Friday, 30 May 2014

Exposing The Secret Avengers #2-3

Or a look at the attention to detail in Secret Avengers #2 and #3 
by Ales Kot, Michael Walsh, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

I'm really enjoying Secret Avengers. The formula of gonzo spy stories with a sense of fun is just the kind of mad, accessible comic I want in a Marvel team book. It's also a pretty excellent example of a creative team firing on all cylinders: all of the component parts of the comic are excellent, from the taught, bawdry scripts to the ambitious, clear storytelling of the line art, to the sharp, clean palette of the colours, Secret Avengers is one of Marvel's best made books. That said, for all of its oomph, Secret Avengers most impresses me with its attention to layout and how this enhances every aspect of storytelling.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Secret Avengers #2 and #3.

Before I go spiralling off to panel placements and colour selections and a bunch of other tiny, wonky choices, I want take a moment and explain why I am so enthused by these selections. The fact is there are a lot of very pretty, very well drawn comics being made: Marvel as a mainstream publishing house has really showcased some awesome artists lately. In a pretty large proportion of comics being made the really big moments are delivered beautifully. For me what really characterizes the best comics is a commitment to making every moment as visually interesting as the biggest moments. These are the comics that feature lovingly rendered explosions in space, but also make talking heads feel fresh and interesting. And this is usually a matter of a bunch of small, hard to notice choices that make the entire comic easier to read and more emotionally resonant throughout.

Secret Avengers is currently one of those comics.

You might not immediately realise it, but this is a Talking Heads page. The characters, stranded and floating in space, shooting the shit about their situation with a veneer of hollow bravado. All the action in the page is two dudes talking calmly, but the layout makes this super interesting and adds a layer of unspoken complexity to the situation that adds emotional nuance. The reality of being adrift in space is that there is no (or very little) friction to slow you down, and so any small motion, like falling out of a space station, results in an uncontrolled, spinning tumble. The way this page uses extra panels without a fixed perspective totally sells this motion: the reader, like the characters, has a view that swings wildly between empty space, Earth, and the agents as if they too are careening through the vastness of space. This helps sell the feeling of spacey-ness and quiet majesty, but also just how fucked the agents are. There is something stomach turning and claustrophobic about the tight, tumbling reader's perspective that, despite Fury and Coulson's bravado, really captures the terrifying hopelessness of the agents predicament. So, yeah, this is a talking head page that layout has made awesome and interesting. 

Secret Avengers #2 has four separate storylines that all converge on a single, exciting moment in time. A really important aspect of this structure is that the various plot threads have to feel urgent and simultaneous to really sell the climactic moment. This layout here does a really great job in helping to accomplish this. The key here is that it shows the other three story lines (just after checking in with the agents in space in the last page I showed you) in a way that acts as a time key for them all: the secret avengers in the field arrive at the space station exactly when MODOK is grimly surveying weaponized satellites precisely while something in a duct approaches an injured and very screwed Maria Hill. This provides the temporal context needed to keep track of the various story threads. 

This layout also has some really smart colouring, with each tier of panels having a slightly different palette. The top row has a black/grey/green scheme, while the middle tier shows a lot of blue/yellow/fleshtone, and the bottom tier is done in magenta. This clearly delineates the three bands of panels as belonging to separate narratives and enhances the clarity of the pages.

The climax to one of the story threads in Secret Avengers #2 is a team of Avengers converging on a broken computer and basically, using team work, plugging it back in. This should be the most underwhelming anti-climax ever, and yet, it felt really satisfying and important in the context of the story. And I think this layout is a big reason why. Our heroes enter the page and approach a zoomed in, focussed strip of panels that show the toggles and wire that need repair/reboot. Some fun dialogue happens, and we see our heroes spring to action and fix the computer. The excitement of the moment comes through, I think, due to the tight focus on the computer elements in the second and fourth rows, the repetition (it's important enough to show twice), the elevated moving centre panel in the bottom row, and in the dull to bright green colouring of the wire panels. This page is, for me, a great example of how smart storytelling can sell pretty much any moment.

This large panel from Secret Avengers #3 is another example of really astute storytelling choices. In Secret Avengers #3, our heroes are out to stop a crazy, failed poet with a sentient reality destroying bomb. Black Widow and Spider-woman must find a way to stop the madman while also saving Coulson who is freaking out. What this panel here does is provide a spatial taking stock before all of the action happens. It tells us where all of the characters are in relation to each other, using the face bubbles and colour coding to make the fairly detailed page really quick and easy to suss out. 

