Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Consider Phlebas Is A Book I Read

Or why you could read Consider Phlebas, 
by Iain M Banks

The Culture, a utopian future interplanetary society run by robotic Minds, is at war with the theocratic, jihadistic Idiran Empire. In Consider Phlebas, Bora Horza Gobuchul, a shape changing humanoid Idiran agent capable of impersonating targets, is rescued from a failed mission and tasked with infiltrating Schar's World to recover a Culture prototype Mind stranded on the planet. Unfortunately, things go sideways and Horza finds himself on a mercenary pirate ship. The novel explores whether Horza can salvage his mission and find the Mind before the agents of the Culture can capture or thwart him. 

I really did not enjoy this novel very much. I think the reasons for this fall comfortably into two broad categories.

The first is that I don't enjoy novels that fuck around too much. I'm kind of a busy person trying to balance a pretty demanding career with my marriage and so time is really precious to me. While I read during my lengthy commute, I still hate it when I feel like a novel isn't a good investment of time. And Consider Phlebas really felt like it was taking it's time not really going anywhere. This novel really didn't deliver a very effective plot and seemed more interested in messing around in admittedly interesting settings than focus on the story. Which can still make for a memorable novel if the characters are interesting and well developed, or if the novel is short enough not to feel bogged down. But with boring, underdeveloped characters and being of substantial length, Consider Phlebas felt more like a bloated time sink than a compelling story to me.

This sense of a pointless story is reinforced by a poor protagonist. For one, Horza, is pretty unlikable: he is this jerky guy who selfishly does awful things for unclear and poorly defined reasons. He is just kind of a butthole, which makes him someone naturally hard to care about and root for. Which could be fine if he were an interesting jerk, but because his motivations are so poorly defined and his character so bland, he ends up being a boring butthole. And this unlikable, bland character doesn't even really develop in any meaningful way over the course of the sizeable meandering novel. It's just stuff happening to a person I never care about who is acting on a vague sense of principles I guess? Blah.

(Consider Phlebas also kills the puppy. Now, I'm using kill the puppy as short hand for "an author deliberately setting up a situation or character that the audience will sympathize with and then doing something really, really shitty to them in a transparently manipulative authorial dickmove". And Consider Phlebas has a really hamfisted and exceptionally dickish example of killing the puppy. Such a dickmove in a novel that I'm generally finding quite bland is pretty unforgivable.)

I actually found the experience of reading Consider Phlebas a lot like reading a video game. The novel provided an empty vessel protagonist and sent him to a bunch of pretty interesting sounding settings and then staging first person shooter action sequences. Throw in a few more gun toting minions and autoturrets and you would have a not terrible FPS videogame which could be really fun to play through. But to read? Pretty dull. 

Would I recommend this novel? Well, no. I really didn't enjoy it. I feel like if you are the kind of reader who is less time conscious or was really into meandering fiction, you might enjoy this book. It came very highly recommended to me by the guy at my bookstore and by an author whose opinion in fiction I usually trust, so my dislike of this novel might just be a me thing. But, I can only share my own experience with this book, which wasn't very good. So, I'd say if you are looking for something to read, I'd choose one of the dozens of books I've enjoyed more than this one.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Deep Sequencing: Enlightening Up

Or a look at format and the juxtapositional brilliance of Lighten Up
by Ron Wimberly; Published on The Nib

Lighten Up, a short comic by Ron Wimberly, relates an anecdote where a Marvel editor asked him to lighten the skin tone of a character. The comic gracefully presents a nuanced look at how this request made Wimberly feel and explains why these issues matter. Lighten Up is a powerful comic where someone says something important and deserves to be read and thought on. Lighten Up is also a brilliantly composed comic that is really interesting in both compositional choices and in format. Since looking at what makes good comics work on a technical level is my thing, I want to try and explain what makes Lighten Up such a fantastic craft.

Specifically, I want to talk about how Lighten Up uses juxtaposition to tremendous effect and the role format plays in experiencing the comic.

First though, go get your smart phone. Then go here on your smart phone and read Lighten Up. I'll get into this below, but Lighten Up reads *MUCH* better on a smart phone than a full browser and you really need to encounter it in the best format. If you have already read the comic on a full web browser, I would even encourage you to try it again on a smart phone, it's really a different experience.

There will be *SPOILERS* beyond this point. You've read the thing by now, right? 

