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Format Chit-Chat: Jog and a 5/14 pamphlet

Joe McCulloch

Sky Doll #1 (of 3)

This is the first product of Marvel’s new comics venture with French publisher Soleil Productions. It’s a quasi-miniseries of sorta new work that will kind of run for three issues, more-or-less unedited in a relatively nice format. Essentially.

Soleil has been around since the ’80s, in case you’re not familiar, and currently publishes a fairly international line of books, mixing European originals with French translations of English, Japanese and Korean-language works. They specialize in action/sci-fi/fantasy series — although their partnership with book publisher Gallimard in reviving Futuropolis, a defunct, influential purveyor of avant-garde comics, has had them deemed bandits of cultural capital by sectors of the French small press — and they’ve been enthusiastic in seeking artistic contributions from talent around the world. They seem as natural a fit as any French comics outfit would be with Marvel, in that their typical works might carry some crossover appeal to Marvel’s core readership base.

However, French comics are not US comics, and questions always arise from several directions.

This first issue of Sky Doll — the creation of Italian artists Barbara Canepa & Alessandro Barbucci (both are credited with writing and art) — corresponds to the debut French album of the series, released in 2001. Each forthcoming Marvel issue will present one European album, as I believe it’ll go for the whole of the partnership.

There’s also an “of 3” in the issue count, but that’s a little misleading; Sky Doll is, in fact, an ongoing series, with Tome 3 merely being as far as the creators have gotten with the main story (there’s been a collection of shorts too). Issue #3 is therefore as much as Marvel can release. So, don’t expect an ending or anything come July, because it hasn’t been produced yet; Marvel even tacitly admits to the situation in the back of this issue, when it is mentioned in Canepa’s biographical blurb that she’s currently working on a part four, although I don’t think this information has been made quite clear in the advertising.

And what about Marvel’s presentation? What about the content, in which different cultural values regarding, say, depictions of the human body and its activities might be implicated? Well, I don’t have access to the French original to do a panel-by-panel comparison, but it doesn’t look like anything’s been touched. So long as you define ‘content’ as ‘inside.’

That’s the French cover from which Marvel’s cover is based, and I suspect just about every one of you has already figured out what’s missing from Marvel’s version: the French text. And the half-a-nipple.

Hey, I’m sure it saved a lot of retailers the need to somehow obscure the cover (mine plopped every copy in a bag anyway to prevent underage flipping), but you might recall that Marvel actually released an unedited version of the cover when the book’s solicitation first arrived, which I guess got everyone’s hopes up that the publisher would be adopting a more front-to-back liberal attitude concerning the material, which could have maybe prompted some interesting reactions, given Marvel’s place in the Direct Market. It’s not exactly a shocking cover, after all, but I think most readers have enough of an impression of what’s ‘acceptable’ for Marvel that they can tell when the self-drawn line is being crossed.

Oh well – Marvel does include the unedited version inside the book as an illustration, and assures no interior edits via a big black & red MATURE CONTENT box, plastered over the lower half of the critter at the bottom left of the cover, which rather gives the impression that the lil’ guy’s penis is hanging out or something.

But hey, the cover could look a lot different.

This is what Sky Doll looked like on the stands when it was first released in English, less than two years ago. You might have heard from, oh, Marvel’s solicitation that the series is “now finally presented in English,” which seems to suggest that there wasn’t a prior English translation… but there was, in the Heavy Metal Summer 2006 special, which went so far as to collect all three extant parts of the series into a single $6.95 magazine. Again, Marvel basically concedes the fact inside this issue itself (once more via Canepa’s revealing biography!), which makes me wonder what they were getting at with ‘finally presented in English’ – they couldn’t have just not known until the last minute (although if anyone said that or some other simple thing was the case on a message board or something, do bring it up).

An answer, or at least an underlying intent, might be found in the differing focuses of Marvel and Heavy Metal. The latter is no tiny presence in comics at large – it did have a total paid distribution of 58,108 copies per issue on average last year. But that’s mostly to various magazine racks; it surely doesn’t have Marvel’s penetration into the Direct Market, and when you think of Marvel addressing its solicitation copy and its hype-in-general to Direct Market denizens, it makes sense that much of that audience would ‘finally’ be getting the stuff in English, if only for the places Marvel can get with the pamphlet format.

But shit, that’s another thing. There’s no undoing the fact that Heavy Metal has released the whole business in one hit for seven bucks, while Marvel’s per-issue price is $5.99. And it’s a decent enough pamphlet, with a press release-type intro to Soleil on the inside-front cover, what appears to be the original title and credits page art, the 44-page story without ads, a two-page interview with the creators, 16 pages of previews of forthcoming releases, those biographies on the inside-back cover, and, perhaps most importantly, a new English adaptation by C.B. Cebulski from Stephanie Logan’s translation – Heavy Metal, as you’ve probably heard, is not famous for crackling English.

On the other hand, the art is squished a bit to accommodate the pamphlet format – it doesn’t kill the reading experience, but Heavy Metal’s magazine-sized images go down better for a work designed to be read big. And there’s little denying that the magazine’s got the more cost-effective system – even if they’d gone ‘typical’ with Sky Doll and spread the stuff out over various regular issues, you’d still have gotten the contents of this Marvel issue for $5.99, in a larger format, with an added stack of shorter comics and a good selection of anime porn ads.

Granted, you’d also be at the whims of Heavy Metal’s iffy series scheduling, and then there’s the translations (which, truth be told, were only stiff in Sky Doll’s case)… I think Marvel’s paper quality is slicker? There’s always another question. But what’s for sure is that there’s multiple options, and the Marvel option isn’t necessarily the best one, although it is the one they know how to work the best, given their base. I wonder if a less burdened series might have served as a better debut piece for the line? Ha, I wonder if these burdens even seem heavy when compared with the wider issue of comics pamphlet pricing in general today? Oh, French comic albums: also expensive.

So, um… how’s the story?

It’s OKAY. What struck me about Sky Doll the first time I read it was how it seemed to belong to its initial English-language venue: this is very nearly a quintessential ‘Heavy Metal’ type of comic, melding colorful/omnious sci-fi cityscapes, elusive spiritual ideas, sassy women in striking (or absent) attire, some blood & gore (not too much here), hallucinogenic visual passages, high technology, odd creatures and broad-as-a-Vatican-fresco satire.

Canepa & Barbucci add a little extra zest with an art style both informed by their work with Disney and eager to incorporate anime design tropes, several of which grew from the soil of vintage Disney animation anyway. I wouldn’t call it manga — the Japanese influence seems firmly planted in-panel, allowing for little of the extra-panel narrative thrust of comperable Japanese comics — but it allows for some cute, semi-furry character designs with funny expression/body language work. Gobs of gloss in this thing.

The plot concerns the affairs of Noa, a very humanoid wind-up ‘sky’ doll — pretty angels with which mortals can sin without fear of repercussion — with the odd-for-her-type ability to retain her memories, and a longing to escape her dead-end life in Heaven, a ‘sexy’ spaceship wash station. She also hears voices and hides secrets that even she doesn’t understand. Of course.

Hope arrives when she stows away with Roy & Jahu, a pair of novice emissaries for Papess Lodovica, the scheming, oft-topless god-queen of the ruling faith, kind of a Roman Catholicism as fatalistic capitalist carnival, with crowds screaming for holy blood and begging to be incinerated by divine laser beams while secret cardinals rule the media. Back in the day, there was a co-Papess, Agape, who balanced the spirit with Lodovica’s carnality – she’s gone, but her own followers still seethe with anger, ready to do some violence to clean out the decadence. Sensing any very basic parallels with These Times Today?

It’s fruitless to go much deeper, since this issue is almost entirely setup. Mild, kindly Roy and zealous Jahu are presented as opposing types of religious faith, the notion of female sexuality as a commodity is circled, if not really explored, and schemes are set in motion. It’s all pretty enough, and sometimes pretty funny, but its energy is never more than an engine’s shaking as it struggles to start.

In case you’re interested, it doesn’t really turn over until issue #3, when the various combating forces come into clearer view, and the series stops to wait for #4 – until then, it’s little parodies of fringe religions and That Damned Media. Who knows what the readers will say when that ‘ending’ is reached? It’s a difficulty in bringing these works over to this language, in this format, and only one difficulty of many. I think Sky Doll’s a nice enough series, but there’s necessarily more going on to ponder than the cunning of half-naked catgirls, as nice a query as it is.

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