Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #19

Or an attempt to explain the quiet brilliance of lighting in WicDiv #19
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The thing I struggle to write about the most in comics is colouring. Colouring is obviously an important aspect of comics; fleshing out the world, influencing the mood of the story, and frequently participating directly in storytelling. It is absolutely integral to comics. Colouring is also obviously a craft filled with meticulous choices by creative experts. And I think there is valuable insight in talking about the thought process underlying colouring decisions. When colouring is participating in storytelling by doing something unorthodox or obviously deliberate, it can be fairly straightforward to analyze and build an essay around. But a lot of the time colouring is kind of subtle, something that permeates the composition but is so... there... that it can maybe be taken for granted as a creative choice. It's like... colour in the real world: filled with beauty and information, but easy to not dwell on directly. And I think that ignoring the way colouring, even the more subtle aspects of it, builds the comic world is a mistake.

So bearing all of that in mind, I think WicDiv #19 is subtly a masterwork in comics colouring.

There will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv #19 below.

An aspect of colouring that I feel doesn't get it's due is lighting. (And I say this as someone who has never written an article on lighting.) Lighting in visual media can be as simple as making things seem real, since real-life human vision experiences highlights and shadows. An absence of attention to light sources can, with certain styles of pencils, distractingly deviate from our expectations. Lighting can also add certain elements of mood. On a simple note, cultural/biological training means people are trained to view bright things as cheerful and safe and darkness as uncomfortable or dangerous. The way lighting is used can dramatically change the experience of art. And, in a coloured comic, the light quality is governed by colour choice and how the shading of those colours are effected by light sources more than anything else.

Take the above selection which shows Dionysus being dragged out of a cheap-looking takeaway restaurant into the shadowy underground. The sequence first shows the fluorescent lighting of the restaurant, with its institutional even lighting causing soft highlights and shadows. Then the comic switches to the Underground, a virtually lightless world of shadowy, desaturated figures. Portraying the Underground as greyed-out characters on a black background is an inspired choice because it replicates human night vision. Human night vision is effectively colourblind since the most sensitive light sensing cells of the eye operates on a light/no-light binary; designing a colour palette that is true to that sells the darkness of the location and helps make the comic feel more real. The choice of plunging the Underground in a nightvision darkness also, I think, plays into making this location feel desperate, paranoid, and hidden which helps inform the mental state of the characters. All of this lighting collectively provides a clear scene change break, but also helps cement the Underground as a real and particular kind of place. 

(Looking at this sequence again makes me wonder to what extent the WicDiv use of the Underground is inspired by the use of the London Underground as a bomb shelter during WW2...)

An area of particular strength in WicDiv #19 is the use of discrete light sources. Because so much of the comic occurs in low lighting, light sources stand out more than they would in a brighter comic. The above selection has one very obvious light source in the third panel, where the green light from the owl's projector eye is especially apparent. In this panel, the path, highlights, and shadows of the light are apparent. In addition, the open doorway throughout the composition is a source of blue/white light that influences the overall colour and the highlights of all of the depicted characters in the scene. What is great about this selection, is that you can see how the system of highlights and shadows change in response to the two light sources above. It's such an effortless thing to read through, but dealt with in a granular, deliberate way it becomes apparent how much thought must have gone into crafting the lighting in this sequence.

I kind of can't get over how effortless the execution of these multiple light source sequences are in WicDiv #19. Like, this page here has diffuse green projector glow, a dark panel, and then panels governed by the concentric glow of a cigarette. Which again, is a lot of visual information for the colourist to build into the page. On top of that, this sequence does such smart things with the colour. In the top row of panels, Gentle Annie is suffused with an otherworldly green glow, while vicious Badb is plunged into darkness. This, I think, captures the differences and transition between personas. The next panels are governed by Persephone's cigarette, which in the third panel give her visual primacy. This gives he a kind of leader-type-feel and, by planting the reader's attention so firmly on Persephone, sets the pacing for the final dramatic beat of the comic. This is all really smart storytelling predicated largely on the use shadows and light sources. Which again, is so subtle but so smart.