The comics engine of Lighten UP is, I think, how effectively it sets up and uses juxtaposition. This is why format, whether you read the comic on your laptop or smart phone, is really important. On a full internet browser, you can see four story unit blocks on a screen at a time and you are forced to navigate through the story in tiered rows of two. This let's you kind of see upcoming story blocks in the periphery and leads to a zig-zag, meandering reading path. On a smart phone the comic scrolls one story block at a time along your screen which dramatically tightens the focus and enforces the order of reading. On a smart phone readers have the pace and order they encounter each panel controlled so that the more dramatic transitions are revealed perfectly. Which taken together really works to optimize the comics ability to set up juxtapositions in the most emotionally effective ways.

Also, I found reading the comic on a smartphone a much more intimate experience. There is just something personal about reading something on my phone; a device I use to text love ones, check emails from people I know, and engage in social media; that doesn't translate onto a laptop experience; the device I use for work stuff, reading magazine format websites, and professional email. This might be an idiosyncrasy of my own, but the experience of reading Lighten Up on a smart phone made it feel more personal than if I were reading it on a computer.

Which, collectively, is why I think it is so important to read Lighten Up on a smartphone.

Lighten Up, and it's juxtaposition machinery, also makes tremendous use of the colours black and white. Black the colour is caused by the absence of colour: it is how our brains decide an object that absorbs light from the entire visual spectrum, all the colours, looks. White conversely is the colour our brains attach to objects that reflect all of the wavelengths of visible light; white is what all the colours at once look like. In a pure aesthetic situation there is no contrast greater than the colours of black and white. You cannot get further apart than all of the colours and none of the colours. This colour contrast lends itself to striking moments of juxtaposition.

Whether it be from literal contrast, some sort of mammal-brain reaction to light and shadow, or cultural conditioning, there is just something dramatically striking and final about black and white juxtapositions. The sharp divide jumps off the page and demands attention in a way that more nuanced blending doesn't as effectively. Moreover, black and white contrasts also, at least for me, set up ideas in direct stark, binary situations. Things are either one way or another way, black or white, which leads to moments of confrontation or conviction in compositions. 

Lighten Up has several key moments that use black and white story blocks to create moments of binaries (is this racist? y/n) and moments of dramatic and uncomfortable comparison.

One of the smartest aspects is how the comic uses Hex colour code. Under hex code, colours are broken into Red Green and Blue over a six digit code (######). In this scheme each pair of characters represents the value of a single colour (RRGGBB). Because computer coding likes to be needlessly complicated, digits in this scheme don't directly correspond to the colour intensity, but instead arise from converting the intensity into a different code. In this scheme each digit of hex code is assigned a value from 0-9 or, for values 10-15, a value of A-F.  In Hex code, the colour of Ron Wimberly's skin, in particular light conditions, is #5c4653. The colour black, which is a lack of reflected or projected colour is #000000. The colour white conversely, is the colour that comes from all of the colours being projected at once and has the highest code, #FFFFFF. 

Ron Wimberly uses this code, the stark difference between the colour white and black, and the tightly focused stacked narrative to deliver a truly staggering moment of comics:

Which is an incisive and difficult criticism, but also a truly astonishing feat of comics storytelling. Lighten Up is technically so, so good.

Maybe the most meaningful juxtaposition in Lighten Up is how the comic contrasts the black and white world of binary race with the more complicated and nuanced reality of diverse people. The comic clearly shows that real people aren't categories but are complex individuals who are cartoonists or reporters (and X-girlfriends). Even when looking at something as skin-deep as flesh tones no one is actually #000000 and #FFFFFF, but instead mixtures of more complex Hex codes. And yet #FFFFFFF and #000000 persist and skin tone is given enough consideration to kick off the central anecdote of this comic. Simplistic, binary portrayals of race still exist and still hold power. The way Lighten Up manages to show the friction between and simultaneous existence of both viewpoints, of colourful diverse panels with myriad hex codes as well as stark black and white binaries, I think showcases that both worlds must ultimately be reckoned with. And I think this point is built structurally into the comic in a deeply nuanced and clever way.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Deep Sequencing: Southern Bastard Faces

Or a look at the many, realistic looking faces in Southern Bastards Vol. 1,
by Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Southern Bastards, a comic about Crime in a small Southern town, is a great comic. It's visceral and brutal and surprisingly human and utterly believable. It is also a comic that I think does something really, really important with character design that I wish more comics, television shows, and movies would do: it has believable looking people.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Souther Bastards: Vol. 1.

