Wednesday, 31 December 2014

So I Read God Is Dead

A 250 word (or less) review of God Is Dead Vol. 1
by Jonathan Hickman, Mike Costa, Di Amorim; Avatar Press

From the Messianic parallels in the Superman myth to the literal mythological figures like Thor and Wonder Woman, cape comics seem deeply interested in exploring the divine nature of superheroes. The provocatively named God Is Dead is Jonathan Hickman, Mick Costa, Di Amorim, and companies foray into a gritty exploration of superpowered gods. God Is Dead portrays the return of gods from various ancient civilizations  to Earth. These returned gods attract followers and launch an age of holy wars. These wars spread to the pantheons and the gods themselves war for supremacy. Meanwhile a team of underground scientists launch a quest to save humanity from their horrible deities. God Is Dead is not a particularly good comic. There are just so many comics exploring divinity, and God Is Dead doesn't really say anything that hasn't already been covered better in another comic. Even worse, the art is horrible. Di Amorim’s figure work, anatomy, and acting are inconsistent, and his storytelling is choppy and uninteresting. God Is Dead is very much a predictable story told with subpar art. As such, it’s not a comic I can really recommend. But if you’re interested in godly superhero comics, Hickman and Bodenheim’s A Red Mass For Mars is a much more interesting examination of the theme and Supergod by Ellis and Gastony (also from Avatar) covers almost the same territory as God Is Dead with more chutzpah and better art. Read those, not God Is Dead.

Word count: 242

Monday, 29 December 2014

Brooding About Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier #2

Or a look at more dynamic layouts in BB: TWS #2,
by Ales Kot, Marco Rudy, Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier is a trippy, psychedelic spy thriller that uses innovative and dynamic layouts to tell its story. Every page of the comic offers a unique design that incorporates the narrative elements of the page to maximize storytelling. Plus the layouts just look wicked cool. So here are some of my favourite layouts from BB: TWS #2

There will be *SPOILERS* below.

This double page spread has a huge amount of narrative information that is encoded in some really adept ways. The story of the spread is that Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, is infiltrating Asgardia to speak with Loki (or one of the Lokis or Loki-aspects? What is Loki's deal these days?). On these pages Bucky is scaling the cliffs of Asgardia while on the influence of a drug he was exposed to in the previous issue and speaking with his partner Daisy Johnson who is in space. And all of this is layered into the page design. The panels are all tight and tall, which emphasizes the vertical direction and helps sell the feeling of Bucky climbing the cliffs. Daisy Johnson, meanwhile, is portrayed with the icy colouring of space and is surrounded by radial broadcast lines which help convey that she is communicating from a distance. The narcotic that Bucky was exposed to was associated with this hot pink colour, and we see it used in this layout in the gutters between panels. What's interesting is we see the height and intensity of the pink in the panel gutters increase as we progress from left to right, and I think this was a deliberate choice to show the increasing influence of the drug on Bucky. Another interesting aspect of this layout is the introduction of Loki, who seems to grow into the layout in a way that implies that he is aware of Bucky's impending intrusion and which also ties the deity to the hot-pink drug which Bucky is tripping on. It's a deceptively simple layout that is just loaded with thoughtful touches that layer in extra-narrative information in innovative ways.

One of the things I'm digging the most about BB:TWS is how even the simplest layouts play with story context to capture the emotion of the moment. This page here is a great example of this. Daisy Johnson is aboard a small spacecraft hiding in space near Asgardia. The panels depicting what she is up to are these great little window shaped boxes that really capture this sense of outer space. They are reminiscent of the tiny windows on modern space vehicles in real life and also, given their small size on a large page, really build a sense of claustrophobia and isolation into the page. It's great stuff.

This is another two page spread that uses layout and colour beautifully to carry the narrative. The story of the pages is that Bucky escapes into a hall of mirror, while very high, and harassed by Loki. He then emerges from the mirrored tunnel to stand in a colourful plain where he is stalked by a giant wolf monster. I love the narrow, shard panels that are used to depict the hall of mirrors, and the horrific feeling that exists between the skewed reflections, looming wolf, and the grinning Loki who lurks behind the scene. It is wonderfully evocative. And the contrast between the bleached, icy blue mirror panels and the warm, flowing pastels of the bottom half of the page is surprising and kind of magical. As a reader I really get a sense of the abrupt change in setting and the wild trip that Bucky is on. It's a great page of comics.

I just kind of love everything about this page. The tidal wave shape of the lunging wolves is dramatic and just explodes with emotional impact. It's also an approach that is very kinetic: this page feels like it is in motion, that it is an unstable snapshot. Which is actually pretty special: I find that a lot of painted styles have a rigidity that more lineart/animated styles can get around. This page is a great example of using evocative shapes to convey motion in a static picture. It's great painted comics. And poster-ably rad as Hel.

