Wednesday, 30 April 2014

So I Read The Sixth Gun: Vol. 1-6

Or a 250 word (or less) review of The Sixth Gun collections: Cold Dead Fingers, Crossroads, Bound, A Town Called Penance, Winter Wolves, and Ghost Dance
by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Tyler Crook, and Bill Crabtree; Oni Press

One of my favourite things about comics is that once you take a step away from Superhero comics there is a wild, wide-open world of comics to be enjoyed. The Sixth Gun is a perfect argument for why you should take the leap. The Sixth Gun is a Western comic blended with a supernatural horror story and infused with swashbuckling adventure. The story revolves around six legendary weapons, manifesting as pistols, which each have a unique power and together serve as the keys to the seals of the apocalypse. It is in this world that Drake Sinclair, a treasure hunter with a shadowy past, finds the lost Sixth Gun in the hands of Becky Montcrief, the daughter of the gun's caretaker who was murdered by thieves looking for the weapon. Together the pair must protect the gun from those who would use it for evil while fighting to collect the other legendary pistols themselves. Now, bare in mind that I am Canadian and not an authority on this, but these comics seem very much rooted in the folklore and essence of American history. The Western is a quintessentially American genre, and the threats the protagonists face, including an undead confederate general and his augmented gang, a demon-goddess of the New Orleans swamps, and beasts of native legend, rise right out of the American historic imagination. And I think that it's this common thread of zeitgeist that helps make The Sixth Gun feel so whole and unique. It’s a great comic.

Word count: 250

Monday, 28 April 2014

Kurt Vonnegut Writes Good Books

Or why you should read The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I recently read an article about Revenge Porn. That phenomenon where men post salacious photos of past lovers to get back at them for hurting their feelings and make themselves feel better. It is so satisfying that other men join in and use the internet to shame the women and harass them and tell everyone in their lives to ruin their relationships and maybe even career. And some men find this so fun that the supply of angry ex-lovers gruesome enough to post revenge porn isn't enough so they steal photos from women's computers. Photos taken just for them. Photos taken to keep track of weight loss. Photos taken by doctors for surgeries. Photos that are not even them, but just their faces faked onto other bodies. Photos all that were never meant to be publicly seen.

And what is so bad about these photos is that they depict these women wearing no clothes, or less clothes than normal. These women are shamed in some way for being naked. Naked in the way every human being is when they are born, or when they clean themselves, or when they change their clothes. Showing the same skin that every human being has covering their bodies. And because they are naked these women are shamed for enjoying sexual intercourse, which is a thing that most human beings enjoy. So Revenge Porn is humiliation for having skin and liking sex by showing private photos publicly.

If you are at all an empathetic person Revenge Porn is enraging and disgusting and sad. It is an unbelievable testament to the petty cruelty of humanity and the hideously unfair and different way men and women are treated. It is also, if it weren't so heartbreakingly tragic, roll-on-the-floor funny. It is completely ludicrous to shame women for having skin and liking sex and it is fucking insane that nakedness is a shameful taboo when it is so universal. Revenge Porn makes me want to laugh and cry and rage all at once.

A lot of things about life make me feel this way. 

So it goes. And so on.

Kurt Vonnegut clearly feels this way too and has written many novels to reach into the ghastly joke of life and try to find meaning in it and to come to terms with the awfulness and hilarity and wonder of being alive. They are amazing and wonderful books that are as funny as they are bleak and heartbreaking in their honesty. They are absolutely books you should read.

The Sirens of Titan is a novel about finding the meaning of life on Earth. In the novel Winston Niles Rumfoord, a wealthy space explorer and his dog Kazak, become caught and trapped in a chronosynclastic infundibulum, a spatial phenomenon that grants Rumfoord knowledge near omnipotent knowledge of the past and future and a limit omnipresence within the solar system. Rumfoord, laden with the powers of prediction, seeks out Malachi Constant, the richest man on Earth, and prophecies that Malachi will go on a journey from Earth to Mars to Venus to Earth and then onto Titan. Rumfoord also promises that Malachi will have a child named Chronos with Beatrix Rumfoord, Winston Niles Rumford's semi-widowed wife, and that he shall find paradise on Titan in the arms of the three sublime Sirens of Titan. What follows is a tale of tragic destiny, bleakly funny misunderstanding, prodigious manipulation, and, at the very end, the true meaning of life on Earth. The Sirens of Titan is sublime and nonsensical.

Cat's Cradle is a novel about the precarious insanity of modern life. The narrator of the book, Jonah, while attempting to write a book about the atomic bomb tries to learn about its father, an absentminded and unempathetic Scientist, Felix Hoenikker. In the process he learns that the father of the atomic bomb developed an even more perfect doomsday weapon and, upon his death, gave the keys to the worlds destruction to his children: a nihilistic midget artist, a horsefaced housewife with a cheating husband and a love of the clarinet, and a loser son who has fled to the island nation of San Lorenzo. And on San Lorenzo, with its dire poverty, unstable political system, and strange religion constructed out of comforting lies, everything comes to a head and the very existence of life on Earth will hang in the balance. It's a book that perfectly captures the dangers of Science and the insanity of the arms race and hilariously depressing position humanity finds itself in.

Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut dealing with witnessing the Firebombing of Dresden. If you are unfamiliar with this event, basically the Allies dropped a huge number of incendiary devices on the city of Dresden in Germany during the World War 2. This caused a firestorm that decimated the city and killed as many as 25 000 people. So it goes. Dresden was at the time a cultural capital of Germany, an open, undefended city with virtually no military value. Thus the firebombing raids killed almost exclusively civilians and refugees. So it goes. It was also pretty transparently a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut was there as a prisoner of war and witnessed this massacre. Slaughterhouse-Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who is unstuck from time and randomly jumps between different moments in his life. From World War 2 where he is a prisoner who is sent to Dresden just before the firebombing, to when he is a depressed middle-aged Optometrist in middle america. From the evening of his wedding, to his time as a zoo specimen on an alien planet with a beautiful actress. From his childhood to his dotage as a widower who his family suspects is losing his mind. From his birth to his death and back again. It's a book that encapsulates the wonderful, absurd, fanatastic complexity of life and the grim, brutal finality of death. So it goes. Life as a joke, death as its punchline. It is also, through its device of time travel, a great instrument examining the nature of guilt and the horrible limitations of our at-this-moment worldview. It's easily one of the best books I have ever read. 

Breakfast of Champions is kind of like a primer novel on modern life in the United States for extraterrestrials. It tells the story of pathetic Science Fiction author Kilgore Trout travelling to the Midland City arts festival and inspiring the mentally unstable businessman Dwayne Hoover to go on a rampage of violence. Along the way we get a picture of Hoover's life in Midland City as he goes insane and Trout's life as he experiences misfortune travelling to Midland City, Dwayne Hoover, and a meeting with his maker. What is maybe the most remarkable thing about Breakfast of Champions is how it is written: the novel, in the simplest, most unbiased way possible, explains the vagaries and injustices of American life complete with illustrations. Breakfast of Champions assumes no knowledge, offers no justifications, and just lays it all out. This approach shows the absolute hilarious absurdity of life as well as the soul-crushing sadness of this same madness. It's something that everyone needs to experience.

Everyone on Earth ought to read at least one of these books. They are so beautiful and smart and funny and sad and perfect. Everyone. The question then is, which is the first one to read. I think the answer is Slaughterhouse Five, it is certainly, in my opinion, the most assured, the most complete artistic vision. It is a remarkable piece of literature. I think you could also do well reading Breakfast of Champions. It is so amazingly weird and wonderful, and is like this grand culmination of the other three books. (Incidentally Vonnegut used this book to retire his recurring characters from his earlier works and to off load a collection of ideas he had, so maybe the culmination analogy is apt?). So, pick either Slaughterhouse Five or Breakfast of Champions. You have to. Do it.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Atoll Comics Round 14

Or changes to my Top-Ten comics

Due to poverty and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be super-selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

A complication of this is that I am forced to drop an on-going title if I want to try reading a new on-going title, an act of very tough love. Being financially responsible is the worst.

I will be adding Secret Avengers and dropping Avengers Assemble.

Why Secret Avengers: The short version is that I read Zero, a really gripping Super-espionage comic, which featured work by Ales Kot and Michael Walsh, and it was really good! And seeing the pair of them working on a Super-espionage team comic with wonder-colourist Matt Wilson seemed like something worth trying. And man! What a fun comic! The first issue of the Kot/Walsh/Wilson era was filled with zany hijinks including space battles, a spa day, and Hawkguy-Hawkeye complete with Hawkblocking (and Spider-slipping). Despite the Zero pedigree, a comic with its share of fun but also some deeply disturbing shit, Secret Avengers actually felt more like Fraction/Ba/Moon's Casanova, another super-espionage comic with groovy overtones, a personal favourite comic of mine. (This might be largely due to Michael Walsh having a similar style to Fabio Moon or that MODOK reminds me a lot of Ruby-Berserko.) The point here is that Secret Avengers is a fun, crazy espionage comic that should be an accessible place to get your team-book fix if you are not really digging the more continuity heavy Avengers books. Pa-Zow!

