Wednesday, 28 January 2015

So I Read Seconds

A 250 word review of the Seconds Graphic Novel 
by Bryan Lee O'Malley with Jason Fischer, Dustin Harbin, Nathan Fairbairn; Ballantine Books

Seconds is about second chances. The comic follows Katie, a young chef trying to establish a new restaurant. At her first restaurant, Seconds, she was the chef driving the food at a successful establishment but not an owner. So she is leaving her home, literally since she lives in an apartment above Seconds, to start something new as a business partner. Unfortunately for Katie, things are not going well: renovations in her new restaurant space are off schedule, her romantic life is in shambles, and her continued presence at Seconds causes nothing but friction and hurt feelings. That is until Katie encounters a spirit who shows her that with the aid of a special mushroom she can rewrite the past, erase her mistakes, and earn a second chance. That is if she can keep herself out of trouble and avoid the consequences of messing with reality. Seconds is pretty great. It's hard to articulate exactly why I like Seconds so much other than to say it is endlessly charming and ineffably readable. Like, dangerously charming and readable. I read so many great comics, but Seconds is the first comic in a while that I just couldn't put down. It seriously ruined my comics rationing plan. Seconds is very much like one of its reality altering mushrooms: it possesses a magic I don't understand and yet it works really well. And, if you stay up all night reading it, it will have unfortunate consequences on reality. It's certainly worth a read.

Word count: 250

So I Read Scott Pilgrim

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Nexus Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus is a discussion about the emergence, control, and dissemination of technology, along with a philosophical viewpoint, all wrapped up in a big action film. In the novel Nexus is a nanomachine drug which travels to the brain and allows Nexus users to experience each others emotions, memories, and thoughts. Futurists, academics, utopian thinkers see Nexus' potential to elevate humankind, while criminals and sociopaths view the drug as the means to exploit others for profit. Governments seek to control and police the use of the drug, to use it against their enemies and to prevent the nanomachine from being misused. Some people just want to experiment with it for a good time. Kaden Lane is a talented neuroscience graduate student who has developed a new version of Nexus with awesome potential which will throw him into a world of espionage, repression, revolution, and crime all seeking to control his invention.  

Nexus is one of those "holy shit why isn't everyone talking about this!?" novels. It's pretty much everything I want in a contemporary Sci-fi novel for the commute. The plot races along, pages flying, with a rocketship of supercool action driving the story forward. But the story itself is a really thoughtful, blisteringly smart meditation on the emergence of perception altering technology and a broader treatise on the philosophical role of emerging technologies in society, the American security apparatus, and 21st century imperialism. Nexus is very nearly a manifesto. It's also one of the better portrayals of Science academia I've read and a great example of how to use complicated Science concepts in fiction. (Although it is weird how Kade's PhD supervisor is never around or that the author of a Science paper would ONLY get a poster at an academic conference is kind of funny. Also, poster sessions are nowhere as groovy as the one portrayed in the novel.) Basically, Nexus is a really exciting novel that plays with some fun speculative technology, asks some deeply fundamental questions about Science and Society, and pulls the whole thing off with panache. It's fantastic.

I would recommend this novel to anyone into Science Fiction: this book is really, really good. It's also a novel that I think would do very well with the thriller crowd since it's properly exciting and action packed. I'd also think that it'd be a fun read if you were a Science academic since it gets a lot right and is kind of amusing where it idealizes reality. And seriously, I do not know why this novel isn't a universally read critical and commercial smash hit. You really ought to read it.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Deep Sequencing: Classy Colours

Or a look at the kinetic colouring in Deadly Class Vol. 1
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge, and Rus Wooton; Image Comics

Deadly Class is a comic about a troubled youth going to a school for assassins. It is also a visually stunning comic that does some fiercely smart things with page design and colour. I've already talked about how impressive the layout work in this comic is, and now I want to focus on how smart and interesting the colouring in this comic is. 

There will be *SPOILERS* below.

One of the most impressive aspects of Deadly Class is how colour is used. I find the curated palettes of most pages really help establish each location with its own identity and sense of place. But it's not just about establishing each place, the carefully edited colours give each location a particular emotional nuance that helps drive the feel of each scene. Deadly Class is also pretty noteworthy in that the palettes change quickly and dramatically between each location, which helps establish cuts between scenes and gives this constantly shifting emotional backdrop for the story. There are great examples of this throughout Deadly Class, but the chapter where they introduce the assassin school, Kings Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts is a great showcase of the use of colour to establish mood and setting.