What that last layout does is provide context for all of this activity. After seeing the overall layout we can appreciate exactly where all of this frenetic action is happening which helps reader understanding and the speed with which the reader can absorb the scene. It's really smart comics.

I love how these panels are coloured. I'm not sure how to articulate the why of it, though... Have you ever been hit really hard in the face? And have you also smacked the back of your head really hard on something solid, like to the point of blacking out or dazing yourself? Well I have, and the way these two panels are coloured captures the differing sensations of the two collisions. If I ever have to explain how the two things are different, these panels are now my answer.

Of course, Secret Avengers also does the big moments with gusto too. This spread here from Secret Avengers #3 is some varsity level comics. It breaks the page clearly into five discrete narrative regions and moves three different sub-narratives along to their convergent conclusions in a clear way. Beyond just kind of being an awesome couple of pages, I really love how this page splits up the sections: the cliffside combat silouettes without a background split the top row from the bottom, and within the bottom, the use of the tilted panel borders help signify which parts of the bottom half of the spread belong to which narrative region. This is a spread that could be super confusing, but due to really smart storytelling is quick and action packed and crazy.

Just like all of Secret Avengers.  

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

So I Read The Massive: Subcontinental

A 250 word (or less) review of The Massive: Volume Two
by Brain Wood, Garry Brown, Dave Stewart, Jordie Bellaire, Gary Erskine, Declan Shalvey, Danijel Zezelj; Dark Horse Books

For a *SPOILER* free review of The Massive: Volume One, click here.

The Massive is a comic that portrays a realistic and horrifying worst-case scenario of climate change. The series does a really remarkable job providing context for the potential cost of our destructive, polluting ways. The Massive: Subcontinental picks up the story with Captain Callum Isreal and the rest of his Ninth Wave team as they search the world's oceans hunting for The Massive, their missing mothership, lost in the terrible events of the Crash. This volume of the story adds further complications and challenges for the crew of the Kapital that really emphasize just how hopeless the situation is and which should pay off as the series continues. The Massive: Subcontinental is, more than anything, a chapter starting several new, interesting subplots to the series rendered with some great, atmospheric artwork. That said, this chapter of the story was a little unsatisfying as a standalone entity: it didn't answer of any of the intriguing questions posed in the first chapter, substantially advance any of the existing subplots, or really offer an interesting conclusion or cliffhanger. The chapter ends with a very similar, but more complicated, status quo. I feel that when The Massive is complete Subcontinental will work well as a part of a whole (and that it’s fine if you are reading in issues), it's just not a particularly exciting volume if you are tradewaiting. Despite this, I think The Massive is a pretty interesting series and Subcontinental, as a part of the larger series, is worth a read.

Word count: 250


Monday, 26 May 2014

Wonder Boys Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I think a lot of people who read novels as a hobby feel like they too will one day sit down and write a book. As a person who is always reading a book, I know I sometimes wonder if I have a novel in me. (And if I ever do, I will write in secret, dump it on my most read-dy and kind friends and then hide it from the world because it probably will be kind of terrible!) As an avid reader I'm pretty fascinated by what makes writers tick, what drives someone to not just entertain the notion of spending hours and hours creating an artificial world but to actually do it.

Wonder Boys is a novel that examines why someone might be driven to be a writer. 

The kernel the Wonder Boys is constructed around is that the desire to write fiction novels stems from a kind of personal defect, some kind of internal hole in the author's life that needs to be filled. Maybe it's fiction is the family the author never had, or the lies that are preferable to the author's life. Or perhaps its some perverse need for chaos or excitement that isn't satisfied by real life. Or maybe a need to connect to something larger than mundane life. Regardless, the result is the Midnight Disease where a person is compelled to write even if it is to the detriment of the author's health or sanity or relationships. This is the theme upon which Wonder Boys hangs.

From a plot perspective Wonder Boys is about struggling author Grady Tripp as his life basically falls apart. His marriage is in trouble, the woman he is having an affair with has important news, his talented, attractive student has a crush on him, he smokes too much marihuana, and worse, his editor is coming to town. But Tripp's biggest problem is his next novel, Wonder Boys, a sprawling behemoth of a manuscript nowhere near an ending that is criminally overdue. And so Tripp, along with gawky, film-obsessed, aspiring novelist James Leer, go on a belligerent misadventure of ever increasing complexity that threatens to save them both and promises their ultimate undoing. It's a darkly hilarious story packed full of social awkwardness, emotional complexity, and the Midnight Disease.

