Wednesday 24 August 2016

Deep Sequencing Black Magick Colours and Letters

Or a look at the use of colour and a lesson in lettering from Black Magick Vol. 1
by Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, Chiara Arena, and Jodi Wynne; Image Comics

Black Magick is a supernatural detective noir story from Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, Chiara Arena, and Jodi Wynne. In it, Rowan Black, is a Portsmouth police detective and secretly a real life witch. The comic opens with Black, being called away from a ritual with her coven when a hostage taker requests her by name. Black confronts the madman to find he is magically controlled and that some sort of powerful enemy is hunting witches. It's a well constructed, atmospheric read that uses a muted take on the supernatural and a sense of mundane realism to construct a compelling story world. Black Magick Vol. 1 is a promising introduction more than a standalone story, but is worth a look for the quality of the artwork and for getting in on the story to come. Hopefully, there will be more soon.

Black Magick is also worth talking about because of how it uses spot colouring to signify magic and because it contains a pretty cool little lesson in lettering. I'll try and explore both below.

There will, as always, be *SPOILERS*

Black Magick is another comic that uses colour as a visual signifier of magic and the supernatural. I've written about this before in Dr. Strange and Phonogram, but I think it's worth briefly touching on how colour is used in Black Magick. Unlike the aforementioned comics, which use bright, eye popping colours on sparse black-and-white compositions to represent the mystical world only Dr. Strange sees or to show the magical, pop-music fuelled battle between self-loathing Phonomancers, Black Magick uses colour to subtly layer magical elements and artifacts into its world. The comic, while largely black and white is sumptuously shaded to create a textured, realistic world that has a kind of noir seriousness. Against this greyscale palette, the muted, judicious bursts of colour stand out as visual oddities, violations of the baseline comic world. Basically, a visual metaphor for magic. At the same time the subtly of the application of colour makes this magic feel humble and well grounded. It's a choice that sets the magic of Black Magick up as a supernatural but serious in an otherwise realistic world. It's a judicious and effective choice.


The other thing about Black Magick that I think is worth unpacking is lettering. Specifically I want to look at a really, great example of lettering as storytelling guide and contrast that with a place where lettering breaks down where the same trick would have been useful. Mostly, because it's a great lesson in lettering. But before I throw I delve into that, I would like to just take a second to point out that the lettering in Black Magic is largely invisible, which is to say, quite good. It is clear to read, doesn't infringe unnecessarily with the underlying artwork, and occasionally helps steer the reader through the page. It does it's job seamlessly. 

I really like the lettering in the middle section of this page. The cool feature of the lettering here is that one of the speech balloons is positioned so that it overlaps the panel gutter and breaks into the preceding panel. This means that this chunk of lettering is the first thing the reader encounters in this panel as they carriage return into the panel along a nice clear path of speech balloons. This allows the reader to instantly parse an unorthodox reading order of speech balloons in the panel without any ambiguity. It also... there is this thing in visual storytelling, mainly film, called the 180 rule. The 180 rule posits that it the perspective of a scene shouldn't flip between cuts. Or put another way, characters on the left side of the screen or panel should typically stay on the left and characters on the right should keep to the right. The idea being that rotating the perspective is a little confusing and requires the reader or viewer to expend mental energy keeping track of characters instead of just absorbing the story. (There are obvious caveats and limitations to this, like in Pretty Deadly where the perspective is spun to create a sense of chaos and confusion.) Anyway, what's cool about the lettering here is that the attention carrying speech bubble helps execute a 180 perspective change that is absolutely seamless to read. It's carried off so well that unless a reader is a nutbar like me, they probably just breezed right through this page. Which is pretty excellent storytelling.

Okay, if you are still with me on this deep dive into lettering, Black Magick also has an example where the same lettering trick isn't used and where storytelling breaks down slightly. In the above page the transition from the large central panel (which has great lettering BTW) into the lower panels creates a moment of ambiguity. It isn't immediately clear if the reader should treat the speech bubbles from left-to-right as per the normal sequence, or if they are meant to read the first panel they encounter on the carriage return entering the panel like in the above sequence. It's a moment where the reader has to spend time figuring out the correct reading order instead of just absorbing the story, which is not optimal. The correct order is to read the panels in reverse order, going right-to-left, and I think this could have been made instantly clearer by having the speech bubble break into the preceding panel like above. If this was done the correct speech bubble would gain instant visual primacy and inform the reader on the right order. Which all goes to show how just how finicky a craft lettering must be to get right.

