Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Uncaging Bitch Planet #8

Or a look at panel grids as story motifs in Bitch Planet #8
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Bitch Planet is ostensibly a feminist take on exploitative women in prison movies. I say ostensibly, because despite some stylistic similarities to pulp film, this comic is doing some pretty complicated thematic heavy lifting. Most of the thematic substance of Bitch Planet has to do with intersectional feminism, an area I am eminently unqualified to essay about. So in lieu of that, I think it's worth looking at some of the structural/layout motifs used in the comic to convey narrative information.

There will be *SPOILERS* in this post.

The above sequence is an example of a "normal" layout in Bitch Planet. It is clean, uses different sized panels, and provides a clear narrative space. The fact the panel size is varied creates a flexible storytelling where the panel number and relative size can be modulated to serve the events depicted and to customize the reading experience. Like in the above sequence, where the comic depicts a father cleverly determining that his beloved daughter, a noncompliant prisoner, has secretly died, this storytelling can be effectively used to create heart rending, brilliant comics. It's a very good business as usual.

The first page of every issue of Bitch Planet has used this 12-panel grid layout. I've written about this approach before, but it bears repeating here in the context of BP #8. These pages, like the selection here, show women living in the "compliant" world, behaving within the patriarchal, garbage world of Earth. This approach ties layout to the motif of control that exists within the Earth of Bitch Planet since the 12-panel grid is a very rigid, orderly, and somewhat old fashioned storytelling approach. It is a comic style that bends the action depicted, the movement of the characters to a set layout, which is an approach that puts the system before the action/characters. It is a strong, visual metaphor for oppression. The white panel gutters of a 12-panel grid also forms a shape reminiscent of prison bars, making these pages look like the view through an idealized cell window. We are gazing into, or perhaps out of, a prison. This sequence, and it's counterparts in other issues of BP, provide a wonderful example of how layout and structure can create visual, thematic motifs.

I bring all of this up again because Bitch Planet #8 uses another panel grid system as a stylistic motif. In this case the comic uses an 18 panel grid to create a unique visual identity and a sense of a unique storyspace. The basis of this grid is the 1-2-3 panel row which has actually been used and riffed on throughout the series. This three panel row, usually featuring the two guard/engineer/controller guys interspersed with surveillance video has been an ongoing visual motif that has been used to showcase the separation between Noncompliant prisoners and their guards, the attitudes/plight of the guards, and the pervasive surveillance the NC's live under. Here this three panel motif is repeated over and over to create an 18 panel grid. The first 5 rows of panels in the grid are directly the 'usual' layout with one of the 'usual' controller-guys, which provides information to the reader that they are viewing a story sequence that takes place in the controller's location/distinct storyspace. The 16 panel grid carries through to remind the reader that the following events remain within the special controller-space. What is particularly interesting about this is that the actual illustrated spaces do not conform to the 16 panel grid, but rather the underlying artwork is overlaid with the grid and broken up. This is a pretty good sign that the grid here is more about a visual motif/sensation than about the direct storytelling of the actions. Which is pretty cool. 

Beyond being a visual signifier of location (controller-land), this motif manages to capture the emotional sense of what it means to be one of the controller/guards. The 16-panels break the page into many small windows to see the action, like the bank of surveillance screens the controller-guys use to watch the prisoners. I also find that, particularly because of the way the panel gutters infringe on the underlying artwork, that these panels remind me of grating. It's as if the reader is peaking through an airvent or stormcover or, to geek out, Jeffry's tube gate to see a secret, mechanical space behind the comic. It really sets the world of the controllers up as a technical, but behind-the-scenes space and not part of the prison world or compliant world of Earth. It's evocative and a great use of layout as motif.

