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.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Eye On Hawkeye #20

Or a look at the complicated timeline of Hawkeye #20 
by Matt Fraction, Annie Wu, Matt Hollingsworth, & Chris Eliopoulus; Marvel Comics

One of the aspects of Hawkeye that I continue to find interesting is just how complicated the narrative often is. In most superhero comics I read, the order of events tends to be pretty straightforward: the narrative starts and then follows a linear chronology to the end of the issue. Frequently there are multiple, divergent story threads, or maybe a flashback, but the main thrust of the story has a very clear, easy to follow timeline. Hawkeye bucks this convention with issues that fit together in an overlapping chonological jigsaw and individual issues that sometimes provide narratives in dramatically non-linear fashions. Hawkeye #20 is a great, non-linear narrative comic, and because I like timelines, I thought I'd take a stab at making one for the issue.

Since this is a timeline, it is inherently *SPOILERS* intensive. That said, I did take steps to avoid the most blatant spoilers of the issue.

Beyond just being an interesting way to deliver a comic, this non-linear approach to storytelling provides some novel tools to Team Hawkguy. For instance, the ability to frontload the comic with later events allows the creative team to setup, in a weird inverted way, some of the key reveals of the issue which helps make them feel significant and earned. This comic is one of very few where I feel like giving away some of the ending early actually made for a better comic.

Actually, I think it goes beyond foreshadowing: the suspense engine of the entire issue might rely on knowing that Kate is going to discover a big secret and that Kate is going to have the futz beat out of her. This puts the entire story in the lens of "how did we get here?", which makes every situation potentially where Kate finds her secret (which is exciting) or where Kate gets Clint-levels of contused (which is suspenseful). Knowing that big reveals and big hurts are coming massively increases the tension throughout the comic. It's a really effective engine that I think emerges directly from the structure of the comic.

Also, Annie Wu is a goddamn comics wizard. Hawkeye was better for her participation, and I'm excited to see what her next thing is.

Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt. 2: Structural wayfinding.
Eye on Hawkeye #19 pt.1: Empathy Machine
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.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Deep Sequencing: Space Lighthouses and Dramatic Turths

Or a look at how fiction captures truth in Saga Volume 3
by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics

There is this idea of dramatic truth. The idea is that through fiction, which at its core is effectively entertaining lies, we can learn some true, transcendental thing about ourselves or the world. Regardless of whether this is accomplished through emulation or metaphor, fiction has the potential to exemplify aspects of our reality that we can see and feel and learn from. Even though the fiction in question might be completely, absurdly unrealistic, it can still be closer to some idealistic truth than a statement based on reality. In some ways the entertaining lies of our stories might be the best way to learn about ourselves, our relationships, or our world.

There is a scene in Saga Volume 3 that rings true to me in such a complete way that I want to share it with you.

Of course, this moment is built of considerable *SPOILERS* so proceed with that understanding.

I think I've mentioned it on the site a few times, but I've recently gotten married to the best person. Aside from calling her the best person, I have trouble articulating exactly what it is that makes her so special, why she is the person out of everyone I've met that I feel compelled to create a life with. I mean she is smart and hilarious and good looking and fun to be around and responsible in a way that I worry I will never be and patient in a way that I know that I am completely incapable of. She is an unbelievable dork and unpretentious in a way that is super attractive and which is constantly a mystery to me. But this really doesn't capture it: my spouse is so much more than a bunch of favourable check marks on a list, and really fails to catch that special spark that explains why I love her the way I do.

I just don't have the language to articulate it.

Saga, for the uninitiated, is about a pair of young lovers from opposite sides of an interplanetary war falling in love and starting a family. Alana is flightless, winged person from the planet Landfall while Mark is a magic horned person from the moon Wreath, which according to the politics of the galaxy is really not okay. As a result the pair are fugitives fleeing from monstrous forces sent by either side of the conflict: a robot royal prince, an amoral bounty hunter, and a jilted ex-fiancee. In Saga Vol. 3 our heroes Alana and Marko find a kind of home in the lighthouse of a famous writer, which is where the forces pursuing them eventually catch up to them. 

Chaos ensues! 

Bad things happen! 

And our pair of lovers and their infant daughter are cornered on the balcony of the lighthouse with no means of escape!

