Friday, 23 January 2015

Deep Sequencing: Deadly Layouts

Or a look at the audacious layouts in Deadly Class Vol. 1
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge, Rus Wooton; Image Comics

Deadly Class, a comic about a troubled youth joining an assassin school, is maybe one of the best looking comics I've read recently. It is absolutely chocked full of exciting, dynamic layouts, stylish characters, and seamlessly integrated and interesting colours. It is a comic that really delivers some outstanding storytelling and showcases how effective art teams can make great comics. While I have some story-related reservations about whole-heartedly recommending Deadly Class, I feel like if you are the kind of reader who really enjoys comics art, it is a must read comic. 

In this post I'm going to try and break down a really great action sequence from early in the volume that really showcases some of the fantastic layout decisions in Deadly Class Vol. 1.

There will, of course, be *SPOILERS* for Deadly Class Vol. 1.

This is the first page of the sequence I want to take a closer look at and already there is some pretty impressive comics at work. Take the top level of panels with Marcus, the guy, fleeing down some stairs. The tilt to the row helps create both the sense that he is moving down some stairs and, since the panels become wider as they progress, that Marcus is coming towards the reader. This is further emphasized by the way Marcus' body breaks the barriers of the panel gutters, always in the direction he is moving, until ultimately he seems to leap off the page. This leap leads to a cross-page carriage return to the image of him landing heavily which captures the sudden speed of the leap and the halt of his motion. The page then drags the reader's eyes to the right to Marcus' eyes, up the black leg guide and to Saya's eye at a higher level on the page. This instantly tells us Marcus is looking up at her, which carries spatial information, as well as making Saya, the woman, seem like a powerful force. The next panel, though, is the really brilliant part of this page: Saya's head is in the second row of panels and her body and motorcycle are in the large, bottom panel of the page. What this does is it focuses the reader's attention on her in the second row of panels so that when they enter the final, large panel she is already the most important thing in it, the focal point. Which is such a great layout choice. (Of course this effect is emphasized by the colours which uses Saya's pale skin, hard black hair and clothes, and the bright red of the panel and motorbike to draw attention to Saya and away from the washed out surroundings and Marcus.) All in all, this is a great page of comics. 

And we are just getting started.

The next page utilizes a few simple layout choices to make the entire page very fast and kinetic. The first is that the panels are short but wide and have relatively few key details or text. This means that readers have to pan back and forth across the entire page and can move through each panel without slowing down to navigate dialogue or unnecessary details. Eye path distance plus quick reading panels make for a fast feeling page. This page also utilizes tilted panels, which adds to the speed of the page. In the top panel, this tilt makes the panel become wider in the same direction of the motion, which makes the motion feel like it is exploding in that direction. In the next four panels the tilt is in the same direction as the motion making everything feel like it is moving downhill and in the natural direction of reading the page, which helps add more feelings of speed to the wide panels. The bottom of the page utilizes the tilt as well, but in a more interesting way. Here the composition seems to widen in our direction and then narrow, which along with the drawings create the impression of the motorcyclists coming towards the reader and then blasting away into the distance where the page narrows. It's a great page that uses structure to create a physical, and therefore, emotional sense of speed in the action.

The next page continues to make use of the slanted wide panel structure to continue making the sequence feel recklessly fast. This page does some additional things in its bottom half that are pretty exciting. The sixth, seventh, and eighth panels on the page grab the motion of the reader's cross-page carriage return and bend it into a wide turn that brings Marcus and Saya on their motorcycle around the bend and up towards the reader. Which is great because it captures the experience and wildness of a high speed turn. Another cool aspect of the layout of this page is that the final panel, depicting the police care taking the same turn, spatially overlaps the previous panels so that the reader encounters it in the process of reading the motorcycle's turn which conveys just how close the pursing cops are to the Marcus and Saya. This panel construction really solidifies the stakes and status of the chase as we move on to the next page.