And in amazing burying the lead news, WicDiv #19 also has a drag out battle between the gods in the darkness of the underground. Which is really just a total fucking light show, since so many of the gods have powers that involve glowing things. Baal is throwing out white-blue lighting, Persephone controls glowing green tendrils, Amaterasu flies like a radiant sun, Woden and company have fluorescent Tron armour, and Baphomet is laying about with a big flaming stick. It is a riot of different light sources throwing out highlights and shadows interacting in a complex, motion heavy scene. Making this lighting mess visually sensical and effortless is truly epic comics colouring. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Interrogating Black Widow #3

Or a look at out of focus storytelling in Black Widow #3
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matthew Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Something that I've really enjoyed about the current iteration of Black Widow is how the creative team uses eye guiding to enhance storytelling. You might be tired of hearing me bang on about this, but I think it's really cool how eye guiding can be used to highlight key features of a page, pace the story, and to create a tangible sense of motion to make action feel more kinetic. When done well, like it so often is in Black Widow, it's amazing. Black Widow #3 puts an interesting twist on this kind of storytelling by not only calling the reader's attention to key elements of the composition, but by also bypassing other important moments in the page to create earned surprises. It is a really cool twist on eye guiding and I want to unpack a couple examples from the issue here.

There will be *SPOILERS* below. 

The first use of subterfuge-guiding in Black Widow #3 is this sequence of Black Widow being pursued through a crowd by a SHIELD agent. First of all it's a great example of eye guiding in comics. The page uses sight lines and speech bubbles to bring the reader across the top row, and uses the held wire in the top-right panel to orient the carriage return. The reader then encounters Black widow observing her tail which transitions into a crowd scene that uses colour and inset panels to show the agent, Black Widow, and her actions. This row is particularly interesting because it uses the tangents of the wire to nudge the reader to Black Widow and to swing the reader into the next panel where the character is tripped! The final panel uses the crowd to push the reader to the agent and his dialogue before the reader leaves the page. It's a pretty great composition.

On the next page Black Widow is wearing a disguise that she got from somewhere... Or maybe you noticed the one-armed naked mannikin at the very end of the page. Regardless, the key story snippet, the disguise itself, is buried in the composition in plain sight. The reader can see it, but because it isn't emphasized by the eye guiding, perhaps even hidden behind the emphasized Black Widow, it initially appears like background set dressing. It isn't until the nude mannikin or the disguise at the airport that the outfit in the window becomes important. Which is a neat trick because it allows the comic to deploy a little surprise that is constructed out of information available to the reader. 


A simpler, and maybe more directly relevant of subterfuge-guiding is this sequence. On this page, Black Widow garrotes a guard, sees a child or maybe memory of her childhood through a window, and then is surprisingly struck by the guard she was in the process of subduing. The eye guiding on this page is relatively straight forward, with clear east-to-west moves before a carriage return that heavily emphasizes the bright window with the girl in it. The page then takes a clear turn into the motion of the guard striking black widow using the shape of their arms and the onomatopoeia to pull the reader through the motion. What's cool about this sequence is that the girl-in-the-window panel is highlighted so much that it distracted me from the more peripheral elements of that panel. This meant that I didn't notice that the guard is depicted getting his hand under the garrotte wire and is escaping from the distracted Widow. As a result, when the guard strikes Black Widow in the final panel it was surprising and, because I could double back to the preceding panel, it felt earned and satisfying. Which is really fantastic storytelling: in the same way Widow is distracted from noticing the guard escape because of what she is seeing, the reader is also distracted from seeing the guard escape. It's using emphasis and slight-of-hand to generate the experience of the protagonist in the reader. 

Black Widow #1

Black Widow #2

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Service Update: Sick Day

No update this week... again

Sorry everyone. I got back from my vacation and came down the the ur-cold. The cold that shattered Pangea and killed the dinosaurs and sunk Atlantis and now stalks the airways to strike down unwary travellers. Unfortunately my wife also has the ur-cold. Our baby who already had it and gave it to us, and was basically mostly okay and open to adventures when she had it, has decided to take advantage of parental weakness. She has discovered a new game called doing what she isn't allowed to provoke a reaction. Which she finds hilarious (and which problematically kind of is). So, uh, no updates? Things should resume next week. 

(Is it normal for babies who are 9 months old to already be testing social boundaries like this? I though we would have more time...)

