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The AiT/Planet Lar Line
posted December 31, 2003
 

Creators: Various
Publishing Info: Various
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In the last decade of American comic book market turmoil, several small publishers have risen to semi-prominence serving specific niches within a shrinking and diversifying readership. Falling somewhere between corporate mainstream companies and art comics publishers, this group includes a resurgent Slave Labor Graphics and NBM, the album-generating Humanoids, IDW, and Oni Press. One of the more modest yet perhaps the most scruffily fascinating entity of this type is the publisher AiT/Planet Lar. The oddly named company is owned and operated by Bay Area residents Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim, with Young serving as its ubiquitous public spokesperson and aggressive on-line "voice." A comic book reader of multiple decades, Young became known in comics circles as a longtime, part-time marketing and public relations fixture at Brian Hibbs' well-regarded retail establishment Comix Experience. In the late 1990s, when on-line comics communities began rallying around the notion of re-molding comics to better serve adult fans with a wider range of tastes in popular entertainment, Young was one of this idea's more effusive public exhorters.

Despite working in print, Young's medium of choice for getting the message out has been the Internet. He wrote a column for the late web magazine Savant, and currently hosts his own well-trafficked Delphi forum. He pops up frequently in various on-line arenas as a sort of tenacious and loyal small-scene bulldog, quick to defend his friends and business associates yet happy to compliment perceived fellow travelers on the essential rightness of their positions. Young presents himself as a collegial man's man, an alternative to the overweight and under-earning fan-boys he sometimes asserts have run much of the comics industry for the last few decades. If one is to believe the on-line rhetoric around Young, spending time near the publisher would be roughly equivalent to joining a comic book fraternity, where comics chat is interspersed with talk of fine liquors to be consumed and aggressively macho movies to be celebrated. Women are welcome, and as much as they show themselves to be good-hearted dames with a sense of humor, they are very nearly worshipped. It's an odd subset of comic book culture, but one that might appeal to a wider range of people than many of the tight-knit, specific-interest groups that make up comics' rainbow of dysfunction.

AiT/Planet Lar, named for the flagship title Astronauts in Trouble and, one would guess, the idea of a planet centered on Larry Young, is built upon the couple's broad-for-comics tastes and their general professional experience in media -- everything from pre-press, marketing, production, editorial, to creative. In terms of its publishing choices AiT/Planet Lar functions more as an entertainment company than as an art house, fulfilling a perceived market need for comics in categories like historical fiction, action-adventure, all-ages fantasy, and action-comedy. As the company is privately funded, this makes for relatively modest capital expenditures on behalf of individual projects and a kind of small imprint feel overall to their accomplishments. There are no outside timelines for certain levels of profitability at AiT/Planet Lar, no committees drawing up editorial directives, no outsider investors to whom the couple is beholden -- basically nothing at all restricting their editorial freedom beyond the standards they have set up for themselves. Like any arts comics publisher, Young and Rosenheim have the freedom to publish what they like; they seem to prefer quirky, broad-based entertainment to strict, idiosyncratic artistic achievement.

Their business strategy has worked reasonably well thus far. The most public permutation of their approach to comics is that AiT/Planet Lar was perhaps the first and certainly the loudest publisher to release the vast majority of its work in trade paperback form (they've returned to serial comic books recently, middle fingers politely raised to anyone who makes hay of any change in rhetoric, with the Brian Wood/Becky Cloonan series DEMO). Utilizing the trade as the dominant format has made perfect economic sense for the growing publisher. Traditional comic books enjoy a grand financial upside but have a difficult time yielding enough per unit to make more modest ventures self-sustaining. Although they require a slightly larger capital investment, trade paperbacks offer a higher price point and can be sold to book and comic book sellers, making them much more likely to provide a happier return on lower sales. Operating pragmatically in this fashion, AiT/Planet Lar as its developed exists as a test case for small-house publishing in the new century. The company's message to outsiders is that anyone willing to do their homework and pay close attention to all aspects of comics production has an opportunity to become a sustainable market presence. The question begged, of course, is how are the books? Are the trades AiT/Planet Lar publishes of high artistic quality, particularly considering they prefer genres many comics readers regard with suspicion?