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1
Uncaging Bitch Planet #2
Uncgaing Bitch Planet #3

Uncaging Bitch Planet #4

Uncaging Bitch Planet #5
Surviving Bitch Planet #1

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Deep Sequencing: Nick Falling

Or a look at action construction in Civil War II: Choosing Sides: Nick Fury pt. 1
by Declan Shavley, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

A thing I am always curious about is how much of a particular comics storytelling approach is driven by the writer in their script and how much are choices made by the illustrator. It clearly differs from creator to creator and from project to project, but it's always fun to see artists I admire write and draw comics. So when I heard Declan Shavley was writing and illustrating a comic in the Civil War II: Choosing Sides anthology I picked the comic up despite not caring at all about Civil War II, being generally opposed to tie-ins on principle, and having very little interest in the other stories (although the one with demon excavator was pleasant enough if very, very silly.) And it's a pretty well executed comic with some flashy storytelling that I'd like to pick apart.

There will be *SPOILERS* below.

I really like how this fall sequence is constructed. The story of the scene is quite straightforward: Agent Fury jumps out of a flying transport taking an adversary with him, falls and lands on top of the adversary thus dispatching them. That said, the execution here, despite it's apparent simplicity involves many smart underlying choices. The first panel has the falling action start right from the top-left corner of the page, bringing the reader right into the fall. This maximizes the distance the fall can travel through the page and also gets the readers attention immediately. The action plays out along a very clear reading path that guides the readers eye cleanly down the fall, through the impact and into the dead adversary before following the motion of Fury crawling for his gun. This eye tracking is key to making the fall read and feel quick and kinetic. Another important aspect of the fall is how space is allotted. The distance between the first two images, the start of the fall and the first impact, is substantially larger than the distance between the second and final images. Since the reader is tracking through this sequence with a clean, quick pace this means that the final two images create the feeling of an abrupt stop. Put all together this creates a kinetic fall ending in a jarring, impactful stop. 

Another important aspect of this fall is a sense of height and the use of the blank background. I would argue that the first panel here has two key pieces of information to convey: that a fall is occurring and that it is from a significant height. The image of the fall satisfies this first storytelling requirement, and the huge white space satisfies the second. A large white space on the page feels very large, and having a large white space under the falling figures tells the reader the fall is happening from a great height. Including a background adds visual information that distracts from just conveying the idea of height. It's unnecessary visual noise that doesn't scream "there is a large space here" as clearly or dramatically as white space. So omitting the background, then, increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the storytelling in this panel. 

I also quite like this sequence here and how it uses horizontal space to create a visually interesting gun battle. Again the secret to making this page work is providing cues to push and pull the reader through the storyspace in the best possible way. The reader enters the page somewhere in the top-left and is drawn to the first speech bubble right at the top of the page. This sets the first panel up as a vertical storyspace where the reader has to look down, in the motion of the repellers, to take in Fury and the lower speech caption. This sells the feeling of the adversaries dropping into the panel and also conveys that the vertical direction is important for the following sequence. This is enhanced by the way the platform in the first panel hangs over the following panels, which really cements that this conflict is happening suspended on the side of a cliff. The reader then moves into the next panel in a right-to-left carriage return where they encounter Fury, highlighted by the colour and his active pose, and then follow the direction of his kick across the panel to the guy knocked off the platform.  This lends the kick a visceral sense of motion. The reader naturally wants to follow the arc of the kicked guy down, so they move into the third panel on the right side and immediately see a new adversary getting his head shot off. They move back to the left, see Fury whose arms create a guide line to steer the reader to the text box where they will notice the goons on the left. The reader moves down into the next panel, and if they are like me, they are immediately attracted to the speech balloon and the big black shape of Fury. The reader then moves left along the blast of the sonic-gun-thing and sees the two adversaries get blasted. The final panel is a simple left-to-right, but one where the colouring of Fury makes him the central, primary figure as he shoots the adversaries. It's a great, easy reading sequence that really constructs evocative, kinetic action.