Now I enjoy seeing attractive people do attractive things as much as anyone. Everyone gets drawn into the charisma of pretty people. But the fact of the matter is that really conventionally attractive people are a subset of the population. Take any sufficiently large group of people and you will find pretty people, but also some unattractive looking people. and a lot of people that exist somewhere in between. This becomes even more true when you start looking at people with older age demographics, because age makes people wider, saggier, and less conventionally attractive through time. Basically, a truly representative group of humanity includes people who are good looking, but also people who are less immediately attractive too.

This seems like a fact that is missing from most visual media. You open most comics, particularly mainstream Marvel and DC comics, or turn on the television and you are generally confronted by fictional worlds filled with beautiful, conventionally attractive people. Hordes of pretty people wearing the cutting edges of fashion living in unbelievably expensive and gorgeous apartments living fabulous lives. Modelesque superheroes saving cities of glamorous civilians from alien hordes and sexy young singles just trying to figure it out in front of a legion of gorgeous extras. In fiction-land everyone is young and beautiful, and when they aren't it is a noteworthy story point. Normal looking people need not apply.

The trouble with this, aside from how toxic a message it is, is that it is fundamentally unbelievable. Beautiful fiction-land doesn't look like reality, the demographics don't add up. Attractive people can do anything, be as smart or kick ass as anyone, but the idea of an entire detective department being 20-something underwear models with perfectly styled hair and impeccable fashion is as unrealistic as a person with the super power to fly. A downtown coffee shop where everyone looks like members of a fashion catalogue photo-spread has as much basis in reality as adamantium claws. Portraying large groups of people as exclusively conventionally attractive people is completely unrealistic and totally ruins my suspension of disbelief.

It seems to be getting worse too. I am not an especially old human, but even I can recall a time when on television or in comics people looked more demographically reasonable. Sure, there were still very pretty people, often in key roles, but around them you had your grizzled middle-aged detectives, your harried looking mothers, your goofy looking neighbours, or just your average looking extras. The fictional worlds of our visual media used to look so much more like the actual world (I mean, at least as far as attractiveness goes) and as a result used to be so much more believable. Sadly, it seems much of our media has abandoned this.

Southern Bastards does a lot of things very, very well. But the thing that made it feel so fresh to me as a reader and so utterly believable is that it showed a diversity of faces. People in Southern Bastards LOOK LIKE PEOPLE, with all the wrinkles, weight, age, and imperfections that real groups of humans have. There are still attractive people, cute teenagers and handsome youth, but there are also elderly people, fat people, middle-aged people, all of them wearing clothes that are consistent with what actual people of their economic situation would wear. It makes everything look so much more authentic, and it makes the more fantastic elements of the story, the crime, violence, and murder, also feel real and authentic. It's a perfect choice.

And one that I really, really wish we saw more often in comics.

Post by Michael Bround 

So I Read Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

So I Read Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man

A 250 word (or less) review of Southern Bastards Vol. 1
by Jason Arron, Jason Latour, and Jared K Fletcher; Image Comics

Earl Tubb has gone back to his hometown, Craw County, a small town in Alabama, to sell his father's house. A town he swore he'd never go back to. A town run by Euless Boss, the coach of the football team and the master of a small criminal empire. A town where his father used to be the law. If Earl can just keep his head down, do what he came for and leave, he can be out of there as fast as possible. Trouble is, Earl isn't one to walk away from trouble when he finds it, and in Craw County he doesn't have to look far to find it. Southern Bastards is a fantastic crime comic set in the American South. It plays with the familiar tropes and shape of a crime story told in a visually visceral style and smothers it in the smoky barbecue sauce of small town Southern Culture. Which, it turns out, is a fantastic marriage of plot and setting. Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man functions as a single story and operates within the longer series more as an introduction and impetus than the the main plot. Which is good, because as well crafted as Here Was A Man is, the familiar story of two angry white men in the South is less interesting than the direction the series appears to be going. So while Here Was A Man is good comics, Southern Bastards looks like its going to be amazing. 

