Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Staring At Scarlet Witch #2

Or a look at layout motif in Scarlet Witch #2
by James Robinson, Marco Rudy, and Cory Petit; Marvel Comics

Scarlet Witch is a comic about a Marvel character who I have middling affinity for, but which is showcasing a rotating group of exciting artists, so I'm reading it anyway. The most recent issue features artwork by Marco Rudy who continues to combine his gorgeous painting with innovative comics layout to create really interesting pages of comics. And here are some of my favourite pages.

There will be *SPOILERS* below.

An aspect of Marco Rudy's comics that I really enjoy is how layout is used to build theme motifs into the page. On the left, Greecian-urn style interlocking panels carry the conversational aspects, which creates space to show the gorgeous hillside town,  but also helps give the artwork a foreign, Greek aspect to help establish a sense of place. Meanwhile, the pages featuring the Minotaur often feature twisting, labyrinthine panels that both tie the artwork to the idea of the monster and which also create a tortured, uncomfortable aspect to the page. When compared, the two layout are remarkably different and help differentiate sections of the comics to create distinct, emotionally charged moments. It's always remarkable how effective layout can be as a storytelling element.

This is probably my favourite layout from the issue. For one, it is absolutely gorgeous from a pure picture-type perspective; there is something to be said about things just looking nice. This layout also does a great job catching the feeling of the moment: the fluid panels capture the sense of ocean waves and breezes and help build a tactile sense of place into the comic. The layout is also quite adept in that the wavey elements of the comic boil out of The Scarlet Witch's head, helping to convey that this  is a conversation occurring on a mental/mystical plane and not in the physical world. It is always pretty great when a layout encodes important narrative information into its fabric. This is just a really, remarkably nuanced sequence that is visually interesting and clear to read.

It is also a pretty interesting sequence of comics due to the very active role that lettering plays in increasing readability. The underlying artwork, to me, is somewhat open to reading multiple ways. To my eye, it generally originates in the lower left corner and vectors outward across the page in a sort of explosion of panels. Meanwhile the lettering provides a clear path from panel-to-panel through the fluid panels which keys the reader into a logical order. Taken together, you get the grand vistas of the page but also a roadmap for navigating it. It's great comics.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Listening to Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #6

Or some thoughts on a great series and a great page in Phonogram: TIG #6
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Just assume this is going to contain *SPOILERS*

I first read Phonogram while on a vacation in Mexico. It was shortly after The Singles Club (Vol. 2) was collected in trade, and I bought the entire series to read during the trip. This was also a pretty odd moment in my life, since this Mexican vacation was taken immediately after my final set of undergraduate exams and a year of studies where I took things probably too seriously. Probably as a consequence of my inability to like, prioritize a personal life, this was also a vacation where my girlfriend and I were having some pretty serious relationship problems that we were both determined to Avoid Dealing With so that we could Enjoy This Damn Vacation. Which was stupid and unhealthy and meant that we spent the entire trip with a lot of uncomfortable baggage. So I read Phonogram laying by a poolside, stewing in an uncertain future and the angst of professional obsession and personal drama. This moment is still indelibly mixed up with how I experience Phonogram.

Now, years later, reading Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl is... a pretty powerful experience. A part of the comic that I've picked up on is moving past something, growing up and defining yourself by who you are and not entirely by your interests. Seeing Kohl and Emily Aster and Kid-with-knife collectively get their shit together in the fullness of time just hits me. I read this final issue of Phonogram just having finished writing my PhD thesis, married to the girlfriend from Mexico, and with a baby on the cusp of being six months old. I'm at a point of finishing a pretty significant chapter of my life and embarking on the adventure of parenthood and of moving with my family to another country for career reasons. Reading that final issue of Phonogram, with its coda to the series at just this moment really hit me. This comic means the world to me.

But, look, you guys aren't here to read about me getting verklempt about my favourite comics. So here is some wonky analysis:

I also want to talk about how great this page of comics is: everything on this page is designed to increase the sense of violence on the page. What makes this page so spectacular is how many different elements are being simultaneously used to create a jarring reading experience. The most brutal blood sprays are evocative and gross and awesome, but also provide clear vectors of motion which make every slam more kinetic and spectacular. Moreover, the blood-sprays provide directionality to the motion that is frequently opposing or tangential to the reading path of the page. This makes every panel of violence feel abrupt and disjointed, increasing the feeling of impact of every image. This jarring effect is enhanced by the broken page: the page transitions from 'normal' panels, to floating margin space, to jagged, torn floating panels creating further discontinuity and a visceral edge to the layout. The colours also play into this effect, with the furious red panel backgrounds and the always changing colour of Emily. The combined layout is a series of brutal images played out while the very fabric of the comic seems to break apart under the fury of the assault. It's a really smart, really effective page.