While we are talking about great gun battle sequences that utilize horizontal story space well, this sequence from Scarlet Witch #7 by James Robinson, Annie Wu, Muntsa Vicente, and Cory Petit, is also pretty great. This sequence does take advantage of eye guiding, in part by using shapes and actions like the above sequence, but it also relies heavily on sound effects to manage where readers look. The reader enters the page in the usual place where they immediately have the character, the Wu, positioned such that their arms pull the reader across the page towards the shot up goons. The yellow KRAK sound effects help pull the reader this way, and critically to this sequence, they work to keep the reader focused on the right side of the page as they move into the second panel. This is important because it deemphasizes the goon sneaking around the dumpster in the second panel so that the reader notices them peripherally. This makes the final panel where, with a THUNK to draw attention, the Wu belts the goon in the face surprising and impactful. (It's also great how this breaks the border of the panel for extra pain points.) The reader then moves along the outstretched arms of the Wu to the next KRAK and into the next page. It's another great gun battle that feels dynamic because of how it manages the readers focus.


Injection Volume 1
Moon Knight #5
Moon Knight #2

Hawkeye #16
Scarlet Witch #2

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #10

Or a look at contrast and story fulcrums
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Pretty Deadly continues to be one of my very favourite comics both as a reader and a comics wonk. It is perplexing, challenging, and virtuosic. With the issue #10 the second chapter closes on an appropriately spectacular note. The fulcrum of the issue in particular I think is a really amazing feat of comics, and I really want to take a closer look at it. It's inherently spoilery though. 

This post will contain *SPOILERS* for Pretty Deadly #10

To me this is the fulcrum of the comic, the turning point between an unwinnable conflict and the epic conclusion of the comic. It is also a wonderfully constructed moment that brings nearly every component of the comic together to create a tipping point, a honed moment of contrast that the story teeters on before crashing into resolution. And I think the way the contrast here is constructed and used is really interesting. 

The first page of the spread is a sequence of action and fire and blood. The page shows the armed combat between War and Ginny in a swirling open storyspace. The page flows along sweeping slashes of red capes and carnage and blood that trail across the page and drag the readers eyes through the violence quickly and precisely. It is idealized motion and a very quick page to experience. It is also a page of reds and hot smouldering greys, a page of fiery, passionate colours. It is a fantastic page that encapsulates everything I love about the portrayal of action in Pretty Deadly.

The next page is almost the perfect opposite: it is still, and structured, and cool. The page shows Cyrus, the would be Reaper of Courage, taming the Reaper of Fear. The page is broken up into eight discrete panel-areas, including inset panels which provide structure to the page and slow the progression of the reader and expand the sense of time. It creates stillness. The way the clouds and mist hang in the air, enhances that sense of stillness, since they could only linger like this in the absence of motion. And the colour palette is calming too, blue-grey and icy. It is artful, and beautiful and haunting. 

The way these two pages come together and interact though, is what is truly special. The fiery motion of the left page stands in distinct contrast to the cool, still page on the right. This puts both pages into sharp relief: the violence is brighter and the peace calmer for having the two moments in juxtaposition. It sets both pages as distinct and powerful, especially the right page since it is such a complete visual and structural departure from what's preceded it in the issue. It feels like a turning point built of opposites. At the same time, the pages feel balanced to me, as though even if they are opposite, they are somehow equal. That the combat and motion on the left are as important, as valid as the calm, and stillness of the right page. Which for me, signifies that an act of bravery, that calmly facing ones fear is just as strong, as powerful as actively fighting. To me, it's as if the two pages are balanced on a kind of narrative scale, and it's tipping this scale that is the climax of the comic. Which, to balance a story on such a keen edge, narratively and artistically, is a tremendous feat of story construction. 

Pretty Deadly continues to be remarkable comics. 


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Waxing Philosophical: On Colourists

Or an economic argument for giving credit to colourists (circa 2014)
Colourists are an integral part of comics. When colouring is done well, colouring works with the pencils and inks to enhance the artwork and contribute to the final look of a comic. When done exceptionally well colouring can add a sense of style or mood or atmosphere that can be a major storytelling component of the comic. Colouring can do things, add effects, that other components of comics can't. Colouring matters.

As such Colourists should absolutely be credited creators on every title. Their contribution to the final product is just to obvious and important to not give them the credit they deserve. It is absolutely the right thing to do.

