Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #17

Or a look at the importance of a blank page in WicDiv #17
by Kieron Gillen, Brandon Graham, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson; Image Comics


A thing about comics that I sometimes think doesn't get enough wonky attention is how important page order is to story experience. Individual pages function in printed comics are like discrete storytelling units, and controlling the rate and way readers encounter these units can dramatically alter the way the story is experienced. On a very basic level, the order of pages matters to how a comic is read much like how the order of panels matters. The most obvious example of this is the page turn, where readers suddenly get access to a new page that was previously hidden, making a kind of quick cut and the potential for a surprising reveal or comedic moment. But it goes beyond that, and I think WicDiv #17 does something interesting and really smart using a blank page to optimize the page reading order in the issue.

(This is also, a thing that I think is important to talk about because, incidentally corporate comics *SUCK* at this by jamming ads for like, beholder bobbleheads and Gumby the collectable card game into their magazines screwing with the delicate order.)

There will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv #17 below. Like, serious spoilers!



Now before I try and convince everyone that what is basically a blank page is super interesting and ignoring the rest of the comic, I just want to point out that WicDiv #17 is pretty great ad features Brandon Graham's great artwork and style in the fantastic world of Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson's WicDiv world and that results of this collaboration are frequently pretty great. Like, there are few people who can draw an orgy that is somehow sexy and goofy looking and still somehow not exploitive or could make a scene where a dangerously unstable cat goddess wallowing outside the cage of a bird goddess look so lackadaisically charming. There are some really fun, unique moments in this comic.


(For the record, a 4.9 earthquake happened right now and... woah! It's been a while since a big one's hit in these here parts, and the first one I've lived on a double digit apartment floor for. Quite a lot of swing and torque, it turns out...)

There is also some really astute storytelling on display throughout the issue. I especially love this page and how it uses reader tracking to make the pacing of the page fit the action perfectly. The tangents in the first panel that cruise through the background lend that panel a sense of speed (which works beautifully against the static Baal). Or the second tier of panels which has a hard left-to-right directionality that captures the motion of the sequence wonderfully. The second panel also takes advantage of the transition from the first panel to the second row, and slams the reading motion in opposition to it making for an extra impactful panel (that additionally shows the a consequence of the motion that already happened). The next panel has also has a pretty great abrupt stop built into the panel. The bottom three panels have a looping meandering path through artwork and dialogue captures the lazy, calm after the intense top panels. Collectively this page, I think, captures the polarity of Sakhmet, her danger and fury, but also her playful laziness in how the page is read, and therefore experienced.




So knowing that WicDiv #17 is a pretty great comic for a lot of reasons, let's talk about how great the solid black page in the comic is. The story of this sequence is that Sakhmet has descended on her childhood home and murdered and eaten her father. This sequence works as well as it does because it reveals this information in a series of growing surprise reveals. The first page sets up the sequence, and looks downright benign, with Sakhmet reminiscing and smiling pleasantly (such a perfect panel btw) and then we get the all black page. It's ominous and empty, a long hard cut that it implies the passage of time and a significant story shift. The next page, which benefits from being after the page turn, shows cavalry arriving in an ominious situation. It's obvious something horrible has happened and that Sakhmet has been involved in some sort of altercation, probably violent and probably involving her dad. But it isn't until after the next page turn that we learn Sakhmet has *eaten* her father and the downright casual way she is reacting to that. It's a scene of slowly building horror that really benefits from having two adjacent page turns to ramp up and then up again the fuckedness quotient of the situation. And that black page shifts the other pages around just enough to make this construct work. Which is such a little thing, but such a smart, smart choice.


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Listening to Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #5

Or a look at active backgrounds and smart layouts in Phonogram: TIG #5
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles


The thing about comics storytelling is that as readers we often get sucked in to the big exciting storytelling. The glorious splash pages! The crazy, deconstructionist, genre-bending layout we've never seen before! The totally rad super punch! But sometimes the smartest or most interesting parts of comics are quiet, deceptively simple constructions that effortlessly convey a more mundane chunk of story. And some of these moments are really worth examining as a lesson of savvy comics.

Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl has one of these deceptively simple, great bit of comics.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Phonogram: TIM #5 below.


The story of this page is pretty simple: David Kohl, the sometime ally and friend of Emily Astor goes to the other phonomancers of his coven to try and recruit them into helping save Emily from herself. He delivers a his speech over and over to each potential ally, and they each, in turn, decide not to help him and that Emily Astor can essentially go and fuck herself. It's a pretty simple bit of story.

The thing is, it's delivered in the absolutely perfect way. We get to see Kohl give his talk in one unbroken sequence, and then, in a series of snapshots we get the reactions. Which... if you stop and think about it, should seem like a really disjointed bit of story: a long talk followed by a careening series of scene changes. And yet, these two pages relate so well, that it feels like an organic whole.


What I think makes this pair of pages work as well is how layout, setting, and colour work to obviously pair panels on either page. The two pages have identical six panel structures, that gives them, when viewed next to each other, common feeling and the potential for an interwoven story. In this situation then, the distinctive backgrounds and unique colouring palettes, become active storytelling elements that inform the reader how the panels on the left and right pages relate. It's this flawless fusion of layout and setting to create an effortless sequence that is logistically very complex. It's so well done, that I'm almost willing to bet you missed just how cool these pages are. 

Previously:
So I Read Phonogram: Rue Britainia
So I Read Phonogram: The Singles Club

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIM#3: Magical layouts

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Plot Maps
Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Timeline

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Setting



Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Deep Sequencing: Pantone Heels.

Or a look at nuance, restraint, and sexiness in Casanova: Acedia Vol. 1
by Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon, Michael Chabon, Gabriel Ba, Dustin Harbin, and Cris Peter; Image Comics



Casanova is a sexy comic. And... I wrote 2000+ words of a thesis draft today and marked lab reports, so my ability to write a cogent preamble on demand is kind of lacking. So, uh, without further ado, there is a panel in Casanova: Acedia Vol. 1 that I think really highlights why I find Casanova such a clever, sexy comic.

There will be mild *SPOILERS* for Casanova: Acedia pt. 1




This page, actually really just the bottom panel on this page, absolutely encapsulates why I find Casanova such a fundamentally sexy comic. The key of which is, I think, the inherent restraint of the utilized perspective: rather than show a nude, or semi-nude woman in a more conventionally provocative pose, this panel leaves most of the woman out of view, giving us a tantalizing peek and allowing our imaginations to impart a potentially infinite amount of seductiveness just out of view. Another great aspect of this panel is that it puts the focus on the woman's high heal shoes. Now, I recognize that heels are somewhat problematic, but when worn with agency and intention, I think they are pretty sexy. I'm kind of interested in fashion as like, a form of communication lately (semaphore you can wear!) and high heels can send a  message that the person wearing them wants to feel and look sexy. Which given the broader context of the above scene (and some earlier flirtation) definitely communicates the woman's sexy intentions in this scene. The other thing that makes the heels shot so great is the way the woman dangles her toes into the pool. This gesture is just... perfect: dipping expensive pumps like that in water would almost certainly ruin them. This conveys a certain... disregard for consequences and propriety (fuck the cost, fuck the people who designed and made the shoes) on the part of the mysterious woman. Which lends the woman a certain naughty, dangerous air that manages to give her a certain power and the scene a decidedly transgressive air. And all of this is built into a single nuanced, restrained panel of comics that completely establishes a sense of seduction. Which is great comics and just, sexy as hell.

(Also, while we are comics wonking, the relative size of the woman and Casanova in the panel also does a great job establishing the power differential between the two and that fact we are being told that, in this moment at least, the woman is control of the situation.)

Previously:
Deep Sequencing: Imposter Syndrome and Casanova

So I Read Casanova: Luxuria
So I Read Casanova: Gula

So I Read Casanova: Avaritia


Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #1 (Again)

Or a look at navigating crowd scenes in Spider-Woman #1 (again)
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics



A whole new Spider-Woman is starting! With a new #1 issue! With the same creative team! The same on-going narrative and aesthetic look! Which is really... dumb. 