I love this comic.

So I Read Phonogram: Rue Britainia
So I Read Phonogram: The Singles Club

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIG#3: Magical layouts

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIG#5: Complementary pages

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Plot Maps
Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Timeline

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Setting

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Sussing Spider-Woman #2

Or a look at clever storytelling in Spider-Woman #2
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics

Spider-Woman continues to impress me with consistently interesting storytelling. It might not be my favourite story or series concept right now, but I am always delighted by the thoughtful way the story is constructed. If you are someone who likes cerebral, playful layouts Spider-Woman is a comic you should be reading. And if you require more proof, I've got some more evidence coming at you.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #2 below.

I seriously love this page. The story of the page is that Jessica Drew, who is very pregnant, is being held hostage by Skrulls. Normally, she would beat the green men to a green smear, but since she is ultimately responsible for her fetus, she is also trying to be responsible and wait for help. This page does a beautiful job conveying the conflict between Spider-Woman's fury and her delicate condition. What I love about this page is how the structure of the layout highlights and rotates around Jessica's pregnant belly: the top of half of the page hones in on the stomach while the lower half the page forms an arc with her pregnancy at the centre of it. As many images of frustration there on the page, they are always outweighed and overshadowed by the belly. It's really clever stuff. 

(Also, how charming is the double panel 'KIK' 'KIK'?) 

I also like how the lettering in this page takes a slightly different track through the page. This creates a tension between the underlying layout structure and the flow of the writing on the page. This is done in a way that is still super easy to read, but which subtly helps build the feelings of conflict in Jessica. Smart, smart page.

The next page is also pretty great storytelling. A thing that Team Drew does really well is make effective use of nested panels, and this page is a great example of it. By placing Jessica's foot-tapping impatience into a nested-panel is makes this motion the Most Important part of the first panel. This really highlights Spider-Woman's frustration, but also sets the tapping foot as a recurring element that can then be repeated in the following panels and used as a great little visual signifier of Jessica making up her mind. It's charming as all heck and accomplished storytelling. I also love how when the foot-tapping-descision-panel arrives it leads directly into a tight little sequence that shows determination and drives the reader around the carriage return into the texting in the final panel. These are all fairly small choices, but make for such a fun efficient page of comics.

If you like wonky, smart comics, Spider-Woman is a comic you should be reading.

Spider-Woman #8: turning down the background
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

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #7

Or a look at the relationship between disorientation and spatial context in Pretty Deadly #7
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

I have been trying to put my finger on just what I like about Pretty Deadly #7. There is something really cool about the way the comic is depicting the war blasted wasteland of WW1, that is kind of elusive and hard to articulate. I think it's that the depiction of trench warfare in the comic is somehow both nightmarishly indistinct while still grounded in an a relentless, granular sense of place. And I think a sequence in Pretty Deadly #7 is a great example of this.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Pretty Deadly #7 below.

The battlefields of the First World War have always stuck in my imagination as barren moonscapes.: sort of a brown-grey desolation filled with a kind of dreamy vagueness. And I think Pretty Deadly captures that sense by portraying a dark, open world devoid of life and vibrant colour. Which I think captures the sheer inhumanity of that war and a sense of how emotionally lost the protagonist of the story is. At the same time, Team Deadly has done a fantastic job building a discrete sense of place into this nebulous barren zone. Like, take the trench system on the left: it has the fine grained detail and subtle human touch that lend the broader nightmare wasteland a critical sense of realism that grounds the more fantastical aspects of the setting.

The tension between the nightmarey-vagueness of the battlefield setting and the granular realism of the comic, I think plays out spectacularly in the gas attack sequences. The page on the right devolves into a whirling cloud of toxic gas that the protagonist flees through in a swirling reading path without obvious reference. At first the character seems hopelessly mired and lost. But on a closer examination, the motions of the character within the page depict a clear set of motions which played against the previously viewed trenches reveals the character arming himself and moving to cover. It's the application of spatial storytelling to a chaotic anti-space.