Why not Mighty Avengers: It's another beloved comic that has sadly bit the dust. At its best, this comic was exactly what I wanted from a team book: it played with the marquee characters in a continuity light, fun way. While it was solid throughout, Science Bros, the opening arch of the DeConnick era, is, for my money, the best damn open-and-close team comic I've ever read. Magically, it was also great for new readers: it was, after Hawkeye, the first Marvel comics some of my friend's read and they all understood and enjoyed Science Bros. Which is a pretty big accomplishment. People looking to write an accessible, fun comic for new and established fans ought to delve into Science Bros like architects because there is gold in those crypts. What I don't understand is why this is the Avengers title that was axed: it offered an understandable landing pad for new readers who know that The Avengers are a thing and want a comic to try, but are not versed in continuity malarky. I get that the main Avengers titles are geared towards core readers (because they should be!), but it's nuts that Marvel can't offer a Avengers Assemble style, new reader friendly book in it's publishing line. But yeah, sad it's gone, and if you haven't yet, check out Science Bros.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

So I Read Incognito

A 250 word (or less) review of Incognito and Incognito: Bad Influences 
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Val Staples; Icon Comics

Comics have a pretty interesting and rich history that predates the dominance of Superhero comics: a pulpy time of detective stories and larger-than-life proto-superheroes. It’s like a kind of primordial soup of early comics organisms filled with adventure and camp and dastardly-do. Much like biological evolution, a lot of this early experimentation failed to thrive as business models and tastes changed, causing a winnowing of what comics are. Now, a lot of what survived the various comics epochs did so out of some form of superior quality and many books and ideas died out or were abandoned for good reason. However, like any evolutionary process, some pretty cool ideas, concepts, and characters were lost along the way. Incognito is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' mad invention that reanimates some of the best elements of pulp crime and adventure comics and reinvigorates them with modern storytelling sensibilities. Incognito tells the story of Zack Overkill (who my brother maintains has the best name in all of comics) as he languishes, depowered in witness protection, pining for his old life as a heavy hitter for the imprisoned criminal mastermind Black Death and what happens to him when temptation gets the better of him. Incognito: Bad Influences continues the story of Overkill trying to make good in the face of temptation. These are excellent comics that exemplify everything I love about Brubaker/Phillips collaborations and really showcases the underappreciated magic of the pulp era. It's kind of like the comics equivalent of animatronic dinosaurs.

Word count: 249

Monday, 21 April 2014

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #5

Or how Pretty Deadly #5 pulled it off.
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

As a rule I try very hard to approach media with an open mind, to unladen myself of expectations and try to judge things for what they are. In my experience being sucked into the hype of a thing, or investing great towers of imagination on just how gobsmackingly good a thing should be just leads to hurt feelings and ruined experiences. This is especially true of beloved culture, stories you love by creators you admire, because the temptation to become emotionally invested in unrealistic expectations is so great, and the eventual disappointment of heroes found lacking is crushing. I did everything I could to stop myself from building up how good the finale of Pretty Deadly could be.

Yet, for all my good intentions, I went into Pretty Deadly #5 with grossly unfair expectations. This was a comic that HAD to be amazing in almost every rspect or else I would be heartbroken at how it let the rest of the series down, how it let me down as a reader. This was a comic that had to be unrealistically good for me to be more than just okay with it.

And for all of that, for all my shitty, unfair hope, Pretty Deadly #5 pulled it off and destroyed me.

It is such a rare thing to go into a comic expecting it to be amazing and to be left aghast at how much better it is than you dreamt it could be. This comic took everything I've loved about Pretty Deadly so far: all of the wild dialogue and thoughtful kinetic artwork, all the brutal violence and the disembowelling emotional weight, all of the mystery and cuss-out-loud badassery, and closed the circle while, magically, showing me new heights of what Pretty Deadly can do. It is, in just about every respect, the ending this chapter of Pretty Deadly deserved and the ending that I needed to be happy.

And I would like to talk to you about the reasons, big and small, this issue cut me so deeply.

This analysis is basically going to be made out of *SPOILERS* so, if ever you have even thought of taking my advice about comics before, track down Pretty Deadly and read it, or wait a few weeks for the trade paperback, and come back here. Pretty Deadly is not a comic to be missed or trifled with.

Seriously, *SPOILERS*

One of my favourite aspects of Pretty Deadly, and really a lot of Kelly Sue DeConnick written comics, is how story theme is introduced right at the beginning of an issue/chapter/whatever and then serves as the foundation for the remaining narrative. The great Bones Bunny and Butterfly parable from Pretty Deadly number five features two giant rattlesnakes fighting to the death, while hidden in the grass is the Kingsnake, who bides his time, allowing the combatants to weaken and defeat each other, before he strikes. Framed in the Bunny/Butterfly vaguely-children's story mode, it's a pretty grim and chilling little lesson. But it is also a really smart indication that Pretty Deadly #5 will feature a climactic battle where an unexpected ambush or betrayal will change the course of the story. We readers are taught to be wary right from the beginning which, whether we realize consciously or not, sets a tone of tension that will carry throughout the issue. As much as Kelly Sue DeConnick receives justifiable accolades for her sense of dialogue, the way she and her collaborators engage with theme on a structural level is pretty special.

