Monday, 29 April 2013

Favouring The Young Avengers #1-4

Or some thoughts on the brilliantly insane layouts in Young Avengers

Despite the lack of regular essays on the comic, I'm really enjoying Kieron Gillen, Jaimie McKelvie, Mike Norton and Matt Wilson's Young Avengers. It's a fun book, with a well conceived plot, delightful thematic discussion, and just amazing artwork. Also, perhaps as a result of shared creators, Young Avengers bears a remarkable resemblance to Phonogram, making it serve as a kind of methadone for that particular addiction of mine. It's great!

In various interviews about the internet, Kieron Gillen has discussed the fight scenes in Young Avengers as being heavily inspired by music videos. Now, I belong to the lost generation of music videos: I became interested in pop music during the time which music channels stopped playing music videos but before youtube was a thing. I have SEEN music videos, and understand that the idea behind them seems to revolve around talented, up-and-coming directors making short, visually distinct mini-films designed for maximum emotional response and sense of cool. But beyond this intellectual wiki stub.... this concept doesn't really tell me that much about the visual style of Young Avengers. 

What I do know, upon encountering the book, is that Young Avengers has some spectacular and very unorthodox storytelling in it. And it bears further examination.

There are, of course, *SPOILERS* in this. 

Take this double page spread from right near the beginning of YA #1. These two pages have 22 panels of artwork with an addition four panel-equivalents of text, and simultaneously portrays attacking aliens, Marvel Boy (Sorry, Noh-Varr) arming himself and repelling the invaders, Hawkeye (Kate) figuring out how to fly a spaceship, and text that feels like the mission statement of the series. (It also goes a long way to explaining how Noh-Varr's technology works.) All of these story elements are spread around the page with a chaotic, nearly random order, that still manages to be perfectly understandable. It's just a brilliant introduction to Young Avengers that I think absolutely sells the comics mission of being something new, and different, and unexpected.

Or look at this page from YA #2 where Billy (Wiccan) is imprisoned in a cell summoned from the very panels of the comic book he is in. This is just such a clever, if fourth wall breaky, idea. Moreover, the page utilizes the unseen third dimension (the space from us to the page) and "drops" Billy into the panel-prison cell. It's a super unconventional approach that completely sells that there is something magical afoot (this shouldn't be possible!!) and that the central villain of the story, an interdimensional parasitic organism that is posing/absorbing the Young Avenger's parents, is a fantastically powerful threat.

And then on the next page we have Loki freeing Billy and Teddy from these panel prison cells by literally travelling BETWEEN the panels. Now, the idea of action "taking place between panels" gets thrown around a lot as a metaphor for the events that occur between the rendered snapshots of sequential storytelling, but this for me, is the first time I've seen the idea taken literally. It's pretty cheeky. It is also a brilliant representation of Loki as a magical trickster who operates outside the rules and can make the impossible happen. 

From YA #3 we get this double page spread during the combat scenes that sees a large open background with a chaotic oversplash of tight, closeup moments of action. It's epic and psychedelic and just wonderfully portrays how unreal fighting a Frost Giant from Norse Mythology in the shadow of a flying city of gods is. Which in turn, I think, conveys just how far out of their element Billy and Teddy are; just the scope of the problem the Young Avengers are in. Basically, more great stuff.

Finally, we get to this double page spread from YA #4, the layout that finally kicked (like an angry Miss America Chavez) me into writing this thing. This composition is ASTONISHING. In it Noh-Var breaks into a dance club to save the captured Young Avengers from the Parents-monster. This action takes the form of an isometric diagram of the club, where Noh-Var's actions take place all at once with their sequence demarcated by number annotations (which have a legend). Key moments of this action are further added to the extra space in the gutters of the page and connected to the action in the diagram with corresponding highlighted numbers. And on top of this, seen only in the action snapshots, is some pithy dialogue that serves to show just how quickly all of this decompressed action is happening. All of this together goes so far to establishing Noh-Varr as an absolute badass, but also as a Spaceboy from the future who is so far beyond the curve that conventional comics storytelling cannot capture him. It's fucking brilliant comics.

Keeping in mind that Young Avengers is a hyper-collabrative comic and credit should probably be shared, (Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie actually meet in person to hash things out!), Jaimie McKelvie is a bloody genius. Now, I've always thought that he was a uniquely talented illustrator: he has one of the most expressive and elegant photo-realistic styles I have ever seen, that, unlike many of the illustrators with similar styles, doesn't sacrifice any storytelling. He is also absolutely the best illustrator of clothes ever. But in Young Avengers, there is something more going on... Okay, so I am also a huge fan of Hawkeye and David Aja, it's another great comic where Aja makes dozens of subtle, intelligent choices within the rules of comics that elevate the storytelling to... I'm going to say transcendent levels. It's like comics optimized. What McKelvie is doing in Young Avengers is to constantly experiment, and in doing so is both rejecting the standard rules of comics and showing readers things they have never seen before. It's comics REVOLUTIONIZED. And I love it.

And the thing is this revolutionary approach to storytelling is an essential part of the thematic discussion of Young Avengers. YA, as far as it can be boiled down to a single thing, is about that particular new-ness and vitality that youth have and how it strains to be free and different from the constraints imposed by established generations. Clearly, a lot of this outs itself in the plot: the Young Avengers are fighting a parasitic life-form that is literally their parents. Which is pretty on the nose. But the artwork, these never-seen-before layouts, support this theme brilliantly. When action happens, we don't see the conventional story-telling of established generations and instead we something new, something vital, something revolutionary that absolutely captures what Young Avengers is all about. And I'm really enjoying it.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Dragon Crown War Cycle Novels Are Good Books (with some caveats)

Or why you could read The Dark Glory War, Fortress Draconis, When Dragons Rage, and The Grand Crusade by Michael A Stackpole

When I was in highschool I love (LOVED!) pulp fantasy novels. That mix of romance, swash-buckling adventure, and the certainty of morally valiant heroics was exactly what the introverted, naive, geek I once was wanted. However, as I grew up and gained some experience, perspective, and some (limited) taste in literature, I came to learn that these novels were not just unrealistic but untrue and poorly written. So these days I tend to be very cautious about Fantasy novels.