Sadly, we live in a world where morals often take a back seat to money and where many of the comics being published are made by corporations. Corporations, being economic group-entities that exist solely to create profit, are amoral sociopaths that, regardless of the good intentions of the people who work for them, only really care about what will make them money. But the thing is, I've done some maths, and I think there is economic value in crediting Colourists even for the largest most profit-focused publishing companies.

Now, some readers are going to read Batman regardless of which creators get assigned to the title. But another group of readers care about the creators working on titles. Like, I know that a book written by Matt Fraction or Kelly Sue DeConnick are probably going to be books I enjoy or that a book drawn by David Aja or Jamie McKelvie is going to look amazing regardless of who is writing the scripts. Having these creators on titles, on the cover of titles, and advertised in press releases makes me more likely to pick up a title. From a corporate perspective, involving and advertising these creators is money well spent. 

Even for less well known creators, the way writers and artists are advertised pays dividends. I learned that Ales Kot is a hell of a writer or that David Lopez is fantastic at making his characters just burst with life. I am now more likely to try comics by either of these creators after learning how talented they are. It is, essentially, an investment in the future.

So I thought to myself it would be interesting to actually do the maths on who colours my comics. To that end I went through all of the comics I've talked about so far in 2014 and plotted the colourists for my mainstream and creator-ownederish comics of the year. For the sake of focus, I just left out any black and white comics I read this year.

When I do this I get the above graphs for Mainstream comics (Left) and Creator-ownederish comics (Right). The black regions are comics that are coloured by the same artist doing the pencils. They are already credited and also usually work on one (or maybe a couple) comics at a time. The grey region are colourists who work on only a single title I am reading right now and whose names were largely unfamiliar to me when I started this process; they do not yet have a track record with me that I would actively read a comic because of their participation. The green region represents creators who I'm only reading one book by presently, but who have a track record with me personally such that their participation on a comic would make me more likely to try it. The other coloured regions are colourists who colour multiple books I am currently reading: Matt Wilson (Blue), Jordie Bellaire (Orange), Lee Loughridge (Red), Betty Breitwieser (Purple), Chris Chuckry (Dark Blue), and Dave Stewart (Dark Blue). To kind of put things in perspective the graph on the left has a total of 18 titles and the graph on the right has a total of 37 titles. 

If I stick everything together on a single graph you get this. Aren't graphs fun! But for reals, look at how unevenly distributed the Colourists I read are. 6 Colourists work on about 1/3 of the comics I read this year and 2 of them account for more than 20% of them. Add in the colourists who are also creators I actively seek out and nearly half the comics I read are by Colourists who I actively seek out. And these numbers are even higher if you don't count comics coloured by pencilling artists. 

At this point, and the maths back this up, I am actively seeking out series by my favourite colourists.  For me, certain Colourists have such a track record for doing great work and for working on quality, exciting projects that they are serious draws for me as a reader. When I first tried that fantastic comic Zero, written by Ales Kot and drawn by a series of talented artists, it was the presence of Jordie Bellaire as series colourist that put it over the edge for me and convinced me to actually try the comic. I tried Nu52 Wonder Woman largely because the addition of Matt Wilson meant it was worth a longer look. (Modern edit: I literally tried Vision only because Bellaire was the colourist, and was delighted to find one of my favourite new comics.)  Having a high profile colourists attached to a project is a great way to get me interested in it.

And here is another reality: Colourists can work on more titles than other creators. Generally speaking, a penciller will work on one comic title at a time, while a writer might work on something like four titles at a time. Which means that if I am following these types of creators, that's what, at most four titles per creator. Colourists, by the nature of their work, tend to work on more comics at once, which means that if I am following a colourist, that is maybe up to 6 to 10 titles I'd be interested in trying at a time. This number is even larger when you factor in their past body of work. By raising the profile of Colourists and actively advertising their presence on books, there is a whole other angle to try and attract creator centric readers. 

And really, advertising and obviously crediting and advertising Colourists doesn't substantially change the cost of a comic. Colourists have already been paid, whether by a page rate or by a share of ownership in the project. They are a very real draw for some readers, and like writers and pencillers are value invested in the price of a comic. To not leverage this value by crediting and advertising the presence of a top talent colourist is not capitalizing on money spent making a comic. To not advertise and help build the profile of lesser known Colourists is to not invest in the future value of the Colourist. There is money to be made here!