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Service Update: Vacation

No post this week.

Hi all, I'm on a much deserved vacation. Which means there will not be a post this week. Sorry! Regular posts will resume next week.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Monitoring Moon Knight #1

Or a look at the use of style to convey narrative in Moon Knight #1 
by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood, Jordie Bellaire, and Cory Petit; Marvel Comics

Moon Knight #1 is the kind of comic I usually steer clear of. It's a relaunch of a series that has just been relaunched several times. I fairly recently read an iteration of the series that I *really* enjoyed as a cohesive, complete experience. I don't really have strong feelings about Moon Knight as a character, and since reading a little Cerebus I'm having some trouble taking him seriously ("Unorthodox Economic Vengeance!"). And yet... Jordie Bellaire only seems to work on good comics, Jeff Lemire has created several comics I enjoy, and Greg Smallwood's artwork is immediately, obvious good. So it's really on the strength of the creative team that I even tried this comic. And I am pretty glad that I did.

Moon Knight #1 is also the kind of comic I love to write about: it is a very accomplished comic that uses a number of stylistic elements to convey narrative information and create an immersive reading experience. Which I'll try and unpack below.

There will of course be *SPOILERS*.

One of the choices I really like about Moon Knight #1 is the use of very wide white gutter spaces. This choice gives the entire comic a soft, almost hazy feeling. This effect is apparent throughout the issue, but is particularly obvious in certain pages which actively use the white space to show Spectre slipping in and out of consciousness, whiting out in what feels like a slow and muzzy way. Overall, I suggest the passive and active use of white margins works to create a sense of floating, semi-conciousness that really adds to the ambiguity of the comic and sense that the narratoring perspective may be unreliable. It's great stuff.

Another of the stylistic choices in Moon Knight #1 that I find so effective is the dual colouring styles used in the issue. The comic opens on a pair of pages of Marc Spectre exploring an Ancient Egyptian temple as part of a hallucination/vision. This sequence features a grainy, sketchy colour palette that uses 'painted' highlights and specks of pigment to create a decidedly artificed world.  By which I mean, the stylistic choices of this opening sequence manages to look like something created by an artist (a fictional environment) but also extremely granular and high resolution (a hyper-realistic environment). The more mundane elements of the comic which tell the story of Marc Spectre committed to some sort of mental hospital feature flat colours and a much more conventional comics look. This creates an immediate codified demarcation between the fantastical world of the comic and the mundane world.

Part of what makes this colouring choice so powerful in the comic is how it works to collide the supernatural/insane elements of the comic with the mundane. When Spectre becomes Moon Knight or hears the voice of his god Kohnshu elements of the scratchy, granular colouring creep into the comic, creating an emotional contrast between these elements. This also creates a palpable sense of dread/power in the supernatural elements: they feature distinct colouring so *something* must be happening, maybe Spectre isn't insane...

And then there are the pages where the divisions break down and the flat colouring of the mundane world and the gritty, sketchy aesthetic of the supernatural collide. Where Moon Knight is free to attack the nurse/jackals that have been imprisoning and seemingly abusing him throughout the comic. This is depicted wonderfully in a flurry of small, circular panels that chaotically capture individual moments of violence. It's a page out-of-control and unhinged, and manages to capture a maniac fury in a clear and visually interesting way. Collectively, it's a great choice that I think manages to establish this incarnation of Moon Knight as dangerous and which implies that there is potentially an element of supernatural power about the possibly insane man.

I think this double-page spread is my favourite use of the supernatural/mundane colouring. The page depicts New York apparently mixed up with some sort of Ancient Egyptian-inspired hellscape. While I can spot elements of paint splatter and sketchy colours, these elements are subdued compared to panels and sequences that are more clearly entrenched in either Spectre's mind or the possibly hallucinated. Instead this page features mostly the more flat colouring of the mundane elements of the comic, despite the impossible thing being depicted. The white margins also fall away for the first time in the comic, making the page feel bigger, sharper, and more real. This creates this wonderful moment of ambiguity: is this all a hallucination of Spetre's? Could this really be happening? The colouring, which has been used to codify this, is unclear. And so by establishing, utilizing, and then subverting the colour conventions of the comic, Moon Knight #1 manages to call into question what in the comic is even really happening. Which is great.

