Friday, 31 July 2015

Eye on Hawkeye #22

Or how to build a satisfying ending, bro, in Hawkeye #22,
by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, and Chris Eliopoulos; Marvel Comics


Hawkeye has been one of my all time favourite comics. It has consistently been one of the most amusing, emotionally charged, and gorgeous monthly comics I've read. It managed, within the context of a large corporate publishing machine, to be original, experimental, ambitious, and filled with idiosyncratic in-jokes and a consistent, unique aesthetic. It's also a comic that changed the way I read and write about comics: Hawkeye has been a huge influence on the critical direction of this blog. So you could say I have a lot invested in seeing this series end on a high note.

And team Hawkguy absolutely nailed it.

They not only provided us with a satisfying conclusion to their story but also put on a clinic in how to construct a memorable, celebratory ending.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Hawkeye #22 below.




The foundation of a good ending, is of course, that it's an ending. It is really important that the core conflicts draw to a conclusion, that the themes explored have some sort of coda, and, for a conclusion to really sit well with me, some sort of epilogue to establish the character outcomes of the story. Basically, for an ending to be good it has to feel like a big, solid, real ending. Which seems like a kind of an asinine statement right? But the thing is, getting true-feeling endings in mainstream comics, or really, a lot of sequential story vehicles is discouragingly rare. And the fact that Hawkeye #22 manages to build a real conclusion within the context of a perpetually on-going story is impressive and a huge part of why this ending to this iteration of the series worked so well.


The other thing about endings is that they can't be *too* perfect. Real life is complicated, and tying everything off in a perfect bow lacks the complexity and imperfection of truth. If nothing else it feels trite. So a great ending needs to leave a few loose ends, some space for the narrative keep on living beyond the confines of the story. There is a delicate balance here, since too many loose ends prevents an ending from feeling complete and a story to feel more like a just a chapter. It's like the difference between leaving room for an after-the-fact season maybe or a post-series movie, and the cliff-hanger non-ending of a syndicated flagship series. Hawkeye #22 navigates this compromise perfectly, leaving just enough of that critical space to leave room for the future without actually undoing the knot of the ending. It's perfectly done.



The ending in Hawkeye #22 is also served by some great artwork. Like, this page here is a fantastic composition that uses non-linear storytelling to make an especially tense feeling layout. The chronology of the events do not follow a simple left-to-right-down-the-page convention but are instead thrown together in a more complicated way. The middle tier of panels are the key since they show simultaneous events that go left-to-middle and right-to-middle before dropping own to the next level of panels. Functionally what this does is break the page into four general time-regions which makes the page feel like a great deal of motion has been compressed into a short amount of time. This unusual layout also changes the way the reader tracks through the page, making them spend extra time on the middle tier and maybe pan back and forth a little. This serves to catch the feeling of the furtive surveying of the characters on the page, but also keeps the reader focused on these two characters so that when Ladybro Hawkeye nabs the gun it feels more unexpected. It's a great page of comics that really showcases just how well made Hawkeye has been.


Or maybe this page is a better example, since I think it really exemplifies one of my favourite aspects of the artwork in Hawkeye and David Aja, generally, as an artist. In this page Kate Bishop tosses the pistol to the Tracksuit Bro. This creates a natural arc for our eyes to follow as it rainbows across the page. Additionally, the pistol in the arc is drawn tumbling, and with varying degrees of zoomed in, which draws more attention to its flight since the reader has to concentrate a bit to understand exactly what is happening. (The zoom effect is also pretty cool in that it really nails the feeling of the motion of something being tossed.) Critically this part of the composition just soaks attention and time so that when we carriage return across the page into the next panel, an angry red, narrow, moment of a panel moving contrary to our eye motion, it feels sudden, rapid, and extra impactful. It reads simply and organically but is deceptively complex and really clever in how it guides the reader through the page in a way designed to generate the perfect moment. It's quintessentially why I have found the art in Hawkeye so alluring and instructive. 

I am going to miss this comic so much, bros, so much.

Both of these pages, though, fit into another reason Hawkeye #22 was such an effective ending: Team Hawkguy delivered the high quality comic experience the series was known for. Too often final issues feel and look tacked on, or greatly suffer from uneven, rushed art or tone deaf fill-in assists that radically compromise what should be the triumphant moment of a story. Hawkeye #22 was definitely a case of a comic ending on a high note.