Examining a significant portion of their output to date, the answer varies wildly. The first thing that leaps out after scanning the bulk of the Young/Rosenheim catalog is that Young's name appears on more than a few of the covers. While many publishers have contributed work here and there, fewer have had a significant role in creating comics for their companies. Larry Young not only wrote a series of comic books, he wrote the anchor of his line, the various stories and series collected recently in the smartly designed hardback Astronauts in Trouble: Master Flight Plan ($19.95, 1932051120). The Astronauts in Trouble story draws from Young's lifelong interest in space travel, including a fascination with and admiration for NASA's trips to the moon. The story he's chosen to tell is bare-bones old-fashioned science fiction with a kind of laidback, modern-movie collegial quality in its treatment of the various characters. Young's casts beam with disheveled but essentially heroic charm, wisecracking and honorable -- the kind of parts played by art film actors collecting a big-studio paycheck. Young manipulates almost nothing in Astronauts in Trouble for considered effect. This emphasis on story gives Young's characters more weight than they might have in something driven by theme or atmosphere or metaphor. Because of Young's focus on story, the characters read like free agents who bump up against the wider progression of events, and their adventures produce friction in ways more tightly controlled work might not. In that way the Astronauts in Trouble comics seem more fully realized, their own unique thing, than a lot of books from publishers working similar action-adventure territory.

The danger is that work like this tends to add up to very little beyond the act of creating its own sense of self. If there is an overriding theme to Master Flight Plan, and many readers are likely to be torn on that question, it can be found in the relationship of media to accomplishment, the way that events are boiled down into stories that contain ideas that go on to shape future actions. This premise is best articulated in the short story "Space: 1959" that makes up the volume's middle section, where Young dances back and forth between presentational styles in a way that underlines various differences between action and reportage -- limited perspective, active agendas, and the failure to achieve context. Young lacks the chops to really drive home a greater point working from these formal maneuvers; at times his fidelity to the story as it unfolds gives the audience little room to absorb what they are taking in. Likewise the art from Charlie Adlard is solid throughout but little of it makes you stop in admiration, let alone gasp in wonder. In the end, these are workhorse action-adventure stories, straightforward and unadorned, and one's enjoyment of the material likely depends on a pre-existing appetite for the genre or specific subject matter. Given those parameters, Master Flight Plan succeeds at providing reasonably appealing popular fiction for a reader who wants the kind of entertainment in comic book form she might get in other media. The last section in the volume, "One Shot, One Beer," distills the effort's shortcomings and strengths. A series of stories told in the moon's sole tavern, many of the tales are flat-out dull and a few end poorly. Yet the back and forth between the characters is pleasant enough one continues reading; it's like meeting a new acquaintance for lunch more times than you want to in the hope they'll eventually say something worth the trip. These are comics that meet the expectations of an audience rather than challenge readers in general, and it's difficult to hold something to a higher standard when it so ably meets its own.

Master Flight Plan isn't the entirety of Young's output for the line. AiT/Planet Lar has also published True Facts ($9.95, 0970936095), collecting a series of instructional essays the publisher wrote for Savant. True Facts may remind older readers of those Dave Sim lectures on self-publishing in the back of Cerebus, except this time aimed at giving the reader a wider set of options than Sim's very specific and almost impossible to follow self-example. Making use of a writing style punctuated by very short paragraphs and capital letters, Young marches his troops through basic pre-press and rudimentary marketing techniques asserting his own line and those of his friends as examples, stopping for the occasional exhortation on the motivational principles underlying his professional efforts. "But if you're going to show up at a public function in a bunny suit, you've gotta COMMIT. You've gotta prance around, play with the little kids, torment the guys and flirt with the girls. But. You. Always. Have. To. Be. The. Bunny." Despite this kind of blink-twice, migraine-inducing prose, most of the underlying advice seems generically but essentially sound. One major regret is that Young stops short of giving away the kind of specific business details that would kick his essays into much more compelling territory. On the other hand, the book offers a modicum of industry historical value in the way it unearths fan attitudes in 1999-2000 or so. In one unintentionally humorous piece Young writes about a bunch of people determined to make it big in the world of comics, writing manifestos and staking claims for future success. None of them has really gone on to do much of anything, as far as I can tell, something Young himself ruefully points out in an annotation. The essay serves as a perfect snapshot of how rhetoric and results have not always matched up in independent press circles. Young's book might continue to do many artists and publishers-to-be an important service by hammering home that the low threshold for participation in the comic book industry provides a continuing opportunity for artistic fulfillment and a respectable return on one's work, if not guaranteed riches. Everything else about True Facts already feels slightly of another time.