Take the above example of a cafeteria scene where Marcus, a new student at the school, moves through the room feeling alienated. The sickly, institutional green colouring absolutely screams the kind of budget functionality common to public buildings like schools. It also wonderfully captures the queasy feeling of social alienation of the scene. Another cool colour feature of the page is the palette change as Marcus leaves the cafeteria and enters the hall: you can see the location change and scene ending represented by the change in colouring. It's a quietly smart bit of page colouring.

It's also an example of another great layout page. The cool feature of the layout is that the motion of the page is captured by the central panel gutter which functions literally as an arrow. This arrow originates with Marcus at the top of the page, traces his movement through the space, and points to where he exits the cafeteria. Critically what this does is allow the reader to parse the motion of Marcus without seeing him in the cafeteria scene, which really helps emphasize his alienation from the broader student body. Which is a really clever layout choice.

Deadly Class Vol. 1 has a chapter that serves an introduction to the assassin school and the many classes aspiring young killers have to take to master their craft. The comic rapidly introduces these locations and manages to give every class a distinct feeling. Part of this is the memorable professors, certainly, but part of this is also that each class gets its own colour palette. Assassin Psychology is a study in institutional, warm greys while Beheading Class is awash in warm browns of antiquity. Poison Class is coloured a nauseous, toxic green instantly evocative of chemicals and Hand-to-Hand Combat is done in the brights tans and browns of old-school gymnasiums everywhere.  Ap Black Arts takes place in an unfathomable abyss of black filled with roiling mysterious green smoke. Each class looks unique, and even cutting between them in a stack like this, it is really obvious that they are all different settings. More impressively, each setting wonderfully presents the mood and feeling of the space: at a glance the colours inform the emotional palette of each space establishing how we should feel about every classroom. It's a really nice example of just how important colouring is and how it can be used to solidify cutting between scenes and quickly build settings.

Deadly Class brings this level of colouring thought to every page. I picked the classroom example because it is very clear and makes for nice comparisons, but you can take many sequences from Deadly Class and build a shifting scene-to-scene colour palette map that will showcase how thoughtful, evocative, and kinetic the colouring is in the comic. It is one of the most active examples of colouring I can think of and worth checking out Deadly Class for. The art in this book is fantastic.


Friday, 23 January 2015

Deep Sequencing: Deadly Layouts

Or a look at the audacious layouts in Deadly Class Vol. 1
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge, Rus Wooton; Image Comics

Deadly Class, a comic about a troubled youth joining an assassin school, is maybe one of the best looking comics I've read recently. It is absolutely chocked full of exciting, dynamic layouts, stylish characters, and seamlessly integrated and interesting colours. It is a comic that really delivers some outstanding storytelling and showcases how effective art teams can make great comics. While I have some story-related reservations about whole-heartedly recommending Deadly Class, I feel like if you are the kind of reader who really enjoys comics art, it is a must read comic. 

In this post I'm going to try and break down a really great action sequence from early in the volume that really showcases some of the fantastic layout decisions in Deadly Class Vol. 1.

There will, of course, be *SPOILERS* for Deadly Class Vol. 1.

This is the first page of the sequence I want to take a closer look at and already there is some pretty impressive comics at work. Take the top level of panels with Marcus, the guy, fleeing down some stairs. The tilt to the row helps create both the sense that he is moving down some stairs and, since the panels become wider as they progress, that Marcus is coming towards the reader. This is further emphasized by the way Marcus' body breaks the barriers of the panel gutters, always in the direction he is moving, until ultimately he seems to leap off the page. This leap leads to a cross-page carriage return to the image of him landing heavily which captures the sudden speed of the leap and the halt of his motion. The page then drags the reader's eyes to the right to Marcus' eyes, up the black leg guide and to Saya's eye at a higher level on the page. This instantly tells us Marcus is looking up at her, which carries spatial information, as well as making Saya, the woman, seem like a powerful force. The next panel, though, is the really brilliant part of this page: Saya's head is in the second row of panels and her body and motorcycle are in the large, bottom panel of the page. What this does is it focuses the reader's attention on her in the second row of panels so that when they enter the final, large panel she is already the most important thing in it, the focal point. Which is such a great layout choice. (Of course this effect is emphasized by the colours which uses Saya's pale skin, hard black hair and clothes, and the bright red of the panel and motorbike to draw attention to Saya and away from the washed out surroundings and Marcus.) All in all, this is a great page of comics. 

And we are just getting started.

