A Real American Book! 2015 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2015

It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.

Stuff you may already know:

I draw comics and I teach and I own a comic book store, which doesn’t leave as much time for writing as I would hope. And “writing” includes anything for the book — blogging, research, scanning, even tidying up my studio where all the book research lives. (e.g., mess above.) Even shuttling a hard drive to my book designer in Rhode Island. Or that time I shuttled another hard drive to my book designer in Rhode Island, a week later. (The third time will be the charm, but that won’t be for a week or two, so it’ll count in next year’s Year in Review.)

As with last year, I’m cheating by including a chunk of January. School vacation is key, and recovering from the fall semester and holiday travel mean that getting back on the writing horse tend not to start until the second week of January. So this “year” in review is late January 2015 through January 2016.

So here’s what I did this year:

-Wrote and posted 17 blog articles here.
-Started a tumblr! Follow me at arealamericanbook.tumblr.com!
-Sent chapter 9 (revision) and chapters 10 and 11 to my book designer. To, you know, design.
-Drove a hard drive to my designer in Rhode Island.
-Drove another hard drive to Rhode Island two weeks later. (Remember?)
-Turned in first drafts of chapters 12, 13, and 14 to editor Nick.
-Traveled to Springfield, IL for the 2015 G.I. Joe Convention. There I chatted with friends and fans, and listened to Hasbro, and bought a toy tank and 10 action figures.
-Was interviewed for the “What’s on JOE Mind” podcast, a live version at that very same convention.
-Traveled with my photographer to Chris-in-Texas’s house to shoot treasure in his collection.
-Traveled to Rhode Island for two photo shoots with my photographer, materials for chapters 9-14.
-Was interviewed on the “Her Dork World, His Dork World” podcast, talking for an hour about this book and comics retailing.
-Secured images of some of the earliest Real American Hero development art, vital for a now-needed revision to chapter 2.
-Made contact with a dozen key toy designers and buyers, advertising folks, and actors, which resulted in 13 new interviews and some killer images for related chapters.

-I’ve also thought about Gary “Goggles” Head pretty regularly, and that big toy room in the sky he must be playing in now.

Here’s a picture from one of those photoshoots.

IMGP3789_alt_YIR_40p

And in the “Now I’m known as a G.I. Joe-person” department, two separate folks reached out to me to ask for G.I. Joe art I have. One is writing his own book — this guy has a publisher that does great work, and he/they released a lovely pop-culture hardcover last year. The other is an art guy who’s putting together an art book for one of those publishers that does deluxe art books. Sorry to be vague, but more on those when they’re announced. Basically I scanned some stuff and emailed some tiffs.

So what does that leave? I’ll need to get chapters 15 – 18 finished as first drafts, get comments from editor Nick on them as well as 12 – 14, and turn those around for him. I’ll need to tweak designer Liz’s layouts for chapters 9 – 11 when she’s finished her passes on them, and then I’ll need to send her 15-18. There’s probably two more photo shoots with photographer Andre. Chapters 2 and 5 still need a rewrite, since new information surfaced in the last year and a half. And while the writing of chapter 1 has been finished for years, I need to gather images and send that to Liz as well. So there is a fair amount left. But if you compare this year in review to the previous one, there is progress. There’s also a big difference between finishing writing and getting the book published, so I don’t have much to say regarding a publication date.

So that’s where I am at the end of 2015 and the start of 2016. Please feel free to spread the word — Like A Real American Book! on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, read and comment here at the blog, and tell your friends and family that are interested in popular culture about this.

Oh, you come here for the pretty pictures and not the dry text? Alright, I can oblige you with another photo from this year. Chris-in-Texas, myself, and photographer Andre setting up a cyc in Chris’s kitchen.

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G.I. Joe #44 cover by Zeck & Beatty

GI Joe 44 cover original art detail by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

Mike Zeck needs no introduction. Here’s a short one anyway. He’s best known for four things: a three-year run on “Captain America,” the 1986 “Punisher” miniseries that made Frank Castle into a real character and not a Spider-Man foil; and 40 or so unbelievable G.I. Joe covers. His career in comics is bigger than that, but you only asked for a short introduction.