Ait/Planet Lar published a much livelier and more important collection than True Facts in Warren Ellis' collection of essays Come In Alone ($16.95, 097093601), the comic book writer and soon-to-be novelist's admirable attempt to re-shape the comics industry from a place within it often ignored by this magazine -- intelligent readers for whom alternative comics, for whatever reason, make up only a modest portion of their overall interest in the medium. Ellis wrote the essays for his popular column of the same name on the web site Comic Book Resources. Sensing that the American comic book industry was bottoming out, Ellis seized on this slow collapse as an opportunity for readers to change many of their humiliating bad habits, potentially forcing a shift in the way the art form presents itself away from a showcase for licensed characters and towards a rich tapestry of authors and artists. At the time, many criticized Ellis for trying to create an industry that simply better suited him, without stopping to consider that comics as imagined by the writer was certainly a lot more interesting and admirable than the industry with which we seem to be stuck. Re-reading the book, I still get the sense that its failure came from Ellis not being in a position to follow up on many of his insights -- making his primary tool for change persuasion by force of personality, a strategy exhausts both sides -- and the leviathan of pathologies present in the system he was trying to nudge into self-transformation. One suggestion Ellis makes is that people might want to stop buying books they don't really like. This is something that should be logical to any non-inebriated five-year-old, but many comic book readers seemed to consider it a "you're-not-the-boss-of-me" personal attack. Given that degree of sub-cultural, self-hating goofiness, Ellis might have been better off trying to start an alternate space program based on Frisbee technology. Due to its heft and flashes of impassioned writing, Come In Alone may best describe a crucial moment in the comic book's artistic development, and a very real set of concerns, when the core dropped out of the American mainstream comic book business and the dream of recalibrating it around literary rather than merchandising values seemed as good a plan as any. It rewards a second or third reading much more than one's first time slogging through the vast majority of empty-headed loudmouth columns that have followed in its perceived footsteps.

Ellis has contributed other books to the AIT/Planet Lar backlist. Switchblade Honey ($9.95, 1932051139) is a mind-numbingly dull space opera featuring undistinguished art. Ellis writes in his introduction that the genesis of the project came from imagining a certain no-nonsense character actor taking center stage in one of the slicker franchise space dramas. Usually when such humble beginnings are offered up -- a scrawl on a napkin, a comment from a taxi driver -- it's intended in part as a humorous contrast to the grand shape of the final project. Switchblade Honey never seems more than an off-hand riff on a television genre. Switchblade Honey provides readers a variation on a Dirty Dozen plot, criminals recruited to fight ugly against a formidable enemy, with the twist here that this is a desperation move from people who think they are going to lose. This gives the mission a certain fuck-it quality, and no story time has to be spent on making the case for why the otherwise rational folks at headquarters believe a preposterous mission might actually succeed. The characters lack that kind of smart genre correction. All are conveniently highly skilled and most are in jail because of moral choices they've made in the face of tight-ass, thoughtless military ways of thinking. This may not be a stereotype of TV space stories, but is a stereotype nonetheless. No character makes a dramatic impression, and the first of many space battles to come (but only if there are subsequent volumes) proves surprisingly rote and sometimes confusingly unpacked for the reader by artist Brandon McKinney. The only touch of Ellis' sense of humor likely to stay with the reader at book's end is a series of pop-culture non-sequiturs the enemy broadcasts in the vein of Japanese World War II-era declarations against Babe Ruth and Roy Acuff.

Switchblade Honey is such a standard and ultimately uninspired book that another Ellis lurker on the backlist, Available Light ($24.95, 0970936044), stands way, way out in contrast. Available Light is a series of photos and accompanying short-short stories written by Ellis using remote equipment, making him a sort of traveling reporter that works with fiction instead of facts. A hardcover treatment of a creative exercise involving dimly printed and amateur-looking photos, it may be the least commercial book ever published by a comics company in partnership with a big-name mainstream talent. The follow-through fails to match the promise of the concept, but the concept is so willfully obscure it's hard to be too angry. Ellis has a tendency to slip into standard thematic progressions of modern writing -- "nothing is as it appears" and so on. Little that Ellis writes should surprise anyone familiar with stories that get a bit of juice out of thwarting expectations of genre. Many of the photos are surprisingly attractive in an unformed way, and their blurriness makes them feel like a grasp at something more profound than the slickness to which the writing adheres. It would be fascinating for comics to house a publisher who would regularly give this much rope to prominent cartoonists, illustrators, and comic book writers so that they could follow insanely unprofitable side projects like this one, audiences beware. Sadly, rumors abound that even Ait/Planet Lar's prose essay books are in danger of being dropped.

