Wednesday, 30 January 2013

So I Read Jan’s Atomic Heart

A 250 word (or less) review of the Jan’s Atomic Heart comic
By Simon Roy, New Reliable Press

Science fiction, at its atomic heart, is about nifty futurist ideas bootstrapped to a compelling fictional story. A good piece of science fiction pops with dozens of great concepts that are elaborated to the reader as the story progresses. Great Sci-fi immerses you in a different world where you are expected to piece together the futurisms on display through inference instead of instruction. Jan's Atomic Heart is an example of this kind of great Sci-fi. Jan's Atomic Heart is about a man, Jan, who finds himself in a temporary robotic body after his real body is destroyed in a car accident. He learns that his new robotic body is the same model used as mobile bombs by terrorists and begins to worry that he too is a bomb. Jan’s Atomic Heart is a beautifully rendered comic with a compelling story with some great futurisms and twists. The comic, for being a fairly short story, also does a huge amount of world building. Roy brilliantly works in small peripheral details and snippets of tangential dialogue - a panel here, a panel there - that manage to convey the stories environment and broader context without distracting from the main plot and characters. It's a pretty great technique for packing in setting detail without losing too much page real-estate. Jan's Atomic Heart is a brilliant Sci-fi book and well worth checking out if you can find it.

Word count: 234

Monday, 28 January 2013

Atoll Comics Round 7

Or Changes to My Top-Ten Comics

Due to poverty and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be super-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 Young Avengers and dropping Winter Soldier.

Why Young Avengers? Phonogram. That's why. 

Okay, let me clarify. Phonogram is easily one of my favourite comics. In a nutshell it's a comic that presents music as literal magic in an effort to describe how amazing it is. The series is original, beautifully written, and shockingly good looking. The second chapter, "The Singles Club" deals with additional themes of growing up and defining oneself. Phonogram was written by Kieron Gillen, drawn by Jamie McKelvie with art assists by Julia Scheele and coloured by Matthew Wilson (Vol. 2). 

Young Avengers is written by Kieron Gillen, drawn by Jamie McKelvie with Mike Norton, and coloured by Matthew Wilson. It's a book that follows the titular Young Avengers  (Hulkling, Wiccan, Hawkeye, Marvel Boy, Miss America, and Kid Loki) and is about growing up with Superheroics being a metaphor for talent or individuality . It's a comic by the same creative team as Phonogram and deals with similar themes. If the first issue is any gauge, it is shockingly similar in theme and tone and execution to Phonogram: The Singles Club. In a world without an ongoing Phonogram comic, Young Avengers is a must read. And honestly, with the creative team involved, it's probably a must read even if Phonogram was on the stands weekly.

Why not Winter Soldier? This is another end of an era title drop. Ed Brubaker's Captain America/Winter Soldier work has been a staple of comics habit since I started reading comics as an adult. Between monthly magazine format comics and trade collections I own the entire Captain America to Winter Soldier story. It is an amazing comics work and if you are looking for a mainstream Superhero comic to read in back issues or trades, I highly recommend it. But Ed Brubaker is moving on to pursue a career making creator owned comics and writing for movies and television and is no longer writing comics for Marvel. As great as this comic has been, I cannot imagine reading a story about the Winter Soldier that isn't written by Brubaker. So I won't. But I don't think that's all...

I like endings. One of the greatest weaknesses of mainstream Superhero comics is that they don't end. Without endings there can be no real resolution, no real closure to them. Just conclusions of storylines and fresh new takes. The closest thing to a real ending I've seen in Superhero comics is the semi-conclusion and change up following a years long run on a title by a single writer or creative team. Like Brubaker leaving Winter Soldier, Fraction finishing with Iron Man, or Hickman concluding his Fantastic Four/FF run. It's kind of nice when these semi-endings occur to draw a line under everything that came before, step away from the title, and enjoy the sort-of-closure for a while. Savour the story as a complete, definitive unit of Captain America, Iron Man, or the Fantastic Four. And my dropping Winter Soldier falls into this: I'm happy with Winter Soldier, how it ended, and am not super interested in reading more right now. 

Friday, 25 January 2013

Assembly on Avengers Assemble 9-11

Or an analysis of characterization in Avengers Assemble
By Kelly Sue DeConnick and Stefano Caselli

Avengers Assemble is the continuity light version of the Avengers franchise meant to be accessible to new readers. It utilizes a rotating cast of favourite Avengers going on missions to save the world in shorter self-contained stories. It's basically a very pretty, very well written straight forward Superhero comic designed to be an introduction to Superhero comics.

It's not what I would typically read.

If you pay attention to the ten Superhero comics I'm reading at any given time you'll notice that I tend to go for the more polarizing and original... the ones that are not strictly Superhero comics. I like to read things that are new, that contain the characters and themes I love but also do something more that changes it up or elevates the material.  The fact that Avengers Assemble is intentionally a straight forward Superhero comic would generally make it a comic that I would skip in the interest of reading something else.

But Avengers Assemble is ridiculously well executed. The writing is excellent and the art is perfect for the script. It's also a comic that focuses on making each character in the ensemble distinct.

When it comes to team Superhero books I'd say there are two key ingredients to success: fun/exciting character moments and a clever and functional central plot. I'd even go so far as to say a well negotiated compromise between these two story elements is the formative norm of a good team book. There are certainly different approaches to this, and most writers/comics end up somewhere on a spectrum between a character driven story or a story driven by the overall plot. Typically this balance falls towards the plot end of things with characters each distinct within themselves, but with poorly defined relationships. This approach can certainly lead to some great comics, but kind of at the expense of wholly realized characters.