I really enjoyed this book.... it's not exactly fun, since its comedy is so fraught and it stabs me, as many dark comedies do, right in the barely-under-control-social-anxiety organ. So reading Wonder Boys was kind of this wonderful borderline panic attack for me. It makes recommending this book a little tough for me, because "Here, try this book, it's really well written and really great and made me want to crawl out of my skin and die while riding the bus," is kind of an accurate summary of my thoughts on this book. But Wonder Boys is beautifully written and provides this fascinating insight into why some people at least are driven to make fiction. If you are not an especially socially anxious person (and maybe if you are) you should maybe try Wonder Boys. That said, if you want to try a Michael Chabon novel that won't make you want to take up being a hermit in the mountains but will still make you feel feels and show you amazing, insightful prose, I 100% recommend you try either The Yiddish Policemen's Union or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Friday, 23 May 2014

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #3

Or the tension between punchline and setting in Captain Marvel #3
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, David Lopez, Lee Loughridge, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

As a general rule I try not to write critical posts. I avoid comics that I don't think I'll like very much, and try to focus my time and money on the best comics I can. As a result, especially for my mainstream comics intake, I read a reliably fantastic collection of comics. When I write about these books, it's much easier to highlight especially interesting positives than trying to find problems to worry at. And when I do notice something about these comics that I don't especially like, it's usually something obvious like deadline rushed art in a crossover or awkward fill in art, neither of which makes for a particularly interesting bit of criticism (It is bad and I don't like it!). However there is a sequence in Captain Marvel that I think, given the collision between two different storytelling priorities, is worth taking a critical look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Captain Marvel #3 in this post.

Now, I really enjoyed Captain Marvel #3! In a time when I am becoming increasingly less interested in straightforward super heroics, Captain Marvel remains my example of the best conventional superhero comic being made. The comic is fun, aspirational, rock and roll action packed, has a sense of humour, and manages to provide sufficient character stakes to feel substantiative and dramatic. Kelly Sue DeConnick's dialogue wizardry makes every character interaction a joy to read and her approach to Captain Marvel as a confident, driven, professional whose personality is both her greatest asset and largest challenge is immensely relatable. (I think it's pretty common that the curiosity, competitiveness, or drive of a lot of very talented, successful people can make them simultaneously exceptional and pretty flawed people, and it's pretty great and humanizing that Carol displays this). I'm also really into the way Team Captain Marvel creates challenges that are beyond Captain Marvel's powers to directly address: be it Vol. 1's medical affliction or Vol. 2's diplomacy and plague challenges. A powerful hero who is fallible and has to struggle against broader challenges is great. David Lopez is a pretty fantastic new voice for the comic too: his modern, but very superhero-y style really fits the aesthetic of the comic and does a solid job storytelling. By any reasonable metric Captain Marvel #3 is a very good comic that is completely worth reading.

The thing is, there is one sequence in this comic that I think is super interesting because it is a compromise between two different aspects of comics.

So these two panels here, I think, represent the set up of a joke. The premise is that Carol will have to travel to a planet and act as a diplomat to convince a group of alien refugees to flee their new, toxic home and that Starlord doesn't think it will be an easy task. The set up for the punchline is that Carol has "got some moves", that her diplomatic skills are up the task. And then....

...we get this long, very well thought out storytelling sequence. We see your standard, new planet setting establishing shot, Carol dropping in like this whole thing will be easy, a panel introducing a big, tough looking new character, who then punches Carol in the face. This sequence is very good storytelling that quickly establishes a new setting, introduces a new character, and succinctly displays the thematic challenge of the story (that Carol's help isn't exactly wanted and that she is ill equipped for it.) However, I think, steps all over the joke that was set up on the previous page. By my estimation the punchline of the gag set up in those two previous panels is the punch to the face and because of storytelling clarity needs there are four panels between the set up and the delivery. And this, I think, waters down the effectiveness of the joke.

So there is this whole type of comic which is the short gag strip. Now the best of these, like the above new (ohmygodnew!) Perry Bible Fellowship comic, follow a certain idealized structure. (I mean, there are a lot of ways to skin a cake, but this is one common forumla that works quite well.) The idea here is that in three, immediately connected frames, a premise is etsbalished, a joke is set up, and then an unexpected and impactful punchline is deployed. And those two panels in Captain Marvel at least looked like they were a panel 1 and 2 in a three joke structure gag strip. And then there was a page turn, which set the stage for a great punchline reveal. Which did not materialize.