The Dragon Crown War Cycle, by Michael A Stackpole, is one of my most nostalgia-laced youthful favourites. It's a series of books I liked so much when I read them at the ages 14-17 that they survived the Great Cull of the Paperbacks when I moved out from my Parent's house.

I recently decided to reread them and found that they exemplify everything I used to love about the Fantasy genre but that they also showcase exactly why I read so few Fantasy novels these days.

The Dragon Crown War Cycle starts with The Dark Glory War which is both a stand alone novel and world building primer for the series. In this book a young Tarrant Hawkins, in the month of his coming of age, finds his life suddenly derailed as he is conscripted into a war with the evil Empress-Sorcerer Chytrine of the frozen kingdom of Aurolan and her invading bestial hordes. With the aide of his lord, friends, legendary heroes, and the united armies of the south, Hawkins tries to save the world from invasion and to keep Chytrine from reclaiming the scattered fragments of The Dragoncrown, an artifact which would allow her to command an army of dragons.

The Dragon Crown War Cycle continues with the trilogy of Fortress Draconis, When Dragons Rage, and The Grand Crusade. A series that sees a new generation of heroes rise up to defend their homelands against a returning Chytrine and her Aurolani Hordes now resplendent with a new batch of generals forged from the heroes of the past. This time we see young heroes like Will, a young orphan and slum-dwelling thief who is heir to an elven prophecy that foresees him defeat Chytrine and redeem the fallen elven nation of Vorquellen, Alexia, the crown princess of Aurolani occupied Okrannel who has been raised from birth to be a brilliant general, and Kerrigan Reese, a prodigy wizard trained in forbidden magics as a weapon against the northern threat. Together these young champions, with the help and guidance of some of the most legendary heroes of the South, must rally the world in uniting to face the Aurolani threat, prevent the reassembly of the Dragoncrown, and to defeat Chytrine once and for all.

These novels certainly stimulated my nostalgia gland. I was instantly reminded of teenage me and the enjoyment I originally experienced reading these novels. The sense of romance, the adventure, the epic scope, the certainty of principle... it's all there! Men are men! Heroes are heroes!  And courage, a moral code, and faith in your self and your comrades is all you need to succeed. And all of the action and strength of arms and complex strategy. Basically, the Dragon Crown War Cycle is incredibly satisfying coming of age story that I read when I felt I was coming of age and reading it as an adult is a delightful trip back in time.

However, this is also one of the key problems with the Dragon Crown War Cycle: fourteen yearold me was naive as hell. While the simple, absolute world portrayed in these novels fit with my youthful expectations, some adult experience and perspective shreds this kind of Fantasy. Reality is clearly not governed by moral absolutes and is instead, in most cases, dictated by a more complex, grey morality. And portraying the world as black and white, good and evil, just seems inauthentic now. Sadly, this sense isn't limited to moral absolutism. The Dragon Crown War Cycle has a tendency to make characters' behaviour secondary to the plot, which makes them do a number of bizarre and inauthentic things. Add to that a landslide of deus ex machinas and the most hilariously lyrical and metaphorical approach to writing sex I've encountered outside of poetry read at my Catholic Highschool and things feel not-so-true to life. I guess what I'm trying to say is that divorced of nostalgia these novels do not hold up so well.

The Dragon Crown War Cycle also suffers from having some wickedly problematic politics. These novels are very clearly written for a default audience of teenage white boys, and as a result is nearly Victorian in their portrayal of women and non-white characters. Of the four main point of view characters three are male, and while the one female protagonist has her shit together more than her colleagues, she is constantly being sexualized. There is nary a mention of her intelligence or skill or courage that isn't immediately followed by some male character commenting on how attractive she is. It's messed up. Moreover, I can't escape the impression that her role in the story is less as a hero unto herself and more of an example of the kind of woman a young man should favor and earn by following the code of behaviour presented in the novel. The portrayal of non-white characters is even worse. All of the humans portrayed in the novel are ersatz European and white. But this maybe can be excused by geography and historical precedent... maybe... But against this there is a race called the Panqui, kind of lion/dragon/bears that are portrayed as "Noble Savages" and whose main representative is named "Lombo" and the parallels between the portrayal of the "Noble Savage" in Victorian literature (and "Zambo" the black character in Arthur Conan Doyles The Lost World in particular) is frankly disgusting. In hindsight, The Dragon Crown War Cycle can at times feel like its author read a bunch of Victorian adventure serials and decided to replicate them down to the horrific worldview.

But that might be assigning malice where omission and bad judgement might be more likely.