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier continues to be a comic filled with really interesting cerebral comics. I picked my favourite pages from the comic to talk about here, but really, the entire issue operates like this: every page has something innovative or remarkable going on in it. If you are someone who is invested in reading paradigm challenging comics, BB:TWS should be on your pull list.

Post by Michael Bround

BB: TWS #1: Interesting layouts

Friday, 26 December 2014

Deep Sequencing: An Atomic Robo Timeline pt. 5

Or a graphical timeline of the first 7 collected volumes of Atomic Robo

by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, Red 5 Comics

Atomic Robo is the fantastic, funny comic about, well, Atomic Robo, the adventuring Action Scientist invented by Nicola Tesla. It's an infectiously fun to read comic that is also constructed in really smart, really unorthodox ways. One of these interesting creative decisions is how Atomic Robo uses time.

A lot of comics, particularly the more superhero-y comics have a weird relationship with time. For the most part time in these comics time is squishy, where publication order does not equate to narrative order and Batman is perpetually the same age despite having stories clearly set in multiple decades. In these comics time is less about an exact measure of time than a... kind of inconvenient medium that events pass through.

Atomic Robo, which is a comic about an ageless robot going on Science Fantasy adventures, has really rigorously annotated time settings. Nearly every story not only has the year it is set in, but even the month and day. As a result, the Atomic Robo comic works like a kind of time capsule of human history during the century (and counting) of Robo's life. It makes for neat settings for stories and a fun look at cultural differences through time. 

But beyond being a nifty setting device, this thorough chronicling of time demands a 100 year long giant graphical timeline. So, I've made one, and will update it whenever I finish another Atomic Robo comic. 

This is Version 2.2 of my Atomic Robo Timeline. The added entries are for the year 1951.

There will be mild *SPOILERS* in the timeline. Also, there is an up-to-date text based timeline on the Atomic Robo website. So this might be kind of redundant.

Timeline legend:
Vol. 1: Atomic Robo and The Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne
Vol. 2: Atomic Robo and The Dogs of War
Vol. 3: Atomic Robo and The Shadow From Beyond Time

Vol. 4: Atomic Robo and Other Strangeness
Vol. 5: Atomic Robo and The Deadly Art of Science
Vol. 6: Atomic Robo and The Ghost of Station X
Vol. 7: Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

So I Read Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils Of The Pacific

A 250 word (or less) review of Atomic Robo Vol. 7
by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, Red 5 Comics

Geek media and fandom have a problem with how they treat women. Simply put, geek culture is pretty awful to women a lot of the time. Taking steps to rectify this and make geek culture more inclusive for non-dudes is important and morally good. But as a straight-white-dude myself, I'm often left unsure how I can contribute to the discourse. (I usually air on the side of listening and coaching my own behaviour.) It seems that Clevinger and Wegener are also motivated to make comics less toxic to female readers and have responded by making a comic about totally rad jetpack wearing lady sky pirates. Which I think is a thing we can all get behind. Atomic Robo: The Flying She-Devils Of The Pacifc is set just after World War 2 and tells the story of Atomic Robo being rescued and taken in by the Flying She-Devils, a group of renegade women aviators who have become jetpack pirates in the wake of the war. The She-Devils and Robo run afoul of a lurking post-war Japanese threat and Sky Action occurs. Atomic Robo Vol. 7 is an exciting story of war in the skies full of humour, courage, camaraderie, sacrifice, and explosions. And also a group of well defined, cool female characters. She-Devils of The Pacific basically proves that you can make a fantastic, rad comic featuring mostly female characters that pretty much everyone can enjoy. I mean, this should be obvious, but if you need proof, here it is.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Ogling ODY-C #1

Or a look at some interesting layouts in ODY-C #1
by Matt Fraction, Christian Ward, Dee Cunnifee, and Chris Eliopoulus; Image Comics

I'm a sucker for first issues. I love to at least try comics I've been looking forward to before budgeting realities force me back to tradewaiting. They are like these delicious little appetizers for comics I can't wait to read. And ODY-C, featuring writing by Matt Fraction and art by Christain Ward is pretty much the peanut buttercup of comics for me. So obviously I was going to read the first issue.

And, uh, wow, it's as good as I was expecting it to be. 

It's also a comic that has some pretty great layouts and comics which are worth taking a closer look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* below. You know, as much as a comic based on a 3000 yearold piece of literature can have spoilers. 

