Monday, 30 November 2015

Deep Sequencing: Colourful Magic

Or a look at the use of colour as magic in Phonogram #4 and Doctor Strange #1
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles/Jason Aaron, Chris Bachalo, Tim Townsend, Cory Petit

An aspect of comics that I've found pretty fascinating lately is how different creators find ways to convey magic in their artwork. Making impossible, natural rule-breaking phenomena feel interesting and weird and significant can really help make a story work so finding a way to make magic visually cool is pretty important. I have seen all kinds of tricks used, including some endlessly cool compositions that violate the rules of comics storytelling in fourth-wall-breaking, disbelief stretching ways. Which, of course, works really well! But the thing is, sometimes simpler storytelling tricks work really well too, and one of the most effective ways of making magic feel significant is a really straightforward use of colours.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Phonogram #4 and Doctor Strange #1

 One of the central conceits of Phonogram is that music literally is magic. Which, as someone who enjoys music, but isn't really transcended by it, is a cool metaphor for a metaphor for being really into something. But even I have to admit that magic has an ability to recontextualize a moment: I have definitely caught myself strutting to the badass tones of Tomoyasu Hotei's Battle Without Honour of Humanity while walking to the bus first thing in the morning. Which is an experience of music involuntarily changing my motion and attitude in a way that is beyond casual explanation; that is basically magical. Or put another way: the music coloured my experience. And Phonogram uses literal colour to show the magic of music in it's pages. It's a choice that does a brilliant job demarcating the bleak mundanity of normal, music-less life, and the way music can cut through the mundanity to generate magical, new experiences. Even strutting to the bus first thing in the morning.

Part of the first issue of Doctor Strange is the idea that the Sorcerer Supreme is lives in a supernatural, unseen world that straddles our own, doing weird doctor things to benefit we mundane folk. The comic uses a similar trick to Phonogram, where colour is used to highlight magical events. In this case though, the magical-colour shares space with a black-and-white mundane word. The brilliance of this is it showcases how vibrant and, well, strange the supernatural world is when compared to the everyday world of regular people. It also does a great job at highlighting the super position of the two worlds: the magical world is layered over the mundane world in a way that is completely distinct and separate, yet still inhabiting a common storytelling space. This is how this magical world exists here, and this is how Dr. Strange is able to move between them as a magician in a very simple, understandable comic composition. Which is really effective storytelling.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #6

Or a look at narrative structure in Pretty Deadly #6
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

A return of Pretty Deadly means a return to essays talking about why this comic is so, so good. I don't really have any preamble: so without further ado, I'm going to take a look at how artwork, script, and lettering intersect to create different modes of storytelling in Pretty Deadly in what I think is a pretty spiffy way.

There will of course be *SPOILERS* for Pretty Deadly below.

I've written a lot about what I like Pretty Deadly, pulling specific examples of how individual sequences are constructed to artful, or impactful, or just generally effective storytelling. What was maybe lacking is some of the broad factors of Pretty Deadly, the general things this comic does exceptionally well that help make it such a pleasure to read. One of these things, I think, is how the story is organized on a structural level, and how this creates these discrete moments.

Take this page here: the main story of the comic opens with a wide open establishing shot of a wild west homestead. Then the story provides this palette establishing sequence of snapshots: tight, singular moments of noise or sensation that build this moment or feeling. In this case a bleak frontier roughness and a kind of undefined sadness. With this emotional moment established the comic moves into new story information: a sickroom and an obviously old woman being given a drink before the page deploys it's final moment and coda. A final moment that structurally the whole page builds towards, and which comes to this sharp point that redefines and provides the context of entire preceding sequence. A final moment that is also sharp and barbed, which cuts to the truth of the page in a pretty brutal and honest way, and opens the way for the story going forward. It's a very effective way of pacing the page and creating this moment of narrative clarity that I found very engaging.

These inverted storytelling triangles can be found throughout Pretty Deadly #6. Emotion palettes are established, a wider angle panel shows the main events, and then the composition hones in on that key moment of frisson that completes a narrative moment and advances the story. It's this repeating storytelling device that builds and delivers a complete narrative moment. Which... it's like a stanza of comics. Which is an interesting approach since it lends Pretty Deadly #6 a decided poetic sensibility and also gives much of the comic a structured, deliberate rhythm. Which makes this triangle device not only an effective way to generate beautifully charged story moments, but also a metric that provides the majority of the comic a narrative identity.