So Marko shoves his Alana and his daughter off the lighthouse balcony to their apparent demise!

And instead of falling to her death, Alana, who we had been told was flightless, manages to fly on her tiny wings saving herself, her daughter, and rescuing her husband Marko from his villainous Ex. 

It's a pretty badass, fist pumping moment! 

But it's what comes next that absolutely speaks to me:

When Alana lands and asks Marko how he knew she'd somehow manage to fly after he maybe threw her and their daughter to their deaths, he simply says that it's obvious that his wife can do anything.

And that perfectly encapsulates how I feel about my own wife; that is the magic, dramatic truth about what makes her so special, why I love her so much.

If I were to push her off the balcony of a space lighthouse with a hypothetical infant in her arms, she would find a way to fly. Because she is completely fucking unstoppable.

Saga is a great comic and I love my wife.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

So I Read Saga Volume 3

A 250 word (or less) review of Saga Vol. 3
By Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics.

Saga is a comic about lovers, from opposite sides of a Space War, who fell in love, had a kid, and try to build a family while on the run from bounty hunters and soldiers and ex-fiancees. While there is a lot of pretty cool lasers and swords space action, the comic is really about the construction of families: how two potentially very different people come together in love, drag in others, maybe make a new person, and build this special, de novo community. And then, against the ridiculously long odds of life, fight to maintain this delicate, most important thing. I fucking love this comic. I mean, with Brian K Vaughan's wizardry for story and Fiona Staples endlessly beautiful and emotive and funky art, Saga is amongst the most well crafted comics I read. But that's not why Saga Volume 3 fucking destroyed me. The reason why this comic, more so than earlier chapters, absolutely gutted me, is that I just got my butt married and have spent the months around reading this comic pondering about the construction of family-things and my own little community. And so, I think, I was perfectly primed for this beast to gore me. Which speaks to both the quality of the comic, of course, but also the deeply personal experience of fiction. But yeah, Jesus fucking wept guys, give Saga a try. I guarantee you'll enjoy it, and if you’re living in the same headspace as me, it might just kill you dead.

Word count: 250


Monday, 8 September 2014

The Man In The High Castle Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick

The Man In The High Castle posits a present (well, past at this point) where the Nazis and Japanese won the Second World War and have conquered the world. The triumphant Axis Powers have split the globe into realms of governance. Nazi rule is characterized by industrial and scientific prosperity, ethnic cleansing, and space exploration, while the Japanese seem more interested in good governance of their new subjects. The novel takes place mainly in occupied San Francisco, part of the Japanese controlled Pacific region of the United States, and follows several Americans trying to get by and deal with the various complications of cultural collision. The unifying narrative of the novel is the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel within the novel, that depicts yet another reality where the Allies won the war. 

The Man In The High Castle is a pretty amazing conceptual machine. The alternate history that dick creates is nuanced and clever, seeming just as valid as true history. But the real kernel of the novel is a thematic discussion about the mutable nature of truth and reality. By showing us a variety of plausible alternate histories and the way characters within each story believe their relevant narratives, the novel suggests that our own reality is being shaped and defined by our own common historical narrative. And in doing so, The Man In The High Castle injects doubt into our own fundamental understanding of reality: if our perception is shaped by a story, than reality is somewhat subjective, and if it's subjective, is it even really real? The Man In The High Castle is nothing if not a bit of a mind fuck.

I would recommend The Man In The High Castle to basically anyone. It's short and accessible enough that any bookish person should be able to read it wile being a general enough work of fiction that you don't have to be a fan of a specific genre to get invested in it. It's also, I think, a book with an important message in these days of media saturation about the importance of questioning reality narratives. 

Friday, 5 September 2014

Stuff I Like: Podcasts

Or here are some podcasts you might enjoy (or here are things everyone already knows about).

So, in my day job I'm a Science Graduate student who studies how heart cells link how much energy they are using to how much energy they produce. Overall I think it is pretty wicked cool stuff. As a day-to-day thing, though, Biology is mostly doing a lot of meticulous, repetitive tasks carefully, then waiting five minutes while a machine takes a picture or spins really fast, doing more vaguely dull tasks, and then staring at excel spreadsheets for hours to decipher some facts. The minutiae of the job can be a little boring. I mean, it's kind of the Best Job, but it's also one that lends itself to listening to a lot of podcasts while the magic happens.