Probably the most exotic comics element in ODY-C is the 8 page gatefold which depicts the conquering Odyssia and her fellow warriors on the eve of Troiia's defeat. It is big and epic and ambitious and functions as an immediate mission statement that ODY-C is a big, epic, and ambitious comic. It also serves as a great statement about how important and dramatic the events of the Iliad (1ly-Ad?) were. It provides this really key bit of context: this really big, important war happened and now this other story can start. So this gatefold is pretty important and smart comics.

It's also noteworthy in that the otherside of the gatefold is a beautiful timeline of space-ancient-Greece and some wonderfully designed star charts acting as an atlas of the comics universe. As someone who loves comics inforgraphics I love these touches. More comics should show charts of information.

One of the things I find really exciting about creative teams that involve Christian Ward is he often uses elaborate layouts that are constructed around the theme of the narrative. This layout is probably my favourite example of this from ODY-C #1. The story here is that the ODY-C, the Swiftship of Odyssia, is wracked by some sort of divine/cosmic phenomenon that blows the ship off course. The crew panics, which is apparently disruptive to the function of the ODY-C, as Swiftships seem to run on crew consensus. This page here depicts Odyssia marshalling her crew to work together to bring the ship under control. What I love about this page is that we see Odyssia, in her piloting-hood thing in a circular panel that functions as the focal centre of the layout, around which we see a ring of crew pulling together to correct the flight of the ship. It's a layout that beautifully illustrates the theme of the crew working together under Odyssia. I also love how the ODY-C can be seen tumbling across the page wildly before stabilizing in the bottom right. The way the ship is shown flailing across the page, regardless of panels or events, helps sell how wildly the ship is moving and how disconnected it is from normal comics behaviour and phenomenon. It's really great stuff.

I am also pretty excited about this page of comics and how it uses a more traditional grid structure in innovative ways to create a pretty nifty action sequence. The key to this page is, I think, that the underlying 12 panel grid is used explicitly in the composition. In the first row, the scene is set with a row of three panels with a nested panel. The three panels discretely separate Odyssia from the Cicone raiders and create this panelled physical space between them. Which is eliminated in the second row of the 12 panel grid where Odyssia and the Cicone collide in the centre panel. The way these two rows of panels interact make the start of combat feel visceral and quick; they convey the sensation of charging soldiers. I also really like the use of the nested panels that float above the grid, that really punch up and complicate the action, adding impact and chaos to the design. However, it's the bottom two rows of the underlying 12 panel grid where this page gets really nifty. In the third row of panels Odyssia kicks one of her opponents through the panel gutter, which is totally rad. It feels impactful and really showcases that Odyssia is sufficiently powerful to break the laws of comics. In the final row of panels we see the broken gutter-stubs from the previous row reused as position markers for horizontal difference. These stub markers are used to show that Odyssia has advanced further to the right than in the previous row of panels. Which is really smart. This bottom row of panels also takes advantage of the down-left carriage return from the previous row of panels to make the reader start the bottom panels from the far left. This means that the reader cruises across the page in the direction of Odyssia's leap, which in another flourish of comics-rule breaking, takes her clear off the page. Which is also pretty rad. This is just a really technically smart page that uses and subverts comic grid structure to make a pretty compelling action sequence. It's great comics.

So ODY-C is a comic that I think everyone should try. If ODY-C #1 is any indication, this is going to be a really exciting series. That said, I might tradewait ODY-C. Don't get me wrong, I REALLY liked the first issue! I just found it had a very distinctive voice, both in the writing and art, which I found took some time to really get traction on. I feel like this a strength of ODY-C, but I also feel like it will maybe make the comic more rewarding to read in a bigger chunk. But you should definitely check it out and make that judgement for yourself.

I can't wait for the first trade.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Deep Sequencing: Lost In The Shadows

Or how a momentary lapse in storytelling can lead to a lot of confusion in Umbral: Out of the Shadows
By Antony Johnston, Christopher Mitten, and John Rauch; Image Comics

Umbral is a pretty great fantasy comic that totally scratches a particular genre itch I have. The comic is creepy, swashbuckling, and filled with one of the saltiest, cussiest protagonists in comics (which as the descendent of sailors, I appreciate deeply). The comic also has a great style and a wonderfully atmospheric approach to colours that makes it look unique and makes for an interesting read. I really enjoy it and think that it's a comic worth checking out, particularly if you are an epic fantasy fan looking for a comic to try.

Umbral: Out Of Shadows is also a comic with a good example of just how easy it is to lose storytelling clarity.

Now, I don't usually like to write about what I don't like about comics because I think its overdone on the internet and often it boils down to "I don't like this choice" or is just ragging on a comic that is obviously bad. However, I really like Umbral and think its a good comic and I think the mistake they made is interesting and instuctive and worth taking a closer look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Umbral Vol. 1 in this post.

