Friday, 27 March 2015

Deep Sequencing: Southern Bastard Faces

Or a look at the many, realistic looking faces in Southern Bastards Vol. 1,
by Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Southern Bastards, a comic about Crime in a small Southern town, is a great comic. It's visceral and brutal and surprisingly human and utterly believable. It is also a comic that I think does something really, really important with character design that I wish more comics, television shows, and movies would do: it has believable looking people.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Souther Bastards: Vol. 1.

Now I enjoy seeing attractive people do attractive things as much as anyone. Everyone gets drawn into the charisma of pretty people. But the fact of the matter is that really conventionally attractive people are a subset of the population. Take any sufficiently large group of people and you will find pretty people, but also some unattractive looking people. and a lot of people that exist somewhere in between. This becomes even more true when you start looking at people with older age demographics, because age makes people wider, saggier, and less conventionally attractive through time. Basically, a truly representative group of humanity includes people who are good looking, but also people who are less immediately attractive too.

This seems like a fact that is missing from most visual media. You open most comics, particularly mainstream Marvel and DC comics, or turn on the television and you are generally confronted by fictional worlds filled with beautiful, conventionally attractive people. Hordes of pretty people wearing the cutting edges of fashion living in unbelievably expensive and gorgeous apartments living fabulous lives. Modelesque superheroes saving cities of glamorous civilians from alien hordes and sexy young singles just trying to figure it out in front of a legion of gorgeous extras. In fiction-land everyone is young and beautiful, and when they aren't it is a noteworthy story point. Normal looking people need not apply.

The trouble with this, aside from how toxic a message it is, is that it is fundamentally unbelievable. Beautiful fiction-land doesn't look like reality, the demographics don't add up. Attractive people can do anything, be as smart or kick ass as anyone, but the idea of an entire detective department being 20-something underwear models with perfectly styled hair and impeccable fashion is as unrealistic as a person with the super power to fly. A downtown coffee shop where everyone looks like members of a fashion catalogue photo-spread has as much basis in reality as adamantium claws. Portraying large groups of people as exclusively conventionally attractive people is completely unrealistic and totally ruins my suspension of disbelief.

It seems to be getting worse too. I am not an especially old human, but even I can recall a time when on television or in comics people looked more demographically reasonable. Sure, there were still very pretty people, often in key roles, but around them you had your grizzled middle-aged detectives, your harried looking mothers, your goofy looking neighbours, or just your average looking extras. The fictional worlds of our visual media used to look so much more like the actual world (I mean, at least as far as attractiveness goes) and as a result used to be so much more believable. Sadly, it seems much of our media has abandoned this.

Southern Bastards does a lot of things very, very well. But the thing that made it feel so fresh to me as a reader and so utterly believable is that it showed a diversity of faces. People in Southern Bastards LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, with all the wrinkles, weight, age, and imperfections that real groups of humans have. There are still attractive people, cute teenagers and handsome youth, but there are also elderly people, fat people, middle-aged people, all of them wearing clothes that are consistent with what actual people of their economic situation would wear. It makes everything look so much more authentic, and it makes the more fantastic elements of the story, the crime, violence, and murder, also feel real and authentic. It's a perfect choice.

And one that I really, really wish we saw more often in comics.

Post by Michael Bround 

So I Read Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

So I Read Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man

A 250 word (or less) review of Southern Bastards Vol. 1
by Jason Arron, Jason Latour, and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Earl Tubb has gone back to his hometown, Craw County, a small town in Alabama, to sell his father's house. A town he swore he'd never go back to. A town run by Euless Boss, the coach of the football team and the master of a small criminal empire. A town where his father used to be the law. If Earl can just keep his head down, do what he came for and leave, he can be out of there as fast as possible. Trouble is, Earl isn't one to walk away from trouble when he finds it, and in Craw County he doesn't have to look far to find it. Southern Bastards is a fantastic crime comic set in the American South. It plays with the familiar tropes and shape of a crime story told in a visually visceral style and smothers it in the smoky barbecue sauce of small town Southern Culture. Which, it turns out, is a fantastic marriage of plot and setting. Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man functions as a single story and operates within the longer series more as an introduction and impetus than the the main plot. Which is good, because as well crafted as Here Was A Man is, the familiar story of two angry white men in the South is less interesting than the direction the series appears to be going. So while Here Was A Man is good comics, Southern Bastards looks like its going to be amazing. 