What made those G.I. Joe covers so great is what makes all of Zeck’s work great. He is a master. Mike Zeck is the best action artist in comics. I didn’t say that, Steven Grant, a regular collaborator of Zeck’s, did. (But I can’t fine the quote, sorry!) Mike Zeck draws dynamic scenes, explosions, and muzzle flashes. But he’s also an expert at lighting, anatomy, facial expressions, and page layout. His work is energetic, but he can do quiet stuff, too.

Mike Zeck’s G.I. Joe covers benefited from a collaborator: Larry Hama. (Him again!) Hama thumbnailed cover sketches, often three during lunch, and one became that month’s G.I. Joe cover. So while Zeck’s Marvel and DC covers were the tops, we need to include Larry Hama when discussing the G.I. Joe covers.

That out of the way, let’s look at Zeck’s gorgeous cover — inked by regular collaborator John Beatty — to G.I. Joe issue #44.

GI Joe 44 cover original art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

I love the layout, the STORY of the cover. It’s subtly terrifying to have this unblinking, untalking drone driving a leering, looming vehicle after our hero, and a motorcycle versus an 18-wheeler stands no chance. Lady-Jaye’s pose is dynamic, and the image starts to feel claustrophobic. There are no other cars visible, but I’ve always read this as LJ being trapped — other cars or a highway barrier keeping her where she is, right in front of that cab. And her gun is ineffectual. As a comics reader, however, I never loved the art here. The B.A.T. is off-model, a truck instead of a proper Cobra vehicle feels like a missed opportunity, Lady-Jaye’s open shirt seems uncharacteristically exploitative for G.I. Joe (which is pretty sexless to me), and the Silver Mirage’s wheel is flat. (Thin, not flat-tire flat.)

But when I saw the original art, everything changed. That it is an artifact of my favorite era of G.I. Joe is no small part of this. It’s not bleach-white and universe-black like a Photoshop bitmap, it’s faded and stained. You can see brushstrokes and pen marks. Real ink, up-close, has a particular power. Without the color, John Beatty’s energetic inks shine. And you can see where Beatty’s red lines have been removed so that the printed color has no lasso:

GI Joe 44 cover comparison - remove red lines

And zip-a-tone:

GI Joe 44 cover - zipatone - Mike Zeck and John BeattyActually, Zip-A-Tone is a brand name that became the generic (Kleenex for tissue, Ziploc for sandwich bag), so we should call it “screentone.” But Tim, you ask, what IS zip-a-tone? It’s a clear, adhesive shading tool. Before scanners, camera-ready art had to be either fully black or fully white — no greys. So to create the illusion of greys, artists would stipple, or feather, or hatch and crosshatch. Or apply screentone — sticky sheets pre-printed with dots or lines. Sadly, screentone shrinks with age. If you look at my light blue arrows in the image above, you can see where the plastic is constricting away from the ink line. (Or maybe it was just cut a little carelessly? Certainly that’s the purple arrow.)

(Sean Michael Robinson, lead on the herculean Cerebus restoration, has more on this — scroll down and start at the one-word paragraph that says “Why?”)

And Zeck’s stellar hand shows through here better than in reduction and reproduction. Partly because there’s a dark color there, and also because Zeck was drawing more detail that could be reproduced at the time — note the delicate hatching around Lady-Jaye’s eye:

GI Joe 44 cover comparison art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

And partly because Mike Zeck is a master.

What does Mike Zeck‘s G.I. Joe work mean to you?

 

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VAMP sketches by Wayne Luther

Wayne Luther Jeep detail

I got into G.I. Joe in its 3rd year, so while I hadn’t missed the VAMP (or the VAMP 2) at retail, other “basic” vehicles were vying for my attention and dollars — the Snow Cat, the A.W.E. Striker. But the VAMP is such a visible part of the first ten episodes of the animated show that I always wanted one. And even though my family wasn’t connected to military culture I knew from magazines and history that the iconic military Jeep was, well, iconic. So I always wanted G.I. Joe’s Jeep to be a part of my toy play. (Our agents of Cobra had their Stingers — the VAMP repainted in black — and I did finally get a bright yellow VAMP in the form of the Tiger Sting, but not until G.I. Joe’s 8th year. Don’t feel bad for me, though, my Joes did well with the Snow Cat and A.W.E. Striker.)

