Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Listening to Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl #6

Or some thoughts on a great series and a great page in Phonogram: TIG #6
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Just assume this is going to contain *SPOILERS*

I first read Phonogram while on a vacation in Mexico. It was shortly after The Singles Club (Vol. 2) was collected in trade, and I bought the entire series to read during the trip. This was also a pretty odd moment in my life, since this Mexican vacation was taken immediately after my final set of undergraduate exams and a year of studies where I took things probably too seriously. Probably as a consequence of my inability to like, prioritize a personal life, this was also a vacation where my girlfriend and I were having some pretty serious relationship problems that we were both determined to Avoid Dealing With so that we could Enjoy This Damn Vacation. Which was stupid and unhealthy and meant that we spent the entire trip with a lot of uncomfortable baggage. So I read Phonogram laying by a poolside, stewing in an uncertain future and the angst of professional obsession and personal drama. This moment is still indelibly mixed up with how I experience Phonogram.

Now, years later, reading Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl is... a pretty powerful experience. A part of the comic that I've picked up on is moving past something, growing up and defining yourself by who you are and not entirely by your interests. Seeing Kohl and Emily Aster and Kid-with-knife collectively get their shit together in the fullness of time just hits me. I read this final issue of Phonogram just having finished writing my PhD thesis, married to the girlfriend from Mexico, and with a baby on the cusp of being six months old. I'm at a point of finishing a pretty significant chapter of my life and embarking on the adventure of parenthood and of moving with my family to another country for career reasons. Reading that final issue of Phonogram, with its coda to the series at just this moment really hit me. This comic means the world to me.

But, look, you guys aren't here to read about me getting verklempt about my favourite comics. So here is some wonky analysis:

I also want to talk about how great this page of comics is: everything on this page is designed to increase the sense of violence on the page. What makes this page so spectacular is how many different elements are being simultaneously used to create a jarring reading experience. The most brutal blood sprays are evocative and gross and awesome, but also provide clear vectors of motion which make every slam more kinetic and spectacular. Moreover, the blood-sprays provide directionality to the motion that is frequently opposing or tangential to the reading path of the page. This makes every panel of violence feel abrupt and disjointed, increasing the feeling of impact of every image. This jarring effect is enhanced by the broken page: the page transitions from 'normal' panels, to floating margin space, to jagged, torn floating panels creating further discontinuity and a visceral edge to the layout. The colours also play into this effect, with the furious red panel backgrounds and the always changing colour of Emily. The combined layout is a series of brutal images played out while the very fabric of the comic seems to break apart under the fury of the assault. It's a really smart, really effective page.

I love this comic.

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

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIG#3: Magical layouts

Deep Sequencing: Phonogram: TIG#5: Complementary pages

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

Deep Sequencing: Phono-Infogram: Setting

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Sussing Spider-Woman #2

Or a look at clever storytelling in Spider-Woman #2
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics

Spider-Woman continues to impress me with consistently interesting storytelling. It might not be my favourite story or series concept right now, but I am always delighted by the thoughtful way the story is constructed. If you are someone who likes cerebral, playful layouts Spider-Woman is a comic you should be reading. And if you require more proof, I've got some more evidence coming at you.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #2 below.

I seriously love this page. The story of the page is that Jessica Drew, who is very pregnant, is being held hostage by Skrulls. Normally, she would beat the green men to a green smear, but since she is ultimately responsible for her fetus, she is also trying to be responsible and wait for help. This page does a beautiful job conveying the conflict between Spider-Woman's fury and her delicate condition. What I love about this page is how the structure of the layout highlights and rotates around Jessica's pregnant belly: the top of half of the page hones in on the stomach while the lower half the page forms an arc with her pregnancy at the centre of it. As many images of frustration there on the page, they are always outweighed and overshadowed by the belly. It's really clever stuff. 

(Also, how charming is the double panel 'KIK' 'KIK'?) 

I also like how the lettering in this page takes a slightly different track through the page. This creates a tension between the underlying layout structure and the flow of the writing on the page. This is done in a way that is still super easy to read, but which subtly helps build the feelings of conflict in Jessica. Smart, smart page.

The next page is also pretty great storytelling. A thing that Team Drew does really well is make effective use of nested panels, and this page is a great example of it. By placing Jessica's foot-tapping impatience into a nested-panel is makes this motion the Most Important part of the first panel. This really highlights Spider-Woman's frustration, but also sets the tapping foot as a recurring element that can then be repeated in the following panels and used as a great little visual signifier of Jessica making up her mind. It's charming as all heck and accomplished storytelling. I also love how when the foot-tapping-descision-panel arrives it leads directly into a tight little sequence that shows determination and drives the reader around the carriage return into the texting in the final panel. These are all fairly small choices, but make for such a fun efficient page of comics.

If you like wonky, smart comics, Spider-Woman is a comic you should be reading.