Despite the Young/Rosenheim line's commitment to original trades, it may be worth nothing that much of the weight and bulk of the imprint comes from collecting mini-series published elsewhere. AiT/Planet Lar has become a foster home for a lot of underselling comic books. This would be wonderful if independent comics of the last decade had featured an avalanche of unrecognized gems. Reading the books it quickly becomes obvious a lot of this work faded the first time for reasons of content as much as market -- not so much that any of the series were worse than what was being published to greater approbation, but that they were not of high enough quality they could transcend market saturation or an original publisher's strapped-for-cash marketing department. Looking at three volumes featuring the character Sky Ape (Sky Ape, $12.95, 096768481; Sky Ape: All the Heroes, $6.95, 1932051082; and Sky Ape: Waiting for Crime, $6.95, 0970936036) hammers home the difference between art that is necessary and art that just sort of lies there. Much of the drawing by Richard Jenkins looks lovely from panel to panel, and a great deal of the scene work from writers Philip Amara, Tim McCarney and Mike Russo succeeds, at least in a facile way. You may never be gripped by uncontrolled laughter, but you can look at specific moments and think, "Hey, that's a pretty skilled joke." Although when the humor tanks, it tanks really hard, managing a deadly combination of being telegraphed and hopelessly dated ("Family Matters is… gasp… still on the air??!!" Take that, Urkel!). Sky Ape's adventures generally lack the barrel-forward momentum and serene confidence that informs the work of comic book goof-masters like David Boswell or Bob Burden. They miss most sorely those cartoonists' furious commitment to a way of presenting the world that gave the better issues of Reid Fleming and Flaming Carrot more heft than a standard throwaway comedy sketch, and the consistency of vision that allows subtle comedic moments to slowly unpack themselves for the attentive reader's benefit. Another reason the reader's investment fails to pay off with Sky Ape is the unexplored adventure comic rhythms that drive each story's pacing. One gets the idea that the Sky Ape authors just assume their take on pop culture is innately hilarious, and that their joke-filled melodies will make an impression despite a straight-faced action-oriented rhythm section. This isn't always a bad bet to take on a talking monkey, although one has to admit it's a crowded field. Sky Ape and its sequels never break far enough way from similar monkey-style humor efforts or delve deeply and smartly enough into the riches of their own source material. It's a comedic world built on clichés that are allowed to remain clichés. Reading Sky Ape feels like listening to someone make intermittently funny wisecracks over a Hal Needham movie with the sound turned off, and not in a good way.

Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden: Borrowed Magic ($14.95, 1932051112) collects a well-regarded all-ages small-press title, and with its teen female protagonist pops out against the backdrop of AiT/Planet Lar's more testosterone-heavy books. Unfortunately, the book suffers from the overwhelming blandness of most all-ages comics efforts 1993-2003. Artist John Green lacks the design skills that would make this pop out as an artistic showcase, which is kind of deadly place to be with a fantasy story. His approach is an Americanized big-foot style, along the lines of Scott McCloud's early material but sorely missing that cartoonist's appreciation of formal storytelling techniques. Dave Roman's characters stay pretty close to generic form, and although this has its advantages when portraying a blank-slate heroine onto whom readers can project their own involvement in a story, it would be nice to have one or two memorable personalities for her to play against. The lack of sharp detail in the writing hurts as much as the unimaginative settings. When a news report in the second chapter sounds nothing like anyone would ever read over the air, it's hard to remain grounded when the crazier goings-on fire up. This kind of propulsive fantasy is a lot harder than it looks, and everything about Jax Epoch's adventures needs to be sharper and better realized. Jeff Nicholson's Colonia: Islands and Anomalies ($12.95, 0970936079), another collection of issues from a small-press series, comes much closer to providing an approachable yet absorbing fantasy experience. Set in a vague approximation of the New World hemisphere during the era of pirates and buried treasure, Nicholson finds the right balance between touches of the otherworldly and equally treacherous mundane behavior. It also helps in comparison to most books of this type that Nicholson's protagonist seems less precious, even suffering through flashes of poor temperament and outright frustration. Although Nicholson's art here is nowhere near as atrociously flip and generally sloppy as that which appeared in the humor work Father & Son, he is not the draftsman needed to pull off the fantasy extremes or the formal technician required to hold the reader's interest during scenes of character interaction. Colonia also exudes an overpowering feeling that everything in the comic is being staged rather than experienced, at a lower production cost than the writer might like, as if it were a television movie on ABC Family. For such a uniquely conceived setting, nothing feels suspenseful or tumultuous, and very little seems at risk. When Nicholson provides character sketches and research background at the end, the experience is so like reading the comics themselves it may strike the reader that Jack's adventure is an exercise in fantasy storytelling strategies more than it is a proper fantasy story.