Before I throw Umbral under the bus, I'd like to point out just how good the majority of the comic is. Take a look at this page here and how clear and atmospheric it is. The long tall establishing panel on the left sets the story and sells the feeling of height, the top right panels show the characters dangling into the page in a way that really captures their precarious position, and the orientation of the archers in the bottom two panels really nails the storybeat of archers firing down on the dangling characters. Add in some really wonderful atmospheric purple-shaded colouring and lettering that really helps guide the reader through the page and this is great comics.

This is really representative of the level of quality in the majority of Umbral.


This is where storytelling really breaks down for me in a way that left me considerably confused and caused me to miss an important moment in the story.

As I read these pages originally this is how I interpreted them: Rascal (the girl with the magic stone) is confiding with the head of her Thieves Guild. She tells him about the madness at the palace, the appearance of monstrous shadows, and about the magic artifact she has stolen. Her guildmaster asks for it himself and then, from off stage right, a shadow monster enters the room to menace the pair. In my initial reading of these panels there are three characters at play: Rascal, the guildmaster, and the shadow. 

The intended story of these panels is that Rascal confides in her guildmaster only to have him, the guildmaster, transform into the shadow monster. In the intended story, there are only two characters in play: Rascal and guildmaster/shadow. Which I did not get until several pages later...

And I think I had problems with these panels because of a number of storytelling choices made in this sequence. For instance we do not see any sign of the guildmaster transforming into the shadow on panel; we see the human guildmaster and then shadow, and nothing in between. There is also the fact that in the first panel in this sequence the guildmaster is to the left of Rascal, yet the speech bubble from the shadow initially comes from the right side of the page. This whirling perspective is confusing in this instance. And then there is the form of the lettering: shadows have special speech captions, and the guildmaster uses the human one, and there is no continuity in the contents of the captions to tie them together. Essentially, my issue here is there is no bridging information that tips the reader off that the guildmaster is really a shadow and this caused me to be confused.

Imagine if the sequence had the guildmaster in the first panel have a little bit of purple-shadow-colour at the edge of his hair and clothes and his speech was in a shadow-bubble. Then, in the second panel, if the speech bubble was on the left of the page. I feel like this would be much clearer for readers.

Which really emphasizes how fine a line creators have to walk to maintain clarity. The difference here for me was a matter of colouring and lettering, and those are relatively small things. Small things that made a big difference in how I understood this sequence. 

But yeah, Umbral is a mostly a really good comic! You should read it! 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

So I Read Umbral: Out Of Shadows

A 250 word (or less) review of Umbral Vol. 1
By Antony Johnston, Christopher Mitten, and John Rauch; Image Comics

Fantasy seems to be an under represented genre of fiction in comics. When I think of how much geeks love their magic and swords and the popularity of certain fantasy properties in other media, it seems there should be a demand for fantasy comics. I know I'm interested in reading more. Umbral is an epic fantasy horror comic that seems well suited to capitalize on this trend. It tells the story of Rascal, a wonderfully salty-tongued thief, who is friends with the crown prince of The Kingdom of Fendin. On the eve of the eclipse, the two conspire to steal The Oculus, a mysterious magical artifact, from the royal vaults. Unfortunately the eclipse is also when mysterious demons attack the palace in pursuit of the same Occulus, thrusting Rascal into a world of magic, demons, and terror. Umbral hits this great balance of filthy-mouthed swashbuckling fun and oh-shit creepy madness. I really enjoyed it. Out Of Shadows is also a really great example of a straightforward, throw you into the action opening chapter: Rascal and company are tossed right into it and spend the issue running for their lives. This approach got me invested in the story, but leaves a lot of plot and world building for future issues. This is a chapter, not a complete story. I found the art to be mostly pretty great: it’s evocative and pleasantly nightmarish. There are some confusing storytelling issues at key moments. Overall I think Umbral is a great fantasy comic option.

Post by Michael Bround

Word count: 250

Monday, 15 December 2014

Surviving Bitch Planet #1

Some thoughts about Non-Compliance in Bitch Planet #1
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

To be totally honest, I was sold on the concept of Bitch Planet the moment I heard it: A science fiction story that takes the traditionally exploitive trope of women in prison, written by an unapologetically feminist author, and featuring a clearly diverse cast of characters. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the first issue of this comic with both excitement and curiosity—as much as I adore Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing, I really wanted to see how she could use such a theme and produce a positive narrative. My excitement, as it has for several new number ones recently, means I bought Bitch Planet digitally, even though a hard copy issue will also be waiting for me the next time I make the journey to my comic book store.

It turns out, my excitement has been completely validated—Bitch Planet is so great, you guys.