Wayne Luther GI Joe VAMP notes

Wayne Luther was part of the R&D team that brought back G.I. Joe at the 3.75-inch size in 1982. He designed the vehicles. His drawings are stunning. Each vehicle was depicted from multiple angles, with details for exploded views, parts, and mechanisms. We’re often focused on character art in G.I. Joe, but to see a Wayne Luther vehicle drawing is to really understand the brand. Half the line was vehicles!

Wayne Luther GI Joe VAMP design

I only have two images for what turned into the VAMP, and even with the loss of detail that comes from old photocopies (or copies of copies!), you can see precision, care, and passion here.

Wayne Luther GI Joe VAMP design

What did the VAMP mean to you?

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G.I. Joe BG key – “Where the Reptiles Roam”

Where The Reptiles Roam BG KEY detail

“Where the Reptiles Roam,” a 1985 Sunbow/Marvel episode of G.I. Joe, is great. And silly. Which is the best thing I can say about the 1980s Sunbow/Marvel show. Teleplays balance action and a bit of drama, while characters chew scenery and veer into charming archtype. I love everything about this show. In this episode, written by Gerry Conway and Carla Conway, four Joes infiltrate a Texas dude ranch where Cobra has harnessed a space laser to destroy American cities. You remember three sentences ago when I said this show was charming, right?

(Today’s blog post is about art, not writing, but I want to toss out that although in comics Gerry Conway is best known for killing Gwen Stacy, he has a big career writing for live-action TV, and is writing some Spidertitles again.)

To repeat from an earlier blog post, animation background keys don’t appear in animation, but provide master shots for the BG artists to draw and paint specific angles within a location. Let’s do this one backwards. The last time we looked at a background key from G.I. Joe, we examined the actual painting first, and then screencaps from that scene second. But here are the screencaps. Click to embiggen, and follow along. Wild Bill leads the square dance. Pan past him from the stage and the shifty old folks, cut to our three undercover heroes. Over the shoulder from them, they see the shifty old folks leave. Cut back to a three-shot as Alpine suggests they follow. This whole thing is 20 seconds.

Where The Reptiles Roam screencaps

This scene involves seven shots. One is reused, so this scene only involves six BG paintings. All of those BGs are drawn and painted to match shots from the storyboards. And the BG key is the master shot for it all. I can’t prove this is the only key for this scene, but it’s a safe assumption. This painting is unsigned, so I don’t know who drew it and who painted it. Sadly, G.I. Joe Season 1 end credits don’t list BG artists, so we may never know. There is crossover from the talent that worked on the TV show also working on the animated movie, so perhaps of the 14 people in the BG department who are credited in the animated movie, one did this. But sorry, I don’t know. Again — one fancy painting to envision a setting for 20 seconds of a 22-minute show. That’s a lot of work!

Where The Reptiles Roam BG KEYInteresting to note how the space changes. The key makes the room feel shallow and yet horizontal. That’s what a landscape composition might do for you. But the animated scene fills this space with people, and makes the room feel quite deep. The steepness of the stairs also changes. I’ll chalk that up to a many hands working on a rush job. That’s exactly the kind of inconsistency you don’t see on a big budget feature film like, say, the 1989 Little Mermaid, (animated in America and over several years) but you do see on an ’80s TV show animated in one or two countries over several months. Additionally, the stone hearth is unseen in the animation. It might have been simplified out of the scene, or it might be in that fourth shot above, obstructed by Alpine on the right.

Whatever the case, I’m sure glad the Joes stop that space laser.