Word Count: 245

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Crux Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Crux
by Ramez Naam,

Crux is a direct sequel to the novel Nexus (to read a *SPOILER* free review, go here). In Nexus, Kaden Lane, a neurobiology researcher who has developed a new version of Nexus, an illegal drug which gives users computer-like control over their brains and the ability to network minds, is apprehended by the American Government. In exchange for leniency he is sent to Thailand with an agent handler to help capture high priority targets of the American Government. Except in the chaos of the mission, Lane and Samantha Cataranes, his erstwhile handler, escape and, while on the run, release an improved Nexus 5 into the world. A choice that has the potential to change everything.

When Crux picks up the story, Nexus 5 is loose in the world and people are experimenting with the new drug to share experiences, create art, communicate with the autistic, and to potentially create a new and powerful way of solving the world's problems. However, some people are using Nexus 5 to do horrible things to other humans and worse, a backdoor to Nexus 5 exists which promises to allow near endless abuse. Kaden Lane, the sole possessor of the Nexus backdoor passcodes, is on the run from the US government and everyone else who wants the codes for themselves. Samantha Cataranes meanwhile tries to rebuild her life and find peaceful meaning caring for the special children born with Nexus in their brains. But as Nexus 5 spreads and the potential, abuse, and threat of it grows more powers seek to control it. In Crux, Lane and Cataranes must fight for their freedom and for the safety of Nexus.

Crux is a very different kind of novel than Nexus. While both novels are interesting and readable, I feel like Nexus was a roaring Thriller novel built around a kernel of savvy Science Fiction, while Crux feels more like a deliberate work of Speculative Fiction with some great action sequences. Crux really puts the focus of the story on the Nexus drug and exploring what can be done with it and how such an invention might change society. And it's this interesting meditation that is the thematic core of the novel. But, at the same time, Crux is far from stodgy with all of the sex, violence, and action it needs to keep the book racing along.  Crux is very much an exciting book of considerable intellectual substance.

I would recommend this book to any Science Fiction fan or reader looking for a good Technothriller novel since I think it works very well in either category. I do feel like readers will be best served by reading Nexus first, since Crux is a direct sequel. But if you are a routine Sci-fi reader, you really owe it to yourself to try Nexus and Crux; novels this smart and exciting really deserve a wider audience and belong on your reading list.

Post by Michael Bround


Monday, 23 March 2015

Interrogating Black Widow #14-16

Or a look at photorealistic character design in Black Widow
by Nathan Edmondson, Phil Noto, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

A thing that occurred to me about Black Widow is just how great the character design is in the comic. For a comic that is mostly based around photorealistic people dressed in real world clothing, the comic makes some really compelling and subtle choices that make key characters, Black Widow in particular, recognizable. And I think it is interesting enough to take a closer look at.

This is going to be mostly snapshots of 'Tasha, but assume *SPOILERS* are below for Black Widow 1-16.

This is Black Widow at her most recognizable. She is wearing her trademark black catsuit, drawn in the comic as a practical minimalist garment. You can see her trademark weapon gauntlets and the retro-round zipper pull that, along with her belt, complete the outfit. You can also see her red hair, another key visual signifier of the character. When Natatasha is in her "costume" she is instantly recognizable by her simple, yet very well established look. 

Black Widow is an espionage comic, though, and the notion of its main character running around in a recognizable and attention getting black catsuit while trying to be inconspicuous is ridiculous. So a lot of the time Black Widow is wearing plain clothes within the comic, trying to blend in using unobtrusive clothing. Yet we can still easily recognize Natasha on the page. And I think this is pretty interesting stuff. 

Now, clearly part of this is that she still has her very recognizable red hair which is part of her trademark look. But I think it is more than that: Phil Noto is an incredible artist when it comes to faces. Natasha has a distinct face that is instantly recognizable in a variety of situations. We know it is her because she looks like her. It's a character design choice that takes utilizes the realism of her depiction instead of more simple body shapes and or costume colours. 

One aspect of this character design that I've really come to rely on, is actually the two moles on Black Widow's face.

Black Widow makes the smart choice of having Black Widow dress in mission appropriate ways. She wears combat fatigues and body armour, white arctic camouflage suits, plain clothes, and celebrity-style semi-disguises. And yet, we can almost always see those moles, moments of individual imperfections that are distinct to Natasha. They help make her instantly recognizable in any situation where can see her face, regardless of her clothing, or the how the "lighting" makes her hair look. It's such a subtle but effective thing.