So there you have it, a great little lesson on the power of lettering using a great example and a missed opportunity in Black Magick Vol. 1

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Deep Sequencing: Unshuttering Shutter

Or a look at the use of style motifs in Shutter: Volume 4
by Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca, Owen Gieni, John Workman; Image Comics

Shutter is a comic I'm always looking forward to reading the next trade of. Its a solidly engrossing story built around the collision between Saturday-Morning-Cartoon fantasy adventure and a mature approach to consequences. It's also a comic filled with a delightfully mad mashup of well, everything: anthropomorphic animals, steampunk robots, magic, mad science. It's imagination unleashed and super fun to see. Shutter is also proving to be a comic that does some really smart and compelling things with storytelling. And since that is the reason for this blog, I'm going to take a closer look at a couple of my favourite aspects of the comic. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for Shutter Vol. 1-4.

One of the chapters that make up Shutter Volume 2 is split into three parallel backstories. This comic tells the origin stories of Chris Kristopher Jr, The Leopard, and Kalliyan, three secret siblings of Shutter's protagonist. The comic presents all three backstories at once, splitting each page into three panels with one devoted to each character. The comic also colour codes each of these panels, blue for Chris, yellow for The Leopard, and magenta for Kalliyan. This makes the division between stories super obvious to the reader and also gives each story it's own visual character and distinct feeling. It's an effective solution to a clarity problem and basically allows the for the simultaneous presentation of each story. Which is really important because the magic of this chapter is how the three stories play off each other. While a reader could basically read each tiered third as its own miniature comic, the real pizzaz of this part of the comic is seeing the parallels and differences between each character's circumstances. This allows for some really beautiful moments of common humanity and some pretty powerful and sharp differences, especially given what the reader already knows about each character. It's a pretty remarkable comic in its construction and experience. 

The other thing about this volume of Shutter that I quite enjoyed was its use of stylized flashbacks. I've been interested for a while in how comics sometimes use different, retro styles to distinguish between contemporary and flashback sections of the comic. Shutter is interesting because rather than just use a generic 'old comic' approach to its flashbacks, it uses art and comics styles that riff on particular art style and eras. This functions to provide narrative information (contemporary/flashback) but also grounds these flashbacks in a kind of loose timeline. The story about young Chris Khristopher Sr. falling in love borrows a Eurocomic/Herge style that, along with fashion choices, sets the comic in the 1930s or 40s. The flashbacks of Kate Khristopher and her romance with Huckleberry use a kind of zine comic style that feels like the 1980s or 90s. The flashback introduction of Zohra, a past mentor to Chris Khristopher Sr., uses bright popart stylings that tie the flashback to the 1970s or early 80s. Finally, there is a brief flashback sequence of one of the magic ratguys from the comic that uses pure, sepia-toned dot colours and a cartoony style to evoke old timey comics. This choice is less about evoking an era, but more about playing off the contrast between the Saturday-Morning-Cartoon-nostalgia of Shutter's world with the realistic violence and drama that permeates the comic. All of these choices work to provide story clarity but add an extra level of context that helps make Shutter feel more like a real world with a distinct history. It's good stuff. 


Wednesday 10 August 2016

Deep Sequencing: Talking About Talking

Or a look at the interaction of speech and sound in Black Widow #5, Island: Habitat, and Cerebus: High Society
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Simon Roy; and Dave Sim, respectively.

I've been thinking about word balloons lately. Specifically how they represent sound, and how sound is experienced by an audience. Listening to speech is an active process by an audience, they have to like, actually listen. I've been keeping my eye out for comics that play with this fact to create some interesting comics moments. And I have some examples for you!

There will be *SPOILERS* for Black Widow 5, Cerebus: High Society, and Island: Habitat.

