Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Fortress Of Solitude Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

I try to go into novels with very few expectations beyond some familiarity with the authors track record and some basic idea about what the plot will be about. Like, I have a sense what a thriller novel by a favourite author who writes thrillers or an idea of what the Sci-fi sequel of another favourite author might be like. This sense of what to expect gives me some idea of whether I will enjoy the novel, whether its the right choice for a particular week, and let's me gear up for the necessary mode of reading. (A silly Fantasy romp needs a far different mental process than Gravity's Rainbow and delivers a radically different reading experience.) My point here is that I usually try to have some idea of whether I want a reading meal before I order it.

I was grossly mistaken about what kind of book The Fortress of Solitude is.

For some reason that I can't quite explain, I thought that Fortress would be vaguely genre and kind of existentially whimsical. Maybe kind of a bittersweet coming of age story that centres around comic books or some sort of supernatural experience. I knew race, the American black-white divide would be important, but figured it would be observed through the lens of Superheroics. I thought it would be kind of like a Silver-to-Bronze Age version of the excellent The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, since Jonathan Lethem clearly has the genre love, geekiness, and sheer prose writing chops to realize such a book.

This is not what The Fortress of Solitude is at all!

Instead The Fortress of Solitude is a novel about the experience of isolation.

The early sections of the depict the childhood of Dylan Edbus, a young white boy growing up in a very black neightbourhood of Brooklyn in the 1970s. The novel beautifully recreates his young life, the size and enormity of street games with the local kids, the challenges of fitting into a racially different neighbourhood, the tragedy of his broken family, and what happens when he strikes up an unexpected friendship with Mingus Rude, a black boy from another broken home, and they discover a magic ring that lets them fly. The latter part of the book deals with a grown up Dylan as he tries to come to terms with an adult life irrevocably marred by his childhood experiences. From a purely narrative perspective it is a powerful and beautiful character story and a vivid depiction of a certain moment in American history.

The Fortress of Solitude really shines thematically. The novel plays with the difference between the epic scale of childhood and contrasts it with the jaded perspective of adults in a way I found really resonated with my own experience. Fortress also examines the difference between the Black and White experience in America in a really visceral and empathetic way. The book delves into the grand debate between the power of flight, the need to be seen and loved and virtuous, and the power of invisibility, that base desire to be anonymous and exempt and amoral. Most of all though, the novel examines isolation and solitude imposed by obsession or wanderlust or race or self-imposed myopia. It's a story element that I think any introvert can really relate to. For all of the story, it is these cavernous depths to the book that I found to be the most captivating.

So yeah, The Fortress of Solitude isn't a genre-friendly coming of age story and is instead a deeply thoughtful book about isolation, race, and gradually maturing views on life. It wasn't what I was expecting, but was much more satisfying.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for something substantial to read. This is a brick of prose and while it is certainly geek friendly, making many references to geek media, it isn't a fun genre novel. Instead The Fortress of Solitude is a serious work of literary fiction, and if you want to read a really great, nerd-accessible literary novel I can think of few better to choose from. And really, if you are a socially incompetent introvert, this book has depths for you to plunge into. It's really worth the investment of effort and time.

Post by Michael Bround

Monday, 6 July 2015

Brooding About Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier # 9

Or a look at incorporating character symbology into layout in BB:TWS #9
by Ales Kot, Marco Rudy, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier continues to be a comic that exemplifies just how great painted-style comics can look. The comic is also a great showcase of just how effective layout can be as a tool to impart a sense of motion or identity to static artwork. Previously, I pointed out some of the really great ways the creative team incorporated character symbols into layout to visually key pages and spreads to certain characters. In BB:TWS #9, the team continues to play with this tool in some really interesting ways. Since I still find this approach so interesting, I'm going to take another look at it.

There will, as always, be *SPOILERS!* below.

Take these pages focusing on Crossbones as he targets the planet Mer-Z-Bow with a planet-sized gun. The layout is built out of a skull, the emblem of this villain, and so the pages are obviously linked to him. This layout is also, much like the threat Crossbones poses in the story, decidedly unsubtle: the pages are constructed out of a goddamn skull, with all of the menace and cultural meaning that implies. Crossbones represents poison and death and he is one deeply bad dude. Which is all conveyed from the way the layout is constructed.