What is maybe even more cool about the use of these moles in the character design is that they persist even when Natasha is deliberately disguised. Even in the instances when Natasha wears a wig, which obscures her signature red hair, and dresses in clothes that run contrary to her usual choices, we can still see these moles and use them to recognize her. I really cannot emphasize how clever the use of these two small skin imperfections are in this comic.

These moles also translate through time. In Black Widow #16 we see a number of flashbacks to a young Natasha running away from the Red Room and spending time as a homeless child in Russia. Despite having the face of a child, and all credit to Phil Noto here since we can definitely see the resemblance to the defined features of the adult Black Widow, we still can see Natasha's trademark red hair and her striking facial moles. The versatility of these moles in portraying Black Widow in non-standard situations is quite remarkable.

Black Widow is a really interesting comic in the way it uses and strains against its photorealism. As much as I might write about other styles of comics more, Black Widow is definitely a comic worthy of closer examination.


Friday, 20 March 2015

Deep Sequencing: Consistently Outstanding, Positively Righteous Comics Awesomeness

Or some wicked cool art choices from COPRA: Round One
by Michel Fiffe; Bergen Street Press

Copra is maybe the most dynamic and unique looking Superhero comic I've read recently. It looks like nothing else, and really delivers each discrete moment in a way that optimizes the depicted action. It's a really complete, constantly exciting book. And I really want to try and convey this to you all. So here we go.

There will be *SPOILERS* for COPRA: Round One below.

COPRA right from the start has a decidedly different look than the vast majority of comics. Michel Fiffe has an expressive, minimalist style to his characters, that while detailed, have very obvious features that makes them all immediately recognizable. The comic also has this soft, pencil crayon shading style that looks beautiful and gives the comic a unique and very art-forward feeling. Even in a quiet moment like this, just at a glance, you can tell COPRA is something special.

Or take a look at this action sequence here. The woman in green shoots and eviscerates the chain-goon, clips the flammable gas tanks of the fame thrower guy, and then the sequence focuses on flame thrower guy smouldering for a moment before igniting as his gas tanks rupture. It's a wonderful (can you call panels depicting a man burning alive wonderful?) collection of images that really zoom in on the action and give it space to be as visceral, and dramatic as possible. It's also a cool sequence because in the peripheral of the immolating man the woman in green moves on to new targets and the man in the red mask hops out of the truck and is punched. These peripheral elements, seen at a remove, help convey how much chaotic action is happening around the focus of this sequence. These bakcground elements also provide critical time information: they show that while the burning man seems to take forever to burn, it is only a moment in the grand scheme of the story. This collection of panels im emblematic of the attention to detail, beauty, and moment by moment storytelling focus that makes every second of COPRA memorable.

I am always interested in how comics go about trying to depict impossible elements like magic or time travel or reality warping physics. COPRA has some really memorable sequences in this vein. Like the above selection which features parallel scenes happening in two separate dimensions linked by a portal. The layout is directly playing with this, with the page split down the middle between the prison dimension on the left and the normal world on the right. This layout is all about playing with the permeable portal barrier between the two sides and making sure that simultaneous events are portrayed in a clear way. What this layout does very effectively is break the page into two separate vertical comic strips that interact in three tiers of time so that when the cross over event between the prisoner and the #-monster happens in the lowest tier, it is very obvious what has happened. This layout is all about taking a very complicated story beat and conveying it in an instantly understandable and visually satisfying way. It is exactly what it needs to be.

Another great sequence that deals with the impossible is this page of magic. In the page the sorcerer and his apprentice have cast a spell to contain a powerful magical artifact for study. The page conveys this by creating a cage of tiny panels around the shard-artifact to imprison it. Beyond being a great symbol for the spell, it is also creates this element of depth to the page, where each panel now has three layers so that depicted objects can be in front of or behind the plane of the panel cage. Which leads to some really, really cool features like in the second panel where the sorcerer directly interacts with the cage-panels and reaches through them and out of the page. It's a really cool effect. It's also a wonderful visual representation of magic in comics: something structurally impossible and fourth wall breaking is occurring on the page much like how magic is a phenomena that violates the rules of reality. It's absolutely great comics.