Avengers Assemble puts characterization first in a way that is atypical in Superhero team books and this, I think, is what makes the comic remarkable and worth reading.

*SPOILERS* will exist beyond this point.

Every person in real life is, if not unique, then certainly distinctive. If fiction is to mimic real life then every character portrayed in a group also has to be distinct and defined. Avengers Assemble does a really good job of this: the entire cast of the ensemble felt realized and distinct from every other member of the cast.

(Rather than go page to page and annotate every single character moment, I'm just going to list the overall sense of each character).

Iron Man: Tony is brilliant but insecure, which makes him competitive and show-offy. As a result he is fairly likeable and good with people, but also somewhat childish and a bit of an egotistical dick (This is all conveyed rather effectively in the scene where he proposes "the bet" to one-up Banner). He cares a little too much about getting others approval.
The Hulk: Banner is smart, timid, maudlin, and maybe possessed of a bit of an inferiority complex (does pessimistic futurist talk; rises to bet). This makes him awkward and self-conscious in group settings and the kind of person who gets teased, I think. He just wants to be respected. As Hulk is he is simpler and more excitable, kind of a weird fusion of man and child.
Captain Marvel: Carol is at once competent and mature (won't participate in "the bet") while still having a sense of fun (quips with Tony, enforces losing conditions of bet). She is also a bit of a control freak (wants to be referee and judge). 
Captain America: Steve is a serious guy. He knows who he is and is secure in it which means he isn't reliant on validation from others. This makes him a bit terse and plain spoken. Steve is a guy who is comfortable being silent. He carries himself with maturity and good deal of poise. He does not participate in "the bet", and clearly disproves of it.
Spider-woman: Jessica is awkward and unsure of herself and how she fits in. I got this mostly from artwork and how she gravitates towards Hulk as a fellow outsider. Also she tends towards self deprecation a bit, which has always struck me as a mechanism for breaking down the awkward. She is also pretty funny, if you like her brand of humour (which I do). She clearly wants to be part of the group but feels that she isn't.
Thor: Is probably the least defined the the central cast. But even then we get a character who is kind of aloof and burdened with weird cultural expectations and references.

Avengers Assemble does this level of characterization quite well, but it's the next thing it does that is especially cool. In real life people aren't defined purely by character traits and moods. For better or worse we are all somewhat defined by our relationships; especially within group dynamics. This is where most ensemble comics break down and where Avengers Assemble truly excels.

Iron Man and The Hulk: Tony and Banner, like a lot of really smart academics I know, are super competitive with one another in a really childish way. However, when things get complicated, their underlying respect, common ground, and admiration shine through. They have a complicated relationship built around their similarities and mutual insercurities.
Captains Marvel and America: Carol and Steve just get each other. They know where they each stand and have a comfortable association built on just being on the same wavelength. Also, so much trust. The kind of friendship where silence is comfortable. I suspect they would do okay as roommates.
Spider-woman and The Hulk: Jessica seems kind of drawn to both Banner and the Hulk. I read it as a projection of her own self-doubts, lack of confidence, and feelings of kind of being an outsider. She sees those traits in Banner/Hulk and responds to them. Kids on the outside gots to stick together.
Thor and Everyone: Thor is the worst defined character in the book, and his relationships with other characters also suffer a bit. The result is he seems, well, aloof and apart from his fellow Avengers. Given that he is a centuries old Norse god, this kind of characterization actually makes a good deal of sense. So maybe it was intentional? I'm not sure.
Iron Man and Captain America: There isn't a huge amount of interaction to go on, but well, have you ever had a coworker or classmate who, despite being admirable in a number of ways, just kind of rubbed you the wrong way? Well, I get that kind of take on Steve and Tony in Avengers Assemble.
Hulk and Everyone (but Spider-woman): Hulk is hulk. Dangerous, childish, hard to get along with. The Avengers seem to view him a bit as a liability and thing instead of a full fledge person and equal.
Captain Marvel and Iron Man: Carol and Tony are friends. Friends in that there-are-things-I-like-about-you-but-we-should-never-be-roomates way. They clearly see things in one another they like and enjoy, but are clearly very different people who I'm sure get on each others nerves frequently. Also the teasing. 
Captain Marvel and Spider-woman: Oddly, these two don't have a well defined relationship in Avengers Assemble. I think they share one spat of dialogue, but its pretty plot drivey and, from a character perspective, more to do with Spider-woman and Hulks relationship.

I think one of the more remarkable aspects of the strong character work in Avengers Assemble is that its all integrated into a self-contained Superhero adventure comic. All this characterization is built into a three comics that explain the formation of the team, lay out the motivation of the plot, introduce a threat and a villain, contain the requisite punching, and conclude in a satisfying way. This kind of economy of storytelling is really impressive.

Another thing that's probably a worthwhile take away from this arch of Avengers Assemble is that solid character work can make a read incredibly satisfying without resorting to EXTREME STAKES to make the story meaningful. When reading these comics I became invested in the characters and their relationships and cared more about their emotional consequences than the threats they faced in this comic. Not to say that the plot stakes weren't interesting or considerable (they were!), but this is a mainstream Superhero comic, the good guys are gonna win eventually (possibly with a noteworthy and temporary character death along the way). By making the characters and their relationships important readers get an additional series of consequences to worry about that are far more likely to pay off in an interesting way. I think I'd like to see more of this kind of storytelling in Superhero comics, it's a nice change.