Instead we get premise, setup, setting. Which, while it is good storytelling to establish where the story is happening, maybe does not fully deliver on the joke setup.

In my opinion this collection of panels is the most direct delivery of the gag. We get premise, the joke setup, and punchline rapidly to maximum impact (ha ha). Of course, this collection of panels makes a pretty big compromise in storytelling: it delivers the joke but with no information about setting, characters, or the context of the punch. This is a pretty big omission and a lot to expect the reader to figure out on their own and, since storytelling is king, probably not the best course. 

So after all maybe the actual layout is best: it maximizes storytelling clarity and still manages to deliver a pretty decent punchline on the gag. If the joke isn't in service to the story, than what's the point?

But I wonder if maybe there is some sort of compromise between the two that would provide the needed storytelling and still maximize the punchline. Maybe something like this?

Or maybe I'm completely wrong?

Regardless, Captain Marvel #3 is a great comic you ought to read and judge for yourself.

Marvelling at Captain Marvel 17: A meta-fandom salute
Marvelling at Captain Marvel 15-16: On tie ins
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #13-14: On The Enemy Within
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #12: Demarcating reality and fantasy
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #10: A dramatic contract
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #9: How your brain tells time
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #7: Saving a reporter in distress... AND ITS A MAN!
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #1: An alternate reading order that I liked more

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

So I Read RASL

A 250 word (or less) review of RASL the complete, collected series
By Jeff Smith; Cartoon Books

Rasl is an inter-dimensional art thief who steals alternate versions of this world’s masterpieces. However, in a past life, Rasl and his best friend and colleague, Dr. Miles Riley, were military engineers developing technologies based on the works of Nikola Tesla. It was during this time that Rasl developed his T-suit, the electromagnetic device that allows him to travel through the Drift and visit other dimensions. Meanwhile Dr. Riley was developing the St. George Array, a weapon which taps into the Earth's magnetic field and promises enormous strategic value. A weapon that can only be completed with knowledge only Rasl possesses. And so Rasl is literally on the run from his past as his former employers pursue him through the multiverse. RASL is a tale of hubris, Mad Science, and personal betrayal. It is very much a proper Thriller comic built around a solid Science muggufin. Despite being yet-another-Tesla-comic and my gigantic pet peeve of inaccurate Science premises, RASL ends up being a really enjoyable read. Part of this is that comic does a really good job not overdoing the Science while also providing a really fascinating biography of Tesla. The other part is that RASL is gorgeous: Jeff Smith manages to imbue his cartoons with a truly remarkable amount of life and style. RASL then, is a comic with a solidly engaging plot featuring artwork completely worth the price of admission.  (I do feel, though, that it takes awhile to really get to speed, so give it a chance.)

Word count: 250

Monday, 19 May 2014

Deep Sequencing: The Bomb

Or the moment that destroyed me and its historical context in The Manhattan Projects: Volume One
By Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, and Jordie Bellaire; Image Comics

Before The Manhattan Projects took a sharp turn to completely fantastical, gruesome Mad Science, it briefly flirted with the real life history of The Manhattan Project and the development and deployment of the Atomic Bomb. The chapter of Volume One, The Bomb, which tells an alternate story of bombing Hiroshima, is one of the most tense, arresting single issues of comics I have ever read: the way it plays with true history and the bizarre carnival mirror of the comic is profound and horrifying and a thought provoking look at the intersection between Science/Technology and Society/Politics. (You really ought to read it; if I were teaching a Philosophy of Science class I'd make my students read it.) That said, there is a single moment in tThe Bomb that is so rip-out-your-heart perfect that I still think about it more than a year after reading it. And I would like to explain why.

This post will have *SPOILERS* for Manhattan Projects: Volume One. Be warned.

In this sequence amoral-mirror-Richard Feynman goes to evil-parallel-universe-doppleganger-Albert Einstein with the engineering question of whether the Manhattan Projects should focus on constructing a relatively simple "gun-type" nuclear fission bomb, or a more complex "implosion-type" device. The part of this that resounds with me and absolutely guts me, is that not-Einstein replies simply that they should "just build both".

Which is just so completely fucking, oh my god brilliant and awful and perfect.

Because the real-life Manhattan Projects really did build both.

The thing about nuclear bombs is that they are perversely simple. For a nuclear fission explosion, all you need is enough stuff, a sufficiently massive lump of high purity fissionable material will undergo a runaway nuclear chain reaction and explode. So all a nuclear fission device is, is a machine that takes  a chunk of radioactive material which is too small to have this exponentially growing nuclear reaction and pushes it over the mass threshold needed to explode. The simplest way to do this is to hold two chunks of fissionable material apart, and then rapidly stick them together to make a big enough chunk to blow up. And this is literally what a gun-type device is.