This sequence also really crystallized for me just how thoughtful the parables of Bones Bunny and the Butterfly are. All of the little framing narratives really reveal some larger aspect of the story: cowardice, denial, struggling in adversity during issues that deal directly, at least in part, with those themes. For instance, the Hummingbird that simply has to work harder in the rain comes in an issue where the characters of Pretty Deadly barely survive a flash flood and where some truly horrendous violence is dealt. I'm also halfway convinced that the design similarities between Bones Bunny and Death, The Butterfly and Big Alice are deeply significant, and that the opening framing narrative where young Ginny kills not-yet-Bones Bunny is meant to thematically presage the overall shape of Pretty Deadly. Maybe.

An aspect of Pretty Deadly I've loved, which issue #5 continues to have in spades, is an amazing attention to detail and really firm grasp of how composition can convey mood or story in really subtle, elegant ways. This panel here is a great example of this. The characters, Ginny, Sissy, Fox and company are climbing the supernatural path to confront Death himself and are accosted by Big Alice who wants to claim Sissy. The heavy black landscape palette against the seething, unnatural pink/red of the sky is atmospheric and conveys the nightmare aspect of the world and feeds emotions of dread. But the thing I find most impressive about this panel has to do with the relative positions of Alice and Ginny: Alice towers above the other characters from a position of superior height. This instantly conveys to the reader at this gut level that Alice is in a position of power here, that the other characters are out matched by her. It's subtle stuff, but really delivers a sense of unease to the readers.

Another little sequence that captures the attention to detail in Pretty Deadly is this one here. What I find impressive about it largely has to do with the order of events the reader experiences. We see Ginny holding her gun, read her dialogue, and look down the barrel of the gun, maybe notice Johnny Coyote lurking in the background (remember the Kingsnake?), and finally see a targeted Big Alice. In the next panel, which is for me the really special one, we see a finger cocking the hammer of the revolver, and then the sound of the action catching, and then we look down the now ready to fire barrel. Or, to put it another way, we experience the action, then the sound of the threat, and then the weight of it. A tail rattle thrumming behind a coiled snake. It's the perfect order to see the moment to maximize its emotional impact.

This little sequence also really captures the strength of the joint dialogue/acting that Team Deadly brings to the page. "Make your choice," Ginny says as she, in a perfectly composed panel, arms her weapon, illustrating the consequences of the wrong choice. "I never had a choice," Alice replies while, eyes tragically downcast yet calculating, in a blackened panel designed to draw focus to her face, as she leans in a way that will carry through to a flurry of motion on the next page. For all of the brutal action of Pretty Deadly, the way the creative team maximizes even the smallest moments in Pretty Deadly #5 make everything a discovery.

As much as I tried to just read this comic on a first pass and enjoy it before cracking it open for analysis, I still spent a LITERAL HOUR crawling through every moment, artistic flourish, and beat of dialogue in this comic.

The way Pretty Deadly portrays action is startling and interesting and another thing I absolutely love about the series. This brief fight between Deathface Ginny and Big Alice is a great example of Emma Rios' approach throughout Pretty Deadly. In tight, small panels, are these vicious little moments of action: the first trio a gorgeous study in hands and the second trio a gallery of carnage. In both cases the actions are disjointed, not leading logically from one to another suggesting they are only small portions of a larger narrative of violence. These tight boxes also, in their small size, feel rapid, and yet, given their weight as actual panels in a free composition, feel significant and heavy. They are this perfect blend of chaotic and fast and painful and when contrasted with the somewhat static, wide angle looks at the fighting figures, they give the fight this very see-saw, desperate feeling. Flurries of action against strained pauses. It's kind of perfect.

And there in the background is Johnny Coyote, watching two wild serpents fight, awfully close to that shotgun.

Remember the Kingsnake and the opening parable theme of the predator that waits for combatants to finish before ambushing? As the fight between Deathface Ginny and Big Alice grinds to an end with both women battered and Ginny all but defeated, a waiting Johnny Coyote pounces. It's a moment that feels very earned, the culmination of Johnny's subplot of cowardice when he finally stands up, although in a manner still shaded by his lack of courage. It's also a pretty fulfilling moment, instead of an act of deus ex machina, as Johnny's indecision is present throughout the battle and in that the theme of ambush was ingrained in the very beginning of the comic.

It's also a really nuanced choice from a story structure perspective. The ambush of Johnny Coyote on Alice seemingly closes the circle opened in the Parable of the Kingsnake. This makes this moment feel like the end of this portion of the story, which opens up the remainder of the comic thematically. As a reader it creates a sense of uncertainty, we no longer really know what to expect next. Closing this thematic circle is also pretty great in that it drives attention away from the themes of ambush and betrayal established at the beginning of the comic. The reader is no longer hyper vigilant for this theme so that any future ambushes are poised to be more surprising, but still feel thematically coherent and earned.

Seriously, this comic.