A couple of the Ait/Planet Lar trades make me wonder about any potential audience. Mystery novelist Max Allan Collins has readers that follow him across media and his partnership with Terry Beatty enjoyed fans specific to comics. Yet Johnny Dynamite: Underworld ($12.95, 1932051104) feels like the last call at the trade paperback collection bar. The story grew out of Collins' and Beatty's use of an old 1950s Charlton character as reprints in the final permutation of their Ms. Tree comics, appearances that Collins admits in his introduction to this book weren't always well received. The specific content of this adventure comes from a little-seen 1994 Dark Horse book the pair did after Ms. Tree closed for business, a mini-series I wasn't even aware existed despite my father's giddy enthusiasm for everything Collins writes. Shades of Switchblade Honey, Johnny Dynamite: Underworld suffers greatly because it reads like an ironic description played straight: a little-appreciated character in a forgotten old-time comic book. Johnny Dynamite uses his mighty powers of square-jaw sporting, stylish suit wearing, macho line declaring and busty dame kissing to survive and eventually have his revenge on a man who made an immortality deal with the devil that includes lots of zombie drone throw-ins. Collins seems to have a genuine affection for throwaway mid-20th Century crime comics and horror films, but he doesn't treat them in a way that makes his take new and interesting, nor does he ever fully inhabit the material to make it superior work of its type. It feels like Collins is writing down to the genre and the medium, with a story that lacks a single memorable line, a character not out of b-movie casting central, or, really, anything close to a thrilling stand-alone scene. Terry Beatty's stiff figure drawing and static layouts make consistent design sense but fail to convey the saltier parts of the narrative with power and authority. His work exudes an artificiality that might work in a lot of genres, but for hardboiled detective work lacks energy and atmosphere. To enjoy Johnny Dynamite as fully as the creators claim to, you would either have to match their interests exactly or be so incredibly ignorant of their source material you could fool yourself into thinking the book represents something new.

The reverse twin of Johnny Dynamite: Underworld in the AiT/Planet Lar line, another forgettable book but for entirely different reasons, is something called Doll and Creature ($12.95, 193205104X). In contrast to the Johnny Dynamite team, creators Rick Remender, John Heebink and Mike Manley have selected for their project an appealing monster movie iconography and grafted it onto a story that moves with a livelier rhythm than the comics from which it comes. At its best, Doll and Creature has a drive-in movie feel in that it slaps together storytelling motifs that usually don't mix and then uses the audience's familiarity with the sources as visual shorthand to gloss over the incongruities. While Doll and Creature is too fundamentally stupid to hate for very long, it's also too obvious and dense to like very much. It would be difficult for even the greatest satirists alive to get new mileage out of subjects as creaky as Reaganism and the fact that knockout curvy girls are subjected to media that makes them feel fat. The hollowness of its targets helps make Doll and Creature an eminently forgettable and ordinary book.