But seriously, I would read a Kelly Sue DeConnick penned Rescue Me style comic about the Avengers hanging out in the Tower between missions and their daily personal lives in a heartbeat. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

So I Read Four Eyes: Forged In Flames

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Four Eyes trade paperback,
By Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara, Image Comics

I really like Joe Kelly. A bootleg disk of his Deadpool run is a big part of why I got into comics and I'm pretty fond of his recent Spider-man stories. I've been given to understand, however, that Mr. Kelly is a bit of a lightning rod for comics controversy: people are bitterly divided over the quality of his DC comics work (which I have never read). So bearing in mind that I like Joe Kelly, I think Four Eyes is a book everyone can enjoy. The comic is about Enrico, a boy who must fend for himself and his mother during the Great Depression after his father is killed in an accident. Also there are dragons that fight in underground rings run by criminal syndicates. The story operates as a kind of period piece depicting the hardships and strange cultural conditions of the great depression and also dragons. Built into this amazing setting is the thematic core of the story, which is about trying to grow up and be a man without a father to emulate. And also dragons. Joe Kelly's script for this book is great, but the real star for me is Max Fiumara. His artwork just has such a sense of panache that it makes this world of the-Great-Depression-but-with-dragons come to life and be convincing. It's a gorgeous book with a great concept and story. Sadly, I’m unsure when/if we’ll see more Four Eyes, but Forged In Flames is pretty complete and well worth checking out.

Word count: 250

(Apparently the next issueis in the can, and Kelly and Fiumara are just waiting until they have a completish arch to solicit… but who knows when we’ll see that?)

Monday, 21 January 2013

Gun Machine Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Detective John Tallow had just killed a man and seen his partner murdered when he stumbles into an apartment full of guns. An apartment full of guns arranged in elaborate patterns on the walls and on the floor and on the ceiling. An apartment full of infamous guns each linked to an unsolved murder spanning decades. An apartment where someone is trying to build a Gun Machine. Now John Tallow must decipher this mechanism and catch a serial killer before he can complete his murder device or begin making a new one.

Gun Machine is a pretty great crime story: its central mystery is darkly compelling, its hero flawed and likeable, its villain fascinating and terrible, and its plot properly suspenseful and exciting. Don't let this endorsement fool you, while Gun Machine is a great crime story, it refuses to conform to expectations on account of it being completely mad. Among other forms of madness, Gun Machine has a sense of humour and fun about it and is able to laugh at absurdity as well as its able to chuckle at the gallows or wallow in the terrifying and horrible. Gun Machine is also interesting, filled with many well researched, granular details about all kinds of nifty topics, from the common place to the futuristic or historical. Gun Machine is the kind of book I absolutely love: eminently readable, quirky and original, and impossible to define. 

Warren Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books, and with Gun Machine, a great novel. If you are a fan of his comics work and unsure if his prose writing is for you, well, there are a lot of favourable parallels. Gun Machine has the big ideas and humour that live in all of his work, as well as  the kind of keenly intelligent central plot Ellis is known for. Actually, Gun Machine reminds me a lot of Fell, Ellis' comic with Ben Templesmith. Both works are detective stories that dig into the horrific debauchery that exists at the borders of our society. Both stories are dark, but also faintly hilarious and absurd and informative. Both detectives Fell and Tallow could be cut from the same world weary cloth. Gun Machine even manages to capture, with the hyper-articulate yet humble prose of Ellis,  some of the visual magic of Ben Templesmith's Fell work (if that makes sense). I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you like Ellis' comic work, particularly Fell, you'll likely enjoy Gun Machine.

Honestly though, Gun Machine is the kind of novel I feel I can recommend to anyone: it's smart, exciting, and just a well written book.

So I Read Crooked Little Vein
So I Read Ignition City
So I Read Fell: Feral City

Friday, 18 January 2013

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #9

Or an excuse to talk about Science in the context of comic books.

There be *SPOILERS* in this one. So go read Captain Marvel #9 before reading this post. Don't have it? Shame on you, this is an amazing comic.

First let it be said that Captain Marvel #9 kicks so much ass. I mean, I've really enjoyed every issue of Captain Marvel so far, but this one is fantastic. To the point where if someone were to ask me "Why do you read superhero comics?", I could answer "Because Captain Marvel #9". It's based around a slice-of-life ordinary day for Carol and is filled with satisfying character moments, little snippets of great comedy, a broadening supporting cast, and a gun point standoff. And a ridiculous "lucky" touque (I'm Canadian, we have a word for that). AND dinosaurs in downtown Manhattan. In Captain Marvel #9 Kelly Sue DeConnick manages to turn what could kind of be considered a setup/logistical issue into a beat perfect superhero comic. Filipe Andrade, this issue's artist, has a kinetic and kind of exaggerated style that is pretty great and completes the package. Did I mention I really like this comic?

Anyway, on the last page *SERIOUS SPOILERS* it's revealed that Carol has a lesion in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus of her brain.

You might be wondering, what is a Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (or SCN). Well, since two of my favourite non-human things are Science and comics, I'll try to defuse this jargon.