Yet another ongoing aspect of Pretty Deadly I find really fascinating is the almost-sexual imagery associated with Big Alice and violence. In Pretty Deadly #2, when Alice cuts Ginny's death face into her mug on the tip of Ginny's sword, the panel shots had a decidedly sexual overtone which, along with the self harm, made the entire sequence seem really transgressive and creepy. I think this sequence here has many of the same mechanics at play. Much like the sword tip, the gun barrel is a pretty phallic object and the way the barrel is gently grasped on the left and and elevated in the right is pretty sexual. Which makes this whole scene of Coyote dispatching Big Alice feel deeply transgressive instead of triumphant. This choice also, with its implied intimacy, hints at larger history between Alice and Johnny, that the two are familiar with one another or were maybe once lovers. It's great stuff.

For all of the layout wizardry in Pretty Deadly, issue #5 manages to show another completely different mode of storytelling. Where the terrestrial world of the real is defined by wide, flowing vistas interspersed with tight, constrained boxes of motion, or sound, or action, the underworld of the dead has some of these amazing, unworldly pages where the established comic rules break down. This particular example is noteworthy for the sheer amount of narrative information encoded in the page. On the left side of the page the fable of the Shield Maid is told in a really nifty layout that emphasizes the duality of the Shield Maids, of day and night, of life and death. It's a rich, succinct story in of itself.

On the right side of the page the central narrative of the comic, of Ginny, Sissy and company going to confront Death, is told in a flowing column. Despite no clear panel breaks, this story is delivered in a clear manner that splits the story into four clear panel-zones. It's also a pretty smart storytelling choice because it turns this string of narrative into a vertical direction, such that the story seems to travel down and towards the reader, as if the characters are descending a stairway to hell. Pretty Deadly, for all of its magic, continues to display flourishes of innovation.

I feel like Pretty Deadly has a reputation for how daring and violent a comic it is... because it is. I know I'm guilty for selling the Holy Shit elements of this comic to anyone who will listen to me. What is maybe not being looked at as closely is just how great the character driven moments, the dialogue and acting, are throughout Pretty Deadly. This sequence here is so small, and simple: eight straight panels of Sissy's face and dialogue that provides a soliloquy into her emotional state and a pretty key decision. And look at the anguish, the calculation, the resignation, and the resolution on Sissy's face: this sequence captures an entire emotional arc. Emma Rios, for all her motion and dynamism as an artist, is also, in a way that is maybe missed in all of the thunder, a brilliant acting artist. 

Also, I love the foreshadowing in the bottom left panel here. 

(Hee. Gallows Humour.)

Speaking of Holy Shit moments, Pretty Deadly has some fucking swagger. "Which are you--Reaper, God, or Mortal?"....bursting free of a barn ablaze, guns flashing, 'I'm all three." Shiiiiiiiiit.

(By all means, go read Superman. He is probably going to save some people or something. I'll be right here reading Pretty Deadly.)

Okay. Seriously. *SPOILERS*

Remember the fable of the Kingsnake? The predator that waits to ambush two fearsome combatants after they exhaust themselves in combat? Sure, we saw Johnny Coyote strike like the Kingsnake to dispatch Big Alice but what if that was a red herring designed to throw us off the scent of the true Kingsnake?

Here we finally see the true, hidden Kingsnake, The Beauty, revenge herself upon Death and gain her long awaited freedom. This betrayal, this ambush, finally closes the circle set out in the opening parable. It's the completely surprising and satisfying culmination of Pretty Deadly #5 and the entire Pretty Deadly story. However good an ending I imagined for Pretty Deadly, this is one I hadn't anticipated, one that has more depth than I was prepared for.

This page is also brilliant comics. Broadly speaking the layout spreads to encompass both pages which gives the scene an extra sense of import and really drives the speed, and weight of the left to right thrust of the beauty's sword. This layout also breaks the page into three layers of narrative with sequences that tell the respective ends of Death, The Beauty, and Sissy's stories all in the same space. This is a really clever and efficient use of space. It's also a layout that lends itself to some really cool comparisons: the crumbling of the vanquished Death on the far left contrasts with the ascension of The Beauty in the middle tier, while the face of Death emerging from his skull mantle parallels beautifully the face of Sissy being engulfed by the skull of her new form. This perfectly encompasses the cycle, the shared nature of their transitions, between Sissy and Death. It's great.

Also, the symbol of the bird, a symbol of Sissy, standing over the rodent, a symbol of Death, impaled on a branch, a symbol of the flower of The Beauty, is some clever stuff too. Pretty Deadly has some pretty profound depth to it.

I don't like the idea of favourite comics. I feel like having one, best piece of media that you love above all others lacks nuance or the reality that you really don't have to choose. But, Pretty Deadly #5, and Pretty Deadly in general, is the kind of comic that's so good that I couldn't wait for its trade. If you are only going to try one new comic Pretty Deadly is absolutely the comic you should check out. The trade is out soon, and it's just about the complete package.


