Wednesday, 1 October 2014

So I Read East of West: Volume 2

A 250 word (or less) review of the second East of West collection
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Frank Martins, Image Comics

This review will have *SPOILERS*. For a clean review go here.

East of West is everything I love about genre fiction and comics. The comic is about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the seven fractured nations of America on the edge of the Endtimes. The horsemen and The Chosen, a cabal of powerful world leaders, work together bring about the Apocalypse, except Death fell in love, and had a son, and was betrayed. Now Death rides against the agents of the Endtimes in a quest to free his stolen son. East of West Vol. 2 continues everything that I enjoyed from the first volume, but shifts the lens of the story to The Chosen, fleshing out these characters and building the world, while providing time for Death's story to progress. The thing about East of West Vol. 2, beyond just being really well made, is that it's confounding. For a story constructed out of so many familiar pieces of culture, I am constantly unable to predict exactly where the story is going, and pleasantly surprised at the form the narrative takes. Reading East of West is an act of discovery in a really compelling, badass, beautiful Sci-fi-Western world. It's really great reading a comic that is at once cohesive and natural feeling while still being unexpected and fresh. East of West manages to pull off that most miraculous aspects of fiction and creates an actual, breathing world to visit. It is fantastic comics and you should be reading it.

Word count: 240

Post by Michael Bround

East of West Volume One

Monday, 29 September 2014

Introducing Michael Bround

Or a long overdue introduction to Michael Bround

Do you find selfies that contain only yourself the most awkward things in the world?

I do.

Which maybe explains why I've been writing Atoll Comics three times a week for more than 2 years without actually introducing myself.

I have always found the performative aspects of social media super uncomfortable. I mean, I'm a guy who has to psyche himself up to ask sales clerks for assistance or becomes hopelessly tongue tied when my attempts at polite banter with, say, a barista don't go as scripted. This isn't to say I'm completely useless as a human; I love talking about Science in front of large numbers of judgemental strangers and I teach a lab class in biochemistry. Which is reflective of the fact that I am much more comfortable interacting within the context of a professional exchange than a social one. Which is all a long way of saying that I find it easier to keep this website focused on the comics side of things than the personal.

I'm also kind of a believer that criticism shouldn't be about the critic. Too often, I think, comics critics, write things that are more about themselves or their particular tastes than the comics they are working off of. This can be really great when its done with some thought and some self-awareness, but frequently I find that the actual comic that is being reviewed gets lost. And comics are great! Critics really ought to be able to write about them using the source material. So in the spirit of trying to be as invisible as possible I've tried to not emphasize myself.

But this is all kind of malarky! Any art criticism, unless its written by the creators of the media in question, is really just opinion and emotional reaction. As much as I might try to rely on the source material, everything I write is ultimately just some thing some amateur dude has written, and as such it is irrevocably stamped with my perspective, knowledge, and feelings. So it's bullshit to pretend I'm an unbiased, inactive participant. I mean, I have written some deeply, terrifyingly personal things on this website... so yeah.

Uh, hi, I'm Mike.

(Yes, I did make that t shirt)

Here's a better picture of me taken at the top of the volcano astronauts go to when they want to pretend to be on Mars.

So a bit about me. I like comic books, and have been reading them regularly for seven years now? Since the around the end of Marvel's Civil War. I tend to read mostly North American genre comics; more Marvel than DC and as much creator owned, superhero-adjacent comics as I can afford (think Image-like). I find literary comics interesting and I dabble in them sometimes. I would love to read more European comics but find getting English-translations weirdly difficult and I am super intimidated by Manga, mostly because there is SO MUCH of it. I am by no means an expert in any form, format, or genre of comics, but I like some of everything and enjoy trying to talk about comics with strangers on the internet. Welcome to my nonsense!

I am also a big fan of reading novels. I spend 2-3 hours a day commuting on a metro train and bus so I get a lot of reading done. I mostly read Science Fiction, but will occasionally enjoy a Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, or more Literary Fiction book. As long as I am being entertained or interested I do not discriminate. This also shows up on the blog sometimes and may be expanded in the future. 

I'm Canadian and from Vancouver. It's very nice. You should visit.

In my day job I'm a Scientist. Or more accurately, a PhD student working towards a doctorate in the Life Sciences. I work on Heart Science and specifically how heart cells use contraction signalling for other things too, like how they couple the work they do pumping blood to the production of energy to pay for the work. It's pretty cool stuff and I have published papers and everything. 

Believe it or not, Atoll Comics started as a way to practice academic-ish writing for work.