The first example is from Black Widow #5. In this case the third panel in the bottom row has a cut off repeat of the speech bubble from the second panel. It is recognizably the same bubble of text, but it isn't actually fully legible in the panel. On the one hand, this little snippet of half seen text acts as a time stamp and makes sure the reader recognizes that panels 2 and 3 happen simultaneously. But, I think it's more than that. I think the fact the text is cutoff makes it... out of focus. It's like sound that is happening but not actually being listened to. I think is meant to show that the guy with the gun to his head isn't paying attention to what is being said and is instead thinking about something else. Which given the his following words and actions, makes me believe that this character is centring himself for what is about to happen in this panel. If you buy into this theory, the way this speech bubble is used here is very smart.

The next example is from Habitat, a comic that I originally read as part of the Island anthology. This comic portrays a damaged spaceship where the crew and interior has gone feral. So like, instead of a futuristic crew there are people wearing loin clothes and throwing spears organized into tribes based on their ancestors (I think) section specialization (security, engineering, etc). It's a comic that works because it creates a fully realized tactile world of human desperation in a huge, thoughtfully constructed world of wilderness and technology. I think this example of how speech is used is a great example of the kind of suspension of disbelief that makes this comic effective. In the above scene, one of the feral crewmen boards a battlemech type thing and is sealed in a cockpit. Outside the cockpit, overlaid by the green of the cockpit's glass is another feral crewman barking orders. This choice conveys the separation between in the cockpit and out, but it also really sells a sense of realism: there is muffled, tertiary sound. Which is a fascinating choice. Many comics make an effort to streamline narrative information and to use the readers focus. This is unrealistic, since in real life out of context people, events, and noises are always happening. So creating out of focus sound like this helps build a sense of a busy, populated world. And the use of glass here to create clarity and separation in this example is cleverly simple solution to making this work. 

I think my favourite example of the interaction between speech narration and an audience is this one from Cerebus: High Society. In this example a man is giving a speech to a crowd announcing who the next Prime Minister would be, but as soon as the crowd hears Cerebus' name announced they go bananas and sound of their celebration drowns out the rest of the speech. This is represented visually by the jubilant crowd's silhouette actually overlapping and blocking out the speech bubble. Which is just a wonderful graphical approach to this: it captures the emotion and action of the crowd and creates a clear, visual symbol of an audience over powering a speaker. It is a moment of very accomplished comics.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Deep Sequencing: Spider Bastards

Or a look at the use of girds in Spider-Woman #9 and Southern Bastards Vol. 3
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, and Travis Lanham; as well as Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, Chris Brunner, and Jared K Fletcher, respectively.

One of the most basic units in comics storytelling is a grid: a regular collection of panels put into rows. It is sequential art distilled down to its essence, a series of sequential pictures that depict a story through time. Regular girds can be pretty interesting because of how they create a rigid, confining story space. But these comics, Spider-Woman and Southern Bastards both use artwork that use and subvert panel grids to create interesting and innovative comics. And I'd like to explore some cool examples.

There will be *SPOILERS* below for Spider-Woman #9 and Southern Bastards Vol. 3

This page incorporates a grid and uses it in some very interesting ways. The foundation of this page is a six panel grid depicting a single image of a man on his knees being menaced. Because the six panel grid is here, the comic can violate the grid to generate extra emphasis. The first panel of the page, where the man is struck in the face with a gun butt, takes advantage of this and usurps the first panel in the gird, is RED!, and is enlarged so it overlaps the gutters. This makes the panel explode off the page in a burst of violence. Then the reader moves into the six panel grid with its single large image. This is important because it stretches the moment, making the main image feel like it takes six-comic-time units instead of one. The gridification of this image is also important because it splits the central of the page into a top and lower half. This means that when the reader encounters the text and character in the heart of the page, the kneeling man is constrained in the bottom middle panel below the horizontal divide. This makes him feel trapped, powerless, and cowed. It's a really smart use of the constricting aspects of a grid. Finally the final read panel, the red panel in the centre right, is jammed over the gird in a way that breaks the pattern. This makes this panel feel unexpected, impactful, and cruel as the depicted gut shot. This is a fantastic page. 