So would I recommend these books? That's tough. The series clearly has problems, but I can't quite ignore how much I enjoyed these novels as a youth. For adults, I would say that unless you are a giant Fantasy fan who likes the more formulaic epic seams of the genre I wouldn't recommend this book. Joe Abercrombie's novels are much more mature, complex, and authentic examples of Epic Fantasy that I would recommend instead. However, if you are a young reader (or know one) I think I can recommend these books, particularly if you are in the default audience. These books are fun, accessible, and speak to a youth audience in a way that a lot of "adult" fiction doesn't. Moreover, given the issues with literacy among boys, I think there is value in books that play to their interests, even martial ones. These are the kinds of books that kept me hooked on reading as I transitioned into more adult reading habits. That said, I think that if you are giving these books to a younger family member, a discussion about how these books treat women and non-white characters is probably warranted. But yeah, based on how much I enjoyed these books as a youth, I think I can recommend them to those readers.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

So I Read Orc Stain

A 250 word (or less) review of Orc Stain Vol. 1
By James Stokoe, Image Comics

Have you ever wondered what all those Orcs you read about in fantasy novels get up to when they aren't guarding dungeons or enlisting in villainous hordes? Well wonder no more! They are fighting over phalluses. Orc stain is the story of the political, social, and economic fabric of Orc society. Specifically, it is about a mighty Orc chieftain's quest for status by finding his "God Organ" and the prophecy that he must capture the one-eyed Orc to find it. Much of Orc stain is seen though the lens of One-Eye, a uniocular safe-cracking thief who gets swept up in the Orc chieftain's quest. Along the way we learn about Orc culture, Orc-kind’s gronch based currency, and the elaborate craft of Orcish poisoning. Despite its uncouth sensibilities and creative tangents, from a story standpoint Orc Stain is pretty straightforward. Where the comic really sets itself apart is visually: this is one remarkable looking comic. The world of Orc Stain is a profoundly strange looking place: everything is lumpy and grotesque and ornate and exquisitely detailed and it’s all coloured in a feverish mix of bright greens and reds and purples. It’s a place that is at once endlessly fascinating to look at and ballsout (often literally) insane. If you are looking for a comic to read that is nothing like the norm give Orc Stain a try. Just be sure to hold onto your gronch. Or lady gronch.

Word count: 238

Monday, 22 April 2013

Marvelling at Captain Marvel 12

Or some thoughts on why Captain Marvel #12 is such an affective comic.

This one has *SPOILERS*, particularly if you are reading Captain Marvel in trades, so read at your own risk. 

My original plan was to write something short and punchy about how Filipe Andrade uses anatomy to create the impression of speed and movement in Captain Marvel. But the more I looked at the comic, the more I realized that there was something cool going on in the way the comic is structured and that to enforce that structure, a bunch of really nifty techniques were being used by the creative team.

Captain Marvel #12 continues the ongoing narrative about a grounded by illness Captain Marvel trying to defeat a winged assailant,  negotiate her Super Heroics without flying, and follow her doctors orders. And doing none of those things particularly well. To tell this story, broadly speaking, Captain Marvel #12 splits itself between two narrative lines: the Superheroic and the mundane. And the way these two sections of story are established and contrasted is pretty interesting.

The Superheroic part of Captain Marvel #12 is pure, unadulterated cape comic excess. Captain Marvel fights Deathbird in an issue long grudge match while riding a "ridiculous airborne lawnmower".  It's a fight that takes place almost entirely in the skies over Manhattan and involves all of the brutality, gleeful disregard for physics, and quippy trash talk the genre demands. Basically, it feels like the fantastical ideal of Superhero comics. It's saccharine and it's great.

It is also meticulously crafted. Every layer of craft in this section is devised to advance and establish this as fantasy. From a plot perspective the entire fight scene takes place in the air, a realm inaccessible to mundane people. The script is over-the-top and campy, in that classic superhero way, including amazing lines like "I'm not flying angry...I'm falling pissed off!" and "Finally found a use for that [Jetbike] I can get behind...A BASEBALL BAT!/You gonna talk now, Bird, or am I going for a Grand Slam." From an art perspective the fight scene takes place in a largely backgroundless void (little sense of place) and features figures whose bodies contort in exaggerated poses and stretch in unnatural ways. This gives these scenes a dreamlike, surreal feeling that further rejects the rules of mundane life. Even the colours work towards this effect: Captain Marvel and Deathbird have bright primary coloured costumes and fight on a background of an uncanny orangey-golden-glow. Basically, this entire section sounds and looks and feels like a Superheroic dream.

All of that Superheroism contrasts with Captain Marvel #12's mundane medical scenes. In this half of the comic, Carol's Personal Physician Dr. Nayar has a consultation with a Dr. Ryland about the lesion in Carol Danvers' brain. They meet in a doctors office, and have a calm professional discussion about what to do about her ailment. It's a solid portrayal of medicine as the gray vaguely-bureaucratic machine that sees trained professionals make informed decisions about the treatment for sick people. Which, despite the exotic nature of Carol's brain lesion, is such a profoundly mundane human problem: we are alive and therefore sometimes we get sick and this limits us. And for what it is, this section of the comic is great.

When contrasted with the Supeheroic portions of the comic from a craft perspective, this section of the comic is brilliant. The plot of this section breaks down to two doctors discussing a patients ailment, and the dialogue makes brilliant use of jargon-jargon-jargon to ground everything in the mundane rules of reality and Science. Furthermore, this scene takes place entirely in a doctors office or hospital with a meticulously dawn background that firmly establishes this scene with a realistic sense of place. The rest of the artwork also works towards this: characters are drawn with realistic proportions and anatomy and thoughtfully bored expressions, while the colours are familiar earth-tones with a hint of pastels. It's a portion of the comic that sounds, and looks, and feels like a real place and situation. It is, in many ways, the very opposite of Superhero comics.