These are some of my favourite.

Planet Money: I think economics is interesting. I mean, at it's most base it's kind of disgusting since it tries to break down everything to a transaction, but, for better or worse, our world is driven by people wanting and needing stuff and doing things to satisfy those needs and wants. Having some idea of how the systems that govern the production, distribution, and wanting of stuff work seems like a really good idea to me. Because really, the systems and behaviour that economics tries to understand effects everything from how we get our food to what geek media is made. It's such a big deal! So I kind of love Planet Money since it's a journalistic enterprise that uses story-forward approaches to facilitate substantiative, approachable discussions of how econonmic-things work. And it's totally not boring, I swear! It listens as amusing stories about interesting events and stuff and then explains the economics of it in a way that is informative but doesn't really feel like a lecture. (Entertaining podcasts that are also somehow informative will be a theme here.)

99% Invisible: In the same way I find economics interesting, I am deeply fascinated by architecture and design. The fact that pretty much every constructed thing had someone agonize over every aspect of it boggles my mind. And once you accept everything manufactured has been designed than it follows that everything about manufactured stuff is a choice and that most of those choices speak directly to function. Like, the QWERTY keyboard I'm typing this on was laid out in this arrangement so that the mechanical moving arms of ye olde typewriters wouldn't jam as often. And then there are all of the aesthetics that go into the design: it isn't enough for a thing to work perfectly it has to be pleasing to the senses as well. And all of that is human brain hours and talent at work. Everywhere. In everything! MIND BLOWING!! 99% Invisible is a podcast that tells stories about design and architecture and engineering. It focuses more on telling an emotionally effective narrative than education, but like Planet Money, manages to be super charming and effortlessly informative. It's "let's talk about this cool building or this historic mad inventor and while we're having fun or whatever, we've learned something". It's ace.

(Note: 99% Invisible usually runs a tight ~30min.)

Radiolab: This is to Science what the previous two podcasts are to architecture and economics: thought provoking, narrative driven stories about interesting Science stuff. It's also just about the only Science podcast I can stand. I have a pretty fraught relationship with Science podcasts despite being passionate about Science. I find most of the professional Science-casts for Scientists too dry and too focussed on particular papers to enjoy. (While I find a summary of most research pretty cool, the nitty-gritty of individual studies that aren't in a field I'm interested in can be super dull!) These podcasts also have the problem of Scientists banging on about how great there research is and wildly over-selling their results without the all-important data that in a written format let's me tell if they are full of shit or not. It's like all of the worst parts of a Scientific journal article without any of the substance. On the other end of the spectrum, I find most Science podcasts for civilians too light on substance or focused on buzzwordy meme stuff to really get me interested. There is also the fact that Science Journalism tends to be kind of wrong about a lot of stuff, either out of lack of expertise or an attempt to be better understood, and it bugs me. Like how when someone leaves three seconds on a microwave and doesn't hit the RESET button bugs me: irrationally and deeply. Radiolab is the goldilocks of these situations: it presents stories that are genuinely interesting in an engaging way and provides a very scientifically literate discussion that is also really clear and easy to follow. (Being both accurate and understandable to a general audience when talking about Science is really hard to do well, and Radiolab absolutely nails it. It's something I think about constantly when trying to explain my own research.) Radiolab also beautifully demonstrates the discovery and question generating aspects of Science which really speaks to why I do this for a living in the first place. It's fantastic!

The Bugle: John Oliver, of HBO by way of The Daily Show, and his once-BBC comedy partner Andy Zaltzman have a long running world news satire podcast. I really enjoy well made satire of current events because holy fuck the world with all of its horror and corruption and madness. Sometimes you just have to laugh at the madness of it and sometimes you have to tell it to fuck right off and The Bugle does both with a lot of intelligence and comedic skill. The Bugle runs in the same vein as The Daily Show, with Oliver once-upon-a-time workshopping some stuff that ended up on the show, but with the deranged, slightly goofy antics of Zaltzman thrown in. The Bugle also casts a wider net for news, covering a lot more British and world topics than North American equivalent programs. Also, if there is someone in the world doing something amusing involving the drawing of a giant dick, they're going to cover it in detail. (It's a bit.. delightfully immature at times.) So if you like mixing your current events fury with biting comedy, uncouth humour, and dick jokes you ought to check it out.

Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: I really can't stand most comics podcasts. Most of the ones I've tried either fall into the trap of people talking over each other, follow an interview format which I'm not crazy about unless I'm really into the guest, or spends huge amounts of time talking about non-comics related things which I don't really care anything about. There is also a really toxic amount of snark in a lot of comics media that bums me out. Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men solves all of these things. The podcast seeks to explain the long convoluted, and frequently insane story of the X-men in all of it's flawed, glorious detail. The shows hosts, Rachel Edidin, who is maybe one of my favourite voices in comics journalism/criticism, and her partner Miles Stokes are both super charming and have a really great repartee which is immanently listenable. (I also 'ship them so hard. Squee!) The hosts don't stray too far off topic and have a pleasantly quick and dense delivery style which helps keep things interesting. Rachel and Miles also hit this perfect tone. While they poke fun at the comics and point out the aspects of the X-Men that are justifiably fucked up, they are clearly operating from a place of deep affection for the material which makes things feel like a pleasant experience and not grossly snarky. I really wish more comics podcasts could manage this level of production and just straight up welcoming atmosphere.

DECOMPRESSED: Is an almost-never updating podcast by Kieron Gillen who is easily one of my favourite comic book personalities. Basically Gillen interviews some other comics professionals and they talk about the craft and decision making that go into a particular comic or series of comics. Which if you are at all familiar with this blog, is kind of my jam. While the podcast almost never updates and my interest in it wavers depending on the guest and comic being discussed, the best episodes of DECOMPRESSED are essential listening. Hearing top talents go through why they decided to do what they did is endlessly fascinating and a great way to learn about how comics work and how to read them more critically. DECOMPRESSED also gets points because one of the first posts I made about comics story structure, which is one of the earliest things I'm actually pretty proud of even if I did it in kind of a dumb way (I was learning), was directly inspired by an episode.

Welcome to Night Vale: Yes, I am a geek on the internet who likes podcasts, so obviously I'm listening to Night Vale. If somehow you haven't heard of this, Night Vale is the radio news from a fictional small town in a desert that operates by a variety of occult, Lovecraftian rules. Like, Night Vale's most recent mayoral election featured a literal five-headed dragon and the faceless old woman who lives in your house as candidates. Or that the town's dog park is forbidden to all but the hooded figures who congregate there. Or that the librarian's of the Night Vale public library are not be trusted and possibly the most fearsome creatures imaginable. It's a little creepy, a little whimsical, a little silly, and endlessly charming and well made. I don't usually enjoy fictional radio plays, but Night Vale is the spectacular exception to the rule. I feel like it's the kind of thing you will either adore or kind of hate, but if somehow you haven't tested the waters, you ought to give it a try.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

So I Read Blacksad

A 250 word (or less) review of the Blacksad and Blacksad: A Silent Hell collections
By Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido; English translations from Dark Horse Books

One of the worst things about being an obligate anglophone is that I can't really enjoy many amazing looking comics in their native form. Fortunately, a select few French, Spanish, and Italian language comics do eventually get released into the North American market as English translations. Blacksad is an absolute gem of a French comic made by Spanish creators that is now also available in English. The comic follows hardboiled, anthropomorphic Cat-person detective John Blacksad as he solves a variety of cases. From a story perspective the comic is very much a loving, tongue in cheek, tribute to pulp detective stories with a style that celebrates the conventions and wallows in the excesses of the genre. It's great and sometimes pleasantly silly. This style is wedded to some well constructed and exciting mystery plots, all of which are set in a very 1950s animal-people-America and examine some aspect of the period American society (racism, jazz, the Red Scare). But the thing about Blacksad that absolutely sweeps me off my feet is the art: Blacksad is a visual smorgasbord of character work, realized settings, and glorious colouring. Every panel of the comic is like a museum quality Americana painting of an alternate universe populated by Animal-people. It's gorgeous. That said, Blacksad isn’t perfect: there’s some dubious race stuff, women are very sexualized and abused, and the whole thing is vaguely yiffy. But despite this, Blacksad is such a technically good and enjoyable comic that you should read it anyway.

Word count: 248