The next page utilizes a few simple layout choices to make the entire page very fast and kinetic. The first is that the panels are short but wide and have relatively few key details or text. This means that readers have to pan back and forth across the entire page and can move through each panel without slowing down to navigate dialogue or unnecessary details. Eye path distance plus quick reading panels make for a fast feeling page. This page also utilizes tilted panels, which adds to the speed of the page. In the top panel, this tilt makes the panel become wider in the same direction of the motion, which makes the motion feel like it is exploding in that direction. In the next four panels the tilt is in the same direction as the motion making everything feel like it is moving downhill and in the natural direction of reading the page, which helps add more feelings of speed to the wide panels. The bottom of the page utilizes the tilt as well, but in a more interesting way. Here the composition seems to widen in our direction and then narrow, which along with the drawings create the impression of the motorcyclists coming towards the reader and then blasting away into the distance where the page narrows. It's a great page that uses structure to create a physical, and therefore, emotional sense of speed in the action.

The next page continues to make use of the slanted wide panel structure to continue making the sequence feel recklessly fast. This page does some additional things in its bottom half that are pretty exciting. The sixth, seventh, and eighth panels on the page grab the motion of the reader's cross-page carriage return and bend it into a wide turn that brings Marcus and Saya on their motorcycle around the bend and up towards the reader. Which is great because it captures the experience and wildness of a high speed turn. Another cool aspect of the layout of this page is that the final panel, depicting the police care taking the same turn, spatially overlaps the previous panels so that the reader encounters it in the process of reading the motorcycle's turn which conveys just how close the pursing cops are to the Marcus and Saya. This panel construction really solidifies the stakes and status of the chase as we move on to the next page.

The next page represents a change of pace to the story, with Saya recognizing something drastic must be done to break the stalemate of the chase. And so the story of the page is Saya jumping off the motorcycle and into the police car. The page does a bunch of nifty things to make this sequence work really well. For one, it continues to use the slanted panel layout to continue the motif of speed in the chase. However, the focus of this page is Saya as she leaps from the motorbike. The key here is that Saya is drawn in a way that is on top of and independent from the underlying panels, which helps keep the reader focused on Saya and moving along the trajectory of her leap. Another great flourish in the leaping sequence is that on her way down into the police car, Saya drops along a long, straight line that the reader's eyes rapidly move down. It makes the motion feel fast and the impending collision feel weighty and significant. This page also uses the same trick as the previous page where Saya's leap, Marcus on the motorcycle, and the pursuing police car all share an overlapping common background space all jumbled together. This provides a bunch spatial and temporal information which makes the sequence make sense and feel very fast. It's a really smart choice.

And then we get a page turn...

...And a tremendous impact! Saya smashes through the windshield of the police car and kicks the driver in the face in an absolutely visceral moment. A moment that is amped up by the underlying layout choices: the reader enters the page on the top left, which is against the motion of the kick. The fact the depicted motion operates against the direction of the reader's eye path makes the moment feel more sudden, and heavy. This disjoint also means that the reader has to take a little longer to figure out how to navigate the panel which makes the moment stretch a little. This first panel is also noteworthy in it shows a really smart change in colouring: the inside of the cab is coloured in a green/grey palette that is distinct from the bright red pallet of the rest of the chase scene, which can still be seen through the car's windows. This creates a clear demarcation between outside and inside and helps convey that Saya has entered the police car without being explicitly shown this. The page then returns to the speed tilt with wide panel format, readers cruising back and forth quickly, running along the motion of Saya slamming into the car and then along gun barrels and pointed fingers to keep the reader focused on key information. On this page, though, the panel tilt is in the opposite direction as previous pages in the sequence. This is significant because it provides a clearly different feel for the in-the-police-car subscene and because it allows Saya to kick down in the first panel. It also helps emphasize the hazard of the telephone pole the car is hurtling towards: it's the focus of the largest panel on the page. Which sets up for the page turn.

The page turn brings right to another impact. The reader enters the page at the top left and is dragged by the car right into the telephone pole. Critically, the reader then probably notices Saya tumbling clear of the wreck which pulls attention to the top right corner of the page. What this does is it rapidly arrests the downward progress of the reader: the car his the pole, and then that eye motion abruptly stops. It's an exciting choice. The res of the page returns to the wide, angled panel format to convey fast, kinetic action. Some cool features of this page are the frictionless panel of Marcus freaking out that can be taken in at a glance, the great leaning motorcycle turn, and the the final panel which snaps up the carriage return early and drags it into the green tunnel and scene change. Basically it is another keen, fast-feeling page.