The next page represents a change of pace to the story, with Saya recognizing something drastic must be done to break the stalemate of the chase. And so the story of the page is Saya jumping off the motorcycle and into the police car. The page does a bunch of nifty things to make this sequence work really well. For one, it continues to use the slanted panel layout to continue the motif of speed in the chase. However, the focus of this page is Saya as she leaps from the motorbike. The key here is that Saya is drawn in a way that is on top of and independent from the underlying panels, which helps keep the reader focused on Saya and moving along the trajectory of her leap. Another great flourish in the leaping sequence is that on her way down into the police car, Saya drops along a long, straight line that the reader's eyes rapidly move down. It makes the motion feel fast and the impending collision feel weighty and significant. This page also uses the same trick as the previous page where Saya's leap, Marcus on the motorcycle, and the pursuing police car all share an overlapping common background space all jumbled together. This provides a bunch spatial and temporal information which makes the sequence make sense and feel very fast. It's a really smart choice.

And then we get a page turn...

...And a tremendous impact! Saya smashes through the windshield of the police car and kicks the driver in the face in an absolutely visceral moment. A moment that is amped up by the underlying layout choices: the reader enters the page on the top left, which is against the motion of the kick. The fact the depicted motion operates against the direction of the reader's eye path makes the moment feel more sudden, and heavy. This disjoint also means that the reader has to take a little longer to figure out how to navigate the panel which makes the moment stretch a little. This first panel is also noteworthy in it shows a really smart change in colouring: the inside of the cab is coloured in a green/grey palette that is distinct from the bright red pallet of the rest of the chase scene, which can still be seen through the car's windows. This creates a clear demarcation between outside and inside and helps convey that Saya has entered the police car without being explicitly shown this. The page then returns to the speed tilt with wide panel format, readers cruising back and forth quickly, running along the motion of Saya slamming into the car and then along gun barrels and pointed fingers to keep the reader focused on key information. On this page, though, the panel tilt is in the opposite direction as previous pages in the sequence. This is significant because it provides a clearly different feel for the in-the-police-car subscene and because it allows Saya to kick down in the first panel. It also helps emphasize the hazard of the telephone pole the car is hurtling towards: it's the focus of the largest panel on the page. Which sets up for the page turn.

The page turn brings right to another impact. The reader enters the page at the top left and is dragged by the car right into the telephone pole. Critically, the reader then probably notices Saya tumbling clear of the wreck which pulls attention to the top right corner of the page. What this does is it rapidly arrests the downward progress of the reader: the car his the pole, and then that eye motion abruptly stops. It's an exciting choice. The res of the page returns to the wide, angled panel format to convey fast, kinetic action. Some cool features of this page are the frictionless panel of Marcus freaking out that can be taken in at a glance, the great leaning motorcycle turn, and the the final panel which snaps up the carriage return early and drags it into the green tunnel and scene change. Basically it is another keen, fast-feeling page.

The next page picks up moments after Marcus crashes the motorbike. He is injured, discombobulated and frightened, and the layout absolutely reflects this. Gone are the organized, efficient row panels that readers can quickly navigate, and instead the page is filled with a riot of tumbled, confusing panels. Readers are forced to try and figure out a route through without a clear eye-guided path to follow leading an empathetic moment of confusion. Initially the lettering drags the reader to the wincing face of Marcus, letting the reader know he is in pain right from the start. After that though, the composition is less clear, and requires some meandering and taking stock: what happened, and what is the situation. Things become a bit clearer again as Marcus goes for his backpack, before his attention, and the reader's, is dragged down and to the left to a pursuing gunman. And then a tumble of chaotic panels bring us out of the page into the next. The entire layout is broken and chaotic, the green colour palette is also sickly, it's as if the entire page is in pain and it absolutely captures the moment. 

And finally we reach the climatic page of this sequence. This is a page designed to build tension to a finely honed edge. The page enters with the gunman from the previous page, finger on the trigger, and then follows a meandering trail of blood, suggestive and just a little time consuming, drawing the moment out. The reader then sees the gunman aiming his gun down, and following the path of the barrel, we see Marcus laying injured on the ground in a pool of blood. The next panel is aimed up at the gunman, looming in a position of power, before bringing us to the final, RED panel that sets up the exciting climax of the entire chase sequence.

Which is...

Something you'll have to read in Deadly Class Vol. 1

Which you really should do, because these kinds of ambitious, clever layouts abound in Deadly Class. Every page has adept storytelling and many page have these tremendous and creative flourishes of design. Deadly Class is as smart a comic as I've read when it comes to the use of layout as a storytelling tool and is really must read comics if you are interested in how comics work. 

So I Read Deadly Class Vol. 1

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