And really, all of COPRA is of this quality. If you like artistically interesting comics or just totally rad superhero comics you really need to track down COPRA Round One. It is totally worth the effort.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read COPRA: Round One.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

So I Read COPRA: Round One

Or a 250 word (or less) review of the first COPRA collection
by Michel Fiffe; Bergen Street Press

Like everyone who reads superhero comics owned by a gigantic corporation I have complicated feelings about the relationship. I love the characters and enjoy the work done by talented creators who work on my favourite titles, but at the same time the lack of endings, rotating creators, and occasionally boneheaded editorial choices of this publishing realm can be upsetting. Sometimes it feels like if only I, personally, were in control of the comics they would be better. And I think maybe Michel Fiffe had a similar feeling and independently made COPRA. COPRA started, at least, as a fan comic paying tribute to classic Jim Ostrander Suicide Squad stories and evolved to maybe be the best superhero team book I've read. The comic is about a team of renegades given purpose by COPRA, a secret black-ops organization specializing in super-powered suicide missions. Something goes wrong during an off the books mission, the team is betrayed, framed, and declared outlaw. While on the run the team must launch another suicide mission to punish the traitor and save the world. COPRA is everything I want in an action team book with memorable combat, colourful characters, and a general sense of awesomeness that is totally fun and rad. COPRA is also just a fantastic comic with a distinct style and a masterful and experimental approach to action storytelling. I am not in charge of comics, but if I was, COPRA is exactly the kind of comic I’d want to make.

Word count: 246

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Severed Streets Is A Good Book

Or why you should read The Severed Streets
by Paul Cornell

The Severed Streets is a direct sequel to London Falling by Paul Cornell (For a *SPOILER* free review go here). In London Falling an unlikely collection of London Metropolitan detectives are drawn into a supernatural murder spree when the target of their undercover operation is shockingly murdered. Detectives James Quill, Kevin Sefton, and Tony Costain, and their civilian analyst Lisa Ross, gain supernatural sight when they accidentally expose themselves to a powerful totem. Gifted with The Sight they find themselves in communication with a hidden and horrifying secret London. The coppers, using their new sensitivity, to find and destroy the murderous witch Mora Losley saving London children and footballers from future deaths. Except Losley wasn't acting alone, and the powerful Smiling Man has plans for London, plans only Quill and his team can hope to stop.

In The Severed Streets, London is on fire. Political dissidents and rioters run amok in a summer of unrest, burning the city and pressing the London metropolitan police to the breaking point. Between Toff masked protestors, looters, and political mismanagement, the beleaguered Met is even contemplating a policemen's strike. And then Michael Spatley MP, the chief secretary to the Treasury, a very high ranking member of Her Majesty's government is murdered in a manner that can only be described as "impossible". Quill and his team of supernaturally sensitive detectives are sent on the case which leads them on a hunt for an invisible serial killer able to strike the most powerful men in the country anywhere. A case that will force the team to travel further into London's supernatural underworld and which will place each of them in tremendous physical and existential danger.

The Severed Streets is a cracking good detective novel. The mystery is pleasantly convoluted and the journey to solving it is a smart exercise in deduction and dream-logic. With some vibrant, charismatically flawed coppers, lovely London-English prose, and some properly exciting action sequences The Severed Streets was a really enjoyable page turner of a novel. As a detective story with supernatural horror elements, I thought The Severed Streets was a really enjoyable novel.

As a pure horror novel though, I felt like The Severed Streets wasn't as good as its predecessor London Falling. The coppers of London Falling were completely out of their depth and overwhelmed by forces with alien motivations and irresistible power; the universe was dangerously, ferociously inexplicable and the coppers seemed powerless in the face of it. Add in a few moments of truly mind-fucking dread (one moment in particular still gives me the chills) and London Falling is one completely horrifying book. The Severed Streets features a team of coppers who have more experience and are pursuing a criminal with much more mundane goals. The supernatural felt less mysterious and big and scary and more quirky, whimsical, and creepy. Less Lovecraft and more Gaiman. I found Severed Streets a far less dreadful a book and therefore a less successful work of horror.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense for the coppers of The Severed Streets to be more experienced and knowledgeable about the unseen world and for them to be more active participants and less reactive victims in this novel. And this growth in competence makes the police procedural elements work better: it is more compelling to read about detectives who can directly engage with their adversary than only react to it in fear. Besides, The Severed Streets still delivers some very disturbing moments, the way the novel depicts the cost of magic, for instance, is chilling. I just found The Severed Streets more interesting as a law enforcement novel with supernatural elements than as a horror novel starring police, which is a different experience than London Falling. 