An army of quotes from various reviewers and media personalities in each foreword informs the reader that The Foot Soldiers series of books (Volume One, $0967684772; Volume Two, 097093601X; Volume Three, 1932051031 all $14.95) is fantastic stuff and its writer Jim Kreuger is a bold, creative visionary. I'm baffled that anyone would think highly of this material, let alone say so for posterity. The Foot Soldiers are so named because of their role in a war against a generic oppressor and the way they get their superpowers -- by stealing powerful boots (and other garments) from the bodies in a graveyard of superheroes. During their adventures, which seem to take place in world of approximately 50 people, the Foot Soldiers engage in endless, dreary dialogue and self-absorbed reflection about the nature of heroism and oppression, their own actions and feelings towards each other, and whatever other rudimentary story moment needs to be hammered into the ground. Each chapter ends with a first-person prose recap for anyone who failed to get what's going on the first time, although one would think someone that dense might object to being asked to read. In other words, Kreuger shows nothing and tells everything, at least three times, and what he tells us isn't interesting or new or -- and this is what galls -- even a touch specific. The setting is science fiction 101, crumbling cities that yield stunning underground facilities when crumbling cities won't do, all of it more like a series of sets than a lived-in place. The set-up and background generally lacks details that might ground the action, add color, or increase our sympathy for the actors who find themselves in this world. The characters are too broadly played to even settle into stereotypes; no one does anything to surprise or thwart even the most generic adventure story expectations. The reader has to wait until volume three before the first halfway compelling plot point is introduced, when the super-foot gang does something "evil" in order to force their oppressors into acting benevolently, which by that point the narrative equivalent of man slipping out of a ten-year coma to ask after his valise before passing out again -- it may be interesting, but it means very little in the overwhelming thrust of events as they unfold. Any one of these shortcomings would keep a comic book project like this one from reaching greatness, but having all of them together seems like an infuriating and not-funny joke. Kreuger is probably best known as the writer of an Alex Ross mid-wifed series of future books for Marvel that go by names like Earth X and Universe X. These comics are so relentlessly weird, turgid and tied into a brighter Marvel continuity that they engender a junky "I-can't-believe-this" fascination, like watching someone trying to piece together a tragic opera out of snippets of Here's Lucy dialogue. The leavening oddness of the X projects is absent here, and sorely missed. Despite serviceable art and design by a changing roll call of collaborators, most notably Phil Hester and Steve Yeowell, these books are tedious failures.

Jim Kreuger is a working comics writer and one of the few names with which I was fully familiar before diving into the AiT/Planet Lar line. One imagines a specific joy of a new line lies in developing talent, or presenting fresh talent in a way that establishes reputations and increases their readership. There are several books in Young's line from artists and writers with whom the average comics reader, particularly a reader of this magazine, might lack any experience whatsoever. William Harms and Mark Bloodworth bring a solid understanding of comics' formal strengths to abel ($12.95, 1932051015). They tell their story with the authority of artists who have worked in other forms and genres before attempting a comic of this type. The greatest shortcoming of their book is that the story they choose to tell, an unwieldy treatise on racism and sexual violence among small town folk, seems strident and predictable. Too many broad issues are shoehorned into the story's framework, when a better strategy might have been to trust the unfolding narrative to lead the reader into more uniquely observed truths. At its worst moments, abel feels contrived, like a message movie of its World War II era, a melodrama connecting all the dots in someone's preconceived checklist of what historical fiction can accomplish. But because of the pair's more subtle strengths -- restraint in delineating character relationships, the way the figures are placed against certain backgrounds to draw the reader's attention to details of time and place, or the way page-wide panels are used to create a recurring rhythm that pays off at story's end -- future work could prove very interesting. The general cynicism in which the World War I story White Death ($12.95, 0970936060) soaks is that book's most interesting feature. Nothing in the dialogue or scene-to-scene work -- and particularly the drab printing choices -- lives up to the book's gripping premise. White Death takes place amidst the terrifying avalanches that killed men during an impasse on the Italian front during the Great War, throwing man's inhumanity to man up against nature's indifference to everything. That's not only a specifically researched point of interest it's a metaphor bursting with potential. The well-timed climax makes you almost forgive earlier scenes that look thrown in out of some mid-1980s guide to serious European album books, right down to the silly bedroom scenes I probably would have turned to first had the 12-year-old me first discovered it in an issue of Heavy Metal. True Story Swear to God: Chances Are… ($14.95, 1932051090) mines romantic material that one doesn't usually see in comics, or for that matter anywhere else: the fundamentally loving relationship between mature people. Because what seems so great to Beland is how naturally and easily certain aspects of his attraction to Lily Garcia progress, much of the book's tension feels manufactured. Although, in some sort of victory for cute, Beland worrying after certain inconsequential matters makes him more charming, not less. Beland's good enough with minor details of dialogue and character interaction that most readers probably won't mind the parts of the story he hurries past. Beland's art is greatly reminiscent of Keith Knight's, but more tightly controlled a bit more versatile when it comes to depicting place. Chances Are… is practically the definition of a minor work, but Beland seems almost as happy to have found a mode of comics that suits him as he does to have fallen in love. His joy is contagious.