The next page picks up moments after Marcus crashes the motorbike. He is injured, discombobulated and frightened, and the layout absolutely reflects this. Gone are the organized, efficient row panels that readers can quickly navigate, and instead the page is filled with a riot of tumbled, confusing panels. Readers are forced to try and figure out a route through without a clear eye-guided path to follow leading an empathetic moment of confusion. Initially the lettering drags the reader to the wincing face of Marcus, letting the reader know he is in pain right from the start. After that though, the composition is less clear, and requires some meandering and taking stock: what happened, and what is the situation. Things become a bit clearer again as Marcus goes for his backpack, before his attention, and the reader's, is dragged down and to the left to a pursuing gunman. And then a tumble of chaotic panels bring us out of the page into the next. The entire layout is broken and chaotic, the green colour palette is also sickly, it's as if the entire page is in pain and it absolutely captures the moment. 

And finally we reach the climatic page of this sequence. This is a page designed to build tension to a finely honed edge. The page enters with the gunman from the previous page, finger on the trigger, and then follows a meandering trail of blood, suggestive and just a little time consuming, drawing the moment out. The reader then sees the gunman aiming his gun down, and following the path of the barrel, we see Marcus laying injured on the ground in a pool of blood. The next panel is aimed up at the gunman, looming in a position of power, before bringing us to the final, RED panel that sets up the exciting climax of the entire chase sequence.

Which is...

Something you'll have to read in Deadly Class Vol. 1

Which you really should do, because these kinds of ambitious, clever layouts abound in Deadly Class. Every page has adept storytelling and many page have these tremendous and creative flourishes of design. Deadly Class is as smart a comic as I've read when it comes to the use of layout as a storytelling tool and is really must read comics if you are interested in how comics work. 

So I Read Deadly Class Vol. 1

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

So I Read Deadly Class: Reagan Youth

A 250 word (or less) review of the Deadly Class Vol. 1
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, and Lee Loughridge, and Rus Wotoon; Image Comics

Deadly Class is a comic about a school that trains children to be assassins. It follows Marcus Arguello, a youth orphaned in a terrible accident, who eventually joins the school and swears vengeance on the man he blames for his parents death. It's a solid premise that is delivered in a way that leaves me with some conflicting feelings. What I love about this comic, and why I absolutely think you should try it, is the art. Deadly Class: Regan Youth is a fantastic looking comic that marries solid storytelling and character work to some of the most audacious and dynamic layouts that I've ever seen. And this is further wedded to some remarkably smart and, there is no other way to describe it, kinetic colouring. Deadly Class just rockets along visually. Seriously, read this comic if only for the art. The story is more of a mixed bag for me. The central premise is interesting and the parts that are good are chilling and brutal and fascinating. However this is balanced by... okay, nailing a transgressive world is a balancing act between going far enough to be uncomfortable but not going so far that it becomes silly. And for me, Deadly Class overshoots transgressive and delves into goofy crassness a bit. Some of the story choices really detracted from my enjoyment of the comic. Still, Deadly Class is interesting if imperfect and visually fucking stunning. You should give it a look.

Word count: 242

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Left Hand Of Darkness Is A Good Book

Why you should read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic work of Science Fiction. In the novel Genly Ai, a human emissary from the Ekumen, an intersteller coalition of affiliated humanoid worlds, is sent to the planet Gethen, also known as Winter. Genly's mission is to convince the natives of Gethen to join the Ekumen and begin to share in the broader culture of humanity. But Genly's mission is challenged by the inhospitable, frozen world of Gethen and the alien, inscrutable nature of its inhabitants. The humans of Gethen have no gender, and a biology that carries the potential for both reproductive sexes. The Gethenian normally are functionally sexless, but as part of a monthly cycle enter the state of Kemmer where they become sexually receptive and temporarily express the sexual characteristics of either a female or male. Genly's mission also runs afoul of tension between Gethen nation states and forces Genly to entrust his mission and life to the enigmatic Estraven.

The Left Hand of Darkness is an absolute masterwork of Science Fiction. As much as the novel revolves around a gripping tale of political intrigue and survivalism, the true engine of the novel is a thought experiment about what a genderless society would look like. So much of our society focuses on the differences between men and women, from the way products are marketed, to career expectations, to the way sexuality is policed to, well just about everything. By focusing on the ambisexual Gethenian species, The Left Hand of Darkness explores how society might work if the vast majority experienced gender and sexuality in the same manner and the gender barriers in our society just didn't exist. The results of the novel's thought experiment are interesting and, in a way that demonstrates tremendous intellectual maturity, are really believable and possessed. (This is a novel that could be "Isn't this crazy!" and is instead rigorous and honest.) My point here is, for all of its beauty and tension, this is a really, really smart novel.

