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I’m Not Always Right

Reviewers aren’t always the smartest lot. We are just people after all.

That’s my best excuse for panning the first part of the five-part Spore by Michel Gagné, which has been the back-up tale in DC’s Detective Comics for the past few months. I looked at his work, from my mainstream superhero bias and just had no idea what to make of it. And as open-minded as I may think myself to be, sometimes as a reviewer I pan that which I do not understand. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it happens.

But I learned a lesson from it. When I reviewed the second part, in which I was a tad more receptive to it, Gagné himself dropped me a note. I’ll be honest, for the most part we reviewers work in a vacuum. Rarely do readers or the creators themselves feel the need or inclination to contact the reviewer. And as a result when reviewing the work, particularly when you’re the guy with the “offhand opinions,” you may not take all that needs to be evaluated into consideration.

For one, I didn’t have an inkling of Gagné’s background. From my limited understanding, he was a children’s author. That is just one thing he’s done.

Had I done just the most cursory of searches, I could have found out a great deal about Gagné’s career, as detailed at Gagné International Press. Here’s his bio:

“Michel Gagné was born in Québec, Canada, in 1965. He studied animation at Sheridan College School of Visual Arts in Ontario, Canada.

In 1985, he began a highly successful career drawing characters and special effects for animated and live-action feature films. His 3 _ minute independent short film, “Prelude to Eden”, is a favorite among animation students and teachers, and has played in festivals throughout the world. Michel was honored by the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, with four Annie Award nominations. He continues to design and consult on major motion pictures.

In addition to his film work, Michel has experimented in a variety of mediums including sculptures, paintings and mixed medias. His work continues to be exhibited in local galleries. Michel and his beloved wife created GAGNÉ International Press, in 1998. He’s been writing, illustrating, and publishing books and comics ever since.”

What really astounded me while touring the website, was the extent he’s explored various mediums to express his artistic voice as shown in his gallery, including sculptures, CD covers, collage & ink, tattoo design and paintings. It seems there’s almost no outlet he hasn’t explored. And you’ve most likely seen some of his work without realizing it through his animation (as he’s been involved in numerous films since 1985), but most recently The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones.

In animation circles as noted in his bio, Gagné is lauded for his animated short, Prelude to Eden. The work offers a theory to the origin of the Big Bang. Not many animated shorts open with a quote from theoretical physicist Tullio Regge. But this one does: “We think of the Big Bang as a fraction of time, but in this fraction the most incredible things may have happened…”

Gagné is known among wiser comic book critics than myself, for ZED. Zed is this little adorable genius that wants to help his universe through the invention of a new energy source. As his parents and friends attend the unveiling and demonstration of the device, with one flip of the switch Zed kills an entire planet (except for himself, as he escapes and the story goes from there). Zed would have been the perfect introduction for me, before reading the Spore arc. Why? Well because Zed is the perfect mixture to display Gagné unique storytelling style and sense of humor. One minute I may be touched by a scene, the next you’re bewildered.

And I think that’s how Gagné likes it. He likes to challenge his audience and keep them on their toes. He has an ability to make the beautiful appear grotesque, as well as equally revealing the beauty of disgusting imagined characters. Consider how his 2001 book Insanely Twisted Rabbits came about, as explained in the books introduction:

“The story of these strange rabbits began sometime in 1991, while I was working at Don Bluth Animation Studios in Burbank, California. One day, I entered the room of my friend and co-worker Dave Kupczyk, as I often did, and saw a drawing of a rabbit he had done. The drawing was a semi-realistic portrait of his pet rabbit with oversized fangs. Dave smiled and said “That’s Fudge, evil fudge!” I went back to my desk and scribbled a picture of an enraged deformed mutated rabbit. I brought the drawing to Dave and said, “Now that’s an evil Fudge!”

From this point on I was hooked! Every time I had a minute between assignments and during my breaks, I doodled more deformed rabbits. Dave quickly joined me and the whole thing became a kind of contest of who would draw the most bizarre creature. Dave kept on pinning each new drawing to the walls of his room and eventually his work environment was filled with strange rabbits. The word got around the studio and people frequently came to visit his room to see the latest creations.

We each did fifty rabbits before Don Bluth Studios closed down at the end of 1992. Dave and I parted ways, but somehow the “rabbit project” did not die. I kept my sketches with the idea of one day publishing a weird rabbit sketchbook. Dave on the other end had a more ambitious goal. He started painting each one in full color as well as designing a layout for a high quality coffee table art book entitled “100 Insanely Twisted Rabbits”. I sincerely hope that Dave gets his version published some day. In the meantime here are my sketches.”

More recently, in 2002’s Frenzied Fauna: From A to Z, Gagné expanded his vision of the animal kingdom through 26 characters. I agree with the back cover copy of this (his sixth) book, which says: “Never before has there been a menagerie so wild, wonderful, winsome—and weird.” My vote for the most weird (but wonderful) is the Hideous Horse.