Perhaps the most interesting talent with whom Young and Rosenheim have forged a publishing relationship is Matt Fraction. Fraction was one of the editors who facilitated Young's True Facts column on Savant, and went on to write an interesting column about his first year trying to do comics for Comic Book Resources. Fraction's column bored some people silly, but its value was in relating the state of mind regarding comic books from a young creator whose interests fragmented off into several directions. Fraction's context for comics was never all that flattering to comics. A benefit of his relative well-rounded quality was that when Fraction focused on the words and pictures racket he had a seriously brutal outsider's position -- his column on "comics activism" remains the most to the point statement to date on the idea of tying empty rhetoric to desired sales outcomes. Fraction's first book with Young and Rosenheim, The Annotated Mantooth ($12.95, 1932051058) is the superior talking gorilla comic of the AiT/Planet Lar line because there's no playing to the audience, no refinement of the humor. It has the courage of its own raunchy stupidity. Throwaway lines like "No time to rub our pussies playing catch-up, Rex -- I've got good news and bad news" should find fans even if the overall content makes nary a ripple in one's consciousness. Distinguishing the book, Fraction's script pages are included facing the portion of the comic they describe. This makes Annotated Mantooth thick enough to fit into the trade paperback part of the comic book store, and gives it some limited appeal as a how-to book. The maneuver is also funny in and of itself, like someone sticking a director's audio track on a DVD of bum fights. For those interested in that kind of thing, one can note small, smart changes made by Andy Kuhn and Tim Fisher, if those are indeed the artists -- I can't really tell; it might only be one of them.

For his second book with AiT/Planet Lar, Fraction worked with genre-straddling artist Kieron Dwyer on the pulpy Last of the Independents ($12.95, 1932051147), a more ambitious comic for playing it straight. It's basically the plot from Walter Matthau's Charley Varrick on 1980s action movie steroids. Justine, Cole and Billy rob a bank where the mob was storing money. The boss gets pissed and sends a bunch of guys in suits to kill the trio on their failed amusement park property. Lots of killing and snappy insults follow. It's an interesting project for both Fracton and Dwyer in that each displays a great deal of competence in matters of fundamental storytelling -- Fraction's dialogue can be lean without losing its eccentricities, while Dwyer infuses everything he draws with an understated cartoon realism. He never cheats. The book is a handsome package, too, with a strange slipcover but a nice single-color printing effect and landscaped pages. That Last of the Independents isn't more affecting I think is due to the writer's misreading of the source material. His characters are embodiments of type much more than they are individual people, and what made the kind of film and story evoked here thrilling was the human vulnerability that the leads exuded, being narrow-shouldered character actors with paunchy guts, sweaty brows, and lines in their faces. Film actors playing these roles may give Fraction's script a more interesting physicality, but as drawn on the page by Dwyer, the protagonists seem idealized to the point that it's hard to connect with anything they might want, any danger they face, or any pain they feel. In the end, what you get is closer to Baldwin/Basinger Getaway than McQueen/McGraw Getaway, if that makes any sense, more Bruce Willis than Warren Oates. That said, a second project from the pair would be well worth seeking out; very few people do comics like this one.

The other noteworthy young gun in the AiT/Planet Lar stable is Brian Wood, who like many of the cartoonists featured in this article has flirted with other projects and other publishers but seems to have found a sympathetic and natural home with Young and Rosenheim. Wood worked as a New York-based freelance designer during the '90s boom period for the Internet and videogame markets. That he is more designer than artist or writer becomes clear reading his heavily praised Channel Zero ($12.95, 0967684749). Wood uses a tiny sprinkle of science fiction to make a politicized teenager's points about the present-day crisis of control mechanisms and the insidious banality of modern culture. Wood somehow manages to overstate an extremely broad and mutable case, primarily by making an unrealistic bogeyman of the political right when rhetorical restraint would have made for a much more effective and scary antagonist. It feels like an emotional cheat, inflating the stakes so that the characters and the author look more important and cool for fighting at all. The best parts of Channel Zero come out of its craft elements, the way Wood chains the narrative to his writing, freeing the visuals so that they become a running commentary on atmosphere and mood. Wood's ending provides hope for both America's future and the writer's ability to see things in non-simplistic terms. Radical artist Jennie 2.5 gives up her place in the slow road to revolution because the desire for celebrity that had once made her effective now means she has been hopelessly co-opted. Welcome as it is, a second level of possibility introduced so late in the book is hardly enough to convince there's much of anything substantial driving the resistance that Wood portrays. Certain characters become heroes not out of an ability to offer up a cogent alternative to the forces of repression, but because they're young and attractive and the forces of evil really, really, really suck. Wood's politics seem incredibly shallow and reactionary, which might be an accurate reflection of his characters but discourages serious consideration of the works in which they appear.

