Friday, 31 October 2014

Atoll Comics: Round 17

Or changes to my Top-Ten comics

Due to my spouse seeing how much I spend on comics 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 Batgirl and dropping Batman.

Why Batgirl: I feel like DC comics has long had issues with telling one kind of story: very traditional looking super hero stories with boringly similar protagonists and a certain radical grimness. Add to that a house art style on most of their titles that is generally not my favourite and I haven't been terribly interested in reading much by DC since their reboot. In this environment the new iteration of Batgirl glows! It features a new creative team with editorial freedom to tell lighter stories featuring a female protagonist in a fresh setting with artwork that is perfect for the story and radically different than DC as a whole. The comic features Barbara Gordon Batgirl moving to hipstery Burnside, fighting crime, and also being a 20-something woman in a way that feels much more in tune with how 20-something women actually live. It is fun and interesting and different and actual variety in comics! It's a comic you really ought to at least leaf-through and try because mainstream comics, and DC in particular needs more of these idiosyncratic comics that appeal to readers that aren't comic-bros. And because it's just a really fun and well made comic.

(Admittedly, it does lean pretty heavy into EXPLICITLY STATING how it isn't like other comics. Which, for a first issue that is trying to define itself is fine and important, but you can pretty much play a drinking game of undercut hairdos, social media aps, and characters explicitly stating their sexuality to demonstrate how diverse it is. It is like #Tumblr #hastags for #Batgirl and is a bit distracting at the volume it happens within the issue. Like, I LOVE the spirit of the identity they are establishing for the series and how the comic is explicitly for people who disenfranchised by the narrowness of representation in most comics. That part is great. But I really hope that going forward the creative team finds a way to more organically incorporate these elements into the series. And yes, I kind of feel like a jerk for being annoyed by this!)

Why Batman: Batman has been one of the most consistent comics I've been reading. Snyder and Capullo have done a great job delivering consistently entertaining and compelling Batman stories. I like Batman. I really like Batman. And so, I kind of always want space in my comics pull list to read reasonably well done Batman comics. It speaks to the childhood geek in me. It has been a pleasure to read the current run of Batman because it reliably delivers Batman and because the series has also been pretty good comics. However, Batman is currently fighting Superman and the Justice League and FUCK THAT! I have less than zero interest in reading ANOTHER Batman fighting Superman story. It is the least interesting story in comics at this point. And the fact that Batman is currently running at $4.99 makes this even less attractive: I will not pay EXTRA to read the most boring of all comics cliches. I will not! I may very well pick this series back up eventually, but for now, no. Just no. 

This post is by Michael Bround


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

So I Read Pride of Baghdad

A 250 word (or less) review of pride of Baghdad graphic novel 
By Brian k Vaughan and Niko Henrichon; Vertigo Comics

I think one of the most difficult aspects of talking about the consequences of modern warfare to North Americans, especially to people in my demographic, is that very few of us have any experience with living in a war zone. So it is hard to imagine and empathize with the civilian cost of war. Pride of Baghdad attempts to make the everyday human cost of the Iraq War emotionally relevant to a Western audience. Specifically, the comic dramatizes the true story of a group of lions who escaped the Baghdad zoo during the American bombing campaign which were eventually, while starving, gunned down by US soldiers. Pride of Baghdad leverages the inherent likability, and in my case Lion King ingrained love, of cartoon, anthropomorphized lions to reach out and touch our hearts before tearing them out in the fires of war. It's a great, super effective and slightly manipulative comic worth checking out.

Word count: 153

Post by Michael Bround

Monday, 27 October 2014

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #5

Or a look at the fade-out in WicDiv #5
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine sure ended on a roller coaster, eh? It has all the action, drama, and Earth shaking events that a properly good climax ought, and opens all kind of storytelling doors going forward. I really, really enjoyed this comic.

WicDiv #5 does a lot of things remarkably well. The use of comic paradigm rule bending as short hand for magic is fantastic, the simple and effective ways colour and iconography allows rapid recognition of characters is clinical, and the composition of action is heart-pounding and visceral and amazing. And that panel with the bloody grin is like some kind of theoretical ideal of comics. (Why do I love comics? THIS!) Basically this comic does everything it needs to portray a complete orgasm of action and bring the first arch of WicDiv to a satisfying conclusion.

Which is why it might be perverse that the part of the comic that I am absolutely fixated on is the post climax fadeout at the very end of the comic. 

So, without further ado, *SPOILERS* will be beyond this point.

So I think one of the most remarkable aspects of The Wicked + The Divine is just how excellent the facial acting of the drawn characters are. The amount of emotion that Jamie McKelvie brings to his figures is astonishing. This post was originally just going to be tight shots of Laura from all over the comic to show how, even without words or body language, we are able to experience the entire emotional arch of the comic from her facial expressions alone. But, a lot of the issue is her shouting and looking horrified, and I feel like such extreme emotions are things that a lot of comics artists can draw pretty well. I mean, few as well as McKelvie, but it's still normal comics wheelhouse. 

