Monday, 25 May 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #7

Or a look at the genius of an inset panel in Spider-Woman #7
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Munsta Vicente, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics


Spider-Woman continues to be a fun, mystery driven detective comic with superhero elements. It's quickly become a staple of the lighter side of my comics reading habit. Part of this is due to the stories which blend a nicely constructed caper, a geek-eye for trivia, and the charm, humour, and scruffiness of the best down-on-her-luck detective characters. A lot of the credit, though, is the artwork in Spider-Woman which blends an effortless, clean style with some really clever layouts to make for a really great looking and effective comic. If you like good comics, Spider-Woman is something you should be reading.

There is one spread in Spider-Woman #7 that I think does a great job demonstrating what makes Spider-Woman such an infectious read.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #7.


This double page spread does a great job encapsulating everything I'm enjoying about Spider-Woman. The story of the issue is that Jessica Drew, disguised as blackmailed criminal, the Porcupine, allows herself to be taken captive to track down the blackmailer. These pages depict how Jessica escapes her captor and stows away in her abductors car to get closer to the heart of the mystery. From a pure storytelling perspective this spread does a great job showing how Jessica Drew moves through her environment and transitions from the very different positions of being chained up to smuggling herself in a car. This transition could be a huge mess, or an unsatisfying muggufin, but because of the quality of the draftsmenship here, it is instead an intellectually satisfying and fun bit of story. I also really love how much character gets built into these events: we see Jessica go from looking kind of timid in the cell, to almost casually strolling across the roof (with a stretch even), taking a clever moment to survey where she is, before skillfully slipping in the car's trunk. While this complicated escape is happening, we get to see that special mix of in-over-her-head, bravado, and skill that makes Jessica such a compelling protagonist. This spread here is basically why you should be reading this comic. 


This spread is also interesting from a more wonky comics storytelling perspective, I think. The actual doublepage spread has an inset panel that overlays the eyecatching narration and gas station sign text in the top right corner. This is a really clever decision because it primes the sequence and makes sure the reader focuses on Jessica Drew slipping out of her disguise as the beginning of the sequence. It tells us, this happens before everything else, probably before the captor is in the window, and that all of the other Jessicas on the pages come after and happen in the sequence of the intuitive path from this starting position. It is a *really* smart choice. To try and illustrate just why I am hung up on how great this inset panel is, I crudely photoshopped it out of the page and included it above. Notice how much messier the page looks, and how much harder it is to find the start point. Without the extra panel, I find myself drawn first to Jessica popping out of the roof hatch and then having to swirl around and back track to the start, which is a much less effective way of experiencing the page. This sequence might seem effortless to read, but it's only that way because of really smart, really effective comics choices.

Which is yet another reason you ought to be reading Spider-Woman.

Previously:
Spider-Woman #6: Guided chaos and multiple reading paths
Spider-Woman #5: Character Design and composition


Friday, 22 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: Persepolis Symbology

A look at the symbology in Persepolis,
by Marjane Satrapi; Pantheon Books



Persepolis is a pretty interesting comics artifact. It is a deeply intimate autobiography of a woman growing up against a tumultuous backdrop. It is a primary source document detailing the civilian life of an Iranian woman during the Revolution, ascension of Islamic Rule, and the ensuing war with neighbouring Iraq. Persepolis is also an olive branch document, one of those wonderful machines that communicate the common humanity of people from wildly different cultures. And it's also a really great comic that does some properly interesting things.

Specifically, I'm really interested in the way Marjane Satrapi is able to distill really complex ideas down to immediately understandable images. 

There will be *SPOILERS* of a sort for Persepolis below.



One of the awesome things about comics is that the picture elements of comics can be used to encode information in symbols. Instead of directly depicting the literal events happening, comics can instead use pictures that convey the idea of what is happening conceptually. It's a mode of comics that is maybe uncommon to see in more mainstream genre comics, but Persepolis is absolutely full of.  In the above selection we can see competing protests between modern and conservative dress for Iranian women distilled to it's simplest, most iconic form. Or below that the metaphor of a crowd tumbling off a large multi-person bicycle as a representation of a faltering revolution. A crowd of theatre goers who died in a fire are represented as horrific fire ghosts. A storyteller telling a scary story is represented as a simplified, gleeful monster. Refugees from the border between Iran and Iraq are shown driving between tongues of flame. A day spent aimlessly riding streetcars around and around a city is represented as a streetcar on a path of crazy unconnected lines. In each of these cases the comic chooses to shun the complexity of the actual events and instead present a simplified representation. This decision really distills each of these moments and presents them with an immediate understanding and a rapid emotional  reaction to what is depicted. It's great comics and a showcase of one of the most special elements of this media. 

Persepolis is a comic everyone should make an effort to read.