One of the most enjoyable aspects of Hawkeye as a series has been all of the in-jokes, running gags, and internal references. The Bros, hawk-blocking, Pizza Dog, Hawkguy, great-at-boats, etc. For being a corporate comic about a long standing intellectual property character, Hawkeye managed to build it's own culture, and seeing those moments reflected in the final issue was a nostalgic, joyous thing. 





Which I think is another reason Hawkeye #22 functions so well as a series ending. It's not only an exceptionally well crafted comic that provides a pitch perfect ending to the story, but it's also constructed with dozens of little references to previous issues. And in so doing, the issue also kind of works like a montage of greatest moments that let's the reader remember all the issues that have come before and celebrate Hawkeye as a whole. It's like a series finale that also functions a little like a secret clip show.








But there is more to all of this than simply a series of fun call backs. The referencing of past issues in Hawkeye #22 is usually involved in critical moments of the story. For instance the way in which the tragic clown assassin is dispatched uses items set up in a past issue and a method that has been played with all the way back in the first issue of the comic. This gives this moment a huge amount of additional cache and adds an emotional sense of vengeance to this key story moment. This set up work makes these depicted moments into triumphant pay offs that are dramatically more satisfying.





This kind of pay off is the result of obvious longterm planning on the part of Team Hawkguy and is yet another hallmark of the quality of this series. To be able to pay off moments set up 10 or 20 issues before is remarkable as a feat of writing, logistically and as a surrogate for effectiveness  (since it takes a special kind of readership engagement to make this trick work). It's also, I think, a big part of why Hawkeye #22 felt like such a satisfying ending: seeing those final dominos fall into place, those last beautifully set up moments pay off, was an incredible experience. It changed the last issue from a series of exciting events to a grand finale of earned, climatic moments that resonate throughout the series. It's this diligence that I really think elevates Hawkeye #22 into the perfect ending.

Hawkeye was one of my favourite comics and in Hawkeye #22 it has one of my favourite endings.

I love this comic. I am so thankful I was able to read it and I will profoundly miss this comic now that it's over. 

Previously:
Eye on Hawkeye #18: Colours and setting.
Eye on Hawkeye #15: Composition, Layout, and colours.
Eye on Hawkeye #16: Smart layouts and chilling moods.
Eye on Hawkeye #14: Repetitive panels as a device.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

So I Read The Fade Out: Act One

A 250 word (or less) review of The Fade Out Vol. 1
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Philips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser; Image Comics


The Fade Out is a murder mystery set in the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the comic Charlie Parish, the screenwriter of a troubled Noir picture, wakes up after a long night drinking and finds himself face to face with the dead body of Valeria Sommers, the starlet of the picture. Charlie, hazy on the details and knowing how it looks, flees the scene and runs right into a Noir tale worthy of the Silver Screen. The Fade Out is a difficult comic to review; so much of the pleasure of reading it is the unfolding of the mystery and the gradual construction of the story world. To tell you anymore about the premise would be a disservice. What I will say is that this is a very good comic: The Fade Out is a comic built out of Old Hollywood style. It has all of the class and glamour of classic film and all of the war trauma, sex, abuse, eccentricity, injustice, and straight up crime that existed unseen around the studios of the Golden Age. The Fade Out is a comic that at once revels in nostalgia while also complicating the past. It's also cool as hell. Basically, if you want to read an engrossing murder mystery filled with intriguing characters in superlative setting, than The Fade Out Act One is just about the perfect comic.

Word count: 228

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Steel Remains Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Steel Remains 
by Richard K Morgan




When I was in high school I read a ton of Epic Fantasy. Paperback after paperback of D&D inspired adventures with Wizards and Barbarian Warriers and Elfin Rangers confronting monstrous hordes, fighting evil masterminds, hefting tankards, and falling in love. Action! Romance! Adventure! For a teenage dork, even one who has never rolled an unexpected-sided dice in his life, these were the books for me. 

The trouble with this seam of the genre is that it started to feel largely formulaic and inauthentic. Quests and legendary journeys and epic battles all started to follow certain predictable shapes and the simple moral systems and the lack of reasonable consequences started to barge with the more nuanced, cynical, and complicated world experience was teaching me about. Things aren't unicorn goddesses and healing spells and quietly perfect heroes and a fictional universe that operates along these lines doesn't hold up to scrutiny. 

The Steel Remains is an Epic Fantasy novel for the cynical, lapsed Epic Fantasy fan.

The Steel Remains begins several years after a great human victory.  Almost a decade before, standing together with the advanced Kiriath, the human nations of the world united to repel an invasion of the Scaled Folk from the sea in a war that reshaped the world. But that was years ago and glory is fleeting. Now Ringil Eskiath, a champion swordsman and hero of Gallows Gap, lives in a hamlet, exiled by his "deviancy" and disgust with the powers which emerged after the war. Now Archeth Indamaninarmal, a half-Kiriath sage, is abandoned by her father's people when they departed the world and advises the mercurial son of the Emperor she respected. Now Egar Dragonbane, a barbarian hero who killed dragons, has returned to his Majak homeland to raise cattle on the steppes. Things are a little shit, basically. That is until Ringil's aristocratic mother turns up, imploring her son to rescue his cousin, legally sold into slavery to pay for her husband's debt. Which sends Ringil on a quest into the darkest corners of the world and exposes an ancient evil returning to the world. An ancient evil that will awaken and drag all of these heroes back into the world. 

The Steel Remains is exactly the kind of morally complicated Epic Fantasy I crave these days. The heroes of the story aren't fated, simple heroes doing things out of loyalty or honour, they are complicated individuals who have been shaped by ideals and greed, tragedy and glory, and a rich constellation of motivations like real people. They are all laudable in some ways and despicable in others. But mostly they are interesting: the complexity and nuance of morality to the core characters of The Steel Remains lends them a depth of interest that is often lacking in the characters of more conventionally written Fantasy. It jives so much more with my view of the world and feels far more authentic. The Steel Remains is also interesting in that it is a story that comes after a moment of traditional Fantasy glory and is about heroes living after this and dragging themselves back to it, which as a mostly lapsed Fantasy audience I found a compelling tact. If you used to like Fantasy, and stepped away from it, The Steel Remains may be a vehicle to bring you back to the genre.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who kind of misses Fantasy and cringes at the idea of reading a good-old-fashion pulpy swords and sorcery adventure. If you crave gritty, nuanced Fantasy this is a very good book. That said, it is DARK. There are some properly fucking awful things that happen in this book and a lot of the development in the book is pretty bleak. If you are someone who doesn't like Grimdark or graphic depictions of human awfulness, avoid The Steel Remains, it is not the book for you. That said, The Steel Remains, despite the aforementioned awfulness, is also a pleasantly progressive book featuring a gay protagonist and a lesbian principle character. If you crave well made genre fiction with queer characters, this book may be worth a try. Just, remember, know it is going to be problematic and challenging at times. It is certainly not for everyone, but I really enjoyed The Steel Remains.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Visiting The Island #1: Multiple Warheads

Or a look at the busy town compositions of Multiple Warheads 2: Ghost Town
by Brandon Graham



Another great thing about the new Island comics anthology is that it appears that it's the vehicle for more of Brandon Graham's great comic Multiple Warheads. Which, I've gotta say, I'm pretty excited about. Brandon Graham is one of those comics artists with a distinct aesthetic and an approach to comics storytelling that I think runs contrary to a lot of mainstream wisdom. While I don't think you can drill this difference down to any single aspect of his work, there are a couple great examples of wide angle shots in the current instalment of Multiple Warheads that really showcase one of my favourite aspects of Brandon Graham's storytelling. Which are perhaps worth a bit of unpacking.

There will be *SPOILERS* for the Multiple Warheads in Island #1.



In a lot of cases good storytelling comes down to efficiently conveying the emotion or details of an event in a clear and concise way. Usually this entails the artist honing their composition in on the main characters, or key actions, or providing an evocative look at setting to provide spatial context. It's also often an action in limiting extra details to only what is necessary to sell the shot, to populate the scene with just enough detail to make the world look inhabited, but not so much to distract readers from the key things being portrayed. Or, TLDR, it's all about focus. 

Multiple Warheads essentially ignores this approach and throws a chaos of detail at the reader to sort through. And it is kind of great.

Take this double page spread which shows our protagonists going for a crazy brunch. The page is drawn wide angle to provide spatial awareness of the restaurant and to allow the world of Multiple Warheads to exist. 



The main story of the page has our protagonists order their meals (complete with a fun choose-your-own-advenutre moment), their weird Warhead thing order his meal, and their bird waiter person go and fill out the order. Despite the very busy layout, this central story is very easy to follow across the spread, taking advantage of lettering to draw attention and the effective tangent of the staircase to handle the transition from one clearly defined story region to another. Despite all of the seemingly extraneous detail on the page, the underlying core narrative is well constructed and clear.


Built into this main narrative is a smaller mini-strip within the spread focussed on world building. The restaurant our heroes are eating at is built on a whale and uses specially grown whale meat as the main ingredient. This smaller comic strip shows the cooks in the restaurant and explains a little bit about how the whale-restaurant functions. It's a fun little discursion that makes the whale-restaurant feel more real. It also, critically, slots into the main narrative very cleanly, fitting into the flow in an organic spot, and adding a nice sense of elapsed time before progressing to the final panel in the main story. 


Finally this page has little islands of crazy characters around the periphery. These characters largely function like extras, filling the restaurant with people and making the world feel more lived in. Except, unlike the standard idea of extras, who are meant to occupy a space without attracting undue attention, and are usually kind of bland, these extras are all crazy Multiple Warheads characters who are each unique weirdos. Which really helps build the veracity of the world: not only do the heroes of Multiple Warheads have fantastic, crazy stories, but so does everyone in this wild, post-apocalyptic world. It's a really charming choice.

In a lot of ways this double page spread violates the common wisdom of storytelling: it packs in tons of extra detail, includes fun, but irrelevant side stories, and generally makes the world instead of the core narrative the focus of the page. And yet this spread still manages to provide a clear, well built navigational path through the composition so information can be logically and effortlessly read. The result is this living world, seemingly bursting with life that navigates this really effective compromise between clutter and narrative focus. It's great comics and something Brandon Graham does really, really well.

Previously:

Island #1: ID and Emma Rios

So I Read Multiple Warheads Vol. 1
Multiplexed storytelling in Multiple Warheads

Friday, 24 July 2015

Deep Sequencing: Finding Panels

Or a look at the panel construction in Finder: Third World
by Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Mudron, and Jenn Manley Lee; Dark Horse Books


Finder is a pretty fantastic comic. Of all the comics I write about, I think Finder might be the closest to my perfect reading experience. The story is broadly Science Fiction, and is just filled with hundreds of high concept ideas and really insightful, and often darkly funny, critiques of contemporary culture. The characters are vivid and charming and weird. The artwork is expressive, beautifully composed, and filled with an incredible attention to detail and storytelling. I cannot recommend Finder enough.

And yet, I find it really hard to satisfactorily articulate *why* you need to read this comic.

But I think this sequence from Finder: Third World encapsulates, in a single moment, just why I am so keen on Finder:

(As always *SPOILERS*.)


The story of the sequence is that Jaeger, the half-Ascian Finder, has gone legitimate as a courier in one of the futuristic domed cities of the comic. His colleague brings back a package that is undeliverable that is addressed to the next building over from their courier office. Apparently the freight elevator is broken and the recipient's building won't allow deliveries in the main elevators. Jaeger being a crazy badass flings himself through the air, from building to building and with delightful casualness delivers the package. The dude signing for the package asks "Is this level of effort worth what they must be paying you?" and Jaeger answers: "At this point in my life, I think it's important to be happy." It's pretty much perfection.

This sequence captures Finder's spirit. We have a far-future world of holographic interfaces and neurally implatned information technology in an arcology mega-metropolis where physical delivery people are waylaid by restrictive, classist rules about lift usage. Against this pretty incisive satire about work, class, and the physical limitations of technology we get a pretty solid character building moment for Jaeger, seeing his utter disregard for safety, his bravery, and his uncanny talent for getting difficult jobs done. And then this wonderfully absurd situation ends in a profoundly resonate statement that is the crux of my approach to finding meaning in life. I kind of fucking love this comic.


As a comic wonk, I love this sequence too. The final page of the sequence in particular is this amazing showcase of how layout structure can add huge amounts of emotion to a compostion. The majority of Finder: Third World is comprised of square and rectangular panels that fit together at right angles and make for a very clean, very easily read narrative (like above left). The final page of the package delivery sequence (right) has panel shapes that are radically different. Instead of fitting together in clean blocks, these panels fit together in radical angles. This gives the page a precarious, unbalanced look that perfectly captures the drama and unusualness of the situation. Which, in turn, helps boost the danger and comedy of the sequence elevating the entire experience. It's a fundamental comics choice that really improves the page and is diagnostic of the superlative attention to detail that is characteristic of Finder.

Finder is too good a comic to not have read. 

Post by Michael Bround

Previously:

So I Read The Finder Libraries
So I Read Finder: Talisman
So I Read Finder: Third World

Deep Sequencing: Lettering in Finder

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

So I Read Finder: Third World

A 250 word review of Finder: Third World
by Carla Speed McNeil, Jenn Manley Lee, and Bill Mudron; Dark Horse Books


Finder is one of my favourite comics. It's a comic that manages to wed empathetic, nuanced stories to one of the most effortlessly dense Sci-fi settings I've ever read. Every moment of Finder is a curated act of discovery in a fractal construct of speculation and fantasy. If you are at all a fan of Science Fiction, Finder Third World is a must read. Finder is also one of the most masterful comics I read: this is a comic filled with wonderful character work, dynamic layouts, and exquisite flourishes of lettering, inking, and craft. Third World is even in colour! If you are a fan of well made comics, Finder Third World is a must read. Basically I cannot recommend Finder and Third World enough. The comic itself focuses on Jaeger, the half-Ascian Finder with the mysterious healing factor and a penchant for getting into trouble. In Third World Jaeger decides to go legit and take a real job becoming a courier for X-Rays. He quickly rises through the ranks, taking on increasingly demanding and outlandish jobs until a work place mishap dumps him in Third World where he might learn the secret behind his past. Finder Third World uses Jaeger's courier jobs to tell a great bunch of funny, thought provoking, heart felt, and creepy short stories that build to a dramatic climax. This chapter is a great showcase of the heady concepts, beautiful artwork, and brilliant comedy that defines Finder. Finder Third World is why I love comics.

Word count: 250


Post by Michael Bround

Previously

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Slow River Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Slow River
by Nicola Griffith 



Slow River is a Sci-fi Noir thriller about a kidnapping victim trying to move past her trauma. In the novel, Lore, is trying to rebuild her life by assuming a new identity and finding legitimate work. Once upon a time she was a member of a fantastically wealthy family of environmental technology moguls, and was looking forward to the brightest of futures. But then she was kidnapped and held ransom and when her family failed to pay for her release, she was forced to escape, killing one of her attackers and finding herself injured and naked and lost in a new city. Fearing for her life and unwilling to reconnect with her family, Lore turned to Spanner, a petty criminal and hustler, for protection and a livelihood. But life outside the law, for all of its thrills, is hard, cruel, and dehumanizing and now Lore wants to build an honest life for herself and escape all of the wounds of her past. But to do it she will have to enlist Spanner one more time to pull off one more scam to make it work. 

Slow River is unbelievably good. It is a deeply intimate character study that is downright fractal in its details and verisimilitude. The depth of character and the ruthless plausibility of every moment makes the novel live. The intimacy and believability of the novel also make Slow River an intensely arresting read: the stakes are so personal and so well presented that it was handshaking-suspenseful. This is a novel that had me panicking a little when it dawned on me that it was probably more Noir than Sci-fi and that this fact didn't bode well for the protagonist. Slow River is like expertly deployed, weaponized empathy. I really, really enjoyed it.

Slow River also holds the distinction of being the most white-knuckle, gripping Sci-fi story of water remediation I've ever read and the most suspenseful book that also made me wonder if it was still too early in the year to start gardening. Which is to say Slow River, for all of it's drama and tragedy is also a pretty idiosyncratic and unexpected novel.

I really feel that nothing short of explaining the book in it's entirety will really capture just how interesting, elegant, incisive, and gripping Slow River is. I found it irresistible. 

Slow River is one of those precious few books I'd recommend to basically anyone. While it is Science Fiction, these elements are pretty understandable and secondary to the gripping personal drama of someone trying to escape and move past traumatic experiences. The hook of the novel, what made it so hard to put down, is, I think, a universally human story about people rebuilding themselves. I frankly cannot recommend Slow River enough.