(This is also a pretty significant moment in the broader themes of BB:TWS since Crossbones story is deeply tragic: his crusade of inter-universal murder originates in a childhood tragedy. For him to discuss his motivations, which bear a marked similarity to the security state, within the rictus of a skull is pretty significant stuff.)

A more subtle character note that is incorporated into layouts is Loki's. Early in the comic we see a page where the panels bend and warp to the shape of Loki's horned helm. It's a great structure since it is emblematic of the trickster's look and also tells us something about the god's role in the story: the very fabric of the comic bends to his imagination. As Loki's plan is revealed throughout the comic, I think we see this motif repeated providing a visual cue to Loki and to the way Loki has warped the comic to his will. It's a really clever choice.

This page is kind of the culmination of why I think these character based design elements are so clever. In the story this page represents the final domino in Loki's plan where he effectively gives the heroes of the story his catch 22: they can succumb to him and save Daisy Johnson from Crossbones, or stop him and probably doom their friend. This story is built into a layout that starts with normal square borders, gets drawn into the loki-horn warped panels as the plan is revealed, and then finally resolves into the radial bullseye iconography of Daisy Johnson as it is revealed she is in danger. It's a brilliant page that expresses the relevant characters at play in the fabric of the layout. Absolutely wonderful comics.


Friday, 3 July 2015

Deep Sequencing: Openings Are Always Cold On The Moon

Or a look at the fantastic cold open n Shutter: Vol. 1
by Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca, Owen Gieni, and Ed Brisson; Image Comics

First impressions are important. I mean, ultimately people and stories will be judged by their content, but before all that, they live or die by first impressions. A cover can get someone to pick up a book or comic, a well delivered opening line of prose can hook a reader, and a great opening page of a comic can instantly transport a reader to a fiction world. When first impressions are well made with fiction the reader is invested from the opening moment and bought in to the ongoing story. 

Leveraging first impressions is interesting to me. I mean, it's been more than a year, but "A screaming comes across the sky", the opening sentence of Gravity's Rainbow, still has its hooks in me and captures the spirit of that Matterhorn of prose. Or the opening of Bitch Planet, which is a simple seeming intro that is really a wonderfully layered and granular machine that provides the reader with everything they need to know about the setting and themes of the comic. Or the opening to Shutter which...

...which I want to take a closer look at.

Okay. So Shutter Vol. 1. You open the comic and bam!

This is what you see. The barren, cratered desert of the moon, a field of stars, and a child in retro-sci-fi spacesuit asking to go home like it isn't a big deal on a double page spread. Bam! Pa-Zow!

It's kind of perfect.

Shutter is a comic that plays with the tropes of genre adventure stories in an imaginative, brilliantly crazy world. Ninja ghost assassins led by a steampunk robot riding a chicken-monster-thing have a fight in the middle of a city with police driving flying saucers. Minotaur business men ride the subway to work. Shutter is a comic filled with a riot of wonder that gleefully defies logical rules and begs for us to buy into the fun and mayhem. This double page spread captures the spirit of this perfectly. The cheerfully bright spacesuit, with it's impractical, exaggerated form and child proportions, casually running on the moon is a bold, crazy image. It's an absurd image and, since sending humans to the moon is one of the pinnacles of human technical achievement,  a very powerful one. The huge size of the splash makes it feel huge and impressive and epic. And yet, here is this kid expressing boredom. This is amazing, yet the kid just wants to go home. Which creates the unspoken question: what else is happening in this world that makes standing on the moon seem mundane. I would argue that this doublepage spread, this single image, absolutely nails the spirit of Shutter: we have raw, unadulterated wonder mixed with fantasy, a character jaded by it, and the promise of wilder things to come. Seeing it I instantly had an impression of Shutter and knew I was going to enjoy it. 

So I turned the page again.

And was pleased with what I found.