But I think my favorite book by Gagné is A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex. The back cover succinctly captures what indeed is a quite complex (and at the same time simple) story of one animal’s quest for knowledge: “Follow the adventures of the cute and curious Rex. He travels far and wide in an ever so strange and visually fanciful world. Rex shows us how we can step back to our innocence, and see that ‘meaning’ is found everywhere and nowhere. Rex’s story is one for all seasons and ages. It is fun, silly, scary, cute and spiritual all rolled into one sweet little face.”

As I said, as much as Gagné intentionally seeks out to un-nerve the reader, in this story of Rex, he seeks to, on another level, endear the reader. But at the same time he pulls no punches, using the world of color—jarringly switching to a black and white starkness—to convey the part of the journey where the character “went through insanity at least twice.” His ability to ration his words in an economic fashion—as well as letting white space and sparsity of backgrounds emphasize the intensity of certain scenes—makes this book the most compelling of his hardback (non-comic) books.

So to come back to Spore, in many ways DC editor Matt Idelson should be lauded by critics like myself for providing such a mainstream platform for Gagne to play with such an icon as Batman. The mantra of the industry at present is to broaden the reading audience of comics. No one has the right formula to do so, that I’ve found. But I imagine a great deal of the graphic novel consumers who avoid superheroes like the Raelians’ clone seems to be dodging DNA tests would appreciate a work in Gagné’s quality and perspective.

So please realize, next time I pan something, I’m fully willing to admit that I can be wrong. Please be sure to check the work out for yourself, because sometimes you might find, that which I dislike, you may very well love.

And my thanks to Gagné, for giving me the opportunity to consider Spore in the context of his entire body of work. Context is a great thing when one seeks it out (or sometimes has it land in your lap).

I hope DC (as well as Marvel, if they’re smart) find a miniseries or some project that will pique Gagné’s interest, as Spore most clearly has so far.

Ostrander Dispenses Some Wisdom

Over the holiday season, at the John Ostrander message board, I posted a news item about J.K. Rowling’s kind act of reading a then-unreleased Harry Potter book to a dying child.
In his response, Ostrander said:

“Sounds consistent with Ms. Rowling who I tend to like on a personal level from what I’ve heard of her (in addition to enjoying the Potter books). On a special I saw on TV, she said something as an author that I thought was VERY important. She said she had received a letter from a mother of someone who read her books with a complaint about the latest in the series, claiming it had gotten too dark and that she (the mother) expected Rowling to improve on this score in subsequent books. Rowling said she wrote back, firmly advising the mother NOT to buy any more of the books. She said that what the fans thought of her work was vitally important to her but, as she said, ‘should they change one word of what I write? No.’ And in that I was in complete agreement. As an author, you respect what the fans think and feel and what they tell you about the work you do but you cannot allow you to change what you do or it will not be yours. Writing is not a democracy; it is a point of view. I may learn from my readers but I cannot accept orders from them; I’m a writer and not a short order cook. With this is a corollary: never ask an artist what they’re work is about. They can only tell you what they INTENDED it to be.”

For readers/consumers like myself (as well as fellow critics—professional and amateur), Ostrander’s last bit of opinion is essential reading. We may think we know a better way to tell a story, but at the end of the day, it’s not our story. If we think our way is so much better, than maybe it’s time we try to write our own tale. While the Internet is a great forum to share ideas, I think sometimes we share too many ideas and opinions. For myself, I know I’m glad the editor in my head stops me from posting an opinion every once and awhile. People may (or may not) respect my opinion, but that doesn’t mean the whole world has to have my (or anyone else’s opinion) on everything.

Check out Mike Hawthorne Profile

Every once and awhile a local paper will focus on a comic book creator. What I like about the York Daily Record’s January 3, 2003, profile of artist Mike “Three Days In Europe” Hawthorne is that rather than making it all about “he gets to draw comics! Kewl!”, the writer Peter Bothum reveals the hardship of self-publishing and overall trying to succeed in the comic book industry. I recommend everyone be sure to check out the article as it also provides links to other projects that Hawthorne has done or that are on the horizon. All and all, the article is the kind of balanced (non-condescending) coverage that the industry can appreciate.

An Announcement

This weekend as I was writing this column as well as juggling my other more pressing priorities as husband and father, I came to an important realization. As much as I love writing my column, my reviews and doing the interviews, it has gotten to be too much. Something has to give, as I need to spend more time away from the computer and with my family and friends.

For the time being, I will be cutting back and will begin a biweekly schedule with this column and the ORCA Q&A. We’ll see how it goes. As I said at the beginning of this column, I write in a vacuum. I have no idea who will miss the frequency of either the column or my interviews. That’s where I do need feedback. As this experiment plays out, if you find yourself wishing I did more interviews and less of the column (or vice versa), please let me know at

I’m really receptive to feedback and I hope everyone understands the reason behind my schedule shift.