Or: There’s an Oldsmobile Joke that I Can’t Quite Land . . .
Mister Miracle #2 of 12
W – Tom King
A – Tom Gerads
The last time we really heard from Mister Miracle prior to the King/Gerards revival was close to ten years ago, in the midst of Final Crisis, after Shilo Norman had emerged as the heir to Scott Free’s mantle. I find myself transfixed by this book to a certain degree. To start, Mitch Gerads’ artwork is conversion worthy material for pencil purists. But is isn’t Gerads alone. He and Tom King seem to improve with every issue of every project. In the days of frequent shipping and rotating groups of artists, it is both refreshing and relieving to see a writer/artist team collaborate at such a remarkably consistent rate. I think that the first issue of this Miracle Man maxiseries took many readers off guard. It had a far darker tone than most would have assumed. It also felt tangential to the DC Universe, appearing much more reminiscent of proto-Vertigo/early Vertigo DC Universe releases. I found myself asking the same questions I do when I read those books: “Is this a superhero book?” and “Where does this fit?” Ultimately, neither King nor Gerads are going to answer either query, and the fact that DC is comfortable with that level of ambiguity says a lot about the company’s continued relaxation of its sometimes crippling continuity. That, or it’s just going to all loop back OR function as a major catalyst for an important event. Either way, right? Spoilers after the jump.
Cartoonist – Stan Sakai (backup w. Julie Fuji Sakai)
Cover Colors – Tom Luth
Believe it or not, Usagi Yojimbo turned 30 this year. (Don’t tell him he’s a millennial). When the epic finally wraps, it should enter a fairly unique club. Along with Jeff Smith’s Bone, the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, and (yes, fine, begrudgingly) Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Usagi Yojimbo holds a fairly strong claim to the title of definitive creator owned comic. In fact, I would contend it easily beats our two of the other three contendors since Sakai neither sold his creation to Scholastic (no judgement, just a disqualification in this particular barstool debate, though Usagi made his way into our living rooms as part of the extended TMNT cast) nor . . . how should I put this . . . got weird (??) (sorry, Dave). Along with Love and Rockets, Sakai’s commitment is remarkable and consistent.
Full disclosure: I am predisposed to love this book. When I first discovered Mage: The Hero Defined, the second “arc” in Wagner’s opus, I was at a formative position in my life. It was near the end of my freshman year in high school, and I was branching into all things independent. There’s a certain punk-rock or independent spirit about Wagner’s story, and that resonated with me in ways that are beyond qualification. So if I gush, sue me.*
This issue follows on the heels of last month’s zero issue that heralded the return of Kevin Matchstick/Pendragon. If you missed the primer, it’s not going to detract from this issue at all. # 1 is almost entirely exposition, as Kevin and his son, Hugo, (a concept that hits home even more intensely since this book is a collaborative effort between Wagner and his son who serves as colorist) stroll through a park in this new community, seemingly years since the events that conclude “The Hero Defined,” tempting fate with proclamations of contentedness.
This is a difficult issue. I mean that qualification to explain both composition and analysis. The last Mage series debuted ten years ago. A key demographic had yet to pick up comics at that point. Stretching back even further, the series first launched under the auspices of Comico in 1986. There’s a significant chunk of that fanbase who may have left comics. Wagner thus has a bit of a dilemma to encounter. He is a comics maverick, to an extent. He more or less follows his own lead, and he approaches projects with a unique perspective. That having been said, he needs to do something to appeal to a new reader. It is a #1 issue after all.
What Wagner does to make issue one friendly both to new readers and fans whose memories aren’t as strong is immediately hit the major tropes of the series. Trouble will follow Kevin Matchstick. He isn’t entitled to a normal life. In lesser hands, and perhaps sans context, this would seem somewhat played. Ok, a new volume has started, and . . . great, the same things are happening. I get it, and I wouldn’t entirely dismiss this criticism. What I would do, though, is encourage the reader to think about the nature of the inevitable disruption of Matchstick and company’s idyllic suburban life. Wagner almost goes out of his way to establish the peacefulness of Kevin’s new life, which can seem like a somewhat cheap, telegraphed plot device out of a corny movie preview: “In a world where Kevin Matchstick finally found peace . . .”
But that’s not what happens here. Wagner works to establish a juxtaposition, not a lamely telegraphed and all to brief foreshadowing. At the point that Kevin and clan have achieved peak mundanity, between strolls through the park in autumn and spousal arguments about repairmen, conflict thrusts itself to the forefront. For new readers, this device works to establish immediate tension. For returning readers, it allows for a meditation about the first two arcs of the trilogy.
Ultimately, Mage: The Hero Denied #1 functions exactly as needed. It establishes a certain immediacy and allows Wagner to jump directly into the action a mere five pages into the story. Wagner picks up tropes familiar to any reader, nay human – familial bonds and the existential dilemma. Life, for Kevin Matchstick, must be defined by the hero cycle. Wagner’s first issue in his return to his semi-autobiographical epic certainly made me excited for the next fourteen installments, and that’s truly the best kind of analysis you can give to any first issue.