Friday, 18 April 2014

Deep Sequencing: Demo-nstrating Black and White Comics

Or some neat uses of black and white in Demo: Volume 2
By Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan; Vertigo Comics

Demo: Volume 2 is this great collection of single issue character studies that use supernatural phenomenon as metaphors for people struggling with everyday problems. It's a comic where dealing with child abuse involves time travel, for instance. It's pretty great comics. It's also a black and white comic that does a really good job using the one available colour to emphasize key parts of the composition. And since it's always a nice to have an excuse to gawk at Becky Cloonan art, I thought I'd take a look at some of the nifty tricks and smart black and white choices in Demo:Volume 2.

There will be mild *SPOILERS* for Demo Vol. 2 in the below post. You are warned.

As far as my inexpert, armchair enthusiast sense has been able to determine, the key to making black and white comics pop, is using the two colours to colours to create contrast and draw the eye to the key portions of the composition. Like, the above selection has white hands reaching out to each other on a totally black background that makes the panel focus in completely on the hands. In that moment in the story, and in that panel, those outstretched hands are the most important thing in the universe, and the colouring of this panel is designed with just that purpose in mind. Simple, but effective.

But the first story in Demo: Volume Two has a bunch more really smart tricks that take advantage of the sharp contrast of black and white to make the comic work optimally. This chapter of Demo tells the story of a woman who keeps having a dream about someone, another woman, falling from a great height in some sort of large church. The dreaming woman is convinced her dream is prophecy and goes on a quest to save the falling woman regardless to the personal costs to herself. It is very much a comic about introspection and obsession and being so inwardly focused that the broader picture is missed. And the way the woman is coloured, with her black shirts and black hair entirely plays into this theme: in every scene she is in, no mater how crowded or complex the background, her dark blocked colouring makes her the focus of the panel. It's as if the artwork is driving us to become as obsessive and focused as the woman in the story. It's really great.

Another cool bit of colour use in this chapter has to do with another key character in this chapter. This man in the above panel is also pretty important to the story,  and so he also gets the heavu black treatment that makes him jump out of the surroundings in the same way as the woman-with-the-black-hair. In this way, even in a comic with no colour, the most important characters are instantly emphasized in a way that draws the readers attention.

Demo, particularly Demo Vol.2 is a really great comic that is absolutely worth taking a very close look at.

Demo: Volume 2

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

So I Read Demo: Volume 2

A 250 word (or less) review of Demo: Volume Two
By Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan; Vertigo Comics

Demo: Volume Two is the continuation of Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's series of one-shot comics about people with unusual powers or traits trying to somehow navigate ordinary life, with the supernatural aspects of the comic operating as a kind of metaphor for real life struggles. Demo: Volume Two shares this overall premise with the first volume of Demo comics, but is so much sharper (which is saying something since Demo is really good comics in the first place). The first series of Demo is almost like a comics laboratory with Brian Wood figuring out his voice for single-issue character studies and Becky Cloonan experimenting with radically different styles of artwork. Demo Vol. 2 is like the thesis resulting from all that experimentation. As a result, Demo: Volume 2 is almost its own thing: the stories are masterfully constructed and the artwork is exclusively drawn in Cloonan's mature, brilliant style. There is actually a bit of a thematic shift between volumes as well, with the stories becoming less supernatural, and more grounded in a kind of plausible unreality that adds to the veracity of every story. Demo: Volume 2 is really an excellent comic that is worth reading on its own, even before the first Demo series. If nothing else, it’s an excuse to read a beautiful comic drawn by Becky Cloonan.

Word count: 222


Monday, 14 April 2014

Monitoring Moon Knight #2

Or a look at the chilling, virtuosic layouts in Moon Knight #2
by Warren Ellis, Declan Shavley, and Jordie Bellaire

Moon Knight is turning out to be a downright chilling comic. Beyond the questionable mental status of the titular hero, the series is really going to some dark places. The first two issues of the comic have dealt with serial killers, a slasher out to steal other people's body parts and a sniper out for vengeance. The villains of both issues have also been marginalized in some way, veterans broken down and abandoned like old tools. Moon Knight is dark and engaging and challenging. 

It's also a wonderfully made comic, a great collaboration of writer and artist and colourist with a really cool, smart aesthetic and some really innovative use of colour. Moon Knight #2 also has my so far favourite sequence of the series: a truly smart and disturbed sequence of comics that is completely worth taking a closer look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* here. So go read the comic first.

The crux of this really great sequence is a deceptively simple format, repetition, and a certain crushing ruthlessness. Each page in the sequence shares this simple eight panel grid format, with each panel telling the story of a different workaholic, lonely financial worker. And on every single page of this sequence one of these workers is murdered.

Every time one of the characters is murdered, in a flash of red their story ends. The space that story occupied is then simply left empty in the grid. What was once a page filled with stories is chewed down systematically, until all that's left is emptiness. White. Dead.

As a visual metaphor for murder it's brilliant. The world starts complicated and rich, full of stories about the guy hiding his terminal cancer from his family, or the workaholic woman with the strained relationship. However, due to the action of the murderer, one by one, each of these stories are snuffed out. Ended. Leaving only an empty gaping hole of unfulfilled potential in the world. And as more people are murdered these spaces grow until the whole page is diminished and barren. It is chilling and crushing and hard.