Structurally the SCN is a small collection of neuron cells that live kind of behind the optic nerve and some visual signalling structures (one of which is called the optic chiasm) in the brain. In the brain, small clusters of neurons are referred to as a nucleus (not to be confused with the nucleus that contains DNA; Scientists are the worst at naming things). So we have a collection of neurons that lives close to the optical chiasm: hence Suprachiasmatic Nucleus. 

But brain structures only matter in so far as they do something. So what does the SCN do? Well, it's where our bodies' internal clock lives.

People evolved on a planet that has light and dark cycles; day and night. A consequence of this is that our bodies adapted to do certain things at certain times of the day. Like to sleep at night and wake up in the morning or to get hungry during the day, but to fast and slow our metabolism at night. To manage this our brains contain a time keeping mechanism that counts out almost exactly 24 hours before resetting. And this time keeping mechanism lives in the SCN. Which is pretty cool. But how does it work?

So a clock works because some part of it is able perform a motion in a consistent, regular way. A grandfather clock has a pendulum (a big ass weighted chain) that sways back and forth at a regular interval (which is maintained by a slowly uncoiling spring). Old pocket watches work by winding a spring that slowly and regularly uncoils and spins gears that turn with a certain speed to keep time. Modern watches use a piezoelectric crystal (essentially a cool rock that will physically oscillate in size (a little) when you run an electric field through it from, say, a watch battery) to mark the regular, periodic passage of time. Well, the SCN works in a fairly similar way, except it oscillates protein levels to tell time.

In the SCN a protein called CLOCK ("circadian locomotor output cycles kaput"... because sometimes Scientists DO name things well) is produced. CLOCK is something called a "transcription factor", which is a protein that can bind to DNA in a cell and turn on or off the production of other proteins. They are kind of like control switches. Anyway, in the SCN, CLOCK is made at a steady rate. Initially it has a low concentration and is stuck in the main compartment of the cell (called the Cytoplasm). Eventually CLOCK reaches a high enough concentration to enter the Nucleus of the cell and bind to DNA. CLOCK can turn on and off a lot of different protein making pathways, but some key genes that get turned on are the ones that manufacture  Period (PER) and Cryptochrome (CYC) proteins. PER and CYC are also transcription factors, and when they are turned on they bind to DNA and turn off the production of CLOCK. This causes CLOCK levels to fall (because cells recycle things), which eventually means CLOCK can't turn on PER and CYC, which means PER and CYC can't turn off CLOCK, which means that CLOCK production starts up again. The cycle repeats.

So to recap, in the SCN during a 24 hour day, CLOCK is made until it turns on production of PER and CYC which turns off CLOCK which eventually will turn off PER and CYC which turns on CLOCK. And then this repeats during the next 24 hours. Which is, in a basic sense, how your brain keeps track of time.

Of course, it's WAY more complicated than that. There are other proteins in the SCN that also fluctuate during a 24 hour period and interact with CLOCK to help keep time. (such as BMAL1, REV-ERBa, RORa etc). Your brain also takes in environmental information and uses this to fine tune the clock. So things like light and dark are used to alter the clock and make it run even more accurately. (Which is why it is important to sleep in a DARK room and why when my dog needs a 3am emergency bathroom run involving a well lit hallway my sleep gets ruined.)  But all of this action takes place in the SCN.

Information from the clock in the SCN gives timed instructions to other areas of the brain, like centres that control wakefulness and hunger or regulate the release of hormones like insulin, melatonin, and growth hormone. So it's a pretty important little structure that affects pretty much every other system in your body.

Which makes the SCN not a great place to have a lesion.

Did I mention I love this comic book?

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

So I Read Demo

A 250 word (or less) review of Demo volume one.
By Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, Vertigo Comics

Most mainstream comics are about super heroes: people with special powers who fight some form of evil or injustice for a variety of reasons. Their powers are generally a blessing or sometimes a blessing-that-is-also-a-curse, but at the end of the day are mostly a mechanism for having adventures and punching things. Demo is a book where people have superpowers that are metaphors for how shitty life can be. The comic is basically an anthology of stories about people dealing with realistic life challenges, but with a super powered/supernatural bent that operates as a thematic device. Think a story about a teen whose words can literally hurt others or about a girl whose mother uses drugs to control her out-of-control powers. It's a pretty poignant collection of short stories that really capture the emotional flavour of profoundly difficult life moments. Demo will make you feel feelings. Brian Wood’s writing is sharp and empathic and Becky Cloonan's art conveys tremendous mood and emotion. Actually, Cloonan pulls off a neat trick in this book: she alters her art style between chapters, sort of fluctuating between manga and American influences, to give each story an individual style and sense of identity. She is a remarkably talented artist. Demo is a great book that sort of straddles the line between super hero books and literary comics and is worth checking out. Just be ready to feel feelings.

Word count: 232

Monday, 14 January 2013

Spinal Tapestry Pt. 2: Bringing the Sexy Back

On the under-appreciated art of comic book spines.

I love purchasing collected editions of comics and displaying them as art objects. They're attractive, a visible expression of my interests, and a constantly present collection of some my favourite things. Also, when the Big Earthquake comes, I'll have a great collection of reading material during the daylight hours. 

In the last post I talked about the idea that comic book spines are important in larger formats like tradepaperbacks or graphic novels because on a bookshelf the spine is the most visible part of the comic. I also used the Brian K Vaughan comics to show some examples of what I consider good and bad spine design.