*In the 90s, independent things were, paradoxically, becoming mainstream. Built on the back of the various underground movements in the 70s and 80s, independent concepts broke through in the 90s, and comics were no exception. Image launched more as an alternative than an independent. And I think it still occupies a similar position today. It started, with some exceptions, as an independent publisher of mainstream style superhero books. Gradually, though, Image diversified its lineup, and books like Mage helped to foster that transition.
When the innovating notebook company, Baron Fig, released its first pencil in the Fall of 2016, it met with an expected degree of fanfare and fairly universal praise.* Indeed, I was among the early evangelists of the Archer. My wife bought me a set for Christmas, and I almost immediately inserted the new offering into my top five pencils.
But, like many Christmas gifts, I used the Archer for the portion of a day and put it down, half forgetting I had received it at all. Since we have never had the luxury of spending a Christmas in our own house, we often “lose” Christmas gifts to the chore of packing and the inevitable failure to unpack. Consequently, the Archer set ended up at the bottom of a small box of stocking stuffer-type goodies that immediately found a home in the back of our spare room. I certainly remembered receiving the Archer, though I had absolutely no idea where I had placed it.
Process of elimination eventually led me to the small shoebox with my set of Archers at the bottom. Ok, honestly, I was looking for something else and stumbled upon it.
Immediately, I recalled that I had intended on giving this pencil a very thorough review since I hadn’t seen much about it following the initial release. Not that any of those reviews were cursory, but I wanted to truly put the pencil through the wringer for a week to see if my own impression remained justified.
Short answer – yes, after some Augustinian doubt.
What drew many people to the Archer at its release time was the pencil’s design. Most observers would expect a well-designed product from Baron Fig, a company that made its name by concentrating on the intersection of form and function. Like early “i” era Apple products, Baron Fig notebooks are known for their impeccable design and remarkable usability. To be fair, this philosophy tends to be a hallmark of the niche stationary market. Nonetheless, even in a market defined by this exact premise, Baron Fig tends to exemplify the philosophy the strongest because of their commitment to a fundamentally minimalist approach.
And, as expected, the Archer is a masterpiece of minimalist design. Even the case – a telescoping cylinder of glossy cardboard – sets the Archer apart from other pencils. Blackwing sends its pencils in beautiful boxes, but they look almost too nice to use. They seem more designed for preservation and display than for toting from place to place.
I’d feel comfortable tossing the Archer case in my book bag. It’s made of a strong stock cardboard, so it will hold up to wear and tear. Additionally, it’s cylindrical shape helps to maximize its storage capability while minimizing the surface area it takes up. Still, because it is so well-made, and because I only own one set of Archers, it remains safe and sound on my desk at home.
The design and construction of the pencil itself also helps to set it apart. It is far more nuanced than almost any Blackwing offering. At first glance, one might be easy to compare the Archer to a Mitsubishi. From a distance, that comparison might be fair, but up close, the Archer clearly eschews a thick lacquer that one would find on premium Japanese pencils. The German comparison is likely more apt. A reader commented on the Office Supply Geek Archer review that he thinks the Archer is a repurposing of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph, a comparison I can’t seem to get out of my head. I didn’t have any Lumographs lying around to test this claim, but I can say that the Archer appears slightly thicker than both the Rally and the Norica based on my Blackwing point guard test.
Nonetheless, compared to the case, the Archer pencil is similarly minimalist. Much like the Blackwing 24, the Archer seems designed to stand apart by not standing out. Charcoal gray with a black-dipped eraserless capped end, the Archer is only slightly appointed with discreet white san-serif caps “BARON FIG” right-hand painted on one hex, with the Archer arrow logo painted on another. It’s interesting that Baron Fig decided not to stamp these pencils. There is no foil, nor any other degree of texture to the pencil. The thin white lettering is applied with a strong paint and does not smudge in the slightest, compared to, say, the smudging paint on the Staedtler Rally.
The paint does manage to fade with some wear, though this is both 1) barely noticeable as it fades instead of smudges and 2) possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy as I actively tried to wear down the paint.
Design only goes so far. There are plenty of pencils that champion utilitarian design and performance. How does the Archer perform? That is what will determine whether $15 for a dozen is a justifiable expense.
Initially, it is important to note that the Archer will not appeal to a certain demographic of the pencil population. First, there are pencil users who appreciate an eraser cap for various reasons. In terms of functionality, I would have to agree that there is something missing without an eraser. Since the Archer has been billed as a writing pencil of sorts, the decision not to include a built-on eraser is a little confusing. At the end of the day, I don’t mind pulling my Mars Plastic out, but I can completely understand why someone would. Second, it is a light pencil in terms of weight. There is ample debate between pencil people as to whether a lighter pencil lessens or worsens writing fatigue. As someone who tends to press exceedingly hard while utilizing a G.I. Joe kung-fu grip, this debate is fairly moot.