Six months ago I married the best human. This is a fact that makes me happy every day. (The above photo is taken from behind to preserve my spouse's internet privacy and because she finds social media perplexing and distasteful. She is very wise.)

Some other things. I have a tiny dog. His name is Marls and he is ridiculous. (His photo is displayed because he is a little dog and therefore lacks an opinion on social media.) I love hockey for reasons of culture and hometown pride (go Canucks!). I play recreational soccer for health and fun and because jogging is devil-walking. I watch almost exclusively sports on television because it's entertaining and because, unlike critically acclaimed scripted TV (which my wife loves), sports doesn't require continuity or watching the 59 episodes saved on my PVR to enjoy. Most of Atoll Comics is written with some form of sports happening on a screen nearby. Shocking. I have an amateur's enthusiasm for photography which is kind of the new marriage-team hobby. I love cooking, especially new and challenging dishes, and think going to restaurants is just about the best thing in life. I am also balding in the weirdest way.

My name is Michael Bround, and I write Atoll Comics.

So there you have it, a real introduction so you have some idea of the person and biases behind the criticism on the blog.

I am also doing this because there are changes afoot for Atoll Comics. In the coming weeks and months there will be posts by other authors on the site. I'll get into this more later, but the general idea is that I am probably one of the biggest limiting factors of the website: my reading tastes, my perspective, and my time. The solution to all of this is to include other writers. And so you'll start to see posts introducing new bloggers followed by actual posts by other people here. I am really excited, there are some great, smart, articulate comics people who have agreed to write some stuff here.

It also means that you'll start seeing this:

Post by Michael Bround.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Food Freaks V. 2

Or an on-going tabulation of the various food powers in Chew
by John Layman and Rob Guillory, Image Comics

Part of the fun of Chew is how regosh-darn bizarre a comic it is. The premise of people with strange food powers living in a society with a strictly enforced poultry ban is just delightfully strange and wonderful. The thing is though, Chew, as crazy as it is, is builds in this systemic way where each weird idea builds on the last so the entire nuthouse is has this wonderful internally consistency. It's totally crazy, but it works. It's pretty cool and a sign that we should be wary of John Layman and Rob Guillory ever running for government office. 

Anyway, in celebration of the weird world of Chew and it's intensely well constructed madness... and because I like to make info-graphics, here is my updated chart of all of the wacky food powers in Chew. Specifically in the Chew collections volumes 1-8.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Chew Vol. 1-8, so proceed with all due caution.

(The new stuff is at the bottom.)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

So I Read Chew: Family Recipes

A 250 word (or less) review of Chew Vol. 8
by John Layman and Rob Guillory; Image Comics

This review will contain *SPOILERS*. For a clean review go here.

Chew is a comic about a detective who gets psychic impressions from everything he eats in a crazy universe that involves a poultry ban, a cannibal vampire, a cyborg game cock, and extraterrestrial Armageddons. It's a comic that is gloriously weird, but still compelling and accessible comics. Chew: Family Recipes brings the lens of the series back on Tony as he realises that his dead twin sister Toni had managed to leave him an amputated toe filled with important information. Tony's sister was cibovoyant, able to predict the future of any living thing she ingests. Sensing her own demise, she took steps to leave a fleshy clue for her cibopathic brother so she could equip him with important knowledge about his future from beyond the grave. Of course, this is Chew, so complications and hijinks ensue that are ridiculous and awesome. It's really business as usual for Chew and it's great. Which is actually pretty diverse business. I frequently see my favourite comics spaces try to mathematically quantify how diverse a particular comic is, to figure out whether a particular comic panders to a default audience or tries to represent a more realistic view of society. And Chew is actually pretty great about this: the protagonist of Chew is of Asian decent, his partner is a bisexual cyborg, and a significant portion of key characters are a demographically plausible mix of genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. So, I guess, come for the mad fun, stay for the thoughtful representation.

Word count: 249

Chew Vol. 1-5
Chew Vol. 6
Chew Vol. 7

Monday, 22 September 2014

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #4

Or a look at body language and character design in WicDiv #4
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine continues to be a comic I really enjoy. And while there are a slew of very dramatic or very meta elements that are amazing in the comic, I am maybe most impressed with just how technically great WicDiv is. There are just so many small elements in this comic that are executed perfectly to convey the maximum amount of information or emotion in every panel. This comic is beautifully crafted.

I'm going to highlight some more character design elements and how body language is used in WicDiv #4.

*SPOILERS* beyond this point.