Together these two sections work to create, what I think, is the thematic core of Captain Marvel #12. By so starkly contrasting the fantasy elements of the story with the mundane, inescapable reality of the medical establishment,  the comic creates a tension between the dream (Captain Marvel fighting through the skies) and the reality (Carol Danvers is sick). And as the comic ends and the fantasy of Captain Marvels sky combat collides with the reality of her illness, that tension is resolved by the fact that our biology, our reality can't be escaped by wishing. And in that, I think, is the theme of this comic: our dreams are ultimately beholden to, and perhaps limited by, reality. It's a poignant idea, executed brilliantly by all involved.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Deep Sequencing: Guilt, Culpability, and Crime Comics

Or how Criminal, 100 Bullets, and Scalped implicate the reader to generate a guilty response.
Comics by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, Jason Aaron and RM Guerra with others.

I really like Crime Comics. There is just something about the gritty, intense world of people living outside the law that is endlessly fascinating and shockingly entertaining. Now there are probably endless reasons why these comics are so compelling... but looking at some of my favourite examples I think I've figured out one of the genre's key genetic elements.


Guilt is an emotion that I have a complicated relationship with. Whether its competent parenting, a Roman Catholic education, or some fluke of genetics I feel an overwhelming and insistent sense of SHAME whenever I think of certain mistakes I've made. Just writing this I'm probably turning a bit red. My point is that for me guilt is an exceptionally powerful emotion. It's a thing I feel deep down in the bowels of my stomach, something that chills the skin and tightens my back and gives me the weirdest sweats. It's lurid and disgusting and probably one of the handful of strongest emotions I feel.

And the best Crime comics make me feel guilty in spades.

(I've tried to keep this *SPOILER* light, but you know, procede at your own peril.)

Criminal is the absolutely masterful Crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Criminal is not so much a series of Crime stories as a WORLD of crime stories populated by granular characters living in an uncompromisingly realized world. You don't so much read these comics as visit them and get blood and grit all over yourself. And part of what makes this experience so engrossing is how Brubaker and Phillips use guilt and culpability.

One of the key components of the Criminal forumla to me is perversely abused empathy. Most of the protagonists in the Criminal stories are, despite their flaws, immensely likeable. Despite knowing that these characters are thieves and thugs and murderers we end up sympathizing with them despite ourselves. This sympathy slowly turns to empathy and we soon find ourselves actively rooting for our protagonists to succeed at whatever their unlawful enterprise is. As the story unfurls, best laid plans are ruined, and the terrible consequences of the protagonists choices become clear we see the fallout of what we wanted. We realize we too are culpable: by actively rooting for the lead character we have become accomplices. And therefore we feel the lurid weight of guilt.

100 Bullets is another great Crime comic by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Rizzo. Filled with intrigue, conspiracy, murder, and some of the most aggressively flawed characters I have encountered, 100 Bullets is a sprawling comic that revels in the excesses on the edges of society. It's mercilessly written and filled with horrendous images rendered by the exquisite, and beautiful line of Eduardo Risso. But, at the end of the day, one of the most brilliant things in this comic is 100 Bullet's opening premise and how effectively it evokes guilt in the reader.

Throughout the introductory chapters of 100 bullets we see the shadowy Agent Graves approach characters with a brief case and an opportunity. Inside this briefcase is a clean handgun, 100 bullets of untraceable ammunition, and incontrovertible proof that someone who has deeply wronged the character receiving the briefcase is guilty. With these items comes the promise of total immunity from prosecution if said character decides to act on this opportunity  The character then invariable pursues this chance for vengeance in some way and carries through the morality experiment to some sort of conclusion. As a hook it's absolutely perfect.

This premise is also an absolutely perfect way of nabbing the reader and making them culpable in the protagonists decisions. When presented with the scenario, carte blanche to enact justice and the reality of the crimes committed, we can't help but game it out for ourselves. What would you do in the characters' shoes? Would you kill the guilty person if he had you falsely imprisoned? What if he murdered your wife? Raped your daughter? Or could you stop yourself out of some higher moral obligation? By mentally playing these situations out and deciding that vengeance is justified we become just as guilty as the character in the comic when they decide to go through with it. And in doing so, the consequences of their actions become the consequences of our own decision. And so we feel that lurid weight of guilt.

Scalped is another astounding Crime comic by Jason Aaron, RM Guerra, and various collaborators (art above is by Jean Paul Leon). Scalped tells the story of crime on an American Indian Reservation. It is easily one of the most tense, brutal, and heart-pounding reads I've ever enjoyed. It also contains one of the most effective and intelligent uses of reader evoked guilt in comics.

Let me explain. If you are a North American who isn't a full-blooded aboriginal (First Nations if you're Canadian) then you are heir to a pretty awful legacy. We are, all of us, living on land stolen from the people who inhabited it. People who our governments and ancestors swindled, crushed in wars, and basically attempted to commit genocide against. (HBC, Canada's oldest company sent smallpox laced blankets to Canadian First Nations... for instance.) And even after killing the majority of these people and displacing the rest, we, as a society, attempted to wipe out their culture. As if all of this wasn't disgusting enough, we still treat North American aboriginals horrendously, leaving them in far too many cases disenfranchised, marginalized, and impoverished. It's fucking disgusting, and to a certain extent we are all complicit in this. We are all of us guilty.