I read Moon Knight #1 because of the creative team, but will read #2 on the strength of the execution of the first issue.


Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Deep Sequencing: Space Crime Scene Investigation

Or a look at the use of setting in The Fuse Vol. 1 and Mercury Heat Vol. 1
by Antony Johnston, Justin Greenwood, Shari Chankhamma, and Ryan Ferrier, as well as, Kieron Gillen, Omar Francia, Nahuel Lopez, Digikore Studios, Kurt Hathaway, respectively

In my day job I have often meet accomplished clinician-scientists who have built careers on studying people with diseases caused by rare mutations. These researchers find interesting, serendipitous comparisons between people that uncover novel facets of biology and also potentially treat people with rare diseases. I think the same principle can be applied to comics: finding comics with some unifying aspect and contrasting how they approach that commonality can be informative. (A classic example is the different approaches to scripting a beach scene between Moore and Ennis.) And I think The Fuse and Mercury Heat are a pretty ideal pair to examine.

The Fuse and Mercury Heat are both Science Fiction comics that revolve around Space Police solving a murder. The Fuse takes place on an orbiting, power-collecting space station and is functionally a detective procedural that provides a social commentary and satisfying mystery. Mercury Heat takes place on Mercury, in a space colony built around exporting solar energy to Earth, and skews toward an Action-Sci-fi adventure with policing elements. While these comics are distinct from a plot/theme perspective, The Fuse and Mercury Heat have similar enough settings that comparing the two comics is interesting. Moreover, I think The Fuse does a much more effective job utilizing it's setting than Mercury Heat and I think it's instructive to examine this in more detail.

Before I do that, though, I'd like to just point out that I enjoyed both of these comics quite a lot. I think The Fuse is maybe the better social critique of the two, and is certainly the better police-comic with a much more granular and engrossing mystery. However, I also think Mercury Heat is a better work of Science Fiction: some of it's ideas, like everyone being freelance contractors working for a central-sorting AI-application, are kind of brilliant. My point is both comics have their strengths and both are worth reading; I just happen to think The Fuse makes better use of setting than Mercury Heat. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for both Mercury Heat Vol. 1 and The Fuse Vol. 1 below.

The cold open in Mercury Heat is that a man is stranded on the surface of Mercury. Mercury is noteworthy because dayside of the planet surface is inhospitably hot while the nightside of the planet experiences temperatures which are unendurably cold. The trick to surviving on Mercury, depends on living in the twilight/dawn region that exists between the two extremes and which, due to Mercury's very long day, moves at something like walking speed. So this man stranded on Mercury is trying to outrun the dawn and avoid frying to death. Except he can't and he dies by solar immolation.

The issue here is that this isn't at all clear from the artwork in Mercury Heat. The camera is focused in so far that as a reader I never get the sense of impending dawn or that the doomed man is running on the surface of the planet. Or really, that the comic is taking place on Mercury at all since what is shown is a non-descript Sci-fi setting. Which is, in my opinion, a shame because I think this could have been a grand, hook the reader kind of moment that doesn't quite work because the setting isn't used effectively.

The issues with communicating setting continue past the opening sequence of Mercury Heat. While the comic takes place inside some sort of Mercury-based space colony, I still can't really describe what that entails or what it looks like. Most of Mercury Heat portrays its world as a series of generic looking space-corridors and while there are some establishing shots (I've tried to gather the best I could find above), they fail to provide good information on what the Mercury Colony looks like, or what the lives of its denizens might be like. Like, I cannot tell you if Mercury has a surface city, a buried city, or as is the case in a few Sci-fi things I've read, a moving city that paces the twilight/dawn zone. Which is a shame, because it deprives Mercury Heat a sense of place, some degree of believability, and fails to capitalize on the awesome fact that it takes place on Mercury.

(I'm willing to concede that the narrow focus and sheer corridor-ness of Mercury Heat *could* be a meta-commentary/nod to other Sci-fi works that, constrained by budget, also go heavy on the corridor and light on the awesome space setting. I'm pretty sure the tight outfit and undesirable "personality type" of the protagonist (among other things) are an unspoken commentary/satire of the Sci-fi girl-with-a-gun trope, so it's not impossible that Team Heat is Doing A Thing. Or that what I'm examining here as an omission may actually be a deliberate creative choice.)