Before I dive into the more technical elements in the comic, I kind of want to point out just how delightfully, and maybe insufferably, clever WicDiv is turning out to be. The idea of having Lucifer languish in prison to suit the purposes of the other gods as a parallel to the story of Satan in hell is endlessly smart. The absurd mural of Baal is a perfect monument directly tying religious devotion to the kind of deeply narcissistic behaviour of certain male popstars who probably helped inspire Baal. And the fan-worshippy behaviour of Laura is so on the nose, so true to the fandom-experience of trying to write criticism about creators and a medium I love, that well, it's EERY.

But I think maybe the most instructive aspect of WicDiv remains the creative teams mastery of using character design, costuming, and body language to rapidly teach us about a collection of new characters. And I'd like to continue unpacking that.

One of the main ways we communicate with each other is body language. As apes, or mammals even, we are wired to be keen observers of postures and gestures when trying to understand the people around us. Since comics are a visual medium, body language is one of the tools creators can use to communicate with us and especially to inform us about characters. WicDiv #4 has a great tour de force example of using body language to help us meet a bunch of new, or relatively new characters.

One of the main scenes in WicDiv #4 has Laura having an audience with a summit of the gods to plead Lucifers case. The summit shows the majority of the gods we've already met and introduces a pair of new gods. By having the various gods arrayed in thrones around the throne room, the scene invites us compare and contrast the body language of the various gods. Which in turn gives us a boatload of information about each of the gods.

Take Baal. Baal sits in his throne with relaxed, hands in lap, legs spread open. It's a posture of ease: Baal is comfortable here, unworried about the proceedings. It is also a posture that is pretty rude. This kind of wide stance is associated with male privilege, with not being worried about how much space you take up on the subway or whether your genitals are obviously visible in your displayed crotch. Baal's posture reflects that he clearly does not give a fuck what you think about him. In combination, this posture reflects Baal's power; Baal is powerful enough not to have to care about how he presents himself. And that kind of dismissive power is kind of sexy.

You get all of this from his posture.

And you can do this for all of the characters.

You can see how Minerva, small and perched on the edge-of-her-seat is watchful and attentive. The way she leans forward makes her look intense and focused which implies that she is smart and observant. (Her large round spectacles emphasize this further). Amaterasu has a defeated, hunched posture that when combined with her swaddling robes makes her look young, nervous, and powerless. As if she were a child averting her gaze from a scolding adult. Sakhmet sprawls languidly in her chair, clearly bored or uninterested in the proceedings, as if the trappings of earthly power are outside her interest. It is also a pose that reflects her innate sexuality and her feline aspects: even be-throned in a summit of the gods Sakhmet manages to look sexy. Ananke is seated above the other gods, regal and poised, reflecting discipline, power, and control. She looks powerful and queenly. And all of this is conveyed through body language.

Woden is an interesting exception to the rule. And I think there is meaning in this too. Unlike the other gods who are seated in thrones, he is standing, clutching one of his valkyries in a possessive manner. Woden is a craftsmen god (something reflected by the Daft Punk inspired helm and electronica music allusion), and his body language seems to reflect his pride in his accomplishments. He stands in a way that reflects ownership of his valkyrie, (ick btw) as if she were a craft of his that he is especially proud of. Also, by standing apart from the gods in a throne room of his making, his body language seems to be implying pride and ownership of the room. It is as if he is claiming credit for the diorama of the assembled gods in thrones as a thing he created. Also the fact that he is standing and apart from the other gods implies a rhetorical distance between him and the other deities, or at least a distance from the business of the disposition of Lucifer. It'll be interesting to learn more about him going forward.

After reading WicDiv #3 I wrote a thing trying to unpack the character design of The Morrigan. It looked at how the characters three aspects had three radically different designs that rapidly conveyed information about each sub-character and made each of them feel unique. While the characters of The Wicked + The Divine wear clothes instead of outright costumes, the gods of the comic have fashion that very much blurs the line between fashion and stage costuming, and as such, their designs maybe share common DNA with more traditional superhero designs.

But you don't have to have to deal with elaborately costumed characters to have what they are wearing be informative and I feel like the outfit of Laura in WicDiv #4 is a great case in point.

Laura is wearing an outfit that is clearly clothing: she is wearing a white t-shirt under a pear of purple overalls. This is something that an ordinary person would wear. In fact, I think I remember hearing somewhere that overalls are coming back into fashion for women? I mean, I could be wrong, but I have definitely seen some very fashionable young women rocking overalls recently... Regardless, this is reasonable clothing for a realistic person.