The thing that Scalped does, beyond displaying how horribly we have betrayed these people, is frame the events portrayed in relation to our guilt. Basically, every awful thing that happens in Scalped is our fault: the situations, the poverty, the desperation  everything is a result of the sins of our past. And so for every crime, every murder, every horrendous thing in Scalped we are all preemptively guilty. And for that reason we experience a much more intimate, visceral, and immediate feeling of guilt. It's hugely effective.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

So I Read Scalped

A 250 word (or less) review of Scalped the complete series
by Jason Aaron, RM Guerra, Davide Furno, Jean Paul Leon, Francesco Francavilla, Danijel Zezelj, Jason LaTour, Vertigo Comics

Scalped is the most hand-shaking, chill inducing, dry-mouthed comic I've ever read. At one point it actually gave me the sweats. What I'm trying to say is that it's a suspenseful, horrifying, and exciting read. Scalped is a story about crime on an American Indian reservation. It's an intricate comic of revenge and betrayal built out of a tower of dominoes on a foundation of broken promises. Did I mention this comic actually made me sweat? Scalped is also a surprisingly empathetic comic. While it certainly isn't politically correct, (it's an American Indian crime drama called Scalped) it showcases just how badly we as North Americans have fucked over the aboriginals of this place as well as the strength, dignity, and value of the cultures and traditions we have tried so hard to eradicate. Scalped demands we pay attention to this horrible reality (1). Incidentally, the use of American Indians in a crime comic is genius: these are desperate people fucked over by their government, white society, and their own leaders trying to make it any way they can. The hopelessness is palpable. The art by RM Guerra (and the rest) in Scalped is perfect: it's masterfully drawn, compelling ugliness rendered in a hundred shades of brown. It's art as desperate as the characters, as brutal as the action, and as dry and dirty as the badlands. Scalped is one of the completest comics I have ever read and it fucking blew me away. Everyone should read it.

Word count: 248

1: Last winter (2012) a first nations group in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency because it's inadequate housing was insufficient to provide shelter for winter conditions. They were ignored by their provincial and federal governments until negative publicity and international outcry forced them to act. As a Canadian I am horrified and ashamed by this. I am disgusted that I seem to be in the minority in this.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Shooting At Midnight Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Shooting at Midnight by Greg Rucka

Shooting at Midnight is the fourth book in the Atticus Kodiak series of books... kind of. The book stars Bridgett Logan, a badass private detective with a chip on her shoulder who is a sometime love interest of Mr. Kodiak, as she is dragged into the darkest cesspools of her past. In the novel, Bridgett is approached by a friend from her past with a single request: to help her kill her abusive, drug dealing ex-boyfriend. Bridgett agrees to help, setting off a chain of events that drags her into the track-marked underbelly of the heroin trade and pits her against one of New York's biggest druglords.

Shooting at Midnight is distinct from the rest of the Kodiak series for reasons beyond the change in protagonist; it is more of a crime/noir piece than a suspense thriller. Instead of grand action set pieces arranged with engineered precision, we have a much more intimate, slow moving beast. It's a book that grabs you and drags with it as it creeps into ever darker recesses of the human experience; a book that slowly grinds down its characters as it progresses to its brutal conclusion. As a result, Shooting at Midnight is everything I want from a Noir experience: it's relentless, and desperate, and disgusting and filled with human drama. It's horrible and great and I couldn't put it down.

But I think that description still misses the spark of what makes the book more than just a superbly executed noir piece. I have a friend much smarter than me who argues that fiction is essentially an empathy engine. It grabs us as readers and allows us to see inside someone else's mind and to experience life from another perspective. And in living as this other person we learn to relate to them and care for their needs and viewpoint.  It's a kind of magic. The best fiction makes us live with, understand, and empathize with people very different from us while still telling a compelling and entertaining/fascinating story. I think Shooting at Midnight is an example of this kind of fiction.

Let me explain. A lot of Shooting at Midnight is constructed around the heroin trade and drug addiction. Frankly, I find hard drugs disgusting and addiction to be one of the most alien and terrifying aspects of being human. I genuinely cannot fathom an all consuming need for something that so completely derails a person's priorities and life. I'm not sure anyone who hasn't experienced it can really understand it. Add the fact that, while my heart certainly goes out to them, most of my interactions with the drug addicts in my community are fairly unpleasant and I have a difficult time empathizing with them. (Also, despite thinking that way more should be done to help addicts and thinking criminal prosecution of users is counter productive and kind of a shitty thing to do, I can't quite shake that little voice that blames addicts for trying drugs in the first place... I mean, I know social pressures and cycles of poverty certainly play a tremendous role in drug addiction, but I know too many people who have escaped abuse and poverty cleanly to believe it's a zero sum game free of culpability.) I think one of the most powerful aspects of Shooting at Midnight is that it manages to drag me into this world in a really effective way that makes me relate to and approach an understanding with a group of people whose lives are so foreign to my own. It broadens my worldview a bit and makes me question my preconceived notions. And that is a kind of magic. 

(Also, the prelude to this book is fucking brilliant. It's five pages that tells you who the protagonist is and seamlessly establishes the contract of the novel. It's also an absolutely gutting bit of prose.)

(Also, also, Shooting at Midnight, as a pun, is just black as hell.)

Friday, 12 April 2013

Eye On Hawkeye #9

Or my apparently regular feature gushing about Matt Fraction, David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth's Hawkeye because this book is perfect.

Hawkeye #9 continues the trend of exceptionally good comics. As usual the writing by Matt Fraction is this effortless and frequently hilarious delight (Mostly! see warning...), the linework by David Aja is gorgeous and thoughtful, and the colours by Matt Hollingsworth are stylistic and, as I am beginning to appreciate more, just as cerebral and integral to the visual identity of the book as any other aspect of it. And a new issue means a new wonky blog post on some aspect of the smart creative decisions made by the some part of the creative team.

(Also: Warning Hawkeye #9 contains FEELS. Do not read it will operating heavy machinery, in a public space, or while emotionally distraught. Side effects include gasps, sobs, and mild profanity. Feels!)