(Seriously, Marvel needs to tone it down a bit with the #1 parade. It's getting comically asinine and increasingly difficult to keep blog posts straight.)

Fortunately, the creative team behind the current Spider-Woman are pretty great and the on-going story continues to hit the madcap fun of the last story arch. The new wrinkle, that Jessica Drew is very pregnant, is something I generally find a bit dubious, but thought was handled with charm and a sense of humour. (The montage of her on maternity leave and maximum pregnant was pretty great and very true of my wife's recent gravid experiences.) I'm still a little worried about how this story is going to play out, but I'm willing to give the creative team a chance to win me over. They pretty much earned it.

(Also, I totally have a theory about what's happening...)

Anyway, there is a page in Spider-Woman #1 that I think is pretty interesting.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #1 below.



There are a lot of competing factors at play whenever a page gets made. Events and dialogue need to be placed in the page in a way that conveys narrative. Ideally this is done in a way that is clear to the reader and is visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing. It also has to be produced in an economical way: creative teams live under a constant threat of looming deadlines. Crowd scenes, which involve many characters, lots of detail and narrative clutter, present a slew of storytelling challenges that make them hard to pull, and yet, are pretty fun when done well.

What I love about this page is how efficient it is. The page establishes that a big fun party is happening on a rooftop (with a bunch of fun cameos). The crowd scene here serves to build the feeling of a well populated party in a way that lingers so that subsequent pages can focus on smaller groups of characters while still feeling like part of a gathering. This page is also pretty great as it manages to pack in two separate strands of story advancing, fun dialogue in a way that doesn't compromise the scale of the crowd scene, or burn an entire page on an establishing shot. I also love how it captures the sense of being at a party: moving through a crowd while mingling with individuals and the fact that parties are comprised of smaller, simultaneous conversations and interactions. It's a really clever concept for a page.


This page is also constructed in a pretty interesting way on a structural basis. Each narrative stream pops out of the surrounding crowd using smartly place dialogue boxes and the colours of the pinciple characters. The white dialogue boxes and the red of Jessica Drew's dress, Spidey's costume, and Iron Man's armour creates clear visual guides against the back drop of the mostly more muted other partygoers. That said, I did find this page a little confusing to read on the first pass, since my natural instinct was to turn the corner from the Spider-persons conversation right into the Iron Man and Captain Marvel's conversation, which isn't the intended reading path. I mean, it was pretty obvious this was a mistake, and a simple thing to reorient, but a perfect page would not have this moment of ambiguity. This is part of why I found this page so interesting: it is overall really good and contains some strong technical storytelling, but in its ambition, it also introduces what I would consider a minor problem. Which I think makes this page an intriguing example of a compromise between the different storytelling forces acting on the page. 

Comics are so cool guys. So cool.

Spider-Woman #8: turning down the background
Spider-Woman #7: the brilliance of the inset panel
Spider-Woman #6: Guided chaos and multiple reading paths
Spider-Woman #5: Character Design and composition




Friday, 4 December 2015

Notes From The Coal Face

Or changes to the Atoll Comics update schedule

Hello internet,

I think I need to rethink how Atoll Comics updates. The TLDR version is that instead of trying to write three rushed posts every week, I want to write one, solid piece of comics criticism instead. So instead of updating M-W-F, Atoll Comics will now update once a week on Wednesdays. Hopefully you're okay with this and the increased quality of the posts will make a reduction in quantity worthwhile.

Read on if you want to know more about why I'm making this choice and some happy real life stuff.

First of all, thanks everyone who regularly reads this! I started Atoll Comics as an excuse to write a bit every week to keep my skills sharp for the periodic writing demands of my career. I kept at it because it was fun to write about comics and because it was super cool to have enthusiastic strangers reading my ideas. I don't really have comics friends in real life, so having this outlet has been great. I'm hoping to find a way to keep this thing going longterm, and will hopefully be able to keep writing about comics indefinitely.

