2014: Tula Lotay, the Jasons, and that whole Shulkie crew

(This was part of The Best of Best Shots Column over at Newsarama)

Bronze – Tula Lotay (Image Comics/Vertigo): In Supreme Blue Rose and in Bodies, Tula Lotay’s art in 2014 has explored consciousness, memory, and the human struggle to connect and understand. In both books the fluid chalk and grease pencil look of Lotay’s art feels fresh and new. In Supreme Blue Rose she creates multi-layered, patterned scenes to get lost in. We may never find our way out of that story’s maze, but Lotay’s pictures make that book something to treasure. In Bodies her style is cleaner and simpler, with fewer elements to disorient us as she draws a character with an emptier mind. Her work gives the impression that she has an intuitive grasp of how to translate the writers’ intentions, especially in the face of heavy poetic license.

Silver – She-Hulk (Marvel Comics): Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente packed this series with fun, color, and style, making She-Hulk a joy to read. Soule’s excellent dialogue, Pulido’s deceptively simple shapes and dead-on facial expressions, and Vicente’s flat, bright colors all made this team’s interpretation of She-Hulk more fun and funnier than most comics on the shelves. They gave Jen a lot of heart but kept the mood light. This book never took itself too seriously, but always had a core earnestness. Add in an electrifying guest-artist turn by Ron Wimberly, and this series is a phenomenon to get in on if it escaped your attention this year.

Southern Bastards 1

Gold – Southern Bastards (Image Comics): Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have hammered something together that isn’t pretty but has more structural, aesthetic, and thematic integrity than anything else I read this year. Southern Bastards is intensely personal to both creators without being self-indulgent. It’s allegorical without being simplistic. It conveys a strong sense of place but feels universal. Southern Bastard unfolds itself to reveal the small town bruises and scars left by football, abuse, war, vendettas, and simmering hatred. So far it has homed in on two older men left with a legacy of violence handed down from their fathers. Without gentleness, with brutal honesty, this book packs the punch of what violence does to people. And still it manages to be weirdly, darkly fun.

Item to Watch in 2015 – Gotham Academy (DC Comics): Three issues in, Gotham Academy has been flying under the radar compared to some of its cousin publications at DC. It’s had less buzz, less controversy and less praise than a lot of new books but I think it might be a sleeper. The creepy boarding school setting does have the dour, gritty vibe that the new Batgirl team has moved away from. But at the heart of the story, the troubles of Olive Silverlock are deftly handled by writers Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher. Artist Karl Kerschl gives us some of the best facial expressions of believable kids. Maps, Olive and Pommeline are developing into nuanced characters. Something good is blooming there in gloomy Gotham.

In Case You Missed It: Bodies #1

I’m in the middle of working on a review for Bodies #4 and I just unearthed this review of the first issue, which I never actually put up anywhere. Stay tuned for the more current review!

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Written by Si Spencer
Art by Meghan Hetrick, Dean Ormston, Tula Lotay, Phil Winslade
Coloring by Lee Loughridge
Lettering by Dezi Sienty and Taylor Esposito
Published by Vertigo Comics

The premise of Bodies is simple and weird: a mutilated corpse is found on the same square cobblestones in London’s East End in 1890, 1940, 2014, and 2050. In each of those years, a detective encounters this corpse. Writer Si Spencer and colorist Lee Loughridge combine talents with a different artist for each of the detective characters. The body is a puzzle for the detectives, and the detectives are part of the puzzle for us. Tula Lotay’s 2050 segment elevates the book to being more than a collection of competent cop dramas with a twist. Lotay’s piece of this mystery mainlines the themes of identity and humanity that run through the whole story.

Spencer uses the thoughts of each detective protagonist for intimate but unreliable narration. The writing shifts in tone with each change of artist and time period. The art in Meghan Hetrick’s 2014 segment is smooth, clinical and washed in blue tones. Hetrick’s detective thinks, “I try not to think of these thugs as people,” and is guarded by layers of toughness, snark, hijab, riot gear, and protective crime-scene coveralls. Dean Ormston’s detective wears a bowler and spectacles in 1890, and his world is finely etched and colored in black, white, and gray with pops of bright red. When this inspector photographs the corpse he believes he’s capturing “the hidden heart of humanity.” In 1940, Phil Winslade’s detective wears pinstripes, a fedora and an Anglicized alias. “You’re just a message,” he says to the Irish guy he’s about to torture. Winslade’s pages have the heaviest lines and even though Loughridge uses more colors and more illumination, these pages feel the darkest.