Shutter Vol. 1 has a brilliant cold open and has a story that lives up to it.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read Shutter

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

So I Read Shutter: Wanderlost

Or a 250 word or less review of Shutter: Vol. 1
by Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca, Owen Gieni, and Ed Brisson; Image Comics

There is a certain vein of adventure media from my youth that would pair a dashing adult explorer-type with their kid and send them on amazing quests filled with mystery, magic, horror, and generally impossible things. These stories would always be action packed, but would always turn out alright for the heroes who would learn life lessons and maybe enjoy a wholesome beverage at the end of every misadventure. Shutter is kind of like the comic that wades into this nostalgia-hazed sub-genre and applies real world rules and consequences to this hyper-fantastic world. Which, it turns out, makes for a pretty compelling read! Specifically, Shutter tells the story of Kate Christropher, the only daughter and partner of legendary explorer Chris Christopher, a decade after his death. While she still lives in a fantastic world filled with a cat-alarm clock robot, minotaurs, fairies, UFO police, and a billion other crazy things, she is trying to build a mundane and comfortable life for herself. Except on her 27th birthday Kate is ambushed at her father's grave by ninja ghosts and a steampunk robot and now finds herself the target of assassins and kidnappers working for a mysterious force. Now Kate must return to the life of danger and adventure to survive and confront whoever it is behind these attacks. Shutter is, as I've mentioned before, a compelling read.

Word count: 226

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Resistance Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Resistance,
by Samit Basu

Resistance is a direct sequel to the fantastic Superhero novel Turbulence. Resistance picks up eleven years after the events of Turbulence and portrays a world overrun with super-powered humans. The world is defended by The UNIT led by the super-charismatic Uzma, Japan is defended from Kaiju by a Mecha piloting team of Sentai, Aman Sen is rumoured to have died but continues to work through an internet-ghost with an army of Tias, Utopic, a giant corporation, is capturing and commodifying Supers, and all of the worlds mystics and fortune tellers are predicting the end of the world on the same day. And someone is hunting down and killing Supers. Basically the chaotic, super-battle riddled future as usual. But it falls to the far-flung heroes of Turbulence, the first-wave supers of flight BA142 from London to Delhi, to unite again and save their bizarre new world. Ka-pow!

Resistance is pure saccharine Superheroics in prose form. It has all of the super-action, team melodrama, and tongue-in-cheek humour the genre demands! It is pretty good fun and a book that any fan of Turbulence should enjoy. That said, I don't think it is as good as Turbulence. Turbulence provided superhero fun, but also a pretty focused story and an interesting look at modern India. Resistance is a much more straightforward Superhero story playing with more familiar tropes in the toybox of the Turbulence world. It's a very fun, light read, but not a very challenging novel. 

I would recommend Resistance to anyone who really enjoyed Turbulence. Even if it is a light sequel, it still features Turbulences memorable characters and sense of fun. I think fans of the first book will get a lot out of the second. If you haven't read Turbulence I'm not sure I can recommend Resistance, it is very tied to the events of the first novel and doesn't stand very well on its own. That said, if you haven't read Turbulence, particularly if you are fan of Cape Comics, then you really, really should check it out. And then maybe read Resistance. 

Post by Michael Bround


Monday, 29 June 2015

Describing Daredevil #16

Or a look at using background to drive storytelling in Daredevil #16
by Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

In my last post I wrote about how reducing background detail can be a tool to drive attention to the foreground in comics using a great example from Spider-Woman. Daredevil #16 has a great example of the opposite where background detail is used to drive storytelling in a vastly simplified foreground. So I thought it would be timely to take a look at this really, really smart use of background.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Daredevil #16.

An ongoing theme of this iteration of Daredevil is blindness. This series has continuously built really compelling stories and moments around Matt Murdock's lack of eyesight, either playing with the challenges this disability causes the man or, frequently, the ways in which he "sees" better than normal by not being limited by sight. This approach has led to some really compelling stories that examine how taken for granted sight is, and the manner in which this clouds our expectations. This approach has also generated some truly astonishing moments where our assumptions are challenged in really surprising and often ironic ways. Daredevil #16 has a fantastic example of this.

So you really ought to read the issue before reading on from here.

Daredevil #16 sees Matt Murdock turn to The Kingpin to strike a deal to help Daredevil protect his loved ones and disappear. Kingpin suggests that he wants to mull the offer over in his gallery, surrounded by his favourite art. The pair continues their conversation in the gallery where Murdock, due to his blindness, cannot appreciate the artwork and where we the reader only catch glimpses. It's a fun situation that initially just seems like Kingpin being a jerk to Murdock because he knows Murdock is blind...