*SPOLIERS* within, so proceed at your own risk until you’ve consumed this story yourself. There is also nudity, violence, swearing, and discussion of damaging patriarchal values, so also proceed with caution if those things are not for you...

Bitch Planet issue one spends a lot of time world building, telling the story of Earth as it is in this not-so-terribly distant future, and how society operates. We open on Earth, where the background is rife with advertisements designed to encourage consumers to improve themselves. “Less of You to Love” flashes one advertisement, “It Will Fix You,” another, reinforcing the idea that we are not satisfactory as we are (a familiar theme to anyone looking at advertising in the current world).  The first traces of a feminist tale begin on page one, and boy-howdy, they do not stop appearing there.

It turns out the woman running through the street on page one is recording a voiceover that will play to prisoners, termed “non-complaints,” on their way to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost—Our eponymous Bitch Planet. Even the language used to describe this journey places additional emphasis on a clearly patriarchal system—Mother Earth is now viewed as the Father, who casts out the unworthy, where they might find mercy at the hands of Mother Space.

“Like a Cancer you must be excised from the world that bore you,” the announcer says. “For the well-belling of us all, let your sickness spread.”  

Non-compliance, it’s clear, is dangerous, and to be feared. And that, my friends, is the first moment it becomes clear that Bitch Planet is not just set in an overtly, threateningly patriarchal universe, but is also a story for the feminist reader—this world, not built for us, is afraid of the damage that could be done by someone who dares to not comply.  

I adore the art in this sequence and beyond – De Landro draws a cast of characters with diverse shapes, sizes, colors, and even body hair, and does so in a way that doesn’t sexualize the characters at all. The most sexualized character in the prison scenes is the holographic warden, whose mutable form consistently possesses crazy-exaggerated proportions and features.  Any questioning is discouraged, and within moments of arrival, an Non-Compliant (NC) is beaten by a guard.

The guards at the prison wear masculine-looking black uniforms, complete with masks, visually setting them apart from the feminine population of the planet. They are utilitarian and conforming—not a single distinguishing factor is visible, with even hands covered by gloves. At this point, we don’t know who is behind these masks, but I find myself hoping DeConnick and De Landro will let us explore their identities as the series moves forward.

Back on earth, a man is trying to save his wife from the colony. He’s paid to have his wife sent, but it’s a mistake, and now he’s trying to buy her way back. As the story flashes back and forth between Earth and Bitch Planet, at first we think Marian Collins has been a victim here, and her husband, for whatever reason, is trying to make things right. Instead, when his wife is thrown back into his arms, it’s a younger woman, Dawn, a new, Compliant wife accidentally picked up on a warrant meant for the woman he’s literally discarded as no longer useful.

Marian Collins’ Non-Compliance, it seems, was not being young or attractive enough, and for daring to be upset her husband cheated on her. She even begins to blame herself for her husband’s affair as she speaks to the warden. It turns out Earth of the future is still a place were older women are discarded when they are no longer seen as desirable, young, beautiful—only on future-Earth, a woman could have her freedom taken away for this end of sexual desirability. At this point, Marian’s use has ended, and it’s her fault. No one is blaming her husband for his affair, not even Marian, and it is certainly not seen as wrong that he found a way to rid himself of her in order to move on to a younger woman.

When Marian’s clearly about to face some sort of punishment or harm at the hands of the guards, another prisoner Violet steps in, trying to protect her, giving us a first view of one the core women who will be the focus of Bitch Planet. Though, ultimately, she doesn’t save Marian, she’s the character doing the things we instinctively feel are right—Violet stands up for those around her,  questioning why no one else is stepping in.

“This is not your business,” a guard tells her as she stands between them and Marian.

“Maybe it ought to be,” Violet replies.

Which is enough to inspire some of the women around her to care too. Or at least to act out and riot.

My favorite science fiction stories are the ones that allow us to have a conversation about something that is wrong with our own world. Science fiction can throw familiar themes into an unfamiliar setting and open up taboo subjects for observation, consideration, and discussion. Bitch Planet gives us a world where we can look at the systematic injustice faced by many women in our own society. Sure, we don’t live on a planet where non-compliance to social norms means we could literally be cast out and imprisoned, but man, some days, figuratively at the very least, that is the world I live in.

This story is not intended to make us think about how good we have it in a world without a constant threat of persecution; this story is intended to make us recognize the harm that casual sexism and misogyny inflicts on women. In fact, casual sexism and misogyny damages women, men, and anyone that identifies otherwise on a daily basis.

For instance, while the advertisements in the background of the first few pages on Earth are clearly meant to be hyperbole, a glance at my bathroom counter could tell you that I spend a great amount of time and money altering my appearance. I use expensive products and appliances to adjust my hair and my face every morning and dress in a way that is considered both appropriate and fashionable so I can comply with societal standards of appearance while doing my job. On the days when I spend less time on this than I feel I should, I feel guilty.