So, In real life I'm, and this always feels kind of silly to say, a professional Scientist. I'm doing a PhD in heart science, which is a pretty great job, but also a ridiculous time suck. I'm also married to a very nice woman who likes to see me sometimes which is how I like to spend the time I am not working. In the past, due to her work schedule, I had a day every week to veg out on the couch, read comics, and write blog posts which gave me the ability to balance work, my personal life, and hitting my three updates a week writing schedule pretty easily. It was a pretty sweet situation.

But some stuff has happened:





We had a kid this summer!

Which has been great and super rewarding! And while my daughter has been, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty easy going and agreeable baby, she is still a lot of work. I'm pretty privileged that my wife has the ability to take longterm maternity leave, and is happy to do the lions share of childcare, but still I now have like a million times more responsibilites. Plus, I genuinely love spending time with my kid, and since I am still working a bunch, a lot of time that was previously free is now baby time. Which, as you might understand, means much less time for reading and writing about comics.

Of course, because this is how life works, the professional side of things has also been bananas recently. Beyond all my usual research stuff and teaching obligations,  I have also been job hunting for a research fellowship position for after I finish my PhD studies. Recently I had a job interview for a job I *really* wanted, which took a pretty substantial amount of time to prepare for and travel to for the interview. Which is why I had to just straight up not update the blog for a week. (I am happy to report I got offered the position which is pretty rad.) Upon returning from this interview I got the okay to start writing my thesis and am now diligently trying to complete the thing within some pretty tight deadlines so I can defend before summer. Which is to say things about as busy professionally as they have ever been for me.

Since family and career trump for fun comics blog, I have not had very much time to devote to reading and writing about comics lately. This means that I have had to write most of my criticism pretty rapidly to deadline (I am writing this post at 1:30am). It also means that I have been rushing things: writing quick small things, not devoting as much time as I should to larger posts, and not tackling some of the more ambitious ideas I've had. The work is suffering and I'm having less fun writing the blog. Which is dumb, right? So something has to change.

I think the best solution will be to write less, but devote more time to each post. Rather than writing short reviews or updates, my goal will be to write something substantial and comics focused every week. I will try to be more ambitious and selective about what I tackle, and hopefully be able to increase the quality of what I write. These new posts will appear on Wednesday, the day of new comics. Hopefully this is okay with you and you'll keep coming back here and enjoy the new direction.

Also please let me know what you think about the new approach. How does it sound?

Thanks for understanding,
Mike.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

So I Read Deadly Class: Kids Of The Black Hole

A 250 word (or less) review of Deadly Class Vol. 2
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge, Rus Wooton; Image Comics



This is a review of an ongoing series. To read about the first chapter go here.

Deadly Class continues to be a wildly schizophrenic experience for me. The artwork in Deadly Class is superlative: Craig and Loughridge fuse dynamic layouts with particularly active colouring to create some truly innovative and remarkable storytelling. I really enjoyed exploring the art. That said, I *really* do not like the story of Deadly Class. Volume 2 continues where the last issue left off with Marcus Lopez, an orphan turned student at an assassin school who plans to kill Ronald Reagan. This chapter specifically deals with his traumatic orphanage years and the evil redneck from his past come for vengeance.  This is supposed to be a subversive story about growing up, youthful jerkiness, and fucked up violence... but it mostly doesn't work for me. A lot of it is just taste, I think. I found most of the over-the-top attempts at shock to be crass or dumb or boring. (A white trash teenager saying horrible, tourettic things while being high on meth, for instance, is just so... not something I care to read.) Some of it, though, is structural: Deadly Class, in my opinion, skips a lot of the character and setting work that makes the big moments feel earned or makes the characters relatable and interesting. Which, when the comic veered on tangents, made it really difficult to be invested. Story problems aside, I still think Deadly Class is a worthwhile comic to read because the artwork is really, really excellent and totally worth the price of admission.

Word count: 248

Previously:
Deadly Class Vol. 1

Deadly class colours
Deadly class layouts