Beyond being ordinary clothes, this outfit provides gobs of character information. Now, some of this might just be me having weird opinions about overalls, but I've always sort of associated them with children. My going-on-two toddler nephew has several great overall based outfits, for instance. On adult women, I find that overalls, due to their bagginess and ability to de-emphasize the physical characteristics associated with female sexual maturity, tend to make women look younger than they are. And for me at least, this clothing choice makes Laura look extra-young and extra-naive in the relevant scenes in WicDiv #4. It creates the impression that she is a child at a dinner party of adults when she has her audience with the gods; that Laura is deeply out of her depth when confronted with the maturity and depth of the divine characters.

Or at least I think so.

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

Friday, 19 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Ubergesehicht

Or a comparative timeline between the true history of WW2 and the fictional WW2 of Uber
by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Keith Williams, and Digikore Studios; Avatar Press

Uber is a comic that posits an alternate history where Nazi Germany unleashes a force of superhumans in the final days of WW2. This prevents German defeat and causes the war to drag on in a way that diverges from actual history. The contrast and relationship between Uber's fictional history and the real history of WW2 is one of my favourite aspects of the comic. It's adroitly done and interesting to puzzle over.

Uber is also interesting because it falls into that category of alternate history that has rigorously reported timestamps. Virtually every major event in Uber Vol. 1 has the date of the event reported to the audience which is a choice I really, really like. I like it because it gives Uber an authority and a granular, material aspect that makes the comic feel more solid and realistic somehow. For me it changes the language of the comic from "World War 2 superhero adventure" to "thoughtful exploration of a given premise". Less Science Fantasy and more Sci-fi. I also like this choice because it means you can make a nifty timeline comparing the events of Uber to actual history on a day-by-day basis!

(And I love making timelines!)

This is a timeline piece, so it, basically by definition, has a ton of *SPOILERS*.

A few quick methodology points. On the Uber side I focused on the kind of major events that would be recorded in history books, there are events that are tied to dates in the comic that do not appear on the Uber timeline. A couple Uber points are approximate, since the relationship between the date stamp and the point in the timeline is a little nebulous. I did my best, but you know, it's still a bit imperfect. On the History timeline I used Wikipedia's date entry articles (Wiki "May 2") and if that failed I got info from "Today in History" from So you know, armchair research as opposed to carefully sourced stuff. Take this as infotainment. I tried to make History timeline entries for every day with an entry on the Uber timeline and also included what I considered salient events on days not appearing in Uber that fall within the time covered in the comic (like VE-Day on May 8th 1945). Also, presumably some of the details on the History side of the timeline also appear on the Uber side (like the death of Roosevelt), but I only included events depicted in the comic. You'll have to use your judgement a bit. I feel like this is an overall reasonable approach to compare and contrast the divergent timelines of Uber and History.

Apologies in advance for any mistakes!

So I Read Uber

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

So I Read Uber: Volume 1

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Uber tradepaperback
by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Keith Williams, and Digikore Studios; Avatar Press

Inherent in the DNA of Superheroic comics is World War II and the concept of superhumans participating in that grand, glorious conflict. Mainstream comic forays into this subject tend to be nostalgia driven celebrations of triumph and heroism and more or less fail to account for the fact that war is fucking horrifying. Uber is a comic that takes the fantastical idea of superheroes fighting in WW2 and cements it to history and realism in a really dark and smart way. The basic premise sees the Nazis, in the final hours of the Reich, release an army of superhumans, the unstoppable Battleships and the lesser, but still deadly, Panzermensch. This prevents German defeat, extends the war, and starts a super-powers arms race. Uber is dark and bloody and horrific and a really nuanced treatment of the concept. If you know a bit about WW2 this is a really thoughtful and interesting comic. If you don't know anything about WW2 history, Uber might be hard to get into. I feel like the pace and complexity of the comic and the fact that many characters, based on real life people, are middle aged army officers in uniforms made early chapters a bit inscrutable. I managed to keep up, but I dabbled in 20th century history during my education. That said, as the comic continues, things settle out and simplify, and it becomes a ghastly and exciting read. It is very much a case of a comic improving upon the appearance of Hitler.

Word count: 250

Aside: This has nothing to do with the actual quality of the comic, but it was kind of frustrating and daft that the jumbo-sized hardcover edition came out before the tradepaperback of Uber Vol. 1. The hardcover edition is certainly a nice object, but people like me who tradewait are keen to try the comic in an affordable format as soon as possible. Making us wait longer seems either a calculated attempt to make us buy in at the higher price, or just poor publishing logistics. It seems to me that it behooves Avatar to get as much Uber into the hands of readers as possible.