This time I want to highlight some of the best and most interesting comic spines in my slowly growing comics library. These are the book spines that clearly show their designers understand how important a book spine is to a comic's on the shelf appearance. (And perhaps on the importance of standing out on a bookshelf from a retail perspective.)

Phonogram: This is kind of the epitome of a good simple spine design for me. The "Phonogram" title uses the font of the cover title, with several logo elements incorporated. This clearly states the books identity in a clear and visually interesting way. Couple that with simple, agreeable colours that don't vary book to book and clean writing that is easily read and you get a great comic book spine. (By Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: Reviews)

Jonathon Hickman comics: This one is less aesthetically pleasing and more manipulative and clever. Every Jonathon Hickman book has a striped pattern on the spine. When rendered in black and white it is EXTREMELY eye catching (particularly when shelved as a group). The human eye is wired to pay attention to black-white-black lines and the illusion of movement these give off out of some mammals-of-the-savannah evolutionary quirk. So this Hickman block of books is super eye catching. While not the prettiest design, it is uniquely Hickman and identifies his work. More importantly, these books do not get lost on the shelf. (By Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra, JM Ringuet, Ryan Bodenheim: Reviews)

(From a retail perspective this approach might be even more brilliant: only his books have this stripy pattern and its associated attention nabbing effect. If we accept the premise that the point of an eye-catching cover is to get a consumer to pick up a book, then this eye-catching spine design might represent a retail advantage.)

DMZ: This is one of the most clever and aesthetically appealing comic spine designs I've seen. Let me explain, DMZ is the story of a modern civil war fought between the US government and an insurgent movement. A key aspect of this story, and how it works, is the use of Manhattan Island as a war torn battlefield. It creates context for the story and serves to illustrate the horrors of modern warfare in a familiar setting. As such, a key character in DMZ is Manhattan itself. The spines of the DMZ comics are a visually pleasing design that is white behind the title writing and black behind the author text. Brilliantly, a New York landmark is included at the interface between the top and bottom half of the spine. When looking at an individual volume, it's a sharp design.  When looking at the entire series, it creates a miniature and very recognizable New York skyline effect. It's clean, unifying, unique, and highlights a key aspect of DMZ. It's great. (By Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli, and others)

King City: This big, complete series trade shows off what you can do with the real estate of an extra wide collection. The letters that spell out King City, beyond being in an interesting and high catching graffiti-esque font, are also the frames of a tiny comic strips about a cat (presumably Earthling) stalking and dispatching a little cartoon man. It's silly, fun, really well thought out in this making-really-intelligent-use-of-space-and-storytelling kind of way, and pretty representative of the kind of comic King City is on the inside. The spine of King City is a better cover than a lot of covers. (By Brendan Graham: Review)

Also, just kind of as a case in point about the importance of interesting spine design, I've taken a picture of King City next to the extra-wide Echo The Complete Series collection. Echo actually has a pretty nice spine design: simple, has some pretty unique elements, and black always looks nice. But when you put it next to King City with its more creative use of space it kind of gets lost, doesn't it? (Echo by Terry Moore: Review)

Sweet Tooth:
Okay, this one isn't about a good spine design... this is a little thing I noticed. So the concept of Sweet Tooth's spine is pretty solid: clean black spine, unique Sweet Tooth font, and a nice plaid pattern on the top bit of the spine. It catches the quirkiness of the series, and because a red plaid shirt is intrinsically tied to the design of title character Gus, it really catches the feel of the series. Trouble is, I think a mistake was made at some point during the design process. 
If we zoom in on the plaid pattern along the top you can see the plaid checker alternates between Volumes 1 and 2, but then doesn't ever change again. So instead of getting the checker pattern of a plaid shirt across the series (Vol. 1 and 3 matching and complement the opposite pattern on 2 and 4)... we get mismatched, unconnected plaid colours. Which all makes it feel like a great design that was compromised by a mistake or neglect. Hopefully it gets fixed on a future print? (By Jeff Lemire: Review)

In my opinion these are some of the better and more interesting comic designs out there. They manage to look good, make a statement about their series, and stand out from their competition. I certainly appreciate the extra effort.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Spinal Tapestry Pt. 1: Back Support.

On the under-appreciated art of comic book spines.

I love print comics. Love them. Especially the larger tradepaperbacks, collected editions, and original graphic novel formats. Part of it is that I think they are a more satisfying reading experience, especially for the more unconventional and challenging comics out there. It's also pretty great that they are more durable/portable format for sharing with friends. But something I really like about the format is that graphic novel format comics are displayable art objects.

This is the longest non-radiator wall in our apartment, outfitted with bookshelves, which I've been systematically turning into a library of my favourite novels and comics. (It's still a little measly due to my history of public library reading and the used bookstore trade-ins I did when I moved out of my parents house a few years ago... but I'm working on it.)  Besides being an attractive way to decorate an apartment wall, this library really increases the home-iness of my home; all of these amazing worlds that I love are always right there to be seen, appreciated, fondly remembered or visited again. It's great.

But I've come to notice something: all I normally see of these comics are their spines. Actually, for the most part, all any of us see of bigger format comics are their spines: they are shelved at home spines out, shelved in comics shops spines out, and shelved in libraries and book stores spines out. And I think this fact might be under-appreciated by the comics industry.