And this page plays with same tension but in a wonderfully different way. Instead of having the character navigate an indistinct toxic cloudscape, the cloudscape effectively navigates around the protagonist's fixed perspective. The hook of the page is that the round panels are the restricted view of the character looking out of his gasmask. As such the comic has a clear implied sense of place: the area immediately around the character, but is still nightmarishly indistinct: the severely limited view of the character is just as disorienting as the thick smoke of the previous selection. It's a great, emotionally resonant effect.

I think this page, though, is my favourite. It is a wonderful example of the beautiful, brutal violence that I think characterizes Pretty Deadly and it showcases the clever page construction that allows the reader to quickly navigate through the key action on the page. This sequence also uses the same combination of disorienting setting with a really rigorous application of spatial positioning. This composition is, at first glance, spinning madness in an indistinct toxic cloudscape. The use of a perspective that wildly rotates around the protagonist lends the page a bewildering insanity that is punched up by the noxious red/green colour palette. It is pure feverish nightmare. But at the same time, the individual moments of action occur in a distinct spatial context. If you deconvolve the action and imagine each snapshot of violence depicted from a single, fixed perspective it all fits together perfectly. This page very much has an implied, mundane reality constructed into it that despite the madness inducing expressionism gives everything clarity and a realistic context. Which really makes this page a spectacular fusion of gritty realism and supernatural horror that is, I think, at the very core of what I love about Pretty Deadly.


Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Visiting The Island #5

Or a look at margin space in Ancestor: Part 2/4
by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward; Island Comics Anthology (Edited by Brandon Graham and Emma Rios); Image Comics

I have an admission to make: I'm finding it kind of hard to get excited about comics right now. Between a crushing work schedule and a charismatic but needy baby time is at a premium, so I'm finding that a lot of perfectly fine comics that feature nice art and serviceable writing are just kind of dull. Like, dropping titles dull. So bear that in mind when I say Island #6 is one of the very comics I've read lately that I really enjoyed: all three feature stories in this edition were extremely accomplished episodes of comics featuring tremendous artwork, world building, and storytelling. The current chapter of Ancestor, by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward, was maybe the most engrossing, captivating comic I've read in months.

It is also a comic that does something fun and wonky with margin space that I think is worth taking a look at.

There will be substantial *SPOILERS* ahead.


The story of Ancestor, in a very basic nutshell, is that in a near-future where everyone has a kind of advanced, holographic computer with them everywhere they go (a kind of extrapolated smartphone type idea), a group of friends attend a party run by a visionary inventor except things aren't what they seem and something is afoot. In the current issue it's essentially revealed that the visionary inventor isn't entirely stable, which builds over the course of the comic to outright madness in a truly masterful story of unfolding tension and story pacing. Shit gets fucked right up in a really, really skillful way.

A small part of this effect, that I think is really clever, is the use of panel gutter space. Rather than having white or black gutters that simply demarcate the division between panels, this instalment of Ancestor has coloured gutters that participate in the mood of the story. In the early pages, which focus on the inventor's instability the gutters are yellow, an unusual attention getting choice that conveys warning and alarm. As the story progresses and it becomes clear that the situation is much worse, much more disturbing and violent than the reader expected the panel gutters gradually change colour from yellow, to orange, to an angry, violent red, to a truly ominous black. It's the entire emotional arc of the comic rendered and encoded in colour. It subtly grades the feeling of every page and works like an ominous soundtrack in a visual medium. It's a small, but really smart thing.

I may not have a lot of time for comics right now, but Ancestor 4/5 and Island #5 I cannot recommend enough.


Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #17

Or a look at the importance of a blank page in WicDiv #17
by Kieron Gillen, Brandon Graham, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson; Image Comics

A thing about comics that I sometimes think doesn't get enough wonky attention is how important page order is to story experience. Individual pages function in printed comics are like discrete storytelling units, and controlling the rate and way readers encounter these units can dramatically alter the way the story is experienced. On a very basic level, the order of pages matters to how a comic is read much like how the order of panels matters. The most obvious example of this is the page turn, where readers suddenly get access to a new page that was previously hidden, making a kind of quick cut and the potential for a surprising reveal or comedic moment. But it goes beyond that, and I think WicDiv #17 does something interesting and really smart using a blank page to optimize the page reading order in the issue.

(This is also, a thing that I think is important to talk about because, incidentally corporate comics *SUCK* at this by jamming ads for like, beholder bobbleheads and Gumby the collectable card game into their magazines screwing with the delicate order.)

There will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv #17 below. Like, serious spoilers!