And you know, it's also totally the right thing to do.

Interrogating Black Widow #4

Or a look at some of my favourite storytelling in Black Widow #4
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Black Widow remains a very exciting comic to analyze from a comics wonk perspective. With issue #4 the creative team delivers another instalment filled with skillful and interesting storytelling. Unlike previous issues where I could find a worthwhile throughline to frame an analysis, Black Widow #4 showcases a pretty varied mix of techniques. So, I guess in honour of this being issue #4, I'm going to discuss four sequences that I find fascinating. 

There will be *SPOILERS* beyond this point.

1. I've talked about this before  but Team Widow is really, really good at creating dynamic sequences that use eye tracking to focus the reader and create a sense of motion. This sequence is another great example to this approach. The page opens with a panel that has the black silhouetted Widow in the bottom left corner, then uses the tank-things to create a guide to Widow in the top right panel. This gets the reader efficiently across the page and sets the stakes of the sequence: one covert agent against a place with sci-fi tanks. From the top right panel, the reader drops to the next panel where Black Widow tosses a stone, which guides the reader back to the left, across the page in a carriage-return, and into the next panel where the stone hits the guard. Action, movement, consequence. The reader then moves onto the following panel where distracted-guard is hauled bodily out of frame in a way that synchs the readers eye path to the motion. The following panel, with the guard running, uses the angle of the guards body (and implied motion) to create an arc to the alarm box and inset circular panel. We see the SHNK effect in the round panel, and then carry across the page, creating the down-and-to-the-left motion of the guard yanking the alarm lever. This brings the reader to the bottom left panel where the heavy black of Widow creates an initial focus point. The reader then moves down and through the knife thrust, using eyes and the blade as a guide, and smoothly into the final panel where the long blood smear takes the reader to the end of the page where Widow is dragging the corpses. It is also significant that this final panel's motion seems to carry right out of the panel and into the next page which helps keep the motion going (something that was pointed out in this great video breakdown). It's a great, efficient, and exciting page constructed out very fluid eye tracking. 

2. Another aspect of Black Widow I've talked about previously was the use of misdirection in panels to hide story elements in the periphery of panels. This page here has another pretty remarkable example of this. In this case the page opens with Black Widow and two corpses she dragged out of the previous page. Widow is looking up toward the next panel which gives a great guide to focus the reader on where to go next. The reader enters the next page and sees that the guard in the middle of the panel has a brighter colouring and is the most visually emphasized part of the panel. If you are a reader like me, you then move onto the next panel and see Widow breaking into a room and go, wait, what? And then you maybe loop back to the previous panel and find Widow hidden in the top right corner of the panel. She is drawn as a black silhouette blended into the shadow of the wall/turret. This makes widow another black area in a part of the page rich with identical heavy blacks and very easy, I think, to miss. Especially since the one guard is emphasized so prominently by the colours. This is a fantastic choice since it has Black Widow literally sneaking through the panel! Which is awesome!

3. Black Widow #4 also has a tremendous quiet section where a wounded Natasha speaks with Iosef, apparently a former teacher who rescued her. The entire sequence is a feat of acting and atmosphere and how to make exposition interesting, but this sequence here I think is superbly executed.

One of the key aspects of Black Widow for me, is that we do not get direct thought narration from Widow. Black Widow for me is defined as being supremely competent and vaguely mysterious. Making this work in a comic where she is the central character requires a certain degree of inaccessibility to the protagonist: we can't see her literal thoughts without losing that critical ambiguity. At the same time, for the story to be compelling the reader needs to have some glimpse of the protagonists inner life. Which puts a huge burden on character acting and colouring to provide enough emotional queues that the reader can engage with the protagonist. Black Widow absolutely nails this.