Post by Michael Bround

Previously:
So I Read Persepolis

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

So I Read Persepolis

A 250 word (or less) review of The Complete Persepolis Graphic Novel
by Marjane Satrapi; Pantheon Books



Persepolis is an autobiographic comic about being Iranian following the revolution in the 1970s. The comic depicts the life of Marjane Satrapi. It starts with her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and follows Iran's gradual transition into a repressive, fundamentalist country. Persepolis then depicts the war with Iraq, Marjane's time studying in Europe, her return to Iran as a young woman, and her eventual self-imposed exile to France. Along the way we get to experience the emotional arch of the Iranian people: see their hope in revolution, their despair as their movement is co-opted, their anguish in war, and the complex coping strategies they develop to live their lives under Islamic law. We also really get to know Marjane and watch her grow from a precocious girl to an uncertain young woman to a confident, bold woman who has outgrown the limitations of her home country. It's a wonderful and fascinating comic that let's you learn about Iran, with its good and its bad. What's more it allows us to visit and experience a part of the world that is so frequently portrayed as a caricature bogey-land in Western media. It's really a fantastic empathy engine. It's sometimes easy to think of comics as only these escapist machines, but comics like Persepolis serve as reminders that sequential art can be applied to some really powerful real life stories. 

Word count: 230

Post by Michael Bround


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Ancillary Justice Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie



Ancillary Justice is a novel about The Justice of Toren, a sentient troop carrier in the armed services of the Radch Empire. She is crewed by Ancillaries, enslaved bodies which are extensions of the ship and which are deployed ruthlessly during the annexations that grow Radchaai Space. Justice of Toren has served faithfully and diligently for centuries, but on her most recent mission, a turbulent and troubling assignment, she is betrayed and destroyed. Now only a single Ancillary, a segment of the platoon One Esk, has survived to avenge The Justice of Toren and her beloved human officers. Posing as Breq, a wandering ex-soldier, Justice of Toren One Esk is on a quest for the weapon she needs to kill the tyrant who destroyed her.

Ancillary Justice is kind of the perfect Sci-fi novel. The novel is constructed around an engrossing revenge plot and the mystery of what exactly happened to The Justice Toren and is written with this brutalist clarity that makes the novel accessible and readable. Built into this is the central conceit of the novel: a character study of someone inhuman composed of many human bodies and how that informs their views and opinions. It's a really well executed and fascinating thought experiment. The other interesting bit of speculative fiction is that Radchaai society doesn't discriminate based on gender, which leads the protagonist, Justice of Toren, to treat everyone with the same pronouns and really struggle when she has to operate in gendered situations. What's perhaps even more interesting is that the default pronouns Toren uses are feminine. It's such a small choice, but the way it constantly calls gender into question, makes every character a woman by default (where are all the men?!), is uncomfortable and weird. Which is crazy! We constantly use male pronouns as default human pronouns without thinking about it. By simply inverting this convention, Ancillary Justice really hammers home how messed up it is to us a gender-pronoun as the default since it erases half of people. It's this simple, constant, and biting analysis of gender in our society and it's great. Really, Ancillary Justice is just a great novel filled with a tense, smouldering plot, memorably characters, great Sci-fi high concepts, and really insightful contemporary analysis. It's basically everything I want in a Science Fiction novel.

I would recommend Ancillary Justice to anyone. It's won two of the most prestigious awards in genre fiction and seems to be critically acclaimed. It certainly gets my unreserved recommendation as a masterful bit of fiction. I think it's the kind of novel that transcends genre based on it's quality and is so accessibly written that I think anyone can read it and enjoy it. Regardless of your reading tastes, if you like fiction, you owe it to yourself to give Ancillary Justice a try.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #10

Or a look at colour tagging characters in WicDiv #10
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics



The Wicked + The Divine continues to be a comic with some really fascinating character design work. Every character looks like a story, with garment choices that provide a huge amount of information about their personality and role in the story. It's masterful stuff. At the same time, these elaborate character designs are also brilliantly economical, with the complexity within a recognizable motif throttled to the story demands of every issue. With WicDiv #10, it's apparent that this attention to character design even extends to the powers of the various gods, which are each recognizable and informative about the personality of their wielder. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv #10 below



I think this panel here is what really clued me into how smart the power design of WicDiv is. Here we have Inanna flying Laura to a gigantic concert in Hyde Park in a cloud of hot pink sparkles. There is just something so... care free, so Pete Pan about this image and the manifestation of Inanna's powers here that this moment feels somehow emblematic of the god.  Which I think is an effect of the pink sparkles, which have a harmless, fun, and decidedly fae aspect to them. It makes Inanna seem safe and friendly and fun and otherworldly all at once based only on the manifestation of his powers. Which is really smart comics.



This attention to power design is also really on display in the battle between Morrigan and Baphomet. Morgan's powers manifest as a murder of crows surround by an otherwordly green light. This gives her powers a goth-as-fuck quality with the scary black birds and their elegance and ornate feathers, but also, I think, something fragile and human about her living avatars. Morrigan might be dark, but she is also vulnerable. In contrast we have Baphomet whose powers manifest as fire and flaming bird skeletons. This, I think, gives us a pretty insightful look at Baphomet: fire is destructive and passionate, useful but liable to turn on those around it, it's chaotic. Baphomet's fire is also, given how it's used to repurpose Morrigan's crows, parasitic, flames need fuel and Bpahomet is clearly willing to burn down those around him to fuel his fire. Just by examining these god's powers you get clear visually distinguishable powers which makes for a cinematic fight and a glimpse into a fight between a powerful, but vulnerable woman and a destructive pyro-vampire that makes me genuinely worry for Morrigan's ability to survive this relationship. 