I can tell you this starts young, as well; my students routinely get up even earlier than I do to try and navigate the murky waters of what is cool—what is Compliant—in the world of teenagers today. They’re concerned about how they dress, what they say, and how other people see them. For young women, in particular, they see that if they don’t fit in and cater to the wishes of those around them (again, if they aren't Compliant), they’ll face negative consequences. I feel like it’s important to note that these negative consequences do include physical harm—I’m thinking of a young man this year who thought a reasonable response to women not wanting to have sex with him was to plan to shoot up a sorority and kill multiple people, or another young man who shot a girl at his school after she turned down his prom invitation.

Bitch Planet #1 makes explicit that background hum of misogyny and the related pressures and fears that women live with every day. This book feels like permission to be angry, and to cheer on someone who is fighting back.

“Maybe it ought to be,” Violet says when a guard tells her their treatment of Marian isn’t her business. I find in her a character I want to see more of because she actively does what we all should. Feminism relies on the understanding that we have to work together to fight the systems that harm disenfranchised groups, even when that harm is not happening direct to us or the groups we belong to. Violet sees that something is wrong, and instead of accepting it as the way things are or ignoring it because she isn’t directly affected, she stands up and fights back.

The observer is right, she’s worthy of note, of attention, and I think, of celebration.

Bitch Planet #1 feels like a comic I’ve been waiting for. I’m eager for more of this world, and already salivate at the thought of issue #2 and beyond. I can’t wait to see more of this toxic power system, the cast inhabiting this story, and how they’ll rock the system that is trying to cast them out. I want to know how dangerous Non-Compliance can be.

Post by Jennifer DePrey 

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1: A perfect cold open

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1

Or a look at the fantastic opening page of Bitch Planet #1
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Bitch Planet #1 is such a good comic. It's another one of those comics I thought I'd try, enjoy, but ultimately decide to enjoy in trade paperbacks. But after reading the comic, I don't think I'll be able to wait. My expectations were blown away and Bitch Planet has my attention.

Bitch Planet tells the story of a penal colony in space where women who refuse to conform to society's gender roles, who are Non-Compliant, are sent to be punished. The audacious central premise of the series is a feminist take on women-in-prison exploitation movies... in space! The comic showcases DeConnick's amazing ear for dialogue and absolutely destroys the central Sci-fi premise of the comic. The first issue also really delivers on its feminist themes, grinding away at the patriarchy and portraying a remarkable diversity of realistic looking women and body types. This is a comic with a lot to appreciate.

But the reason that I am absolutely swept away is the art! 

I expected the written elements of Bitch Planet to be fantastic, Kelly Sue DeConnick is reliably one of my favourite authors, but I wasn't sure how excited I would be about the artwork. I thought it would be good, but I wasn't expecting it to be amazing. And wow! Was I wrong! Bitch Planet has some of the best composition I've read in comics and maybe the best first page I've ever seen. This is not only a comic that is well written, but one with artwork to marvel at.

And I'd like to explore the opening page of Bitch Planet and explain why I think it is so fantastic.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Bitch Planet #1 below.

This is the first page in Bitch Planet, and it might be the best first page in a comic I have ever read. It encodes a huge amount of information about theme, setting, and the visual identity and energy of the comic in a very small amount of space. At the end of this page, I absolutely knew Bitch Planet was a comic I was going to be reading in issues.

The story of the page is at first glance, pretty straight forward. There is a woman rushing through a crowd and a man waiting for her in a recording studio who is very stressed about her running late. He finally decides that he will have to record the piece himself, but then the woman arrives in the studio. Of course, this story is layered with a bunch of other relevant information, but I'll get into that as we go.

Form a pure storytelling perspective this page has a really interesting layout that does a lot of things to make for a kinetic and emotionally resonate page. At first glance this is a deceptively simple 12-panel grid page, with three extra little callout panels. But unlike a more conventional 12-panel grid which follows one character chronologically through space, this layout features two distinct settings with only a shared chronology. Basically, the events in the page take place in the order of the panels, but depict characters in two separate spaces. What's particularly cool about this page is how it is how the two settings fit together in the page: at the top we have mostly the street setting, but as we progress down the page, the recording studio setting gets additional panels per row, such that it slowly takes over the page. Which leads to a bunch of interesting things.