The other challenge of this kind of storytelling is conveying critical story information in visual, organic ways. This above sequence functions to show that Iosef and Widow know each other from the past. In a thought narration comic this would be accomplished, probably, by a caption like: "Ah, Iosef, my old teacher. I haven't seen him in years..." In Black Widow it is all about visual information. We see a flashback, made obvious by the sepia colouring of a faded photograph. In this flashback we see a recognizable Widow, although a younger version of her, with an unknown man. We then see an older man, haggard but still recognizably the same man probably. Which, is actually a pretty remarkable feat of figure drawing. The thing that removes any ambiguity, though, is how the two characters relate to each other.  Iosef and Widow have the same spatial relationship throughout the page with Widow prone and to the left of Iosef throughout the page. This is especially true of the top right and bottom right panels where the poses are nearly identical and create an obvious parallel. By the time we leave the page we understand the relationship between Iosef and Widow without it ever being explicitly stated and that is really, really smart storytelling.

4. From a purely comics wonk perspective I think this page, though, is my favourite in the issue. 

The top half of the page provides a sequence of Black Widow sneaking into a secure facility in a series of inset panels on a maze-motif background. This is a great choice because it uses the symbology of a maze to convey to the reader that Widow is forced to navigate a convoluted route to reach her objectives. This allows the reader to appreciate the time and complexity of Widow's implied movement without having to depict every step, which reduces the space needed for this chunk of story. The use of the maze motif is also pretty interesting because, for me at least, it calls to mind the wire lines of circuitry. This along with the perspective, I think, makes the round panel in the top left feel like a shot taken by a nearby security camera. Which implies, along with the earlier pulled alarm lever, that Black Widow has been observed by the masters of the base she is infiltrating. To me this is part of the comic telling the reader, without making it explicit, that Widow is sneaking into a trap of sorts. It's pretty cool stuff.

The bottom half of the page is where I think some really nifty, if easily overlooked choices are being made. The sequence here is pretty straightforward: Black Widow, having snuck her way to her goal stands behind a dramatically opening door. The execution here, the way the story is constructed, is perfect. The most obvious aspect of this is that as the door opens, the amount of open space in the panel increases. This is enhanced by the shape of the panels which are not square, but fall into a shape with a angled top. This means that as the doorway opens, the panels themselves become taller and more "open" to the reader. In addition the angled top line helps sell a sense of upward motion to pull the readers attention from bottom left to top right. (To get a sense of why this is effective, compare it to the diagram that does the same shot using static square panels.) This sequence uses yet another trick as well: the perspective of the panels ascends with the door. By this I mean each subsequent image is aimed a little higher along Widow's body (which I breakdown in the bottom diagram). What this does is create a sense of upward momentum to the sequence since the door and the perspective are both ascending at the same time to create the feeling of motion. (Again, comparison to the static square diagram will show just how much more dynamic the ascending perspective is.) This choice also has the additional advantage of letting the final panel focus on Widows determined/angry eyes. Which all combined makes this three panel sequence have a tremendous amount of momentum that all focuses on the Widow in an important, solid emotional beat before the next part of the story is unveiled. It's a fairly effortless reading chunk of story constructed out of some very smart, complicated storytelling and why I think Black Widow is such an exciting comic to read and analyze. 

As an aside, the maze motif also recently popped up in Bitch Planet #8 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles. In this sequence the characters are sneaking through a prison during a blackout to find a secret, isolated prison cell. Again the use of the maze motif is used to efficiently sell the idea of movement through a convoluted story space without investing a large amount of space to it. In this case, the maze motif is particularly apt because the characters are navigating in the dark from a hastily memorized map. It's a great choice that shows how convergent solutions to similar story challenges can exist.

Black Widow #1

Black Widow #2
Black Widow #3

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Deep Sequencing: Nameless and Speachless

Or a look at deliberate pause panels in The Nameless City
by Faith Erin Hicks and Jordie Bellaire; First Second Publishing

I recently listened to an interview podcast featuring Faith Erin Hicks talking about The Nameless City. (The Podcast was "Off Panel" and it's my favourite comics interview podcast right now.) While on this podcast Hicks remarked that she has "pages and pages of characters staring at each other", and that with her comics "you get about 50 pages of plot and 150 pages of people staring at each other." This is clearly an exaggeration, but I thought this was an interesting statement worth taking a look at. 