Except when the background is finally revealed we see that this gallery is so much more than a collection of fine art. Unexpectedly, the Kingpin's gallery is made up of paintings depicting the death and torture of Daredevil over and over and over again. Which is deliciously ironic because Murdock thinks he is in control of the situation and we can all see, but he can't, that Kingpin's hatred of him is beyond his ken: unbeknownst to him he is probably in way over his head. It's also a wonderful twist because this museum of Fisk's hatred is revealed to us following Murdock saying ""I offer you the death of Matt Murdock. Interested?" Which, given the artwork, Fisk transparently is. It's just a perfect comics moment and emblematic of why I enjoy this comic so much.

It's also a great example using background to drive storytelling. Just like how background detail can be throttled down to emphasize foreground elements, backgrounds can also be emphasized to drive storylines. Here, we finally see the detailed, torturous paintings depicted in all their horrific splendour while the foreground is reduced to recognizable silhouettes and key colours (red, Daredevil; white, Kingpin) on a page that lacks dialogue. This combination makes the background the attention draw of the page and reveals the hidden psyche of The Kingpin in a way that clearly shows Murdock's ignorance. It is unspoken and separate from the foreground figure work, but it speaks volumes. It's a dramatic moment that works because of the strength of the background and the dramatic tension that exists between it and the foreground narrative. Great stuff.

Which is further evidence that backgrounds are really important and can directly participate as a storytelling device. It's also evidence that there is no single, right way to make comics and that all kinds of tricks, even opposite ones, can be used to make great comics moments.

Describing Daredevil 12-15: storytelling highlights

Describing Daredevil 10 and 11: scope and character
Describing Daredevil 9: empathy
Describing Daredevil 3: onomatopoeia 
Describing Daredevil 34: before and after
Describing Daredevil 33: condensed motion
Describing Daredevil 30: the vectors of artwork
Describing Daredevil 29: A great page

Friday, 26 June 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #8

Or a look at the use of blank backgrounds in Spider-Woman #8
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Munsta Vicente; Marvel Comics

Backgrounds are an integral part of comics. They provide important spatial context for comic events and provide a level of verisimilitude to the depicted story. When done especially well they can lend comics extra atmosphere and character that permeates every panel of the story to effect better storytelling. I mean, all of this is pretty obvious, backgrounds are obviously important.

The thing is, having a very detailed background is not always helpful and, in some situatons, depicting a blank background is actually better for comics storytelling. And Spider-Woman #8 has a good example of this.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #8

Despite their obvious value to comics storytelling, backgrounds also look like a total pain in the butt to draw. We live in a hyper granular, complex world and to represent that in an illustration frequently means drawing a world filled with fractal details. Which is problematic because in some situations it must be really annoying and because it also sucks time, which is one of the most precious resources in comics publishing. This creates an incentive to draw pages with blank backgrounds: empty spaces where characters exist but which contain no finicky details that need to be seen. If combined with some judicious establishing shots this can result in some effective if obviously streamlined comics.

In some situations it really does come down to resource management and the compromise between quality and a reasonable, on deadline workload.

In other situations cutting down on background detail is all about story. The white middle panel on this page is a great example of this: in this panel Jessica Drew uses her superstrength to smash apart the mecha-armour of Lady Caterpillar, sending a myriad of components flying. The thing that makes this panel so memorable for me is that it is loaded with finite little details that really sell the emotion of the moment. When Lady Caterpillar is struck, her amour tears apart in a rain of sprockets, and fasteners, and tiny detailed components that when taken all at once wonderfully conveys the sense of something disintegrating. (Honestly, I can nearly hear the pings of components rattling off the floor from this image). 

I would argue a big part of what makes this panel so effective is the white background. By throttling down the background detail and removing any colour from the composition, Team Drew is removing any element of distraction from the panel. This way the reader's attention is firmly locked on the foreground where the reader is able to clearly see and appreciate all of the little, detailed bits of machinery spraying from the impact. It's a really effective choice. 

It's also a great example of how creators can use more passive approaches to drive reader attention in storytelling. Instead of actively using tangents or guides or shapes to drive attention to certain aspects of the composition, creators can also pare down a page and edit out extraneous elements so that readers are better able to see and appreciate what is on the page. Which when used as judiciously as it is here in Spider-Woman #8, this approach can be really smart stuff that is more than just an artist trying to save time. 

Spider-Woman #7: the brilliance of the inset panel

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