I would recommend The Left Hand of Darkness to any Science Fiction fan. This is classic, canon Sci-fi that everyone keen on the genre really ought to read. If you're like me and have an interest in touring the essential classic works of Sci-fi, than The Left Hand of Darkness is an absolutely necessary read. Go read it.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Exposing The Secret Avengers #10 and #11

Or a look at the exciting layouts in Secret Avengers #10 and #11
by Ales Kot, Michael Walsh, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

Secret Avengers is such a good time, with it's slow burning tale of betrayal and love and dire extra-dimensional threats to reality. And hijinks! So many hijinks! It is a comic that balances compelling, warped espionage stories with delightfully absurd humour and rending sincerity to create really enjoyable comics.

Secret Avengers is also a comic that often features some really interesting layouts and splash pages that use unconventional story-telling in interesting ways. And I'd like to show you some.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Secret Avengers #10 and #11 below.

This double page spread from SA #10 is just kind of quietly wonderful comics. The story of the page has Agent Coulson, AWOL, travelling from the city where has been living into the jungle and Hawkeye pursuing him. The pages basically tell the story of two characters travelling from point A to point B. What I like about this layout is that it depicts both characters journeys simultaneously, in alternating, interspersed panels. What this does is allow the characters to play off one another and sell the idea the pursuit component of the story. In the first row of panels we see the two characters preparing and setting out on their journey in directly parallel panels, which establishes that both characters are starting the pursuit from at the same time and from a similar point of preparedness. It also puts them on seemingly equal footing, setting up the comedy of the page. The second row of panels is where the two characters have their paths intersect in alternating panels: Coulson gets in the bus and Hawkeye, being a total futzzing goof, misses the bus. The alternating panels here let us experience the comedy of Hawkeye's frantic screwup and Coulson's quiet ignorance of their near encounter. The final row of panels depicts both characters actually getting to their objective. Here the interspersed panels show Coulson's conventional journey and Hawkeye's amusing Deadpool-airlines gambit. Which makes for a fun contrast. Critically the interspersed panels have sufficient crossover, with Coulson spotting Hawkeyes plane, to help keep the chase elements of the scene feeling important. This page is basically a nifty take on two travel montages that allows for a frantic feeling pursuit and maximum comedy. It's pretty great comics.

This sequence from SA #11 I find endlessly fascinating. It's a very simple seeming sequence that manages to convey a lot of overlapping information in an effortless manner. The story of this row of panels is very straightforward: Spider-Woman mauls her way through a group of henchmen while racing to the aid of the captured Maria Hill. What's really cool about this sequence is how fast and impactful the sequence feels. Often speed and impact feel somewhat at odds with each other: fast sequences are usually about ease of navigation while impact often plays with techniques meant to slow the moment of impact and make it feel weightier. This sequence manages to do both at the same time.

The sequence manages to feel very quick because it has an obvious, simple reader guide shape: all of the action on the page and Spider-Woman's motion make a very clear V-shaped down and up path that can be quickly navigated. Add to that the focus of the composition: the action is pared down to the key moments without any distracting background details. This helps the reader navigate the sequence faster. What's particularly cool about this sequence is that without background the forward motion is completely due to how the characters move across the page and the trail of injured goons acting as horizontal distance markers. This provides all the needed spatial information without adding extra details. This sequence is a lesson in comics efficiency.

The impact of each blow in the sequence, meanwhile, is enhanced by the fact the motion of Spider-Woman doesn't quite sync up between panels. While the overall flow of her progress through the page is very clear, the way she goes from leap to kick to shock to knee-to-the-face is just a little vague and disjointed, which makes every moment in the composition stand out and each blow feel weighty despite the speed of the sequence. This aspect of the page is enhanced by the way Spider-Woman is partially clipped by each preceding panel which helps break up the details of her movement. The impact of this sequence is also emphasized by the colouring. Everything in this row of panels is coloured bright, dangerous red while the rest of the page this sequence resides in is in normal full colour. It makes this sequence stand out and feel more important and violent regardless of the action depicted. Combined these aspects of the sequence manage to really hammer home the ferocity of the action without greatly slowing down the speed of the composition. Which is great stuff.

Another thing that Secret Avengers really hammers home for me is just how *sincere* a comic it is. For being a comic filled with absurdity, comedy, lies, and hijinks it's also a comic that absolutely bleeds sincerity. Characters absolutely, ruthlessly believe and unrepentantly have feelings. For a while now I've been trying to pin down what exactly it is about Secret Avengers that I like so much, and I think it's this sincerity that elevates the whole comic above its remarkable constituent parts. I believe.

And sucks to irony and snark.

Post by Michael Bround

Secret Avengers #9: Interlocking stories

Secret Avengers #7: Labyrinthine panelling
Secret Avengers #4: Colour as character symbols.
Secret Avengers #2-3: Smart layouts.