Word Count: 245

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Crux Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Crux
by Ramez Naam,

Crux is a direct sequel to the novel Nexus (to read a *SPOILER* free review, go here). In Nexus, Kaden Lane, a neurobiology researcher who has developed a new version of Nexus, an illegal drug which gives users computer-like control over their brains and the ability to network minds, is apprehended by the American Government. In exchange for leniency he is sent to Thailand with an agent handler to help capture high priority targets of the American Government. Except in the chaos of the mission, Lane and Samantha Cataranes, his erstwhile handler, escape and, while on the run, release an improved Nexus 5 into the world. A choice that has the potential to change everything.

When Crux picks up the story, Nexus 5 is loose in the world and people are experimenting with the new drug to share experiences, create art, communicate with the autistic, and to potentially create a new and powerful way of solving the world's problems. However, some people are using Nexus 5 to do horrible things to other humans and worse, a backdoor to Nexus 5 exists which promises to allow near endless abuse. Kaden Lane, the sole possessor of the Nexus backdoor passcodes, is on the run from the US government and everyone else who wants the codes for themselves. Samantha Cataranes meanwhile tries to rebuild her life and find peaceful meaning caring for the special children born with Nexus in their brains. But as Nexus 5 spreads and the potential, abuse, and threat of it grows more powers seek to control it. In Crux, Lane and Cataranes must fight for their freedom and for the safety of Nexus.

Crux is a very different kind of novel than Nexus. While both novels are interesting and readable, I feel like Nexus was a roaring Thriller novel built around a kernel of savvy Science Fiction, while Crux feels more like a deliberate work of Speculative Fiction with some great action sequences. Crux really puts the focus of the story on the Nexus drug and exploring what can be done with it and how such an invention might change society. And it's this interesting meditation that is the thematic core of the novel. But, at the same time, Crux is far from stodgy with all of the sex, violence, and action it needs to keep the book racing along.  Crux is very much an exciting book of considerable intellectual substance.

I would recommend this book to any Science Fiction fan or reader looking for a good Technothriller novel since I think it works very well in either category. I do feel like readers will be best served by reading Nexus first, since Crux is a direct sequel. But if you are a routine Sci-fi reader, you really owe it to yourself to try Nexus and Crux; novels this smart and exciting really deserve a wider audience and belong on your reading list.

Post by Michael Bround


Monday, 23 March 2015

Interrogating Black Widow #14-16

Or a look at photorealistic character design in Black Widow
by Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

A thing that occurred to me about Black Widow is just how great the character design is in the comic. For a comic that is mostly based around photorealistic people dressed in real world clothing, the comic makes some really compelling and subtle choices that make key characters, Black Widow in particular, recognizable. And I think it is interesting enough to take a closer look at.

This is going to be mostly snapshots of 'Tasha, but assume *SPOILERS* are below for Black Widow 1-16.

This is Black Widow at her most recognizable. She is wearing her trademark black catsuit, drawn in the comic as a practical minimalist garment. You can see her trademark weapon gauntlets and the retro-round zipper pull that, along with her belt, complete the outfit. You can also see her red hair, another key visual signifier of the character. When Natatasha is in her "costume" she is instantly recognizable by her simple, yet very well established look. 

Black Widow is an espionage comic, though, and the notion of its main character running around in a recognizable and attention getting black catsuit while trying to be inconspicuous is ridiculous. So a lot of the time Black Widow is wearing plain clothes within the comic, trying to blend in using unobtrusive clothing. Yet we can still easily recognize Natasha on the page. And I think this is pretty interesting stuff. 

Now, clearly part of this is that she still has her very recognizable red hair which is part of her trademark look. But I think it is more than that: Phil Noto is an incredible artist when it comes to faces. Natasha has a distinct face that is instantly recognizable in a variety of situations. We know it is her because she looks like her. It's a character design choice that takes utilizes the realism of her depiction instead of more simple body shapes and or costume colours. 

One aspect of this character design that I've really come to rely on, is actually the two moles on Black Widow's face.

Black Widow makes the smart choice of having Black Widow dress in mission appropriate ways. She wears combat fatigues and body armour, white arctic camouflage suits, plain clothes, and celebrity-style semi-disguises. And yet, we can almost always see those moles, moments of individual imperfections that are distinct to Natasha. They help make her instantly recognizable in any situation where can see her face, regardless of her clothing, or the how the "lighting" makes her hair look. It's such a subtle but effective thing.

What is maybe even more cool about the use of these moles in the character design is that they persist even when Natasha is deliberately disguised. Even in the instances when Natasha wears a wig, which obscures her signature red hair, and dresses in clothes that run contrary to her usual choices, we can still see these moles and use them to recognize her. I really cannot emphasize how clever the use of these two small skin imperfections are in this comic.