The sense of narrative identity that the inverted-triangle-stanza delivers becomes important in the most supernatural moments of Pretty Deadly #6 which have a completely different story structure. Instead of the tight, mechanical layouts used to make the triangle-sections work, the mystical moments of the comic adopt a more open format and a swirling, organic flow of the narration and artwork. This creates a clear demarcation between the mundane and magical portions of the comic, which goes a long way to making the supernatural parts of the comic feel distinct and special. It's a really smart use of contrasting layout approaches.

Which is all evidence of the kind of general storytelling brilliance on display in Pretty Deadly and how macroscopic, repetitive storytelling choices can be really effective.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

So I Read Russian Olive to Red King

A 250 word (or less) review of the Russian Olive to Red King graphic novel,
by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen; Adhouse Books

Russian Olive to Red King is a bleak comic. It is a beautifully crafted, achingly sparse story of depression, despair, resolution, and loss. In the comic Olive, an archeologist, is leaving on a work trip to a remote northern location. Her lover Red is staying behind with her dog to struggle with his writers block and finally turn in an overdue article. Tragedy strikes and Olive's small plane crashes in north, forcing her to struggle to survive. Red, meanwhile, cut off from Olive and ignorant to whether she might still be alive, is left to keep the faith. It is, as I've said, a bleak comic. It is also achingly beautiful: whether depicting arctic wilds or huddling in a bedroom, Russian Olive to Red King captures a kind of majestic stillness. It's an aesthetic choice that resonates with enormity and isolation of the story. While the story of the comic is powerful, for me the artwork is its best selling feature and the reason to seek out this comic. It's spectacular. One thing you should be aware of, though, is that the final third of the comic is a lengthy prose section. I found this part of the book as bleak, artful, and powerful as the comic and the perfect way to end the book (and a great statement on the power of art as a mechanism for dealing with emotion). But, your mileage may vary, and reading a comic that ends with an essay may not be your speed.

Word count: 250

Monday, 23 November 2015

Deep Sequencing: Hostile Babylon

Or a look at depictions of violence in East of West. Vol. 4
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, Rus Wooton; Image Comics

I think violence is seldom portrayed in truly visceral, satisfying ways in most media. In comics, I find depictions of violence tend to be mitigated, rendered down to a palatable, symbolic state that conveys that injuries and pain are happening in a story sense without the felt-in-the-guts-horror of the violence being depicted. A lot of this, I think, comes from the tamed down nature of most depictions: a lot of violence in comics reflects that weird videogame/movie/TV language where consequences are cartoonishly minimized. (In a way that I find endlessly messed up when I actually think about it. Selling, like, gun violence as commonplace or where victims of gunshot wounds basically walk it off as opposed to being irrevocably damaged is super fucked up.) So I always find it interesting when comics find a way to depict violence in a way that captures the sheer awfulness of it.

Generally, I find most effective depictions of violence use two general strategies. The first is that they make heavy use of eye-guiding and layout to build a significant element of velocity into the artwork, making every action kinetic and maximizing every impact. The second is that they portray realistic violence: realistically drawn people are injured in the horrible ways that real people would be if stabbed, or bludgeoned, or shot. It's authentic and traumatic in a way that more sterilized depictions just aren't. A great example of a kinetic, realistic, and horrible depiction of violence was in the Ellis/Shavley/Bellaire run of Moon Knight.

What is interesting about East of West is that it uses a very different approach to depicting visceral violence that is pretty interesting.

There will be *SPOILERS* for East of West Vol. 4 below.

The context for the next sequence has to do with Babylon, the son of Death, who is the harbinger of the end times. Or, at least the fated harbinger of the End Times. Right now, Babylon is just a generally innocent child, raised by an AI in seclusion who is being manipulated by pro-apocolypse forces into growing up to end the world. In the course of Volume 4, his AI "balloon" is reprogrammed to push young Babylon into choosing to do violent, evil things in an effort to catalyze his development into a monster.

What I find so interesting about this effective sequence of violence, where Babylon is driven to kill a herd of wild pigs, is how it uses omission to create a visceral portrayal of violence. Rather than show snapshots of Babylon murdering the pigs, this sequence uses shadows and splatters to hint at the violence being done. This allows the reader's imagination to fill in whatever grisly moments of violence they picture occurring, which I find a weirdly effective choice. Part of this is the size of an imagination compared to the size of a page: the reader can picture more events, more moments of graphic violence than there is space in the page to show. Similarly, by not showing the actual events, the creators leave an ambiguity that allows the reader to picture an endless spectrum of depravity. It's a really cool use of the reader/creator/comic relationship to encode extra meaning and to use minimalist storytelling to make a really visceral moment.

Another aspect of this choice that I find interesting is even a bit more meta. By inviting the reader to envision the horrible things Babylon is doing to his victims, the comic is essentially making the reader choose to kill the pigs in their imagination. It's putting us in the characters place, putting us ideologically through the same process as Babylon, and making us complicit in his acts of violence. It's a really effective, transgressive bit of comics.

Of course, despite the apparent simplicity of the sequence, this bit of comics is filled with some really astute bits of layout and tracking to make the page kinetic and exciting. The central tool being used throughout this sequence is tangent lines (or honestly, I've always thought of them as "speed lines", but I have no idea if that is a term of art... but screw it, let's call them speed lines). Anyway, these speed lines, give every panel a sense of motion and an orientation of that motion. This makes every stab and slash, bloody splatter and splash, feel dynamic and in motion which substantially increases the drama of the sequence. It is also significant how the vectors of the action clash with each other and work against much of the eye tracking in the page giving each action a brutality and sense of chaos that wonderfully feeds into the ambiguity of the panels. Which I think is the true magic here: the exciting and dramatic storytelling creates a sense of danger and violence that allows the ambiguity to drive the reader into manufacturing a truly horrific episode of violence. 

Another aspect of this sequence that I think is kind of cool has to do with the character design of Babylon. When the sequence starts, an innocent Babylon is dresses in his all-white outfit. However, after enacting his slaughter of the pig herd, Babylon becomes covered in blood and gore, which shows prominently on his white garb. This works as a wonderful visual metaphor for the corruption that Babylon is undergoing in this sequence. It's a seemingly small choice, but it evocatively depicts the evolving status of the character.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Notes From The Coal Face

Or a service update.

Hi all,

There will not be updates this week (Nov 16) because my work commitments for the last month have exceeded my ability to write about comics. I am also travelling for work right now, which hasn't helped! I take this space seriously, so not having any updates is a pretty substantial bummer for me, but y'know, work is work. Regular updates will resume next week.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Atoll Comics Round 25

Or changes to my Top-Ten comics

Due to having an entertainment budget and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

A complication of this is that I am forced to drop an on-going title if I want to try reading a new on-going title, an act of very tough love. Being financially responsible is the worst.

I will be adding Doctor Strange and dropping Howard The Duck.

Why Doctor Strange: I have never read a great Doctor Strange comic, since I am apparently a Marvel Tourist, I am excited to climb aboard the Strange train and see if the current iteration will be my definitive take. I've read a couple issues and so far I am encouraged: the creative team clearly has a take for the character and there is evidence of a larger story preparing to spring on the comic. I also love the visual style of the comic: its chaotic, exaggerated style full of impossible clutter is fun to look at and seems like a great metaphor for the bizarre magical world of Doctor Strange. It's only been a couple issues, but it's been the most enjoyable of the new Marvel comics I've tried so I'm on board for the time being.

Why not Howard The Duck: Howard the Duck is a fun comic. It's goofy hijinks of a Space Duck and his shapeshifting lady friend in the Marvel world. I read a bunch of issues and had some fun. But... it seems like that fun is all there is to it? The comic hasn't really made that transition from a fun premise to a fulfilling story. Which is making it hard for me to sustain interest in the series. And if I feel like I need to make an effort to be interested in a comic, it's probably a sign that I shouldn't be reading it. So I guess my overall assessment of Howard the Duck was that is a fun comic to try, but probably not a comic you'll read longterm. 


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

So I Read East of West Volume 4

A 250 word (or less) review of East of West Vol. 4
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooton

East of West is an ongoing comic. To read the first chapter go here.

East of West is a Sci-fi Western comic about the end times. The comic is set in an alternate reality United States that is divided into a series of opposing nations, a result of an asteroid impact that occurred during the concurrent American Civil and American-Indian wars and calcified the political landscape of the time. East of West Vol. 4 is very much a logistic issue, giving the various plot threads a chance to mature and develop: we check in with each of the nations of the fractured United States, we visit with Death and the other major characters of the story, and there is even an encyclopedia about the various polities of East of West. If there is a central narrative of East of West volume four it is about Babylon, Death's son, as he is tempted into fulfilling his role as the harbinger of the apocalypse. Overall, East of West Vol. 4 is an important set up chapter that seems to be getting the pieces of the comic ready for a tremendous pay off. It isn't the best chapter of comics ever, but it contains the smart world building, relentless storytelling, and beautiful and cerebral artwork that has made East of West so enjoyable. Basically, Vol. 4 a solid chapter in a great comic you should be reading.