Upon an exhaustive review of The Nameless City the comic contains 1146 story panels and about 156 are what I would call "stare" panels (give or take a few). Which means that about 13% of comic panels in The Nameless City is devoted to "staring". Which isn't an insignificant amount of storytelling space, which makes me think this is a deliberate and important choice. And taking a look at it, it's pretty clear that Hicks is using these panels to shape storytelling and I think, to provide key characterization information to the reader. 

There may be *SPOILERS* for The Nameless City below.

The first, and I think most obvious role of the "stare" panels in The Nameless City is that it stretches moments. In comics panels are, among other things, units of time: each sequential panel marks a potential storytelling moment. The more panels a given action or situation is allotted, the longer that moment takes to read and the longer the moment feels to the reader. Straight forward, right? The inclusion of the "stare" panels can, and often does, function to add an extra moment to a given situation which can increase the perceived significance of the moment. Because in a comic, space is time is money and effort. It can also alter the flow of the story in significant ways. Like in the top situation the inclusion of the middle "stare" panel provides that awkward, queasy moment of silence and inaction that lends the declaration of cowardice some actual weight. Or, in the second selection, the inclusion of the middle "stare" panel creates an awkward pause that stretches the moment providing character information (the father and son don't really know each other) but also creates this great, awkward comedic beat. In both these cases removing the "stare" panel changes the pacing in a way that hurts the storytelling of the story.

Another important role of the "stare" panels is to inject emotion directly into the comic. The term "stare" panel is something of a misnomer, since the majority of them involve some pretty delightfully extreme emoting. Characters frown, or smirk, grimace, smile, horror, and make very nuanced, very particular expressions in these panels. These panels serve to blare emotions at the reader like in the above selection where Kai, the guy, is sending us WORRY/HORROR!. This gives us his emotional state of mind and sets the reader with the expectation that what Rat, the young woman, is doing is bad and a big deal. Other story media have the tenor of the actors voice or sound/music design to drive emotional context, and I think these emotive "stare" panels serve that same purpose in The Nameless City.

Beyond just being good storytelling, I think these "stare" panels do a lot to inform the reader about the characters of Kai and Rat. Specifically, I think the way these panels function as a pacing tool is important for Kai. Kai is a newcomer in a strange city who is inexperienced and a bit trepidatious about his new surroundings. He is also a thoughtful guy who seems to care about the consequences of his actions. What "stare" panels of him do is create these story pauses where we get to see Kai think. This means that when he is confronted with something new, rather than instinctually reacting to it, he stops and "stares" while he deliberates what to do next. Therefore the reader gets to experience the process of being Kai as he navigates his new home. This is the comic using a pacing tool to constantly demonstrate a fundamental aspect of one of the characters. Which is pretty cool.

(It's also maybe significant that the number of "stare"panels decreases sharply when Kai "does the thing" near the climax of the story. Resolution through layout.)


The "stare" panels are also really important for the character of Rat. In this case, I think the emoting aspect of these panels is super important for my conception of the character. Rat comports herself as a tough, streetwise person who is somewhat blasé about the feelings of others. But I get the sense that a lot of this is an act, a persona she puts on, and I get this sense largely from the emoting "stare" panels. These panels give this unguarded look at Rat as she reacts to hurting Kai's feelings, or having her prejudices confronted, or spotting a friend. It shows readers that despite the Rats tough persona, she does in fact care about those around her. Which means that my conception of Rat as a character is born out of the tension between what the character says about herself and how she emotes when no one but the reader is looking. Which is an extremely nuanced piece of storytelling that is achieved by "stare" panels.