These moles also translate through time. In Black Widow #16 we see a number of flashbacks to a young Natasha running away from the Red Room and spending time as a homeless child in Russia. Despite having the face of a child, and all credit to Phil Noto here since we can definitely see the resemblance to the defined features of the adult Black Widow, we still can see Natasha's trademark red hair and her striking facial moles. The versatility of these moles in portraying Black Widow in non-standard situations is quite remarkable.

Black Widow is a really interesting comic in the way it uses and strains against its photorealism. As much as I might write about other styles of comics more, Black Widow is definitely a comic worthy of closer examination.


Friday, 20 March 2015

Deep Sequencing: Consistently Outstanding, Positively Righteous Comics Awesomeness

Or some wicked cool art choices from COPRA: Round One
by Michel Fiffe; Bergen Street Press

Copra is maybe the most dynamic and unique looking Superhero comic I've read recently. It looks like nothing else, and really delivers each discrete moment in a way that optimizes the depicted action. It's a really complete, constantly exciting book. And I really want to try and convey this to you all. So here we go.

There will be *SPOILERS* for COPRA: Round One below.

COPRA right from the start has a decidedly different look than the vast majority of comics. Michel Fiffe has an expressive, minimalist style to his characters, that while detailed, have very obvious features that makes them all immediately recognizable. The comic also has this soft, pencil crayon shading style that looks beautiful and gives the comic a unique and very art-forward feeling. Even in a quiet moment like this, just at a glance, you can tell COPRA is something special.

Or take a look at this action sequence here. The woman in green shoots and eviscerates the chain-goon, clips the flammable gas tanks of the fame thrower guy, and then the sequence focuses on flame thrower guy smouldering for a moment before igniting as his gas tanks rupture. It's a wonderful (can you call panels depicting a man burning alive wonderful?) collection of images that really zoom in on the action and give it space to be as visceral, and dramatic as possible. It's also a cool sequence because in the peripheral of the immolating man the woman in green moves on to new targets and the man in the red mask hops out of the truck and is punched. These peripheral elements, seen at a remove, help convey how much chaotic action is happening around the focus of this sequence. These bakcground elements also provide critical time information: they show that while the burning man seems to take forever to burn, it is only a moment in the grand scheme of the story. This collection of panels im emblematic of the attention to detail, beauty, and moment by moment storytelling focus that makes every second of COPRA memorable.

I am always interested in how comics go about trying to depict impossible elements like magic or time travel or reality warping physics. COPRA has some really memorable sequences in this vein. Like the above selection which features parallel scenes happening in two separate dimensions linked by a portal. The layout is directly playing with this, with the page split down the middle between the prison dimension on the left and the normal world on the right. This layout is all about playing with the permeable portal barrier between the two sides and making sure that simultaneous events are portrayed in a clear way. What this layout does very effectively is break the page into two separate vertical comic strips that interact in three tiers of time so that when the cross over event between the prisoner and the #-monster happens in the lowest tier, it is very obvious what has happened. This layout is all about taking a very complicated story beat and conveying it in an instantly understandable and visually satisfying way. It is exactly what it needs to be.

Another great sequence that deals with the impossible is this page of magic. In the page the sorcerer and his apprentice have cast a spell to contain a powerful magical artifact for study. The page conveys this by creating a cage of tiny panels around the shard-artifact to imprison it. Beyond being a great symbol for the spell, it is also creates this element of depth to the page, where each panel now has three layers so that depicted objects can be in front of or behind the plane of the panel cage. Which leads to some really, really cool features like in the second panel where the sorcerer directly interacts with the cage-panels and reaches through them and out of the page. It's a really cool effect. It's also a wonderful visual representation of magic in comics: something structurally impossible and fourth wall breaking is occurring on the page much like how magic is a phenomena that violates the rules of reality. It's absolutely great comics.