Part of why these interlocking settings are interesting has to do with motion. By staggering the settings this way, we see that the woman running late is always, well, running. In the top row she has three panels in a row to race along towards her destination and then in the bottom row, she has four panels to keep racing through as she enters the recording studio and rushes over to the mic. Therefore this layout really maximizes the horizontal motion of the woman and increases the apparent distance she travels. Which is pretty cool. This layout also enhances the motion of the man in the recording studio. As we progress down the page we see him go from static, seated, and confined in the top panel to being increasingly mobile and frantic looking; like the panel equivalent of increased pacing. It is a visual representation of impatience that uses layout to work.  It's pretty great.

This overall layout structure is also interesting with how it plays with proximity. The recording studio setting, the destination, consumes more page space as the woman gets closer to it. Which is cool, because we feel her approaching the studio even though we never see her close the distance directly. It's kind of a subliminal effect, but I think it is really cool.

This layout is also interesting in the rigid way it segregates the woman and the man within it. The settings of outside and the recording studio control room are kept obviously, architecturally separate such that they feel like different realms entirely. What's more, when the woman eventually enters the recording studio, she is basically caged in the recording booth. At no point do we see the man and woman share a room together without a barrier between them. All of which really sets up the theme of gender segregation in this comic: men and women are divided in Bitch Planet down to the level of the layout.

So yeah, not a normal 12-panel grid. 

But there are additional elements added to the page on a structural art level that also lend important storytelling information, but more from a functional process perspective.

The first are the three additional panels that sit squeezed between the third and fourth panels in each row. These panes provide key information into the emotional state of the man in the studio control room in a way that breaks up the 12-panel grid and adds visual interest to the page. I think my favourite thing about these panels is how the first one is used. We go from the woman running late outside to the inhaler before we ever see the man in the studio: this sudden burst of nervousness is our introduction to the man. It's a great little storytelling choice.

I'd also like to point out how colour is used on this page to highlight the main characters in the composition. The woman, despite moving through crowds of people is always really apparent and easy to see. This is because the crowds are coloured with a muted, greyed-out palette while the woman has bright, undiluted colours. This way her dark skin and bright orange shirt pop out from the crowd and make her obvious to see. (This effect, of course, is aided by the attention grabbing nature of her dialogue bubbles.) Meanwhile, the man in the recording studio has almost the reverse effect, he is done in muted colours but standing in front of a brilliant background and has similar, but reversed contrast forces in play. Which again serves to make him pop out from his environment. It's really smart colouring that makes the entire composition work well, and further emphasizes the seperation between the man and the woman in the scene.

And then there are all the ways the themes of the comic are built into the page to help give the comic an immediate narrative identity.

The most obvious portion of the comic is the narrative itself. We see a woman rushing on her way to a recording studio while running late. She apologizes and excuses herself, being polite and graceful despite being late, remaining "Compliant". And she does all of this to be locked in a room and told "who" to be by a man in a literal control room. It isn't exactly as on the nose or bombastic as a space prison for rebellious women, but it does directly set the stage for the ongoing narrative of women being exploited by men and society.

This page also sets up the themes of Compliance and the enormous societal pressures for women to conform to certain standards. In the background of the page we see a number of advertising billboards which demand/suggest that women lose weight or that they can "fix" them or that they should just "obey". You can see the late woman running through an absolute gauntlet of propoganda and advertising meant to generate obedience, conformity, and shame. Which is sickeningly realistic, and also a great way to build these themes implicitly into the readers very first glimpses of the world of Bitch Planet.

Bitch Planet is also set in the future where there are penal colonies in space. This first page starts the process of inoculating the audience to the Science Fiction nature of the comic by subtly presenting future technology within the page. In the first row of panels we see a man in the foreground with some sort of head-mounted Sci-fi gewgaw on his noggin. In the first panel of the bottom row we see a flying robotic police drone (I presume based on the red and blue rollers) which is an obvious bit of futurism. And finally we see the sound studio man using some sort of adaptive, hologram display/interface instead of a traditional analogue soundboard to produce the woman's recording. It's the future just casually thrown in.

And finally there are just some small details built into the page that I think are just lovely inclusions. Like, standing in front of the mysoginistic "fix you" sign we have some sort of, I presume, animal rights protestor who literally gets in the way of the woman. Which is maybe a great dig at PETA (a notoriously sexist animal rights group) or maybe a comment on the fact people can universally rally behind animal welfare but not feminism. And then there is the billboard displaying a cameo shot of a glamour fashion pic of a young Kelly Sue DeConnick in the background, which is just totally fun. And finally there are the headphones hanging on the wall and how they go from four in the third row of panels to three in the fourth row as the woman dons a pair. It's the kind of wonderful attention to detail that I love to see in comics because they make everything feel genuine. There is a lot of love built into this page.