This sequence is also an astute visual representation of a sniper. Each of the murdered people are unsuspecting, observed by us and the killer as they walk blithely into the path of a bullet. At the same time we don't see the sniper, who kills somewhere out of view, anonymous except for the bodies and the spaces in the world he leaves. His voice, when we hear it, is written in the empty spaces where a living character once occupied, further emphasizing this calculated, anonymous murder. We hear the sniper in the effects of his grim work. It's fucking brutal comics and a fantastic creative choice.

If this level of comics craft continues to be applied to the darkest corners of the human psyche, then Moon Knight is a must read comic.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Deep Sequencing: Unknown Colourist

Or a look at how changing colouring styles alters storytelling in Unknown Soldier
by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, Oscar Celestini; Vertigo Comics 

Unknown Soldier is a great comic that functions as an important glimpse into a pretty important and dark topic while also telling an exciting and accessible story. It's journalism and activism through fiction which is pretty cool.

It's also a comic that uses two radically different colouring/inking styles in different chapters. What's especially interesting about this artistic shift is that both chapters are done by the exact same creative team. What this means is the two chapters share many common elements: an identical authorial tone from the same writer, a consistent approach to storytelling and overall style in the same penciller, and even the same colourist. But at the same time, the style changes, even with the same creators, makes the comic feel radically different. It's like one of those accidental, ideal economic experiments but for colouring. Which I think, make it a pretty cool thing to take a look at.

There will be the mildest of *SPOILERS*.

The majority of Unknown Soldier has what I would call a more conventional comics style. Characters and backgrounds are rendered with clean, but heavy inks that draw eye to the depth of the underlying pencils. The colouring enhances this: colours are mostly flat, with a single primary colour for most subjects, which is then judiciously rendered to provide lighting effects (particularly in night scenes, like above). Coupled to a pretty muted and harsh colour palette, Unknown Soldier is a pretty harsh looking comic that works very well for an action comic set in a horrific warzone.

Dry Season, one of the four main chapters of Unknown Soldier, is set in a refugee camp during a period of extreme heat and dryness. In many ways it is the most journalistic of chapters, given that Unknown Soldier takes a break from war stories to focus on the human cost and tell a more low key, mystery based story. This chapter also features a shift in artwork to a much more painted style. Instead of the very-comics clean, heavy inks and flattish colouring, Dry Season has heavily rendered colours done right over the pencils. The result is something much drier and stiller, which is really appropriate to a story about static refugees dying of thirst. This style is also much more realistic: real life doesn't have inks, and we understand the world around us using light and shadow like a painting, and this style captures this better.

Overall though, I think I like the Dry Season colouring approach more for Unknown Soldier. While I usually prefer simpler, flatter colouring since it doesn't distract from the lineart and  because I think it is often more elegant, I feel like a comic with such journalistic goals benefits from a more photorealistic style. The default style of Unknown Soldier is great, but it looks like a comic, a fictional universe we are visiting. Dry Seasons looks more like the real world, like field sketches of a grim reality. And for the humanitarian goals of this comic, that sense that this horrible shit is really happening makes it so much more affecting. 

Which I guess conveys two things: that a dramatic change in colouring approach can radically change the emotional feeling of a comic and that different types of stories beg for different styles of colouring.

Unknown Soldier

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

So I Read Unknown Soldier

A 250 word (or less) review of Unknown Soldier: Haunted House, Easy Kill, Dry Season, Beautiful World
by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, Pat Masioni, Oscar Celestini, and Jose Villarrubia; Vertigo Comics

While I think I’m a reasonably well-informed person, I really don't know much about Subsaharan Africa and the conflicts afflicting the region. I think this is typical of many North Americans. Unknown Soldier is a comic that aims to educate an ignorant Western audience about the fight against messianic-madman and insurgent leader Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army during the height of the conflict in Uganda. The comic provides an unflinching look at this truly monstrous thing, from the use of child soldiers and child sex slaves to the desperate plight of the displaced and marginalized Acholi minority in Uganda. Unknown Soldier uses the lens of Dr. Moses Lwanga, a crusading activist and doctor who returns to Uganda from the United States with the intention of building a better future. However, Dr. Lwanga is heir to a dark secret and the violence that confronts him awakens something that sends him charging into the maelstrom. It’s a brutal comic that takes a really hard, uncomfortable look at these events and attempts to make them understandable through fiction. Unknown Soldier is also an action comic that orbits some pretty engrossing mystery and drama so it's also a pretty exciting comic. Unknown Solder does suffer from a very abruptly ending that leaves story potential untapped and it, out of necessity, shows a very narrow view of life in Uganda which maybe feeds the idea of Africa as an exclusively wretched place. On balance, it's an interesting and informative comic well worth reading.