Which is all, I think, a case for why "stare" panels comprise 13% of the comic panels.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Sussing Spider-Woman #8

Or a look at some of the great storytelling moments in Spider-Woman #8 
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics

I write about Spider-Woman and the role of eye-guiding in composition more than I probably should. I fear it's starting to get boring and repetitive! But the thing is, Spider-Woman continues to showcase some really innovative compositions that use eye-guiding and colours to generate really clever storytelling. And I think some of it is worth talking about. So hopefully you can bear with me and we can unpack what's cool about Spider-Woman #8.

There will, as always, be *SPOILERS*.


What I like about this sequence is what a nice, clear example of eye guiding composition it is. In the final three panels of the page the reader is drawn down, quickly up, and pulled back down again along the vectors of the motion. This sells the depicted action and creates a sense of drama to the moment. It's effective and works because of some really smart underlying storytelling.

This sequence is also nice in that it showcases a lot of basic elements that create the effect. The composition has narrow, tall panels that pull the storytelling into the vertical. The red, and particularly the black of Tiger Shark's gloves and Spider-Woman's pants and sleeves create tangent lines that steer the eye through the light/blue panels. Lettering is placed before and after motions so that you read narration, have the sudden appearance of Tiger Shark's arm, encounter more text, and then nothing until the cleverly oriented "SPLASH" onomatopoeia. This gives the panels a slow-fast-slow-fast rhythm which captures the arm-thrust, snag, capsize actions being depicted. Despite its apparent simplicity, this sequence is constructed of many storytelling elements working in concert.

These pages are worth looking at for a couple separate reasons.

The first is that it has a very complex fight scene that reads very well and also takes advantage of black costume elements as eye-guides. I've previously discussed what a smart, smart character design Spider-Woman's costume is from a storytelling perspective. The crux of my argument is that the black limbs naturally stand out on a coloured page and can be used to steer readers and frame action. In the fight scene on the left page the first panel uses the central body stripe of Tiger Shark's costume to pull you into the large, central panel. This panel depicts a snarling, chaotic dogfight between characters that uses a combination of the combatants costumes to lead the reader through the visual noise. In particular Spider-Woman's black legs and arms play a key role in providing visual cues on where the reader is supposed to turn their eyes to navigate the page. It's worth noting that the colouring here plays a huge role in this effect since Spider-Woman's limbs are the only true, 100% black elements in the panel. The black elements in Tiger Shark's costume have received a treatment of highlights that make them blue/grey which lessons their visual weight and allows Spider-Woman's limbs to stand out more. It's a really adept intersection of composition and colour.

(I can't help but wonder how much this of this power move results from having a penciller/colourist working on Spider-Woman.)

This composition is also pretty interesting in how it uses the left-to-right page transition. The action being depicted here is Tiger Shark snagging Spider-Woman's ankle and swinging her bodily into what looks like a trophy rack. What is cool is this action starts on the bottom panel of the left page and finishes in the top panel of the right page. What this does is take advantage of the very long carriage return when switching pages to create the sensation of Spider-Woman being swung. This is a super clever choice because the reader's eyes swing along the longest axis of the page and get drawn into the final drawing of the motion. This creates a huge amount of momentum both from utilizing reading motion and for how the motion carries through multiple panels to create weight. It is great stuff.

Another sequence that I think is worth taking a longer look at is the one where Spider-Woman has a conversation with her babysitter Roger. The concept of this sequence is that Roger calls Spider-Woman who is fighting Tiger Shark and giant squid monsters asking about random baby things. It's a fun section of the comic that uses the juxtaposition of trivial parental crap and titanic superheroics for yuks (and maybe to make a point about how parenting takes over your life). To make this juxtaposition work better Roger and baby are drawn over the superheroics in the same grand panel despite calling from another location. The aspect of this sequence that I think is worth paying attention to is how the colouring is used to distinguish that Roger-and-baby and Spider-Woman are in distinct from one another. This is accomplished by giving Roger-and-baby their own colouring: a flat, orange-tinged colouring with even lighting. This stands in contrast to the rest of the panel which is dark and shiny with rain, and is filled with highlights and shadows cast from a variety of light sources. The two colour palettes are so incompatible that it is immediately obvious that they are belong in different settings. Which is means that a colouring choice here is responsible for ket narrative information. 

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