As per usual I'm writing this in a way that gives all of the credit to one member of a hyper-collaborative collective of creators and so I might miscredit someone accidentally. If so, the most apologies. (Also, apologies to Matt Hollingsworth for greyscaling his great colours to make my diagrams. A big long colourist intensive essay is brewing, I swear.) I'm trying to avoid the big reveals and moments in this issue, but you should go into this knowing that there will still be slight *SPOILERS*.

David Aja is, I think, one of the most cerebral artists working in mainstream comics. As good looking as his artwork is, I think what makes his work really remarkable is the ways he uses composition to provide additional layers of storytelling. One of the tools in his quiver is the way he frequently takes into account the vision path of readers and frequently designs his compositions in ways that guide the eye of the reader through the page. Hawkeye #9 has some great examples of this.

Comics are a visual medium, and as such rely on vision and human eyeballs to work. This is not just a self-evident statement because human vision is built around a series of predictable behaviours. Whether learned or just intrinsic to how our brains have evolved to use visual information, our eyes are automatically drawn to certain things. Like, you know when you see a sudden motion right in the corner of your peripheral vision (especially when you're wearing headphones) and your eyes instantly jerk over to focus on the source of that motion? That's the kind of thing I'm talking about, but, you know, in a static medium. David Aja is a master at hacking these visual behaviours to create pathways for our eyes to move through the artwork. Particularly in the absence of dialogue.

This sequence from the "Natasha: The Work Wife" section of the comic is a great example of this kind of guiding-the-eye composition:

In the first panel, we see Penny running and looking to the right. Our vision follows the direction she is looking (we want to see what she sees). This brings us directly to Natasha vaulting the suitcases in the second panel where her outstretched arm points and directs us to the top of the third panel. In this panel our eyes get drawn along the lines of the banister, follow the curve of the stairwell (how cool is that!?) and arrow straight in on Penny running down the subway platform. 

What this collectively does is increase the speed at which we can experience the page. Instead of tracking around ourselves trying to find key details, our vision is guided to the most critical parts of the page. And this in turn adds a sense of urgency in this page that thematically matches its chase scene contents. 

Great, right?

Here's another great bit of visual guidance from the "Bobbi: The ex-wife" chunk of the story. Bro. :

In the first panel our eyes are instantly drawn to the blue boot, and follow along the trajectory of apparent motion and into the top of the second panel. Here, our eyes track down the arc formed by the Uzi submachine gun, the Bro's arm, and the steering wheel/lettering into the third panel where the arc is continued by the front bumper and ends in the fire hydrant and final sound effect. 

Again, this page guidance speeds up the events in this page and makes them see to occur all in a moment, despite being spread over three panels. Even more impressively, the long arc in panels two and three manages to simulate the motion of the Bro steering hard to the right making the van veer hard to the right too. This makes the pathway of vision match the motion of events so that reader actually experiences the movement. Not only that, but the fact that the arc, and therefore the visual movement, ends in the van crashing adds extra emotional weight to the collision. 

The way the lettering, by Chris Eliopoulus presumably, enhances this visual tracking is also super impressive. Come to think of it, the use of bright blue for the boot  and red for the fire hydrant makes these key visual elements extra eye catching too, which is an example of Matt Hollingworth's colours enhancing the effect of visual tracking as well. Collaboration!

This little bit here from the "Kate: Kate" section of the comic has another cool bit of visual tracking magic:

This collection of panels has TWO distinct visual guide paths by my estimation. In the first panel our eyes are drawn along Kate's outstretched leg in to the second panel where we jog right, fail to see her where we expect to, which pulls our vision down to a ducking Kate (this is enhanced by the path made by the Bro's shoulders), which then sets us up for the upward explosion of Kate's knee into the Bro's Bros and ends in the collision (for extra impact). This is the visual path describing Kate's motion. There is a second path made by the half formed arch of the Bro's swinging bat (our eyes automatically try to follow motion paths). This is the bros visual pathway. 

Individually, both paths create urgent, quick paths to navigate the panels. These paths, like the other examples, create a sense of speed and urgency to the page and also adds a level of continuity and reader experience to the motions described by them. The fact that there are two competing visual pathways adds a swirling, chaotic feel to the events that increases the visual tension to the brawl depicted. And, this might be a stretch, but the fact that in the panel where the Bro gets sacked he lacks his own visual path might be designed to show that his initiative in this fight is over.

Of course, great story telling is also present where the panels do not have a direct visual continuity path. And this can be used to highlight action. Take this panel that comes immediately after the third panel described above, but on the corner of the page in the row of panels below it:

The fact that this panel does not connect with the other panels makes it surprising and distinct which adds extra weight to the headbutt. Also, the fact that we are quickly swinging our vision across the page in a carriage-return actually simulates the motion of a headbutt: it's very quick, and is a blind motion that ends with this image of impact. Which is pretty cool.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that David Aja is a really great artist and that Hawkeye #9 is a really great comic.

But one with FEELS! So many FEELS!