Now before I try and convince everyone that what is basically a blank page is super interesting and ignoring the rest of the comic, I just want to point out that WicDiv #17 is pretty great ad features Brandon Graham's great artwork and style in the fantastic world of Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson's WicDiv world and that results of this collaboration are frequently pretty great. Like, there are few people who can draw an orgy that is somehow sexy and goofy looking and still somehow not exploitive or could make a scene where a dangerously unstable cat goddess wallowing outside the cage of a bird goddess look so lackadaisically charming. There are some really fun, unique moments in this comic.

(For the record, a 4.9 earthquake happened right now and... woah! It's been a while since a big one's hit in these here parts, and the first one I've lived on a double digit apartment floor for. Quite a lot of swing and torque, it turns out...)

There is also some really astute storytelling on display throughout the issue. I especially love this page and how it uses reader tracking to make the pacing of the page fit the action perfectly. The tangents in the first panel that cruise through the background lend that panel a sense of speed (which works beautifully against the static Baal). Or the second tier of panels which has a hard left-to-right directionality that captures the motion of the sequence wonderfully. The second panel also takes advantage of the transition from the first panel to the second row, and slams the reading motion in opposition to it making for an extra impactful panel (that additionally shows the a consequence of the motion that already happened). The next panel has also has a pretty great abrupt stop built into the panel. The bottom three panels have a looping meandering path through artwork and dialogue captures the lazy, calm after the intense top panels. Collectively this page, I think, captures the polarity of Sakhmet, her danger and fury, but also her playful laziness in how the page is read, and therefore experienced.

So knowing that WicDiv #17 is a pretty great comic for a lot of reasons, let's talk about how great the solid black page in the comic is. The story of this sequence is that Sakhmet has descended on her childhood home and murdered and eaten her father. This sequence works as well as it does because it reveals this information in a series of growing surprise reveals. The first page sets up the sequence, and looks downright benign, with Sakhmet reminiscing and smiling pleasantly (such a perfect panel btw) and then we get the all black page. It's ominous and empty, a long hard cut that it implies the passage of time and a significant story shift. The next page, which benefits from being after the page turn, shows cavalry arriving in an ominious situation. It's obvious something horrible has happened and that Sakhmet has been involved in some sort of altercation, probably violent and probably involving her dad. But it isn't until after the next page turn that we learn Sakhmet has *eaten* her father and the downright casual way she is reacting to that. It's a scene of slowly building horror that really benefits from having two adjacent page turns to ramp up and then up again the fuckedness quotient of the situation. And that black page shifts the other pages around just enough to make this construct work. Which is such a little thing, but such a smart, smart choice.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Listening to Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #5

Or a look at active backgrounds and smart layouts in Phonogram: TIG #5
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles

The thing about comics storytelling is that as readers we often get sucked in to the big exciting storytelling. The glorious splash pages! The crazy, deconstructionist, genre-bending layout we've never seen before! The totally rad super punch! But sometimes the smartest or most interesting parts of comics are quiet, deceptively simple constructions that effortlessly convey a more mundane chunk of story. And some of these moments are really worth examining as a lesson of savvy comics.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl has one of these deceptively simple, great bit of comics.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Phonogram: TIM #5 below.

The story of this page is pretty simple: David Kohl, the sometime ally and friend of Emily Astor goes to the other phonomancers of his coven to try and recruit them into helping save Emily from herself. He delivers a his speech over and over to each potential ally, and they each, in turn, decide not to help him and that Emily Astor can essentially go and fuck herself. It's a pretty simple bit of story.

The thing is, it's delivered in the absolutely perfect way. We get to see Kohl give his talk in one unbroken sequence, and then, in a series of snapshots we get the reactions. Which... if you stop and think about it, should seem like a really disjointed bit of story: a long talk followed by a careening series of scene changes. And yet, these two pages relate so well, that it feels like an organic whole.

What I think makes this pair of pages work as well is how layout, setting, and colour work to obviously pair panels on either page. The two pages have identical six panel structures, that gives them, when viewed next to each other, common feeling and the potential for an interwoven story. In this situation then, the distinctive backgrounds and unique colouring palettes, become active storytelling elements that inform the reader how the panels on the left and right pages relate. It's this flawless fusion of layout and setting to create an effortless sequence that is logistically very complex. It's so well done, that I'm almost willing to bet you missed just how cool these pages are. 

So I Read Phonogram: Rue Britainia
So I Read Phonogram: The Singles Club

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIM#3: Magical layouts

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Plot Maps
Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Timeline

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Setting