The real challenge of nuclear bombs is the fuel for the explosion. Naturally occurring high quality fissionable material is exceedingly rare, and even then the most reactive isotopes have to be painstakingly separated from slightly more common less or un-reactive isotopes. Many of the better nuclear fuels are not naturally occuring in sizeable amounts and have to be produced in labs, usually using other nuclear reactors. (Incidentally a bunch of super important medical isotopes are becoming increasingly rare as many countries shut down their reactors.) So the real life history of The Manhattan Project is shaped by the history of the production and availability of high quality radioactive isotopes.

Initially, the project lacked sufficient pure radioisotopes of any kind of fuel to build any type of bomb. However, the project did have access to naturally occurring Uranium from a variety of mines and over time developed the a technique to separate desirable Uranium-235 from the inert, majority Uranium-238. This meant that The Manhattan Project had the capability to construct an enriched-Uranium nuclear device. Because the The Manhattan Project was in a rush to build atomic weapons to use in the war, they opted to keep it simple, and build a gun-type device that shoots a small chunk of U-235 into a larger chunk to set off an explosion.  This is the first bomb they built called the Thin Man and later, The Little Boy.

However, during development of this first bomb, a new, better fuel source, Plutonium, became available. While The Manhattan Project was developing the bomb, another portion of the project was developing nuclear reactors. Some nuclear reactors make, as a byproduct of fission, plutonium, which is a higher energy fissionable material and so useful amounts of Plutonium became available to The Manhattan Projects. (Science brag: Ive held a warm sphere of lead lined Plutonium in real life.) However, Plutonium did have one other problem: it was too reactive to be used in a gun-type device. A gun-type Plutonium device would "fizzle" by tearing itself apart before a significant amount of the bombs fuel could be reacted, and so the device would lead to a much smaller explosion. And so the real-life Manhattan Project was forced by engineering reasons to develop an implosion style device that basically crushed a ball of Plutonium into a dense enough ball to set off an exponentially growing nuclear reaction and explosion. Trinity and The Fat Man were this type of bomb.

The thing is, this device was, by comparison to the gun-type device, super complicated so The Manhattan Project was not willing to suspend the development of the simpler Uranium gun-type device. So in the end, they built both a gun-type bomb and an implosion-type bomb.

And then they fucking used both.

The bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima Japan was The Little Boy, a uranium gun-type device. The bomb they dropped on Nagasaki three days later was Fat Man, a plutonium implosion-type device. In real life, they built both types of bomb and USED both types of bomb. 

And that is at once a perfectly logical, practical Science and Engineering decision and excruciatingly horrifying.

With this real life context, this line by evil-Einstein is just so perfect and so completely awful. This moment encapsulates the mercenary practicality of the decision to develop both devices, the near sociopathic disregard for the consequences of this choice, and the inevitable finality of this decision. It's a carnival mirror reflection of the frigid, inhuman extremes of Science and Engineering. 

And so it sticks with me.

The Manhattan Projects: Volume 1
The Manhattan Projects: Volume 2

Friday, 16 May 2014

Deep Sequencing: An Atomic Robo Timeline pt. 3

Or  an update to my graphical timeline of the first 5 Atomic Robo collected editions.
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 2.0 of my Atomic Robo Timeline. Basically, I thought my old timeline was kind of ugly and rushed, so I spent some time making one that is a lot easier to read/better looking. (There was also a hilarious mistake in the old version: Professionalsim!)  The added entries are for the years 1930, 1931, 2011, 2021.

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


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

So I Read Atomic Robo And The Deadly Art Of Science

Or a 250 word (or less) review of Atomic Robo Volume 5
By Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener; Red 5 Comics

Atomic Robo remains my favourite mostly-all-ages adventure comic: there is just something about a hilarious sass-mouthed robot (invented by Nikola Tesla) doing Action Science that is endlessly fun. Atomic Robo and the Deadly Art of Science is set in 1930 and follows a young, inexperienced Atomic Robo as he grows bored assisting an elderly Tesla and forces himself under the wing of vigilante/gunfighter Jack Tarot. Together, with Tarot's beautiful daughter Nightingale, they must solve a string of inexplicable Science and occult thefts. One of the coolest aspects of Atomic Robo is that the entire story universe takes place in a very granular, linear timeframe. This gives the series access to a variety of settings and a character that actually develops and matures. I mention this because the magic of Atomic Robo and the Deadly Art of Science comes directly out of this: the pulp detective story set in the great depression is super fun, and young Robo, with his naiveté and boundless enthusiasm is hilarious and charming. The result is that Atomic Robo Vol. 5 is (bearing in mind that I’ve really enjoyed all of Atomic Robo to this point) an especially enjoyable chapter.  It’s actually, despite being the fifth volume, also one of the most accessible chapters and therefore might be a good volume to see if Atomic Robo is a comic worth further exploring.