I'm also pretty impressed how this page uses its grid elements. While this page is not as strictly a regular panel grid, it does have four grid like panels in the bottom left corner. Here a henchman, partially responsible for beating the kid in the bed into a comma is trying to talk out his guilt. What I love here is how as the guy talks and talks and talks and trails off into inanity the lowest panels of the grid get cut off by the bottom of the page. It's the panels trailing off visually as the character trails off in the story. Which is great stuff.


This page here also uses a grid in a spectacularly complicated way. Superficially this page is a regular twenty panel grid, where the story is played out in a linear, simple way. But this page is anything but simple or linear! Instead this page is more like a series of interlocking linear comic strips that are layered onto a grid to weave together three interlocking narratives. The top row of panels show Spider-Woman kicking a Wendigo out of a window. This top row carries around the corner and down the page showing a comic strip of the Wendigo falling, startling a Mountie, and fleeing into the beautiful Canadian wilderness. Meanwhile the first panel in the top row also leads smoothly into the second row of panels which present a slightly out of kilter replay of the top row of panels with a narrative focus on Spider-Woman. This creates a sense of chaos and flurry of activity over these first few moments, but also helps split the Wendigo and Spider-Woman narratives. Much of the third row of panels focuses on Spider-Woman seeing the Wendigo escape. The left corner of the page subverts the grid, and has two overlaid panels that show the startled Mountie and skier as Spider-Woman appears and steels their weapon and skis. Put all together the page shows a chaotic fight, the Wendigo escape, Spider-Woman pursue, and bystanders react in a way that shows simultaneous action in an easy reading way. This is a pretty incredible page. 


Wednesday 27 July 2016

Deep Sequencing: Oggling Ody-C Vol. 2

Or a roundup of my favourite artwork and storytelling from Ody-C Vol. 2
by Matt Fraction, Christian Ward, and Chris Eliopoulos; Image Comics

Ody-C continues to be a kind of perplexing comics experience for me. It's clearly a comic, it uses the interaction of words and pictures to tell a story, but in a somewhat different mode than I'm used to coming from a mostly American, genre comics background. Ody-C, to me, skirts this fine line between a traditional comic that uses illustration to convey events and a lyrical/prose story accompanied and supported by illustration. When you add in the psychedelic, inventive artwork and the surreal, lyrical translation of the narration, Ody-C is a challenging and wonderfully unreal comic. It's definitely worth a look, if only to see something unexpected.

Ody-C is also, I think, interesting from the standpoint of execution. Team Ody-C commits some really innovative feats of comics storytelling that are lurid and instructive and, if you are a comics wonk, worth the price of admission. I feel that this is particularly true in the second volume, Sons of The Wolf, which, in my opinion, really shows the creative team growing into their collaboration and the story. If you were not swept away by the first Ody-C chapter/trade, a second look might be in order.

(Conversely, it's possible that I liked Vol. 2 more because I had a better idea of what I was in for and had tempered my expectations accordingly. Is it growth of the creators or the training of the reader, or both?)

This post is going to examine some of my favourite storytelling from Ody-C Volume 2.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Ody-C: Sons of the Wolf below.

The thing that so impresses me about Ody-C is the way the page is molded to the needs of the storytelling. The above examples, taken from a part of the comic that features a story read in a book, are one of the more simple, yet effective examples of this. In this part of the comic the panel shapes and layouts have been given shapes that evoke paper pages in an old, hardcover book. It's a choice that clearly delineates which part of the comic are occurring within the story-within-the-story which enhances clarity. It's also a choice that creates a motif, which gives this section an interesting visual flavour making this segment feel unique and special. This is all fairly straightforward, but is a nice, simple example of how Team Ody-C uses innovative flourishes to make a better reading experience.

Here are some other noteworthy examples of the use of flourishes to construct awesome, evocative moments. 

In the page on the left Ene the Conquerer is warned about Proteus, the leviathan monster who destroys all who try and leave the world she is trapped on. This monster has tremendous power, apparently over space and time, and this is conveyed in the structure of the page. The space panels around the monster warp, and when the leviathan attacks, it breaks the layout of the page itself. This choice instantly conveys what a fearsome, insurmountable challenge Proteus is. 