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

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #7

Or a look at the relationship between disorientation and spatial context in Pretty Deadly #7
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

I have been trying to put my finger on just what I like about Pretty Deadly #7. There is something really cool about the way the comic is depicting the war blasted wasteland of WW1, that is kind of elusive and hard to articulate. I think it's that the depiction of trench warfare in the comic is somehow both nightmarishly indistinct while still grounded in an a relentless, granular sense of place. And I think a sequence in Pretty Deadly #7 is a great example of this.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Pretty Deadly #7 below.

The battlefields of the First World War have always stuck in my imagination as barren moonscapes.: sort of a brown-grey desolation filled with a kind of dreamy vagueness. And I think Pretty Deadly captures that sense by portraying a dark, open world devoid of life and vibrant colour. Which I think captures the sheer inhumanity of that war and a sense of how emotionally lost the protagonist of the story is. At the same time, Team Deadly has done a fantastic job building a discrete sense of place into this nebulous barren zone. Like, take the trench system on the left: it has the fine grained detail and subtle human touch that lend the broader nightmare wasteland a critical sense of realism that grounds the more fantastical aspects of the setting.

The tension between the nightmarey-vagueness of the battlefield setting and the granular realism of the comic, I think plays out spectacularly in the gas attack sequences. The page on the right devolves into a whirling cloud of toxic gas that the protagonist flees through in a swirling reading path without obvious reference. At first the character seems hopelessly mired and lost. But on a closer examination, the motions of the character within the page depict a clear set of motions which played against the previously viewed trenches reveals the character arming himself and moving to cover. It's the application of spatial storytelling to a chaotic anti-space.

And this page plays with same tension but in a wonderfully different way. Instead of having the character navigate an indistinct toxic cloudscape, the cloudscape effectively navigates around the protagonist's fixed perspective. The hook of the page is that the round panels are the restricted view of the character looking out of his gasmask. As such the comic has a clear implied sense of place: the area immediately around the character, but is still nightmarishly indistinct: the severely limited view of the character is just as disorienting as the thick smoke of the previous selection. It's a great, emotionally resonant effect.

I think this page, though, is my favourite. It is a wonderful example of the beautiful, brutal violence that I think characterizes Pretty Deadly and it showcases the clever page construction that allows the reader to quickly navigate through the key action on the page. This sequence also uses the same combination of disorienting setting with a really rigorous application of spatial positioning. This composition is, at first glance, spinning madness in an indistinct toxic cloudscape. The use of a perspective that wildly rotates around the protagonist lends the page a bewildering insanity that is punched up by the noxious red/green colour palette. It is pure feverish nightmare. But at the same time, the individual moments of action occur in a distinct spatial context. If you deconvolve the action and imagine each snapshot of violence depicted from a single, fixed perspective it all fits together perfectly. This page very much has an implied, mundane reality constructed into it that despite the madness inducing expressionism gives everything clarity and a realistic context. Which really makes this page a spectacular fusion of gritty realism and supernatural horror that is, I think, at the very core of what I love about Pretty Deadly.


Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Visiting The Island #5

Or a look at margin space in Ancestor: Part 2/4
by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward; Island Comics Anthology (Edited by Brandon Graham and Emma Rios); Image Comics

I have an admission to make: I'm finding it kind of hard to get excited about comics right now. Between a crushing work schedule and a charismatic but needy baby time is at a premium, so I'm finding that a lot of perfectly fine comics that feature nice art and serviceable writing are just kind of dull. Like, dropping titles dull. So bear that in mind when I say Island #6 is one of the very comics I've read lately that I really enjoyed: all three feature stories in this edition were extremely accomplished episodes of comics featuring tremendous artwork, world building, and storytelling. The current chapter of Ancestor, by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward, was maybe the most engrossing, captivating comic I've read in months.

It is also a comic that does something fun and wonky with margin space that I think is worth taking a look at.

There will be substantial *SPOILERS* ahead.


The story of Ancestor, in a very basic nutshell, is that in a near-future where everyone has a kind of advanced, holographic computer with them everywhere they go (a kind of extrapolated smartphone type idea), a group of friends attend a party run by a visionary inventor except things aren't what they seem and something is afoot. In the current issue it's essentially revealed that the visionary inventor isn't entirely stable, which builds over the course of the comic to outright madness in a truly masterful story of unfolding tension and story pacing. Shit gets fucked right up in a really, really skillful way.

A small part of this effect, that I think is really clever, is the use of panel gutter space. Rather than having white or black gutters that simply demarcate the division between panels, this instalment of Ancestor has coloured gutters that participate in the mood of the story. In the early pages, which focus on the inventor's instability the gutters are yellow, an unusual attention getting choice that conveys warning and alarm. As the story progresses and it becomes clear that the situation is much worse, much more disturbing and violent than the reader expected the panel gutters gradually change colour from yellow, to orange, to an angry, violent red, to a truly ominous black. It's the entire emotional arc of the comic rendered and encoded in colour. It subtly grades the feeling of every page and works like an ominous soundtrack in a visual medium. It's a small, but really smart thing.

I may not have a lot of time for comics right now, but Ancestor 4/5 and Island #5 I cannot recommend enough.