Integrated together, all of these elements unite to make a page that is interesting, tells the story in dynamic ways, and which starts to build the themes and setting for a comic all in a way that just feels effortless. This page clearly establishes the tone of Bitch Planet in 12.3 panels, which is a remarkable cold open. And I knew, by the time I finished reading this page, that I would read the entire series in issues, and then again in trades. Because this page is fantastic.

And so is the rest of Bitch Planet #1

Post by Michael Bround

Surviving Bitch Planet #1: On Compliance

Friday, 12 December 2014

Breaking Down Batgirl #36

Or a look at some of the subtle but great story telling choices in Batgril #36
by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, Maris Wicks, and Jared K Fletcher; DC Comics

Batgirl is a pretty fascinating comic right now. The title is part of this breath-of-fresh-air movement at DC comics that is introducing fun comics made by fresh creative teams which seem targeted at audiences outside of DC's core readership. In the case of Batgirl we are getting stories about a 20-something Barbara Gordon balancing her life as a trendy young adult with her caped adventures. The comic is fun and getting a lot of justifiable praise for its diversity, social justice elements, and attention to the style and fashion of actual young people. Personally, I'm really interested in the seamless and authentic way the comic deals with the integration of information technology into the characters's lives. Basically, Batgirl is a comic that is really good and interesting in some exotic and important ways.

The thing is, Batgirl is also a really technically solid comic.

And I would like to showcase some of my favourite layouts from the Batgirl #36 to prove this to you.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Batgirl #36 in this post.

One of the things I look for in comics is how panel shape and placement is used to enhance the storytelling in given moments. When used effectively as a tool, layout can really add a ton of information and emotion to portrayed events. This sequence from Batgirl really showcases this. The panels depicted Batgirl putting on her costume are pitch perfect: the tall skinny panel depicting zipping up the jacket enhances the vertical nature of the motion, while the wider panel depicting shoelacing catches the horizontal motion of tugging on the laces. Similarly the little central cape-snaps panel captures the small, fast nature of the snaps. The small, interspersed panels depicting such discrete moments also help create the sense of a miniature montage and helps create the emotional sense of a lot of things happening in a short duration. It's a bunch of little choices that on the page absolutely sell the moment.

This page of motorcycle attack action is also filled with small choices that make the page really work. The most obvious is the tilt given to the panels: instead of being rectangles with vertical sections perpendicular to the top of the page, the panels are parallelograms the tile in the direction of reading. This gives the panels a kinetic feel, as if they were racing at highspeed in the direction of the story. Coupled to this is a page that has a minimum of background detail and dialogue and this is a page that reads really quickly and feels very fast. Which makes the motorcycle attacks depicted feel extra dangerous and interesting.

I also really like the way that Batgirl's backflip dodge in the bottom left panel actually breaks into the panel above it. It really exaggerates the motion and instills the feeling of Batgirl leaping out of the path of the motorcyclists.

One of the interesting aspects of Batgirl the character is that she has an eidetic memory, near perfect recall of events she has seen. One of the more interesting aspects of Batgirl the series is how the creative team decides to represent this talent visually. This page here shows Batgirl remembering a cartoon she saw as a child which shows the key to defeating her foes. The way the sequence shows Batgirl watching herself, but also inhabiting the role of her younger self really captures the idea of reliving a memory: she is at once separate from the memory (in that she knows its a memory), but she still kind of relives it, in that she remembers the experience of the being the little girl and emotions she felt. It's all very clear to read and visually interesting. 

I think, though, that this is my favourite page from a storytelling perspective. Every panel on this page is perfectly designed to make the page work. The first panel is oriented such that we read along the vector of the motion (left to right) and experience the motion of batgirl wrangling the motorcycle. The following panel is very narrow and tilted, giving it a squinty, concentrative feel that portrays Barabra's determination. The next panel gives us the status quo of her opponents. The next panel spans the page and shows the global landscape of the scene and lets the reader know that Batgril and her opponents are about to play motorcycle chicken. We next see five small montage panels of grimacing faces, and the kind revving preparation for action shots that motorcycle chicken fights are built on. What's extra great about these panels is that Babs' face is portrayed on the far left like in the previous panel, while her opponent is portrayed on the far right. The next two panels depict squealing tires as the motorcycles accelerate towards each other. In another great touch, these panels are tilted for speed effects, but in the OPPOSITE direction which helps cement the emotion of the motorcycles accelerating at one another. We then see a panel showing the motorcycles approaching, and then Batgirl knee her opponents in their helmeted faces in a panel-less white space. The lack of panels here making this moment pop out and feel like a collision strong enough to break free of the panel structure of the page. It's a great choice on an effortless seeming but deeply thought out page. 

I'm enjoying Batgirl for a lot of reasons, and the great comics storytelling is certainly one of them.

Batgirl #35: the tech issue