The right page shows Ene, who is trying to hunt Proteus on a kind of bone-strewn, charnel world, being overtaken by the animated/levitated bones that surround her. The conceit of the page has the bones of the world as white outlines, which blend seamlessly into the gutters of the comic. The page is also noteworthy in that it uses a 16 panel grid, one of the rare occasions the comic uses such a traditional approach. This is important because it means that the reader instantly understands how the page is supposed to work, and allows the bone-conceit to play out as the primary feature in violation of the underlying grid. The page is great in that it shows Ene and her company swallowed up the white of the bones and page, and, because of how Ene progresses across the grid, creates the sense of her being dragged down, down, down. It is a highly evocative page of comics that uses a cool idea coupled with a simple, clear layout to powerful effect. 

Another striking, highly dramatic sequence in Ody-C Vol. 2 is this double page spread. The story playing out here as the Sons of the Wolf, jilted by their respective husband and wife who have taken one another as lovers, slaughter there way through an orgy in a garden. This sequence is a visceral, emotional, page of madness and carnage that is brilliantly executed. The spread once again uses a simple grid layout so that the reader can easily navigate the page. This is very much a choice made to limit distractions and to allow the engines of the page to show through as clearly as possible. One of these engines is the juxtaposition of violence and beauty, tranquility and slaughter. The high panel count allows the comic to jump from severed body part to flower to act of horrific violence to plant, all the while milking the dissonance between these two extremes for dramatic effect. At the same time, the comic uses the visual similarity between a flowers bloom and a burst of blood, the garden and the violence to alternately taint the purity of the beauty and to show the aesthetics of the slaughter. It is a discombobulating and uncomfortable bit of comics. The other engine that drives this page is the use of colour. While most of Ody-C has this complex, nuanced, painted style filled with layered and complicated colours, this sequence uses flat colours in a tightly constrained palette making it visually distinct. The chosen colours, blue, green, and red are simple and stark and when juxtaposed and repeated are lurid and attention grabbing. This makes this sequence feel important and crazy and helps make every image land with maximum impact on the reader. This is a very effective span of comics and one uses a simple layout and dramatic colours to convey a truly horrific moment of insanity.

I think this final, two part example is my favourite storytelling from Ody-C Vol. 2. In the comic the Sons of the Wolf, although twin brothers, are raised separately and unaware of each other. As the story goes their drive, strength, and unnatural charisma leads them to become rulers and amass armies and go to war with each other. This is told and conveyed in part on this beautiful double page spread. I love how this page uses symmetry of design and colour motifs (blue for one brother, red for the other), to show how the Sons of the Wolf are opposed to one another but evenly matched. I also really appreciate that the swirling design manages to create a sense of conflict. Part of this is that the swirl creates paths for the brothers to march along, creating a sense of progression towards a central climatic conflict. I also like that it creates a tense, unbalanced feeling layout that despite its symmetry, feels like it could tear itself apart. It is, at a glance, a layout that conveys two equally matched foes coming to battle. And that is amazing comics. 

This sequence is closed by this page which shows the brothers fighting, discovering their identities, and reconciling to form an empire building alliance. It is a great page. For one the page uses long, apposed motion of the sword swings break through the plane of symmetry created in the previous spread, to violate the balance of the page to show the brothers coming together. This page is also smart in how it uses the arrow created by the crossing blades and moon(/sun?) backlight circle to emphasize the hugging brothers on the bottom of the page. This makes this feel like the most significant moment on the page. I also love how the brothers hugging become this balance point for the rest of the page, a kind of foundation for a layout that feels more secure than what came before. The story transitions from symmetrical, unbalanced layout to a page that crosses over and finds a new, more steady state of rest. It is a very great segment of storytelling.

This is just a random sampling of the moments I found most interesting or useful to talk about as a comics wonk. Ody-C is filled with these kinds of bold storytelling choices that are worth checking out as well as moments that, while maybe less technically involved, are just glorious pictures to look at. If the artwork in a comic is important to you, Ody-C: Sons of the Wolf is a comic you should read.