Take Saga: Volume 1, a comic that I absolutely loved reading (review pending). It has an absolutely great title page showing gorgeous artwork by Fiona Staples and a crisp, clean design aesthetic.

But the spine of Saga: Volume 1 is, well, it's boring. Just a lot of white space with small, bright coloured font that simply gets lost on a bookshelf.

Here is my entire Brian K Vaughan section of my comics library. These are all great comics with solidly attractive and eye-catching covers.  You'll notice though, that all we really see are the comic spines. You might also notice that these Brian K Vaughan comics, spine wise, are not all created equal and include examples of what I think are good and bad comic spine design.

Runaways: I'd call this one adequate spine design. Simple with a clearly visible font. It says what it is and doesn't get lost in the crowd. (Beige is the worst colour on Earth though... so...)

Ex Machina: This one is pretty bad. The spines of this series carries through the artwork on the cover which ends up making the spines black, with random blobs of colours. As a result, there is no unified design across the series. Worse, the title font is small and is obscured by the colour blobs. The only way I know this series is Ex Machina at a glance is its location between Runaways and Y The Last Man. Also, the old wildstorm logo on Ex Machina 5-10 is pretty unattractive.

Y The Last Man: In my opinion this is a pretty good spine design. There is a unified look across the series with each title having its own colour scheme. I can clearly see the series title, each volumes title, and the author credits. There is also a Thumbnail taken from each volumes cover at the top of the spine, which is a nice touch. This spine design is simple, fairly attractive, unified, and conveys the relevant information. I like it.

(Notice the evidence of lending? Huzzah for tradepaperbacks.)

Saga: While it's a little hard to judge with only a single volume, I'd say it isn't good. Less because it's actively bad, and more because it's bland to the point of boring. Maybe it will look better with some friends?

I guess my point in all of this is that comic spine design is an important part of making attractive, displayable print comics. Also, given how most comic shops display the majority of their comics, spine design might be important to actually selling comics. In my experience this design often isn't amazing and could be probably be improved with a bit more attention and love. 

Let's make comics beautiful for bookshelves everywhere.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

So I Read Glory: The Once And Future Destroyer

A 250 word (or less) review of the first Glory trade
By Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell, Image Comics

Glory is the second reimagining/relaunch of an old Rob Liefeld property. The original Glory was a kind of Wonder Woman rip-off drawn in exploitative Liefeld excess. Fortunately,  Glory bears little resemblance to these origins. In the current take Glory is the daughter of a goddess and a demon king and was raised to be a weapon of mutually assured destruction to enforce a truce. Instead Glory came to Earth to be a hero and, after an illustrious super hero career, disappeared from the world. Now Riley, a young woman who inexplicably dreams the life of Glory, has set out on a quest to find her. Glory: The Once And Future Destroyer is basically a really good super hero comic. It’s cleverly written and beautifully illustrated and free of continuity baggage and story expectations. Glory is also pretty remarkable in the treatment of its female lead characters. The super hero genre standard is for tall, busty, and thin-waisted superheroines who frequently seem designed more to elicit teenage male hormones than to kick ass. The character designs of Glory are radically different: Glory looks like a bodybuilding convention reproduced with a battletank while Riley is a short, slendor, woman of east asian descent.  It’s an approach to characterization that captures diversity of the female body, but also speaks to Glory (the destroyer) and Riley (the fish-out-of-water) as individuals. It also proves male creators can portray non-exploitative females. I really enjoyed Glory and think it makes for a refreshing super hero alternative.

Word count: 249

Monday, 7 January 2013

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #7 (not #6)

Or how a comic can be both a kickass Superhero story and a feminist one.

Captain Marvel is the comic telling the ongoing adventures of Carol Danvers, who is in my opinion one of Marvel's more interesting heroes. The book is being written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn/painted by the epically epic Dexter Soy. (The current arc also features the talents of Christopher Sebela on writing.) It's a beautiful written and drawn comic that solidly brings the Super in Superhero while also quietly providing ideas about female heroism. It's pretty great.

Take issue #6  #7 (EDIT: My mistake... (1))  which features Captain Marvel, and Monica Rambeau, a sometime Captain Marvel herself, fighting a giant robot comprised of sunken ships and crashed aircraft to protect the New Orleans levies. So you know, giant ridiculous Superhero action.

But on this backdrop we have our heroes saving a powerless civilian reporter in distress: and it's a dude:

Which, as refreshing as it is, is immediately followed by this little scene:

Look at this! We have the hero of the story being told to go and be amazing by a romantic interest from the sidelines. How many times have we seen the lady love interest of the leading man in a Superhero or Sports movie or comic egg on her man from the sidelines during some conflict or event she lacks the ability to participate in. In my experience, the answer is a lot. This is, as far as I can come up with, the only time I've seen this with a woman being the action star and a man being the supportive but passive one. And it's pretty great to see.

Of course, all of this happens between punching a giant Robot. 

1: As I was snapping pics for this post, I was lending my brother my stack of ~3 months of new comics (comics being one of our few common interests). It occurred to me just as I was handing him the pile of books at a family dinner that I lacked a cover photo. I hastily snapped a quick one of a cover that looked right and wrote the post without the issue in hand. My apologies for messing that up...

Friday, 4 January 2013

Variety Is The Spice Of Comics pt. 2: Year in Review

Or how variety in comics is amazing and generally a good idea.