Which is why I want to focus on this quiet sequence here: the subtlety and richness of expression over these six panels is remarkable. With only the slightest tweaks we see Laura go through bored/sad to openly sad to thoughtful/sad to sad/wistful (or verklmept if you like) to wistful/wry to a kind of neutral/concentrative look while she is focusing on snapping. I think a lot of artists can rock an epic shouting person, but McKelvie is one of the only artists that I can think of that can so masterfully build such nuanced emotion into a downtempo scene with facial expressions alone. Like, I would argue the dialogue in this page is entirely redundant too: the saddness, to thoughtful, to wistful, to action on her face sells "I am thinking of Luci and she would do this thing" of the page even without us being told. It's perfection.

I also want to take a look at this sequence:

This sequence here is also really interesting to me. For one, this series of panels nails the climatic-not-really-a-resolution practice of the fade out in film media. It takes that ending note, in this case surprise, thoughtfulness, and dismay and drags it out so that the audience can stew in the emotional mixture longer. It also has the added effect of making the story feel like it is alive after the ending: the story hasn't abruptly ended, but rather we are backing away from a world that continues to exist and spin. It's apparently a thing in music that when a song fades out people more often continue tapping or humming along than with songs that have a hard ending (this episode of the Slate's The Gist has an interview on this topic.) And you totally get this wonderful effect of the story being bigger than the issue with this storytelling choice.

Of course, this sequence is also pretty interesting from the perspective of how comics are made. Like how great is the use of the glowing red tip of the cigarette and reflected light in the eyes on this page? It instantly is a great reference to Lucifer, who Team WicDiv have done a great job associating with fire and fierce, red eyes but also manages to give the entire sequence a menacing, demonic air. There is a monster with glowing eyes in this page. Also the use of white text in an all black panel at the end manages to give that phrase so much more weight: it takes what the "oh god" of Laura's internal narration and slams into the much more authoritative, direct authorial statement. Laura is telling it isn't over, but so is the book itself in a very heavy, unignorable way. This page makes great use of colouring and lettering to unambiguously and indirectly convey that there is a storm coming our way.

It's pretty great comics.

Post by Michael Bround

WicDiv #1 and popart head-splosions
WicDiv #2 and the use of black-space
WicDiv #3 and character design

WicDiv #4 and body language 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Sound Advice: Rat Queens Vol. 1

Advisement on Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery
by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, Image Comics

Rat Queens is a title that was recommended to me by a number of comic-reading friends well before I ever considered picking up an issue. Their enthusiastic, shouted recommendations had me picking up a copy during a sale at my favorite store, where even the owner ringing up my purchase said to me “Call us when you finish that, you’re going to want more.” I devoured Rat Queens over the course of 2 days, and by the end of the trade I was mad at myself because this book was so great and I wasn’t already reading it.

Rat Queens Vol 1 Feels like an amorphous combination of straight up paperback fantasy adventure story and what I think of as trashy “chick lit”—the sort of book that I read for pure enjoyment, with no goal of educational or literary enrichment (This is not a bad thing—reading is sometimes quite legitimately about escapism). The story of Rat Queens is well-versed and grounded in the tradition of fantasy/adventure tales, but so fun and funny that it feels like it should be a guilty pleasure. It’s also unapologetically foul-mouthed and bloody, which I appreciate from my fantasy tales.

This book is straight-up fun to read.

But if you haven’t read it, assume some mild *SPOILERS* below.

This book had been described to me by numerous friends as a fantasy story if fantasy stories happened with the same dialogue as a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  As I read through it, I was surprised with how accurate this description was—I had heard this said about the book so many times that I kept expecting to turn the page and be confronted with the tabletop game controlling the Rat Queens, but it never happened.

Rat Queens is almost the antithesis of trying too hard—the book flows, with casual dialogue, a quick-paced and easy to follow plot, and characters that are entertaining and relatable, while remaining interesting. In all of the best ways, reading Rat Queens fells akin to watching a well-done sitcom—I’m laughing, I care about the characters, and I want to keep exploring more. 

Wiebe and Upchurch do a fantastic job balancing this fun style with the hallmarks of a fantasy tale. Our heroines fight, swear, revel, drink, and fight some more.  The embark upon a quest, encounter a mystery, and must work together with people and groups outside of their own to confront a problem. For all that the story arc feels almost comfortingly familiar to this long time fantasy reader, Rat Queens is a breath of fresh air. The Queens are self-aware enough to give credit to others for great lines said in battle, or mock fantasy-world stereotypes, such as the good sight of elves, embracing the best fantasy tropes without feeling weighted down by them.