Wood has since created a sequel/prequel to his first work called Channel Zero: Jennie One ($9.95 1932051074); two crime books loosely connected to the Channel Zero universe, Couscous Express ($12.95, 0970936028) and The Couriers ($12.95, 1932041066), with a third on the way, and a book on the original book's genesis, Public Doman: A Channel Zero Designbook ($12.95, 0970936052). All of them are lesser works, and except for the last I think they suffer by being connected to Channel Zero. In his introduction to Channel Zero: Jennie One, Wood suggests that he wrote the script for artist Becky Cloonan's sensibilities and her age, a decade younger than Wood's and therefore putting her at the beginning of what with a straight face the writer calls her "punk rock New York City art terrorist days." Cloonan's art is always clearly and stylishly presented, and there are a few cute moments in Wood's story, the best being when Jennie gives her brutal appraisal of a guy who hits on her, a character that in standard comic book stories would probably be the male audience's heroic stand-in: "People like Kurt, with his music and money and bullshit, are the symbol of what's wrong. Mindlessly following trends, immersing himself in a sick culture, yet still thinking he's fringe, he's hardcore." Even with prose so leaden it makes your mouth go dry, Jennie's insights are entertainingly mean. Sadly, the overall portrayal never really convincingly connects this woman to the older version in Channel Zero; it feels like a different character. Because the older Jennie's journey seems much more interesting than that of the younger version we meet here, it's disappointing to read one story rather than the other. Wood's crime books are standard exercises in pandering to their target audiences. Wood makes his young, hip characters larger than life to an almost ridiculous degree, a different set of expectations manipulated than in most mainstream comics but still essentially immature comics for immature people. As a result, the crime volumes are the least interesting works in the Wood oeuvre. Couscous Express features the more effective artist (Brett Weldele, who has a nice sense of proportion and an ability to vary perspective without calling attention to it) and a more interesting gateway character, a spoiled, tart-tongued teenager named Olive. The Couriers puts the focus on Olive's boyfriend Moustafa and his friend Special, and although Wood does the insanely over-talented superhuman, super-cool assassin thing as well as anyone in comics -- not really a compliment -- the whole thing reads like a clumsy parody of Vertigo's sillier crime book excesses. One imagines fans of The Couriers read it essentially straight, a chest-tightening and depressing thought. Public Domain is for Wood fans only, with its explication on how the artist developed. A troubling idea the book suggests by showing Channel Zero's roots in 'zines is that comic book trade paperbacks might not be the proper place for an artistic assault on much of anything, let alone the Planet Earth's failure to support human freedom. Despite all of the shortcomings described here, Wood has carved for himself a little corner of comics he can call his own, a collision of culture and politics with almost infinite creative possibilities. Yet instead of adding layers of substance to his initial expression of outrage, Wood so far seems content to goose his initial vision for volume after volume of diminishing returns.

Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim have hopefully cruised past the point where they flesh out their line with detritus of the second Image boom and tossed-off "pop comics" and into a groove where they can settle into fruitful relationships with a select group of artists and writers, creators with the potential to evolve into superior craftspeople who can fulfill, expand and even redefine the company's general creative vision. It may not feel that way to either publisher right now, but the success of AiT/Planet Lar will come not from the books they have published to date but to what extent the more promising works in the early line are able to transform the publishing house in their image. The challenge for Young and Rosenheim will be what to place around the works of creators like Cloonan, Wood, Fraction and Dwyer. One might selfishly hope that this will include more text essay books of the kind very few publish regularly and sideways art projects no one really does at all. That seems unlikely, but so does publishing comics in the first place. Stranger things have happened. We could even go back to the moon. K

(The AiT/Planet Lar web site is, no surprise, www.ait-planetlar.com. All of their books can be ordered through your comic book shop as well, and are listed through Amazon and other mainstream booksellers through virtue of their trade paperback status.)

Originally Written for the Comics Journal.