Word count: 226


Monday, 12 May 2014

Anathem Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Finding a favourite novel is an intensely personal experience. People, all of us, are these exquisitely complex beings made of the interplay of nature (genetics, epigenetics, poorly understood other-RNA-stuff, regulatory protein behaviours, etc) and nurture, that unique set of environmental conditions and experiences that shaped our biology until we end up who we are. We each, as a result, carry our own spectrum of interests and hobbies and experiences which in turn act as the masonry of our perspectives. And so we are all primed to experience, well, everything but for the sake of this: fiction in radically different ways. Which is all a long winded way of getting at the idea that finding that perfect novel, that matrix of ideas and themes and story that just ineffably and perfectly connects to us, is this incredible accident of... for lack of a better way to put it, alignment that it is a kind of magic. 

Anathem by Neal Stephenson is maybe my favourite novel.

Anathem is a difficult book to talk about from a plot perspective since so much of its power revolves around the act of discovery. It is very much a novel that throws you into a new world and walks the perfect line between providing enough exposition to understand the context of the fiction, while also leaving subtext open to interpretation, deduction, and theorizing. Anathem is a story about exploration and discovery where is also along on a journey of exploration and discovery. Which is pretty great.

What I can say about the the story of Anathem is that it takes place at a time when society is split between the general population, the saecular world, and the world of academia, The Mathic world. Essentially, in Anathem, academia, particularly science academia, has been literally walled off from everyone else in monastery like cloisters called Concents where they practice a humble ascetic lifestyle and pursue their studies with the limited tools allowed them. These Concents are also divided within themselves with gated quadrants, called Maths, that only open annually, once a decade, once a century, or once a millenia with each group kept seperated from the larger society as well as one another. Anathem focuses on Erasmus, a young Fra in the Decenarian Math of the Concent of Saunt Edhar on the cusp of adulthood and choosing his special area of study. However, this is thrown out of order when his teacher, the astronomer Orolo, makes a startling observation shortly before Apert, when the gates between the Decenarian Math and the Saecular world are due to briefly open. An observation with great implications for both the Mathic and Saecular worlds that promises great discovery and threatens far reaching discord.

(Which maybe sounds a little dry, but trust me, there is adventure and romance and action to be had amongst the smart stuff.)

The reason why this novel might be my favourite is that I find it both eminently relatable and deeply fascinating from a thematic standpoint. For all of the Science Fiction particulars and story developments, Anathem is also a very thorough and thoughtful meditation on the Philosophy of Science and the relationship between Society at Large and Academia. The Mathic world functions as this amazing metaphor for Science Academia, and is used in the novel as a machine to explore the formative norms of the Science as well as the complicated, fraught relationship between ordinary people and Science Academics. As a dude in the midst of a PhD in the Life Sciences who has an extremely wankery fascination with how Science functions as a philosophy and the history of Science I find this super cool. Which makes this book immently relatable and endlessly fascinating to me. As great and engrossing a story as Anathem is, I just absolutely love this aspect of the novel. It feels like Anathem was written just for me.

I would recommend this book for me: it is the perfect alignment of my interests with a fantastic story. It's absolutely perfect for me. Can I recommend it for other people who are not me? Well, it's hard to say. It's a very well written book with rich characters, some great high concepts, and a really epic plot. And the way it opens up as a process of discovery is just incredible. But Anathem is also a very long  novel (~900 pages) and can get pretty conceptually dense at times. While it was an investment in time for me, it felt effortless and breezy... but I'm me and I love this book. It is very hard for me to be objective about Anathem, but I'd say if you are a Science student who likes Sci-fi you will certainly enjoy the novel. Anathem would also be a good call for any fan of Neal Stephenson or anyone who likes well written, wicked smart, contemporary Science Fiction. 