FEELS Elephant, by Matt Fraction

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

So I Read The Love And Rockets: Locas Omnibuses

Or a 250 word (or less) review of Maggie the Mechanic, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S., Perla la Loca, Penny Century, and Esperanza,
By Jaime Hernandez, Fantagraphics Books

Love and Rockets is maybe the most revered comic of my favourite comics writers. And wow you guys, Jaime Hernandez's chunk of it is one amazing, strange, and difficult to explain comic. As much as one can categorize the Locas comics, I'd say these comics are about Maggie and Hopey, a couple of young punk rockers who are friends and sometime lovers growing up in the LA Hispanic punk scene. The comics follow the adventures of these young women and their colorful friends for literally THIRTY YEARS. Half a lifetime of stories where we get to watch these people grow from goofy teen punks to unsure adults as they struggle through life. It's a reading experience unlike any other I've had: it is absolutely it's own thing. T
here is a sensibility on display here that is interesting, charming, frequently hilarious, and completely outside my experience. An aesthetic that involves punk rockers, female Mexican wrestling, strippers, Barrio gangs, lesbians, and even super heroes. But an aesthetic that is always built around love and beauty and family and relationships. It's at once gloriously strange and wonderfully familiar. I think, maybe, that the real magic of the Locas comics is just how effortless and alive it feels. Love and Rockets: Locas seems less like a manufactured work of art and more of a spontaneous reality filled with unbridled humanity. It's absolutely incredible and completely the masterpiece that everyone says it is. It's a must read for everyone the slightest bit enthusiastic about comics. 

Word count: 250

Monday, 8 April 2013

Things I Worry About: The Ethics of Sharing Media

Or things I would love to have answers to.

Being a geek is essentially a confluence of weird enthusiasm for certain commodities and sharing that enthusiasm and those commodities with other people. In my geekiness I am quite fond of sharing my favourite media with anyone who is interested (who is also responsible with my belongings). A lot of this is an attempt to suck coworkers and friends into my swirling vortex of nerdery. It's also a calculated effort to recruit new readers to comics, because more readers mean a bigger market and a bigger market means more and better comics for us all to choose from. The trouble is, I think there are some ethical questions about the indiscriminate sharing of media.

As tempting as it is to view comics and nerd media as a marketplace, it fails to appreciate how important creators, those wizards who actually make our chosen fictions, are to the existence of nerd media. These people absolutely need to be compensated for their creativity and should ideally be able to earn a comfortable livelihood from their work. And for this to happen people have to not only read, say, a comic book, but have to actually pay for it. Every time I lend a friend a comic they get to read it without actually paying for it. It is for this reason that I worry about the ethics of lending.

Lending in it's most exaggerated sense is piracy which is patently not okay. Basically, piracy is a shadowy ersatz publishing machine designed to let people who specifically want something obtain it for free, but without supporting the production of that something in any way. People who share media via this mechanism, whether it be by uploading a new thing or by seeding existent things are stealing from the creators of that media and are actively hurting the industry that makes it. It's even a dubitable that piracy is a form of lending: peer to peer networks DUPLICATE media without affecting the lenders ability to enjoy the media.  Lenders in this system are able to take their single initial purchase and reproduce it endlessly in a way that lets them potentially give it to thousands or even millions of people. Basically, pirates get to eat their cake and give it to a million internet strangers. I would also argue that since piracy requires the active participation of pirates who have to hunt down what they are looking for, the vast majority of them are effectively CURRENT readers who therefore represent comics/novel/whatever market that has been lost. (Although, to be fair, it was a bootleg disk full of comics that got me into a comic store in the first place, which I think supports the notion of free trials being good for attracting new readers.) Regardless, I think piracy is a clearly unacceptable form of media lending. 

But what about the industrial lending of a public library? Is that okay? Libraries are easy: I think they are perfectly okay. They initially purchase books and pay a fee to publishers and creators for the right to temporarily lend media to the public. And I think libraries, beyond performing an essential public service, help the publishing industry by helping to turn young novice readers into life long readers. Moreover, at least half the novels I currently own are ones that I read first from a library and most of the rest are by authors whose work I first encountered there: the ability to try media in a legal and temporary framework that still compensates creators. Essentially, I think libraries are clearly okay.

What about legitimate secondary sales markets, like a used bookstore or the resale rack down the comic shop? The law on the matter states that at least for physical media, once the initial sale is made, the owner can effectively do with it what they will including resale. Which is to say, from a legal standpoint used bookstores are kosher. But just because something is legal doesn't make it ethical. A book bought used does not provide additional compensation to the creators or the publishing machinery that created the book. That said, a used book has ALREADY been bought once, and as such, compensation has occurred. Moreover, the original owner in selling their copy has forfeited their ability to enjoy that media which you are now acquiring. Although you are acquiring it for less than you might pay to get it new and in a way that compensates the creator directly. In a way a used book is both a legitimate sale and a lost sale to the creator. So it is without question a morally complicated marketplace.  But damned if it isn't one I kind of love. When I moved out of my parents house some years ago I used a great (and now dearly departed) used bookstore to convert a misspent youth of horrible fantasy and Science-fantasy pulp into the back catalogue of my favourite authors and some of my favourite books (once borrowed from a library). That ability to essentially convert books or to find out of print copies is pretty amazing. At the end of the day, I can't help but think that used bookstores are a kind of ethically neutral space. Maybe?

What about actually lending books to friends? By the same law that says reselling media is okay, it is legal to lend a book to a friend: once you own a book it's perfectly okay to share it around. That said, any person lent a book/comic/whatever gets to enjoy that media without having compensated the creator or production apparatus for that thing. Like piracy the lendee does not pay for their use of that media, and the lender only temporarily forfeits their own use of the media. But, like a used bookstore, there is only one, legally obtained copy of the media being circulated which only a single person can use at a time. The creators have already been compensated by the time of use. So where does that leave lending ethically?

I think the ethics of lending fall into two categories. If you lend something to someone who would otherwise purchase their own copy of media you are potentially denying a sale, and that is not so kosher. If you are lending media to someone who would not otherwise interact with that media than lending is perfectly fine. Better than fine in that the person being leant might enjoy the experience enough to actually go out and buy similar media and become a new consumer and fan. Also, I imagine that while creators want to be financially compensated for their work, that they might also enjoy an audience reading and enjoying their work regardless of compensation. Maybe? But yeah, I'm still kind of concerned by this.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Variety Is The Spice of Comics Pt. 3: Getting Your Friend's Hooked.