My favourite power/character interaction is definitely in the portrayal of Urdr's powers in her performance. Cassandra, the woman who became the god, was a journalist deeply invested in the truth, which seems to have carried over to her new role as the goddess Urdr. And I think this is reflected in her powers. For one, her performance exists in a state of black and white, colours that exist in a strict binary and carry with them a definitive weight. Cassandra/Urdr sees the world as being built of concrete facts, that reality is a metaphorically black and white construction and this is reflected in her powers. I also *love* the way lines are incorporated into the portrayal of Urdr's powers. Urdr, a goddess of fate, is tied up with the idea of measuring a person's life or future along a yarn-like strand. Also, Cassandra the human, as a journalist is dedicated to untangling facts and finding the connections between them to weave a story, so this motif also works quite well for the pre-Urdr human as well. So this motif of strands, of literally connecting people together in a web is perfect visual symbol for the goddess and a great glimpse into the way that Cassandra/Urdr hopes to use facts to connect people to a broader truth. Which is all just really deep comics.

Also, just as an aesthetic choice, the way the shadows around Urdr are constructed of crosshatched lines, is just too clever. The attention to detail in Wicdiv is endlessly fun.



Another great example of the way powers are used to inform characters is in WicDiv #7 when Woden tempts a former Valkyrie with a return to glory only to reveal that it is an illusion and that he is a jerk. What's significant about this scene is that there is a degree of pixelation in Woden's illusion as it breaks down, which plays into his Daft Tron motif. Which makes this manifestation of Woden's power instantly recognizable as belonging to him. This way his powers are portrayed also suggests a degree of robotic-ness to Woden, that he is unemotional or at least that he lacks a certain human empathy. Given his shitty behaviour in this scene, the pixelation here gives just that little bit extra insight into the fact that Woden is really not a very nice person.

The Wicked + The Divine might be one of the best examples of how excellent design choices can really play into the portrayal of characters to make for some really efficient and evocative comics. It's great stuff.



Also, I think I've developed a theory about how WicDiv might end. I'm not going to say what it is, mostly on the very off choice that I'm right and accidentally spoil something, but I do want to kind of put it in writing that I have an idea. 

Previously:
WicDiv #1 and popart head-splosions
WicDiv #2 and the use of black-space
WicDiv #3 and character design

WicDiv #4 and body language 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character
WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering
WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout
WicDiv #9 and the economics of design

Friday, 15 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: One Wickedly Divine Plot Map

Or a radial plot map of The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics



The Wicked + The Divine is one of my favourite comics right now. It is a comic that does everything well and is a showcase for the many ways you can encode information into sequential art. It's also a comic with a pretty great design aesthetic and a chapter intro/recap page that has a really great character/plot diagram. One that I thought would lend itself to a unique plot diagram of the entire first volume.

Or put another way, it's infographic time!

Since it's a plot map there will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv Vol. 1 below.

Click on the image below to see a bigger version. Or here for the full size.



Post by Michael Bround

Previously:
So I Read WicDiv: Vol. 1

WicDiv #1 and popart head-splosions
WicDiv #2 and the use of black-space
WicDiv #3 and character design

WicDiv #4 and body language 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character
WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering
WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout
WicDiv #9 and the economics of detail

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

So I Read The Wicked + The Divine: The Faust Act

A 250 word (or less) review of WicDiv Vol. 1
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles; Image Comics



The Wicked + The Divine is a comic about the glorious, precarious act of being a famous creative. In the comic a pantheon of pan-cultural gods are reincarnated every 90 years. The once-human hosts of these deities are given tremendous power and fame, but there is a catch: they only have 2 years to enjoy it before dying. The modern reincarnation has styled themselves popstars, and Laura, a young fan, wants a piece of the action, fuck the consequences. WicDiv is a triumph of collaborative comics showcasing a group of talented creators at their best, working together seamlessly to create a great comics experience. The writing is top notch delivering an exciting, fun plot and dialogue that just roars off the page. This is wedded to expert artwork filled with wonderful character designs, achingly perfect character acting, excruciating attention to detail and some incredible, bold flourishes of experimental comics. WicDiv is one of the most technically complete comics I'm reading. It's also one of the most thematically dense. WicDiv uses it's lens of Pop music gods to examine life in the spotlight, the relationship between creators and fans, ancient myths, and the looming spectre of inevitable death. It's a really smart book that is a treasure trove of comics craft. The Wicked + The Divine is also a comic that's just really fucking fun: it's a comic about sexy Popstar gods! Comics this enjoyable and this well made are treasures and we should all read them before our ultimate demise. 

Word count: 250

Post by Michael Bround

Previously:
WicDiv #1 and popart head-splosions
WicDiv #2 and the use of black-space
WicDiv #3 and character design

WicDiv #4 and body language 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character

WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering

WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout

WicDiv #9 and the economics of detail