Word count: 250

Monday, 7 April 2014

Deep Sequencing: Admiring The Hole

Or some of the brilliant design choices and motifs in Transmetropolitan
By Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson; Vertigo Comics

Transmetropolitan is a comic that, I think, is justifiably very well regarded by a lot of people. It's certainly one of my all time favourite comics. And there are a lot of reasons why I am so crazy about this comic: the thematic examination of the intersection of politics and journalism is fascinating, the way tension in the story builds is breath-bating, the gonzo Science Fiction is fun, and the relentlessly juvenile humour is a joy. Transmetropolitan is also a comic with some really adroit artwork and storytelling, with some of my favourite sequences in comics and a superdense, highly developed sense of place. It's a really great comic.

One of the things I am most interested in Transmetropolitan is how certain recurrent visual elements are used to drive theme and character in the comic. Transmet is, buried in all of the bowel disrupters and sex puppets, a comic that does some remarkably smart things with symbols and motifs to subtly relay information to the reader. And since comics blogging is about obsessing about small, interesting choices I'm gonna show you some of my favourite.

There will, as always, be *SPOILERS* for Transmetropolitan in the following.

THE GLASSES: One of the most obvious recurring elements in Transmetropolitan is Spider Jerusalem's glasses. In the story, the eyewear operate as Spider's hightech personal screens and cameras that record the world around him. But they are also a key part of his character design that convey a lot of information about him. Like, the green and red different coloured lenses are reminiscent of 3D glasses and suggest Spider sees the world in greater depth and detail than those around him. Or, and I'm stealing this from a great character design essay by Aaron Diaz of Desden Codak, the shape of glasses give Spider a permanent cocked eyebrow type of look, which is the perfect expression of inquisitiveness, and the basis for a sardonic smirk. But it maybe even goes a little further than that: Spider is a character very much defined by his paradoxical ability to be a massively cynical analyst while still appreciating the truly remarkable aspects of life. And I think this is captured in his glasses which are split between a wide-eyed awed look and an analyzing scowl.

And the glasses are not limited to Spider. As Transmet progresses The Filthy Assistants progress from caregivers/coffee fetchers to junior journalistic comrades, and by the end of the comic they become chain smoking, glasses wearing truth seekers themselves. Admittedly, both women go through a few different phases of eyewear, but the ones they have on at the end,  I think tell us something about their characters. I have a theory that the shape of their glasses are reflective of their character as journalists. Yelena Rossini takes to wearing very narrow shades, maybe representing her evolution as a cynical, Spider Jerusalem style reporter. Channon Yarrow takes up wearing round glasses, which is maybe symbolic of her eventual career path as a novelist with a more big  picture, less cynical view of the world. Which maybe captures the round-lense, dreamer half of Spider's writing views. 

THE TATTOO: Another recurrent element in Transmet that gets used in interesting, subtle ways is Spider Jerusalem's forehead spider tattoo. It's a great piece of character design: a creepy tattoo drawn directly on the face really cements Spider as a counter-culture figure and acts very much as a symbol of him. A spider for Spider. But this tattoo also gets used in this really clever way to subtly hint at the health status of Spider. When he is healthy the tattoo appears as a crisp, unbroken black tattoo. As Spider's brain condition becomes more prominent and he is injured, the spider tattoo is split in a wide, bloody gash. Spider is symbolically cut asunder. Following this the tattoo shows the steps of Spider's recovery, beginning bandaged and hidden, and then emerging broken, split by a new scar. Symbolically Spider is recovered, but still broken and flawed. And all of this is conveyed only by the status of Spider's head ink. 

The Spider tattoo also tells us things about Yelena. As she becomes more of a journalist and begins to become, more and more, a kind of disciple of Spider, she gets the Spider Jerusalem style spider tattoo on her bottom. A symbolic representation of her growing Spider-ness. In the final chapter of the story, when Yelena is her own, mature, journalist we see her with her own spider-ish tattoo: a female symbol with spider legs: kind of an amalgamation of her Spider-ness with her own, special voice. All shown through symbols.

SMOKING: Another ongoing motif I love in Transmet is cigarettes. Throughout Transmetropolitan smoking is used as a signifier of someone telling the truth. Spider Jerusalem, the vulgar truth spilling asspot himself, chain smokes like an industrial chimney and becomes a plume of smoke when he is telling the truth. The Filthy Assistants, as they become journalists take to smoking. Royce, Spider's editor, chain smokes, particularly in scenes where he trumps his papers management to further the truth. Spider's sources, from the vile Fred Christ to the sympathetic Liesl, a former transient hooker, smoke cigarettes while they tell their truths. And even a lowly TV producer lights up when she decides to fuck the censors and display important news damn the consequences. It's a great visual signal that is not only handy, subtle information for readers, but is also just visually great: it's like the truth is a fire in the belly that billows out as smoke. It's great comics.

So I Read Transmetropolitan
Deep Sequencing: My favourite Transmet sequence.