Snow Crash and Diamond Age 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Deep Sequencing: Focus On The Exit

Or using focus and colouring in an interesting way in Exit Wounds
By Rutu Modan; Drawn and Quarterly

Exit Wounds is a great comic with a lot a of really remarkable character work, a really clean, distinct style, and an interesting story filled with truth, humour, and mystery. There is a lot in this comic to like. But I love finding interesting solutions to comic problems and Exit Wounds has a short sequence that I think is worth taking a closer look at.

Over the course of Exit Wounds, the protagonists are looking for a particular cleaning woman because she might have information that will help our heroes find the man they are looking for. This is the panel we see when they enter the bathroom looking for the woman and question. And I kind of love it,

What it does, is simplify everything in the panel that is not the cleaning woman. The small square pattern of white tiles emphasizes all of the larger, colour blocked items in the composition. Meanwhile the men in the bathroom who are not the person of interest are greyed out so that they are present but don't unduly distract from the cleaning lady. The result is this perfect visual for searching where when you spot the person you are looking for, everything else just becomes secondary. It's like the blurring out that happens when you recognize a face in the crowd done entirely in static comics. It's great stuff.

Exit Wounds

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

So I Read Exit Wounds

A 250 word (or less) review of the Exit Wounds graphic novel,
By Rutu Modan; Drawn and Quarterly

Exit Wounds is a comic about finding closure with a person who is already gone. In the comic Koby, an Israeli cab driver, is told by a young woman that his estranged father has been killed in a suicide bombing. The young woman, Numi, his father's lover, needs Koby's help to prove that his father has indeed been killed. Koby, citing his father's unreliability and wayward past suspects that his father has merely abandoned Numi. The comic then, is the story of these strangers coming to terms with the absence of Koby's father and figuring out how to say goodbye to someone who is already absent. Exit Wounds is a pretty great comic: the central story is universal, tragic, and interesting, while the narrative retains a certain levity and humour that adds a counter-note of levity and fun. Similarly the artwork, with a very clean Herge style, manages to be beautifully expressive and wonderfully accesible. Exit Wounds is a very balanced read that is, at the end of the day, a really well made human story about an aspect of human life. It's the kind of comic that isn't explicitly for fans of genre fiction and, for lack of a better classification, reads as contemporary literary fiction. This coupled with the accessibility of the artwork and storytelling makes me think this is a great comic to lend/recommend to non-comics friends and relatives. (I will actually lend this comic to my mom.) Because it's good, and interesting, and fun to read.

Word count: 250

Monday, 5 May 2014

Deep Sequencing: 100% Dialogue

Or an interesting approach to dialogue in Paul Pope's 100% and Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta's East of West: Volume 1
With lettering by John Workman and Russ Wooton

I think one of the most under appreciated aspects of comics is the lettering, that secret art of placing word balloons in just such a way that everything effortlessly works. When done badly, dialogue doesn't follow a comprehensible order and is confusing, and artwork is trampled beneath inelegantly placed text balloons. When done well the dialogue is beautifully and logically arranged on the page in a way that relates to the artwork in an artful, organic way. (And when done perfectly, the placement of text can actually be an asset to help lead the reader through the page.) In this post I'm going to look at two books that have really great, but very different approaches to lettering.

There will be some will *SPOILERS* for East of West: Volume One and 100%.

East of West, with lettering by Russ Wooton, has some really expert, really adroit examples of what I would call "conventional" lettering. Most speech bubbles have a single tail, and longer exposition is linked as a series of bubbles. The bubbles are elegant and interacts with the artwork in a really smart way. The two sequences I've picked above are particularly good as they do a great job of leading the eye around the page so that the facial acting in the artwork is encountered in just the right moment. This ensures that the emotional resonance of each word and moment is pitch perfect, which enhances the exposition portrayed and adds tremendous dramatic weight to this sequence. It's great.

The text in this sequence here does some really interesting guide work. For instance in the first panel, we see the man's face before seeing the text which sets the emotional tone. We then read through the dialogue before encountering the glowing tip of the cigar, and important symbol of terrestrial wealth and power throughout this conversation. In the next panel (well I skipped a panel, but the next displayed here) we read the text before seeing the man looking down at the cigar: we see the thought he no longer cares about spiritual things and then see the reason for it (earthly power totem).  We then move into the next panel, see the cigar/totem held aloft like a sceptre/torch, and then proceed straight to the text where we read our way around the panel in a circle, eventually arriving back on the man's face as he looks up at who is addressing in challenge. The way the text keeps us from seeing his face until the end of the page, adds a lot of weight to that final glance. It's great comics.

