects gone wild. Rodriguez gives us a fairly simple room with wainscoting, two doors, a picture frame, and a ceiling that is partially a skylight. Nothing too crazy, but instead of actually drawing a painting in the frame, he clearly drops a picture in there that he found on the Internet (I assume) and Smith goes a bit nuts with the wood grain, turning it into a lurid and sickening room, which might be the point, but is far too over-the-top for the tone Dysart is setting. This is the same problem with Panel 4, where we see the door head-on. It appears even less like a door that was drawn by Rodriguez, especially the transom, with its ornate carving. The coloring is a bit more controlled, so the door doesn’t look as strange as the paneling in the room, and Smith does a nice job leaking light from behind the door into the room, but it still looks more artificial than it needs to be. Plus, there’s a lot of wasted space on this page, especially considering how cramped Panel 1 is. The layout is simple and leads our eye down the page and over to the right, but it’s still not a very good way to design the page because so much space is wasted. It’s too bad.

Rodriguez either eased off on the computer effects or got better at integrating them later in the series, but this first page doesn’t do much, artistically. Dysart does a pretty decent job creating a weird and creepy environment, but Rodriguez and Smith don’t do a very good job helping him out. I can’t find too much from Rodriguez prior to this comic (he had done some work, but not too much), so he was just learning. He did get better!

Next: A recent creepy-ass comic from Marvel? The hell you say? It’s true! And don’t forget about the archives! They just keep getting bigger!

4 Comments

This is a brilliant critical look at a landmark page in my career. All your observations are spot on. I’m commenting here less in defense and more for the sake of clarification.

All the computer graphics were done by Travis, to varying decrees of success (as you mentioned, it was still the early days of computer art and we were just as guilty as anyone, if not more so, of over enthusiasm in that department).

Also, more of the page is drawn than first appears. This confusion is due, as you say, to the heavy-handed use of digital effects, which all of us on the team roundly endorsed and encouraged at the time. In retrospect it certainly makes the comic look dated. As you pointed out, Tone grew in leaps and bounds throughout the eight issues of this series. We all did.

Nice work! And thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s a real trip down memory lane!

Joshua: No problem, sir. Thanks for the clarification – I always appreciate knowing more about the process of making comics, so I enjoyed reading more about it.

I always liked Violent Messiahs, and it’s been a while since I re-read the issues, so I enjoyed flipping through them to find a good page!

In digging around in my comics boxes, I found the Genesis issue of this series. Haven’t reread it in ages.

I looked up Mr Dysart’s bibliography because I know I’ve read stuff of his that I’ve liked, just trying to remember what exactly. Saw Chassis, as well as an Avril Lavigne thing (!).

But I did see the Neil Young’s Greendale, which was really good.

And let me take the opportunity to badger Greg yet again into buying Harbinger in trade. It’s quite good, Mr Dysart! I really enjoyed how each of the first issues has almost felt like a different book (in a good way), and I’ve told Greg here at the blog before that he (and other people) should buy it.

Asskissing over. ;)

Travis: Dysart also wrote Unknown Soldier, which turned into one of the best comics in the past five years or so. And Harbinger just came out in hardcover, right? I’m waiting for the softcover!

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