The experiment of holding some variables constant (place, corpse, writer, colorist) while shifting others (decade, detective, artist, tone) makes this book a really intriguing read. The 1890, 1940 and 2014 segments show us a cop whose own identity has something to do with the ambient crime surrounding him or her. They are a side-by-side study of how to convey darkness in the city. Spencer and Loughridge are impressive in how well they marry themselves with each artist to create something so varied yet seamless. Still, when you look at these three segments individually, you feel like at least one analogous British television series already exists for each one of them.

The future segment (which comes third in the book) is what elevates Bodies above being just a gritty detective drama with a supernatural twist. Tula Lotay’s scenes of Detective Maplewood and the body in 2050 are the freshest-looking and weirdest-feeling pages in the book. There are fewer words, but the shape and feel of them matter more. “Who are you and what do you remember?” Maplewood asks the corpse, because at first she can’t recognize that it’s a dead thing. Maplewood’s cognitive problems make her the least mannered and most relatable of the detectives. When she laughs hysterically at her own grim joke it feels like the realest part of the book. The sky above London is yellow in these six pages. The colors and lines are loose and light, with details washing out from a small central area of focus like an anxiety dream. Some of the lines look hastily drawn by crayon or grease pencil. Even though this part might seem like poetic nonsense compared to the other more straightforward pieces, it looks the freshest and it has some of the most compelling clues and details.

Each segment on its own has enough intrigue and personality for a whole comic but might not have worked for more than six pages in a row because of tone. Each is too much of something—too slick, too mannered, too oppressive, or too surreal—but it’s a pleasure to switch between them. Spencer has eight issues to lay out and solve this mystery he’s setting up in Bodies. This is a hugely ambitious project with separate spheres of politics, circumstance, personality and vice in each of the four segments. Together they slide and lock into place, letting us forgive and keeping us interested in the game.

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Supreme Blue Rose #4

Still swooning for THIS guy:

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My review, which appeared today (aka Man-Crush Monday) in the Newsarama Best Shots column.

Supreme Blue Rose #4
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Tula Lotay
Lettering by Richard Starkings
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Supreme Blue Rose #4 continues a nebulous, beautiful-looking story full of characters who have a shaky grasp on time and reality. Readers should expect to be confused as writer Warren Ellis keeps his cards close to chest and sends us in wide circles. Tula Lotay’s luminous artwork grants this book a literary quality, but without it Ellis’s script would read like the metaphysical version of business school jargon. This fourth issue does not give the story much additional traction or forward momentum, consigning it to visual poetry for patient aesthetes.

In Supreme Blue Rose #4, protagonist Diana Dane has fully entered a dream world, leaving behind a recognizable reality where people talked about Instagram and Karl Lagerfeld. Now she’s taken a limo ride on a bridge to the moon, which is the long way round to a town called Littlehaven in upstate New York. We have learned that time can get sick and die, and that the world as Diana (and we) know it is actually only four months old. As Diana says at the beginning of this issue, “I am just not even questioning these things anymore.”

Tula Lotay’s illustration is mostly of and for disorientation, with interludes of connection between pairs of people. One of these connections is between Diana and Doc Rocket. Ellis and Lotay give Doc Rocket a different persona than the original Supreme character, making him an older man with a kindly face. Tula Lotay draws this Doc Rocket with a calm warmth that brings out Diana’s own warmth. The two characters generate a chemistry at the beginning of the issue that cuts through some of the story’s relentless confusion.

To convey a warped sense of time and place, Lotay uses wandering lines that look like pastel crayons and black grease pencil. These float above or beneath washes of color. Sometimes the lights of a night-time city scene or the aurora borealis try to force their way through from the back of a panel. In contrast to the swervy, loose look of Lotay’s lines, almost every panel is rectangular and uniform with clean black borders. Some of these panels are scenes from a television show that is trying to transmit a message from the future.

Besides Diana’s dream-reality and screen caps from a telenovela called Professor Night, this issue also cuts to the hallucinations of scientist Chelsea Henry. The things and places Chelsea sees are some of the most glorious things Lotay has had a chance to illustrate in Supreme Blue Rose so far. Chelsea sees ruins, giant stingrays, dinosaurs, and plaintive figures labeled coolly “late human render ghosts.” Chelsea, like almost everyone else in the story, does not know what is happening to her or how things work.

The overriding message of this book has been that a message is being forced across time and is coming through as garbled static to be decoded. Supreme Blue Rose #4 reaffirms that Ellis has made a book that is garbled static, beautifully rendered by Lotay. So far, this impressionistic success comes at the cost of traditional story elements such as dramatic irony, collectible clues, and energy that builds toward a crisis. Readers who like to get from point A to point B should swim at their own risk. Readers who like the sensation of Brownian motion should come on in, the water’s fine.