(This sequence here is less about good lettering and more about how much I love the "BLAM" pannel here. I love how the sounds of many words, show the shape of the action or sound. Like "drip", where the "dr" is evocative of water beading, the "i" catches the tiny moment of a drop falling, and the "p" sound catches the noise of a drop hitting a surface. "Blam" works in a similar way where the "Bla" catches the explosive noise, the "m" brings to mind the cavernous echo/silence that follows the report. The fact the "A" of "BLAM" is the point of impact is therefore a stroke of bloody genius. I love it.)

The one problem with conventional dialogue box placement, as pretty as it is, is that sometimes the image of the moment, and the text of the panel don't entirely match. This is an example from East of West this text/image disconnect. We enter this page, read the text, noting the surprise mark and then the transfer to the cool, unflappable dialogue of the character, BEFORE we see the shocked face of the character. The text precedes the face, takes us past the moment of surprise, and then dumps us back in the previous moment. It's not the best lettering in the comic (which is mostly really great!). But to a certain extent this kind of lettering backtracking is unavoidable, a consequence of panel limitations and script being packed in. It is, I think, an inherent risk of the standard lettering approach.

100% by Paul Pope with lettering by John Workman uses a different approach to lettering, and one that I don't see very often. Instead of building dialogue balloons carefully into the artwork with the standard approach, 100% almost always splits the dialogue so that characters are surrounded by their dialogue. We get to experience half the text, see the emotion, and then finish the text. What this does is embed the emotion of the moment right into the centre of the text: the face we see is the face of the whole dialogue moment. It's maybe a bit brute force at times, but it makes sure that the characters acting is always appropriate to the text. Which works really well for a character driven comic about living 100% in the moment. It's really cool comics, and maybe an approach that solves some of the problems of the standard lettering approach.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Deep Sequencing: One Long Table

Or the tiny attention to detail at a particularly large table in The Sixth Gun: A Town Called Penance
By Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Tyler Crook, and Bill Crabtree; Oni Press

The Sixth Gun is a pretty great comic that spins a modern take on American folklore in a kind of wonderful weird western. The story is great and the artwork is excellent, usually in ways that are, well, obvious. There are action sequences in this comic (the deaf, waterwheel-tumbling sequence in Chapter 4 comes to mind) that are as dynamic, chaotic, and thoughtful as anything you will find in comics. But the thing that struck me about The Sixth Gun's visual storytelling, is just how clear and thought out even the quiet, dialogue intensive portions of the comics are laid out. And I want to take a closer look at one sequence in particular and explain why I think it is so effective.

There will be *SPOILERS* in the following post for The Sixth Gun Vol. 4. Proceed appropriately.

The scene I want to talk about is a conversation that takes place between a captured Drake Sinclair and his capture Gabriel. The object of this conversation is that Drake had formally been a member of The Knights of Solomon, and Gabe wants to convince Drake to come back into the fold. It's very much your genre standard conversation between your morally flexible hero and your powerful, villainous mastermind along a long table.

What I love about this scene is how every image is framed and blocked so to emphasize some aspect of the discourse which enhances the emotional resonance of the entire scene.

The majority of the panels in this exchange are arranged to emphasize the physical separation between Drake and Gabe, either by using angles that emphasize the length of the table (like in the top image) or like in this panel where the physical separation between the two characters requires a panel break. This distance is a wonderful visual representation of the rhetorical space between the two men: they are far apart because they their way of seeing the world are miles apart.

The other layout trick used in this sequence is a bit subtler. The vast majority of Drake shots have him facing from left to right, while Gabe is mostly seen looking right to left (that is when they aren't staring straight out of frame). This cements their position on opposite ends of the long table, but is also another great visual metaphor for disagreeing: the characters literally have opposing views. Again this helps cement the impression of the pair as being diametrically opposed.

(Also, the above panel is great because the choice to exclude the background helps emphasize all of the earthly food and golden temptations in the foreground of the panel, which is another major element of the back and forth between these characters.)

But the thing that cements this sequence as  being particularly great is its very last panel. It is at this point that a combination of threats, bribes, and promises finally appears to break through to Drake and convince him to rejoin the Knights. And this is shown in a panel that has Drake, still sitting in the exact same location, face back right to left. Basically, the very same panel where Drake changes his view of things sees the man literally appear to change his view and move to a position that physically resembles that of Gabriel. It's such a small detail, but within the context of the composition it speaks volumes. It's absolutely great comics and emblematic of the sharp storytelling choices that are made throughout The Sixth Gun.

The Sixth Gun