It's now the year 2013, which means it's now an appropriate time to post some type of top arbitrary-number-of comics list. But since much of this website is about me only reading my favourite ten mainstream comics it always operates as a top ten list. So maybe not the most illuminating entry to write...

The other chunk of this blog is celebrating the amazing Creator-ownederish comics I've been reading and honestly I think they are all pretty amazing in their own ways. The thing is, these books are mostly radically different from one another and span a wide variety of genres and subjects so it's hard to compare them.  Therefore, I think setting these comics up in some sort of hierarchal best of list is kind of unfair and, since there are distinct reasons to read each comic, kind of besides the point. 

So instead, to celebrate this New Year, I'm going to look back over everything I've read in the last... however many months since I started writing this thing and list all the great things I've read. But since that is kind of boring I'm also going to assign all of the books I've read a genre and then compare the distribution of the types of stories in my Mainstream (Marvel and DC) and Creator-ownederish comics reading. Because I think there is something interesting there.

The genres:

Comics don't automatically get assigned genres, and are infrequently sorted by genre in stores. Instead, they tend to get sorted by format (monthlies, tradepaperbacks, original graphic novels etc). So I'm going to assign my own genres to all these comics. For convenience (and ease of graphing) I'm also going to lump a bunch of genres together. To keep us all on the same page these are the genres I'll be using and a short definition of what I mean by them.

An action packed story with elements of travel, journey, and discovery. Usually a bit light hearted. Think Indiana Jones.

Autobiography: A truthful, or semi-truthful account of the authors life. Think... well any autobiography.
Comedy: A sizeable percentage of the story is devoted to making the audience laugh or subverting the premise for comedic/absurd reasons. I'm using this in both the humour and satirical sense. Think: Superbad or Dr. Strangelove.
Crime: A story about criminals and those that live outside the law. Usually has heist and/or thriller elements. Think Drive or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or even Ocean's 11 (the original please).
Cultural: I'm using this as a catch all for a story that integrally features a commentary on some sort of cultural construction. Think District 9 and apartheid or The West Wing and presidential politics.
Drama: A story whose action is built around emotional tension and consequences. Think Sophies Choice.
Espionage: About spies. Think James Bond
Fantasy: A story involving a supernatural element like magic. I'm going to use it in the context of historic, epic, or mythic elements. Think Lord of The Rings
Historic: Set in the past: actual or alternate. Think Gladiator or Band of Brothers.
Horror: Stories that endeavour to scare, frighten, or creep out its audience. Think The Shining, or if you're me ET.
Mystery: A story that is constructed around solving a mystery or crime. I'm also going to lump police procedurals into this category. Think Law and Order.
Other: Something that defies easy classification. Like, well that's kind of the issue isn't it.
Science Fantasy: A story with fantastical technologies or a story set in the future with fantastical elements without regard for Scientific plausibility. Think Star Wars or Firefly.
Science Fiction: A story that features some sort of societal or technological thought experiment. Think 1984 or I Robot
Slice-of-Life: About the lives of characters in a texture of their everyday life kind of way. That's a terribly nebulous definition... but it works? Think Forest Gump.
Superhero: People with super natural abilities have adventures of some sort. Think Avengers.
Thriller: Excitement! Suspense! Action! Danger! Think Die Hard.
Urban Fantasy: A story set in the present with modest supernatural elements. Think Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Ground Hog Day or American Gods.
Western: A story about the Wild West, cowboys, etc. These stories have their own kinds of genre tropes and narrative feel which goes beyond the subject matter which I think justifies them as having their own genre. Think True Grit or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Mainstream (Marvel & DC) comics I've read since starting the blog:

So here are all the comics that have been in my Top Ten at some point during the last year. How this is going to work is each title is worth 1 point towards further analysis. Since many titles don't clearly sit in one genre, their 1 point can be broken up and assigned to multiple genres. So for a book with two genres, each genre will get 1/2 a point. Pretty straight forward, right?

So with this scoring system in place these are the books I've read this year and the genres I think they most belong to:


Avengers Assemble: Superhero
Batman: Superhero
Batwoman: Superhero
Captain Marvel: Superhero
Daredevil: Superhero
Fantastic Four: Superhero, Science Fiction
FF: Superhero, Science Fiction
Hawkeye: Superhero, Thriller
The Flash: Superhero
The Invincible Ironman: Superhero
Thunderbolts: Superhero
Ultimate Spider-Man: Superhero
Uncanny Avengers: Superhero
Winter Soldier: Superhero, Espionage
Wonder Woman: Superhero, Fantasy

Which gives me the following genre breakdown for Mainstream comics:

Espionage: 0.5
Fantasy: 0.5
Science Fiction: 1
Superhero: 12.5
Thriller: 0.5

Which when graphed looks like this:

Creator-ownederish comics I've read since starting this blog:

In the same period of time I read all or some of the following creator-ownederish comics. Again, each title is worth 1 point, and this point can be chopped into parts for titles that span multiple genres. Oh, and I've included links to all the reviews that have been published. Here's the list:

A Red Mass For Mars: Superhero (Review)
Atomic Robo: Adventure, Comedy (Review)
Beast: Fantasy, Horror
Casanova: Espionage, Science Fiction (Review)
Chew: Mystery, Comedy (Review)
Criminal: Crime (Review)
Daytripper: Slice-of-Life, Drama (Review)
Demo: Superhero, Drama
DMZ: Thriller, Cultural
Echo: Superhero (Review)
Fatale: Crime, Horror (Review)
Fell: Mystery, Horror (Review)
Friends With Boys: Slice-of-Life, Comedy (Review)
Four Eyes: Fantasy, Historic
Glory: Superhero
Ignition City: Science Fantasy, Western (Review)
Jan's Atomic Heart: Science Fiction
King City: Science Fantasy, Comedy (Reviews)
Love and Rockets: Slice-of-Life, Other
Mesmo Delivery: Other (Review)
Moving Pictures: Drama, Historic (Review)
Mystery Society: Science Fantasy
Orc Stain: Fantasy
Pax Romana: Science Fiction, Historic (Review)
Phonogram: Urban Fantasy, Cultural (Review)
Prophet: Science Fiction (Review)
Queen and Country: Espionage (Review)
Saga: Science Fantasy
Saucer Country: Science Fiction, Cultural
Scalped: Crime, Thriller
Scott Pilgrim: Drama, Comedy (Review)
Spaceman: Science Fiction, Crime
Sweet Tooth: Science Fantasy, Horror (Review)
The Death Ray: Superhero, Comedy (Review)
The Infinite Wait and Other Stories: Autobiographical, Comedy
The Manhattan Projects: Science Fantasy, Historic (Review)
The Nightly News: Thriller, Cultural (Review)
The Red Wing: Science Fiction (Review)
The Unwritten: Urban Fantasy, Cultural (Review)
Transhuman: Science Fiction, Comedy (Review)
Umbrella Academy: Superhero (Review)
Underground: Thriller
Whiteout: Thriller
Y The Last Man: Science Fiction, Horror

(The ones without Review links, have reviews in the pending queue. FORESHADOWING!)

Which gives us the following genre breakdown:

Adventure: 0.5
Autobiography: 0.5
Comedy: 4.5
Crime: 2
Cultural: 2.5
Drama: 2
Espionage: 1.5
Fantasy: 2
Historic: 2
Horror: 2.5
Mystery: 1
Other: 1.5
Science Fantasy: 4
Science Fiction: 6
Slice-of-Life: 1.5
Superhero: 5
Thriller: 3.5
Urban Fantasy: 1
Western: 0.5

Which gives us a genre distribution that looks like this:

Comparison and Thoughts:

So, I'd ultimately like to compare the two groups on the same graph, because Science. To do this, I'm going to normalise everything so that each genre appears as a percentage of the total titles read in each category. If I do this and plot Mainstream comics against Creator-ownederish comics I get this guy:

Which of course tells us a bunch of things. Like, I am apparently a huge dork that loves Superhero comics and Science Fiction/Fantasy comics. (So yeah, there is some selection bias in this, obviously.) But despite that, I think its pretty obvious that Creator-ownederish comics are much more diverse from a genre perspective than Mainstream comics, and that Mainstream comics are all about the superheroes.

The fact Mainstream comics are so superhero focused is both obvious and interesting. Since Mainstream books generally outsell Creator-Ownederish comics in the direct market and since virtually all of these books are Superhero or Superhero-hybrid books it's pretty safe to say there is a substantial market for this genre. But at the same time superheroes are all they are selling and I strongly suspect that everyone who wants to read a Superhero comic already is, or knows that they exist and where to get them. And I wonder, to what extent does the narrowness of the Mainstream genre pool hamper comics ability to reach wider audiences? How do Mainstream publishers, who are already publishing very high quality comics, convince new people to try comics without broadening the genres of their books?

On the Creator-ownederish side the diversity of publishing is pretty interesting. Does this variety exist because Mainstream publishing houses have effectively saturated the comics market with high quality Superhero books while neglecting other genres, thus creating a niche for closely related genre fiction? Or is it that the metric independent publishers use to determine which Creator-ownederish comics are made is the potential quality of the product rather than the products potential to satisfy a particular audience (vis-a-vis a Superhero loving one)? Or is that the creators of Creator-ownederish comics use their Superhero ideas on mainstream writing gigs and therefore mostly have ideas left over for other genres? Or are they just completely sick of writing Superhero comics? Whatever the reason for it, the diversity of Creator-ownederish comics is both fun to read and the probable source of their popularity in the book market (they stand out more) and with people who don't typically read comics.

Honestly, I think both approaches have some merit. The focus of Mainstream comics has produced some astonishingly good Superhero comics and is, at least for the moment, a viable and reasonably lucrative business model. At the same time, the variety of Creator-ownederish comics is refreshing: they  are unique and idiosyncratic and surprising which makes them a pleasant break from Superhero books. As someone that was starting to burn out on Superhero books, this ability to find genre variety is an essential part of my comics enjoyment. Being able to find amazing comics of all kinds and supplement them with excellent Superhero books is pretty great. (Did I mention reading a tradepaperback/original graphic novel a week and ten Superhero titles a month is a pretty great way to read comics?)

My one concern is whether the world needs so many Superhero books. I maintain that everyone who wants to read Superhero comics largely already is, and if they are anything like me, they are already spending everything they are going to on these comics. To grow the North American comics audience and to create a more viable long term market I think it would be in the interest of Marvel and DC to inject more diversity into their respective lines. That way they might be able to draw people who have no interest in Superheroes into comics in the same way Image and other Creator-ownederish publishers and imprints have been doing.

So there, that was my year in comics by genre.