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

I spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to get friends to try reading comics. Most of this stems from the fact that I really, really enjoy reading comics and want to share that experience with the people I care about (as any good geek should). Part of this is maybe also motivated by the fact that I don't really have any comic friends, so it would be cool to convert a friend or two. But on a far more mercenary level, I think convincing a friend to read, and to maybe even buy comics is important for comics as an industry.

Comics, as we try to avoid thinking about, are a commodity. Comics creators are a kind of artisan that produce a specialized commodity for a niche consumer. Publishing companies, some merely facets of giant multinational media empires, act as merchant/distributors and bring the commodity to a retailer (a comic shop/bookstore/web ap/whatever) who then sells the product to consumers. As much as creators, publishers, and retailers are all important cogs in the comics machine, there would not be a comics industry without consumers. (I mean, I'm sure some people would still make and share comics they made for fun... but business-driven professional comics require someone to eventually buy them.) To a certain extent, the pool of comics consumers, the market for the weird, amazing commodity that is comics, dictates how much comics can viably be made and supports the people that actually make the things we care about.

In that light, bringing in new comics readers increases the size of the comics market and, as such, increases the amount of money available to comics which thereby increases the amount of comics that can/will be produced and the amount of money that eventually reaches creators (who are great).  I know that in the years since a friend of mine slipped me a disk of bootleg comics in an Integral Calculus class I have spent THOUSANDS of dollars on comics and as such I have contributed to the continuance and manufacture of more comics. The way I figure it, every friend of mine I can convince to read and purchase comics represents money that is being fed into the comic machine that would otherwise not be there.

(And yes, my friends often liken me to a drug dealer.)

So back to convincing my friends and loved ones to try reading comics. I have found that most people are not interested in reading superhero comics. It's not that Superhero comics are stigmatized, really, it's that they are a known (or presumed to be known) quantity. Everyone thinks they know what Superhero comics are and has an opinion concerning whether or not they would like to read them. (And I would argue that everyone who is interested in reading superhero comics basically already is, and if they aren't, it isn't very hard for them to change that.) As a result, I have found that the trick to convincing people to try reading comics is to present them with the kind of smart, mature, well-written and beautifully drawn non-superhero comics that most people don't know or appreciate exist.

Almost universally, I have found that Y The Last Man is a perfect first comic to spring on the kind of people I am friends with. The comic has a very accessible and addictive script: it has a compelling central mystery and rolls out a relentless series of cliff hangers that keeps readers glued to the series. Moreover from a writing perspective, the comic manages to present extremely well realized, likeable characters, a snappy sense of humour, and a maturity and level of discourse that civilians are frequently surprised to find in comics. Paired with this is really accessible art: on the one hand it looks nice and services the story well and on the other it has a low panel count in conventional layouts and really doesn't experiment too much. Y The Last Man is also kind of the perfect length for a first comic reading experience. It's not so long that new readers burn out, but still long enough that they get to experience a fair amount of comics before reaching the end. Basically, Y The Last Man is a perfect storm of comics for new people. 

That said, in my experience everyone has a different taste in media and wants slightly different things from the experience of it. Part of what makes Y The Last Man such a powerful gateway comic, beyond its execution, is that it manages to straddle a lot of genres and emotional responses simultaneously. Everyone I have ever lent it to has enjoyed it, but frequently for slightly different reasons... and from those responses come critical information about what comes next. And this is where variety (and hence the title of this blog entry) comes in.

(That didn't take a long time to get to at all...)

One of the more successful comic conversions I've had is a coworker I'll call subject A (one that has actually resulted in a comics purchase!). With  this person I started with Phonogram which yielded pay dirt with The Singles Club but not Rue Britannia (which was too myopic for her). I then leant her Y The Last Man which she DEVOURED as fast as I would lend it to her. She then tried and enjoyed Scott Pilgrim, the output of Faith Erin Hicks, and Chew. She finally tried Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait and Other Stories and was blown away and went and bought her first comic in Drinking at the Movies (well second comic, she gift-exchange-stole The Manhattan Projects: Science  Bad. at our work Xmas party). She is currently slowly working her way through the Runaways and Octopus Pie (which she quite enjoys). Basically, she likes fun, humorous  not super-intense comics that she can relate to.

A similar success story comes from a guy on my soccer teams... who I will call Subject 2. He too devoured Y The Last Man when I leant it to him. From there I tried giving him Chew... which he thought was too ridiculous and silly. So I leant him Criminal, which he apparently likes a lot and is slowly reading in fits and starts. While I am still figuring out what Subject 2 is really into, it seems he likes intense, realistic, page-turning comics.

Which is all proof that not everyone wants to read the same kind of comics. Moreover, it is evidence that the people who are not interested in Superhero comics immediately may be interested in other comics, and that finding what comics they like is mostly a matter of finding what genre of fiction they enjoy. And this is where variety comes in: the more KINDS of comics that are being made, the more likely a new reader will be able to find a comic that fits their media needs exactly (or the more likely I will find that perfect comic to force on my friends). 

To take this idea a step further, maybe the way we can expand the audience, and therefore the market, for comics is not by making better and better and better superhero comics, but by making ALL KINDS of different comics. That way everyone can find the comic they want to read. And who knows? Maybe that will lead to them trying a comic. 

And then another.

And another.

Variety is the Spice of Comics Pt. 1: Pony Up
Variety is the Spice of Comics Pt. 2: Year in Review