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G.I. Joe #26 George Roussos original color guide art

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE detail
Everybody knows Larry Hama has written about 250 G.I. Joe comics. And almost everybody talks about that famous issue that Hama drew. Well, did rough pencils on. And most of those people recall the other issue Hama roughed — issue #26, “Snake-Eyes: The Origin! Part One.” (And people forget he also-also drew portions of #35 and #36 — so many issues behind schedule!) But a member of the creative team who rarely gets mentioned is George Roussos, who besides coloring a few dozen issues of G.I. Joe, had a long career in comics. He inked part of Two-Face’s first appearance in 1942. As George Bell he’d inked Jack Kirby in the ’60s, and between the two he’d drawn much more. But by the time G.I. Joe rolled around Roussos was a staff colorist for Marvel, and for a bit he colored all of Marvel’s covers. It is Roussos’ colors that we see here on this original color guide to G.I. Joe issue #26 page 14.

Comic art is drawn in black ink on large, white bristol. Photocopies, often shrunk to common 8.5″ x 11″ paper, were handed to the color artists, who applied Dr. Ph. Martin’s dyes, which are concentrated watercolor. The color artist then coded each color, using the limited four-color palette of the day — combinations of just a few percentages of cyan, yellow, magenta, and blank ink. This is how it was all done until the 1990s, when Photoshop, computer separations, and digital pre-press became the norm.

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE Roussos

Other folks then would painstakingly cut rubylith masking film to match the placement of the four printing colors, and turn those into plates for the printer. So what you’re looking at above is George Roussos’ original color guide to G.I. Joe issue #26, page 14. It’s not the original comic art — that is left untouched — but it is the original color art.

Oh, here’s something fun. For some reason this color guide was done in two parts, the top half of one sheet of paper, and the bottom half of another, then cut out and taped to the first, revealing some uncolored art. Not easy to find black and white Hama/Leialoha G.I. Joe art!

GI Joe 26 pg14 COLOR GUIDE detail

When I asked Hama if he had any recollections of George Roussos, he replied “George was a character. He was a staff colorist, but everyone suspected that a lot of the freelance stuff he took home with him was actually colored by his wife, who was always referred to as ‘Mrs. George.'” We have no way of knowing who colored this page, and I don’t include Hama’s quote to swipe at Mr. Roussos, who passed away in 2000, but rather as a fun anecdote. Artists and color artists have long had assistants who filled in large areas of black ink, finished backgrounds or crowd scenes, or more recently, flatted colors before a rendering stage. If one could steadily hold a brush, one could fill in color where one’s boss (or husband?) had designated. (Duck fans: Carl Barks’ wife Gare lettered and inked backgrounds for Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories.) And in the limited language of 20th century comics coloring, there’s some interesting stuff going on here in G.I. Joe #26 — the blues-and-purples only of the flashback in the final panel. So I do credit this page to George Roussos, and appreciate his color work at the House of Ideas.

Additionally, Larry Hama added “He came into my office once and told me he had a ten year run of Prince Valiant Sunday pages [clipped] from the Newark Star Ledger, which printed them on gravure at the biggest possible size. He offered me the whole stack for 200 bucks, so I got them. I had them sitting around in my closet for another ten years, and finally sold them to Adam Kubert for what I paid for them.”

 

 

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New posts this week!

Toxo Viper Tim Finn

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November 3, 2015 · 2:35 PM

1988 Repeater turnaround by George Woodbridge

1988 GI Joe Repeater detail

My brother always got the big Joes, the heavy machine gunners. He got Rock ‘n Roll (both!), Roadblock (both!), and later, Salvo. To my delight, I finally “called” a Joe who was beefier, and came with a big weapon — steadi-cam machine gunner, codename: Repeater. Here he is in scale, plastic glory.

1988 Repeater action figure

But you came here for art, not well-disguised photos of my kitchen counter.

George Woodbridge, master illustrator! Did much of the ’88 turnarounds.

1988 Repeater turnaround Woodbridge

Mark Pennington, a big part of the Joe team at Hasbro. Did much of the ’88 accessories. And ’88 figures. (Later inked a lot of “X-Men.”)

1988 Repeater backpack PenningtonAnd that wonderous weapon!

1988 Repeater steadicam Pennington

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