The Fuse, in contrast does a much better job establishing its setting. The comic also opens with a murder, although this sequence is much more mundane and takes place in a fairly nondescript communal space that could literally be anywhere. Immediately following this, however, The Fuse gives us a double page spread showing us the entire space station. This gives the reader an immediate sense of place and established that the reader is in a fantastical, space world. The juxtaposition of the mundane murder with the space station also helps establish one of the thematic cores of the series: despite the futuristic and exotic setting, the denizens of The Fuse are beset by the same squalor, corruption, and immorality as humanity always has been. This contrast between the Sci-fi promise of the premise and the mundane reality of the story really drives home the social commentary of the comic.

The Fuse builds on this setting and continues to make use of the contrast between fantastical and mundane elements. The comic takes us to what is recognizably an inhabited city inside the space station, or a wealthy suburb inclosed beneath a space-dome. It shows us a vagrant camp built into an out-of-the-way bit of station infrastructure. The comic takes the reader to a gravity-free observatory where station inhabitants can watch Earth (and where they explain the super-clever origins of "The Russia Shift). These are settings that manage to incorporate the space-elements of the station and merge them with recognizable, contemporary elements which convey information to the reader about things like economic class, but also carefully maintain the juxtaposition of the mundane and futuristic. It is very effective comics that really makes the most of the setting a socially conscious police procedural in space.

Mercury Heat does have one sequence that makes great use of its setting. In one of the final chapters, the comic's protagonist finds herself marooned on the surface of Mercury and, like the poor soul in the opening sequence, forced to outrun the dawn to survive. In this instance the camera pulls back to give the reader a view of rugged, craterous Mercury and the context to appreciate the predicament of the protagonist. The sequence feels dangerous and suspenseful and great, in large part, I think, because of the large scale portrayal of setting. It is also, I think, one of the most enjoyable sequences in the comic, and I hope, a sign that setting is going to be a more active element of Mercury Heat going forward.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Interrogating Black Widow #2

Or a breakdown of a really great page in Black Widow #2
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Black Widow #1 was one of the most satisfying single issues of comics I've ever read. It made tremendous use of mystery and silent-running comics to drive an engrossing, amazing action sequence that perfectly establishes the stakes and tone of the series. Black Widow #2 has the unenviable job of providing the context and underlying details to make the series work. Fortunately, Team Widow is up to the task and created a compelling comic filled with atmosphere, style, and fantastic storytelling. One page of which I want to take a closer look at, because it pulls off a really cool trick.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Black Widow #2

One of the aspects of comics storytelling that I find really interesting is the interplay between artwork and the readers path through a page. And this page is a fantastic example of why I find this stuff so compelling. The story here is that Black Widow is quietly dispatching a group of soldier/assassins set to attack a secret SHIELD funeral. The reader enters the page in the top panel, reads some dialogue, and then carriage returns across the page to meet the silhouette of a running Black Widow in the second panel. This primes an action where Widow tackles the goon in the foreground of the second panel, through the third panel, and leaving him sprawled in the fourth. This action feels heavy and significant as it carries through multiple panels. It also feels quick and fluid since the motion carries along a tangent line created by an underlying triangle formed by the standing-goon, motion blur, and sprawled goon. This provides a clear reading path for the reader and increases the speed of the reader. This triangle/reading path also deposits the reader in the bottom right corner of the fourth panel, which means the reader looks back at the next-goon and sees Black Widow swinging around his neck. This means the reader moves along the path of Widow jumping onto next-goon in a quick, kinetic way. The position of Widow on next-goon also provides a shape that pulls the reader up and around the pair and then down along the cross page carriage return to the final panel where Widow has broken next-goons neck. When you put this entire sequence together the reader follows Widow's motion as she carries out the entire takedown: jumping onto the goon, swinging around him, and then throwing him down to a violent neck-snapping crash. This is the reading path that is established and provides the reader with an evocative sequence that animates the static artwork into a kinetic experience. And given the sheer complexity of the motion this effortless seeming reading path is a remarkable and bonkers bit of comics magic.

Black Widow continues to be a really, really great comic.

Black Widow #1