 One of the things Rat Queens does incredibly well is the causal, free dialogue, peppered with a large number of jokes. The choice to use modern language and slang is one of the elements of the story that had me flipping pages and rooting for our characters – If I was fighting monsters, my vocabulary would be much closer to that of the Queens than of those fantasy novels I grew up on. The Rat Queens and company are foul-mouthed in the way you would expect a person to be when faced with an army of trolls.

 The interesting supporting characters also play into my enjoyment of this story – The Rat Queens themselves are interesting and becoming more and  more multifaceted as the story goes  on, but I’m just as charmed by the Sawyer, the captain of the guard, by the other bands of adventures (The Four Daves make me smile all the way through), and even by the band of trolls the Queens eventually fightI want to know more about our main quartet of heroes, but I also really want to spend more time with these awesome supporting characters.

Wiebe and Upchurch should also get some real credit for a book with consistently diverse representation. I noticed this immediately with our four main characters, women of different body types and ethnicity, but as I read I also noticed it in the background—the setting is populated by characters with a range of skin colors and body types. We also see some representation of diverse sexual orientation and religious beliefs and ideologies, though this is a harder type of diversity to represent in a visual medium. I did find that occasionally this can feel a bit forced—Dee and Betty talking about Dee’s religious beliefs while working to infiltrate a guild office comes to mind – but intent is there, and the heart of the story is in the right place.

Rat Queens will be staying on my list as a book I follow in trades. Volume One is a solid opening arc, a full story that leaves tendrils of further story to be explored in future installments. I want to know more about the characters, sure, but more than anything else, I want to spend more time in the world Wiebe & Upchurch have created—a diverse fantasyland populated by foul-mouthed, bad-ass adventurers. There is always space in my life for a read that gets me turning pages and leaves me smiling. I’ve already begun to shout my own loud, enthusiastic recommendations at friends.

Post by Jennifer DePrey


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

So I Read Rat Queens: Sass And Sorcery

A 250 word (or less) review of Rat Queens Volume One
By Kurtis J Weibe and Roc Upchurch; Image Comics Shadowline

Palisade is an idyllic fantasy town filled with gorgeous houses, bustling commerce, and ruckus taverns where the races of the world can meet in peace and goodwill. Except for those damn riotous adventurers. The worst and best of which are The Rat Queens: Hannah the tattooed and vulgar elven sorceress, Betty the mischievous Smidgen thief, Violet the deeply-unique Dwarven warrior, and Dee the agnostic cleric of the flying squid god N'Rygoth. And so the town of Palisade sends The Rat Queens and the other adventuring bands of the town on a series of quests. Quests designed to take care of the adventurer problem once and for all. Rat Queens is the definition of a fun comic: it's a rollicking swords and sorcery adventure with a modern sensibility and cheeky sense of humour. It's also a pretty involving comic: a core cast of charismatic characters and decent little mystery manage to keep Rat Queens racing along. This is a comic that, for all of its fun, manages a level of complexity that keeps things engaging and from devolving into just a silly romp. Also so much cussing and vulgarity! If you are looking for an exciting, character driven comic that doesn't take itself too seriously, Rat Queens would be an excellent comic to try.

Post by Michael Bround

Word count: 213

Monday, 20 October 2014

Sound Advice: Sex Criminals Vol. 1

Advisement on Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trip
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky; Image Comics

First, a disclaimer: If you have found this review through googling my name because you are a student or former student of mine, do me a huge solid and take my advice right here: while Sex Criminals is a fantastic comic, it is also not for you, at least, not without your parents reading it first and giving you the okay to read it and then having what I can only imaging are going to be awkward discussions about the content of the book. If you and your parents have not yet handled talks about safe sex, consent, intimacy, and how sex is only one aspect of an adult relationship, just trust me and know you’re not quite ready for this book yet. Check back in a few years.

If you are my parents? Sorry, Mom and Dad. Maybe go check out my tag and read another of the reviews I’ve written?

Also, *SPOILERS* ahead so proceed at your own risk.


To level with you, I had trouble writing this review. There are so many things I absolutely adore about this book that figuring out a cohesive way to express my feelings about Sex Criminals took far more time and introspection than I wanted it to. I wrote and trashed multiple versions of this piece before I could even articulate why that was happening.

Sex Criminals has a simple premise, one that could be reduced so much that at first glance it’s a complete gimmick: Our Hero and Heroine stop time when the orgasm, and decide to use this power to rob banks. From the moment I heard about this book, I knew it was going on my pull list just because I wanted to read what I was sure would be a hilarious book by Matt Fraction resplendent with dick jokes. I expected that I would laugh, and keep the digital copies on my kindle for days I needed some levity, and not mention to my mom that this was a book I was reading.