What is important to note is the stellar construction of this pencil. Andy Wefle commented that the wood is not cedar, but it is of superior quality. It is a strong, hard wood that offers little to no flex. There are a number of light pencils that seem to bend in one’s hands. The Archer is definitely not one of them. Moreover, it sharpens absolutely beautifully, definitely in company with Blackwing, Mitsbubishi, or Tombow. My everyday carry Staedtler dual sharpener sometimes has issues getting a particularly sharp point on some pencils, but it works wonders with the Archer. The KUM long point sharpener predictably produces a needle-sharp point.
The Archer is billed as an HB, but it certainly falls on the side of a lighter HB. Part of me wants to assert this core is more of a 2.5/F, but I think that might be a little too far. It’s within the realm of HBs, but surely on the harder end. Appropriate comparisons for this core’s line would be the Dixon Ticonderoga or the Field Notes pencil. In many ways, the writing style is similar to the Field Notes pencil in that it can be a little scratchy at time.
The core of the Archer is designed for the specific audience of pencil users who are willing to trade line darkness for point retention. If that isn’t you, the Archer isn’t your pencil. However, if you are the tactile type who would like to have a certain feel when writing, and who doesn’t want to reach for the sharpener every half-page, the Archer is likely your Holy Grail.
Archer lines are not as dark as other traditional No. 2/HBs such as the Golden Bear, Prospector, Staedtler Norica, or even the USA Gold. Nor is the Archer that smooth. Compared to the Golden Bear or Ticonderoga, the Archer is a far scratchier pencil. It terms of writing style, I looked to compare it to a blue Canadian Norica. In previous experiences, those Noricae provide an insanely dark and thick line, but do so with an incredibly scratchy core. Many times while using the Archer, I felt a degree of similarity to the Norica. Like the Norica, it’s scratchiness doesn’t impede my writing at all, unlike a Field Notes pencil with its propensity for skipping occasionally does. However, unlike the Norica, the Archer’s core is not crumbly or weak. One or two lines into writing with the Norica and sharpening is required. The Archer feels like it can go for pages.
While the Archer is scratchy, it has that analog romantic feel to it. You know you are writing on paper when you press the graphite down. I’ll admit, my fondness for this writing style took me by surprise, considering that I hold the Blackwing 24, 602, and Musgrave Test Scoring 100 – all champions of the smooth, dark, shiny line – in such high regard. I tend to steer clear of both scratchy pencils and fainter lines. But the Archer has grabbed me for a few overarching reasons.
The core is strong and durable. It sharpens to an incredibly fine point that manages to last for what seems like pages. While the immediate needle-sharp point wears down after a line or two, the pencil seems to retain a fairly narrow point for a while thereafter. If you want a very crisp line, the Archer won’t exactly meet those standards. The core’s performance, also, tends to vary very little from paper to paper. This isn’t exactly true for other pencils. There are pencils that can’t handle the toothier pages, but the Archer can. I’ve used the Archer almost exclusively on the fairly neutral paper in a Mead Cambridge notebook, the bright and heavy paper in the Black Ice notebook, and the graphite shredding toothy paper in a Picadilly A5 hardbound. While the Picadilly does tend to chew through the pencil more than other papers, line quality does not change with different paper. There are pencils that look incredibly different from a glossy page to a toothier one, but the Archer is remarkably consistent. The strength of this core makes the pencil an incredible value. In just over a week of usage, its lost only about an inch to the sharpener. This says a lot considering that I regularly attend meetings and take overly-copious notes. A week with me is a strong test for any pencil. I’ve never been an compulsive sharpener, so I can see people having different results, but I think they’d be impressed, regardless.
I like the feel of this pencil. It goes against my general inclinations, as I’m wont to use a Blackwing 24 for an extended writing and as I tend to avoid scratchy pencils, but there is something about the way this pencil carves into paper that absolutely delights me. I like feeling every letter as I write; I like hearing the pencil make its way across the page.
It provides a comfortable write. I didn’t expect this. I thought that, despite any affinity, I’d notice more fatigue because of my propensity to grip a pencil with all the grace of a grizzly bear and the increase in work resulting from the scratchy core. My hand gets tired no matter what pencil I use, and I haven’t noticed any more with the Archer. What I have noticed, though, is that much of the extra work to overcome the scratchiness is mitigated by the light weight of the pencil.
At the end of a week’s rigorous usage, I’m left surprised at my continued affinity for the Archer. Usually, after a week’s worth of writing, I’ve got enough bad to say about even pencils I enjoy that I’m ready to put the pencil down for a while before I return to it with a clean perspective. I’m planning on running this particular Archer down to a nub, though.
* Curious about some of the initial reviews? Here are some of the more thorough: