Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, December 30, 2001

Graphic Arts As Literature


‘Red Star’ comics vibrant
with digital life

"The revolution in content is unthinkable without a revolution in form."
-- Vladimir Mayakovski, "Open Letter to the Workers," 1918

By Burl Burlingame

It's a matter of perspective. Every comic artist loves to draw figures. They doodle constantly at the human form. It's a kind of shorthand, telling stories with pure body English. And every artist I know prefers the slap and energy of the original pencil sketches, before the idea has been ground down into ink dust.


It's the fun part of the comics medium, plus -- oh yeah -- creating crazy universes and characters. But there's pure drudgery as well. Lettering. Coloring. There are people who can do that, who like it and are good at it, but comic artists and writers want to hurtle beyond the spark of creation to the next spark.

Backgrounds. Backgrounds are the killer. All those lines and perspective and rendered buildings and clunky machinery and accurate weapons and subtle, moody colors. The background is absolutely vital in the storytelling process, and if it's poorly done, the story will drift, no matter how well it's written, no matter how well the figures are drawn. But what a chore!

The digital revolution that has swept movie storytelling has come to comic books, and you aren't able to tell. That's the way it should be. The Brothers Coen film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" last year was the first film in history to be have the answer print digitally mastered, but who noticed? All we knew was that it looked really good -- and that it didn't detract from the story.

In the "Red Star" comic books, the pages are alive with cannily limned socialist realist images, larger-than-life characters and daunting landscapes and machinery. Fans, as usual, want to buy the original page artwork. Not as usual, there's nothing there. No original art. "Red Star" is produced the way a movie is, with a team of fabulously talented individuals contributing bits and pieces, and the whole thing is assembled on a computer using digital bits and bytes.

"Red Star" is the vision of artist/writer Chris Gossett, who created the plot, sketches the humans and designs the hardware. Writer Bradley Kayl creates the script. The story takes place in an alternate future in which the Soviet bloc's aesthetic rules. This, on its own, is fascinating stuff, drawing as it does on the utopian nightmare of early socialist art movements.

While popular culture has been fixated on the legacy of the Nazis and other fascists for the last century, we haven't even come close to grappling with the legacy of Stalinism. This is fresh ground and makes for striking storytelling.

The backgrounds and perspectives in "Red Star," however, are created in 3-D computer modeling programs, layered in Photoshop along with Gossett's rough and glorious pencil sketches, and colored by a genius who calls himself simply Snakebite. The text is layered on with specially designed typefaces.

The result doesn't look at all artificial and has a vibrant immediacy that takes a lot of work to achieve. Although the comic strip below was also colored with a computer, that was like using crayons compared to the delicacy of "Red Star."

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