And really, all of COPRA is of this quality. If you like artistically interesting comics or just totally rad superhero comics you really need to track down COPRA Round One. It is totally worth the effort.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read COPRA: Round One.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

So I Read COPRA: Round One

Or a 250 word (or less) review of the first COPRA collection
by Michel Fiffe; Bergen Street Press

Like everyone who reads superhero comics owned by a gigantic corporation I have complicated feelings about the relationship. I love the characters and enjoy the work done by talented creators who work on my favourite titles, but at the same time the lack of endings, rotating creators, and occasionally boneheaded editorial choices of this publishing realm can be upsetting. Sometimes it feels like if only I, personally, were in control of the comics they would be better. And I think maybe Michel Fiffe had a similar feeling and independently made COPRA. COPRA started, at least, as a fan comic paying tribute to classic Jim Ostrander Suicide Squad stories and evolved to maybe be the best superhero team book I've read. The comic is about a team of renegades given purpose by COPRA, a secret black-ops organization specializing in super-powered suicide missions. Something goes wrong during an off the books mission, the team is betrayed, framed, and declared outlaw. While on the run the team must launch another suicide mission to punish the traitor and save the world. COPRA is everything I want in an action team book with memorable combat, colourful characters, and a general sense of awesomeness that is totally fun and rad. COPRA is also just a fantastic comic with a distinct style and a masterful and experimental approach to action storytelling. I am not in charge of comics, but if I was, COPRA is exactly the kind of comic I’d want to make.

Word count: 246

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Severed Streets Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Severed Streets
by Paul Cornell

The Severed Streets is a direct sequel to London Falling by Paul Cornell (For a *SPOILER* free review go here). In London Falling an unlikely collection of London Metropolitan detectives are drawn into a supernatural murder spree when the target of their undercover operation is shockingly murdered. Detectives James Quill, Kevin Sefton, and Tony Costain, and their civilian analyst Lisa Ross, gain supernatural sight when they accidentally expose themselves to a powerful totem. Gifted with The Sight they find themselves in communication with a hidden and horrifying secret London. The coppers, using their new sensitivity, to find and destroy the murderous witch Mora Losley saving London children and footballers from future deaths. Except Losley wasn't acting alone, and the powerful Smiling Man has plans for London, plans only Quill and his team can hope to stop.

In The Severed Streets, London is on fire. Political dissidents and rioters run amok in a summer of unrest, burning the city and pressing the London metropolitan police to the breaking point. Between Toff masked protestors, looters, and political mismanagement, the beleaguered Met is even contemplating a policemen's strike. And then Michael Spatley MP, the chief secretary to the Treasury, a very high ranking member of Her Majesty's government is murdered in a manner that can only be described as "impossible". Quill and his team of supernaturally sensitive detectives are sent on the case which leads them on a hunt for an invisible serial killer able to strike the most powerful men in the country anywhere. A case that will force the team to travel further into London's supernatural underworld and which will place each of them in tremendous physical and existential danger.

The Severed Streets is a cracking good detective novel. The mystery is pleasantly convoluted and the journey to solving it is a smart exercise in deduction and dream-logic. With some vibrant, charismatically flawed coppers, lovely London-English prose, and some properly exciting action sequences The Severed Streets was a really enjoyable page turner of a novel. As a detective story with supernatural horror elements, I thought The Severed Streets was a really enjoyable novel.

As a pure horror novel though, I felt like The Severed Streets wasn't as good as its predecessor London Falling. The coppers of London Falling were completely out of their depth and overwhelmed by forces with alien motivations and irresistible power; the universe was dangerously, ferociously inexplicable and the coppers seemed powerless in the face of it. Add in a few moments of truly mind-fucking dread (one moment in particular still gives me the chills) and London Falling is one completely horrifying book. The Severed Streets features a team of coppers who have more experience and are pursuing a criminal with much more mundane goals. The supernatural felt less mysterious and big and scary and more quirky, whimsical, and creepy. Less Lovecraft and more Gaiman. I found Severed Streets a far less dreadful a book and therefore a less successful work of horror.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense for the coppers of The Severed Streets to be more experienced and knowledgeable about the unseen world and for them to be more active participants and less reactive victims in this novel. And this growth in competence makes the police procedural elements work better: it is more compelling to read about detectives who can directly engage with their adversary than only react to it in fear. Besides, The Severed Streets still delivers some very disturbing moments, the way the novel depicts the cost of magic, for instance, is chilling. I just found The Severed Streets more interesting as a law enforcement novel with supernatural elements than as a horror novel starring police, which is a different experience than London Falling. 

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for something to read. It is a really well written mixture of diverse genre elements that I think makes The Severed Streets an accessible novel to a wide audience. I think if you haven't read a Paul Cornell novel than you should read London Falling first, since The Severed Streets is a direct sequel and because I found London Falling the more original and scary story. The Severed Streets is still a properly exciting and engrossing read, and is the better detective story so it is still worth checking out on its own. Honestly, I think you should find time in your reading schedule for both these novels, and if you've read London Falling and enjoyed it, you absolutely need to check out The Severed Streets too. 

Post by Michael Bround

London Falling