Sex Criminals is so funny and witty and just silly. The dialogue and story makes me smile consistently – Suzie’s pool table musical number comes to mind. Fraction and Zdarsky have built a book that is full of jokes – on every reread I catch something I didn’t see before in the background of a scene.

 (A couple of examples of excellent jokes created in the background art.)

 The levity that oozes from every aspect of this book makes it easy to engage with – from the tips heading the letters column to the dedications in the collected volume, Fraction and Zdarsky bring the funny.

But Sex Criminals is also a great examination of a new relationship, about the magic of learning about another person and discovering what about them it is that you find attractive and connect with, about why they have taken up some precious residence in your heart.

Like sex itself, Sex Criminals is more complex than it’s pitch makes it seem. Sex is very rarely just sex; it’s not something that is simple, that occurs in a vacuum, or happens in the same timeline or situation for all people. Though a lot of media insist on portraying sex in a pretty simple view, it can fail to recognize that the only thing necessarily common across sexual experience is that we all have to figure out how (and even if) we want to interact with, talk about, and participate in such relationships.

Cue Suzie and Jon, our intrepid protagonists, who are willing to fully admit to one another that they struggle to figure relationships out. While they are building their relationship with one another, the readers get to see them—in present time and in flashbacks—struggle to understand sex, worry that their experiences maybe aren’t normal, lament failed relationships, explore their sexuality and desires, experience attraction and affection, and discover that this whole relationship thing may be more complex than they want it to be. Even Jon and Suzie’s experiences are quite different from one another’s. This is evident even in the way they use their stopped-time. For Suzie, The Quiet is about escaping and getting space to clear her head.

For Jon, it’s about “getting away with things,” and finding the freedom to act out what it later becomes clear are destructive impulses.

 When they find each other, it’s almost inevitable that they try to use their powers to get away with something that also helps them escape their troubles (robbing the bank Jon hates working for to save the library Suzie loves from destruction). Of course, it’s not as simple as they want it to be. Complications arise. Suzie’s friends worry about her, Jon’s mental health comes into question, and hey, apparently there are Sex Police?

 My experience is not the same as Jon or Suzie’s, but I can find much I relate to in their stories of sexual and romantic exploration – lack of information, curiosity, experimentation, shame, guilt, and emotional baggage.  Looking at the Sex Criminals letter column each issue, it seems I’m not the only one that relates so strongly to this book. Frankly, this comedy about sex has something real and relatable to say about our common experience of just trying to figure things out. By sharing these moments with the reader, Fraction and Zdarsky give us the opportunity to connect more with the characters.

We see a young Suzie unable to find information, going to all sorts of sources and not knowing what to do.

We see teenage Jon unsure about why sex is a big deal, and why he feels so strange about it.

We see Suzie’s rendition of a musical number in a pool hall (one of my favorite scenes) as the as Jon’s moment of realization about his deepening affection for her.

 We see, though the repetition of a single phrase of internal dialogue as the plot progresses, how her feelings about Jon grow and change over the course of the volume.

The willingness to explore all these moments makes Sex Criminals one of the most realistic portrayals of sex and relationships I’ve seen in contemporary media, aside from, you know, the stopping time with orgasms and the sex police. Really, this discovery just adds another layer of complexity to Suzie and Jon’s relationship, gives them another thing they need to consider and weigh and negotiate around. It’s another obstacle to overcome, and to consider if it is worth overcoming.

It took one issue of this book (bought digitally, I will fully admit, because I was not comfortable going to my comic book store full of mostly men and requesting I be put on the pre-order list for a book called Sex Criminals) for this to become a story that I was talking about with my friends and recommending to any friend that I thought would listen. The balance this book strikes between comedic and introspective continues to astound and impress me.

For me, the other truly remarkable thing about Sex Criminals is how much conversation it’s sparked in my life. After a friend read the first issue, she sent me a text absolutely floored about the remarkably realistic and grounded portrayal of female sexuality, and we agreed that it felt like a breath of fresh air.  At Emerald City Comicon 2014, it was clear that there was a rabid fanbase for the book—the lines to have Fraction and Zdarsky sign my freshly-purchased SEXclusive Convention HARDcover of Volume One was long all weekend.

(I did eventually get it signed, and uh, marked, by Fraction and Zdarsky—don’t worry, that’s whiteout)

 One of the advantages of reading Sex Criminals issue to issue was the letters column, where person after person related to the stories on the page, and shared their own experiences and questions. This book has sparked a conversation among readers, and that’s what I believe good media should do, not just entertain, but inspire us to seek some better understanding.  

The best thing about this book?

There’s so many more good things to talk about.  

Post by Jennifer DePrey