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for something to read. It is a really well written mixture of diverse genre elements that I think makes The Severed Streets an accessible novel to a wide audience. I think if you haven't read a Paul Cornell novel than you should read London Falling first, since The Severed Streets is a direct sequel and because I found London Falling the more original and scary story. The Severed Streets is still a properly exciting and engrossing read, and is the better detective story so it is still worth checking out on its own. Honestly, I think you should find time in your reading schedule for both these novels, and if you've read London Falling and enjoyed it, you absolutely need to check out The Severed Streets too. 

Post by Michael Bround

London Falling

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sentencing She-Hulk #10, #11, and #12

Or a look at a great double page spread in She-Hulk #10 and #11
by Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Munsta Vicente, Gus Pillsbury; Marvel Comics

I love comics that use unexpected and clever ways to encode extra information. I also love collaborative comics that showcase how every member of the creative team contributes to making bold storytelling choices work. She-Hulk routinely has a great double page spreads that exemplify both. Just these great flourishes of design that are just really interesting comics. Comics worth taking a closer look at.

This post has *SPOILERS* for She-Hulk #10  and #11 in it.

This super efficient double page spread from She-Hulk #10 conveys a ton of information in a really smart way. The story of the spread is that young Steve Rogers and his friend meet in New York and then travel by train to Los Angeles. And the way this is conveyed is perfectly clever and filled with comics goodness.

This page has a ton of layered collaborative tricks that makes it work in interesting ways. Broadly speaking the underlying design breaks the page into three storytelling zones: a triangular top section, a horizontal region bound by the train tracks, and a lower triangular section. The top section has drawings of the Brooklyn bridge and Empire State in the winter clearly establish the setting as New York, the train tracks then boldly signify rail travel, and the short sleaves and cinematic marquee in the bottom section depicts LA. This setting break is emphasized by the colouring which depicts old New York with a grey, grainy heavily muted colour like an old photograph but depicts LA in a warmer, sepia tone like old film. This colour shift helps to deliniate the two storytelling regions clearly. And then there is the lettering which interacts with the bold graphical elements, mainly the train tracks, to help guide the reader through the artwork in a manner that is counter-normal and adds a lot of cool effects. It's a great team effort.

What all of this does is make the page organically read in a weird way. Specifically the reader moves across the top of the page from left to right, and then down the tracks from right to left, before moving throgh the LA story portion left to right. This makes the reader travel an extra long way through the page which helps convey the emotional sense of distance and travelling. It also has the really cool effect of making the train tracks from New York to LA move East-to-West on North-to-South on the page like the actual journey. And in a cheeky bit of cleverness, the page has a decidedly "Z" shape to the reader route which is reflected in the "Mark of Zorro" marquee in LA which is totally fun. This is a fantastic page of comics.

She-Hulk #11 opens with some tremendous double-page spreads that make tremendous use of space, onomatopoeia, and design to magnify the events occurring in the pages. This first spread comes after a page turn and begins with Titania, the super-strong lady in purple, cold-cocking a surprised She-Hulk right off the page and through several walls. This spread, beyond being kind of beautiful, makes really great use of space to emphasize horizontal distance. Readers enter the page in the top left, get drawn into the circle shape of Titania's punch and then alone the sound effect and motion line of She-Hulk flying through the air and off the page. It's a quick journey left to right filled with surprise. Readers then shift down the page and read the "Titanium Blues" issue title which stretches from left to right across the whole width of the comic, which again results in rapid left to right eye path. Finally the reader carriage returns to the bottom row of panels and again cruises in a clean, uncluttered left to right pan along the flight path of She-Hulk as she tumbles through walls and offices. This way the reader has cruised across the full width of the comic three complete times following the original punch which really emphasizes just how far She-Hulk has flown from the blow. Which really emphasizes the force and drama of that punch. THWAMM!

Following another page turn the reader is confronted with another double-page spread that makes a thoughtful use of space to emphasize motion and action. In this case the larger canvas is used to emphasize vertical motion instead of horizontal, using tall narrow panels to change the orientation of events. Readers enter this layout in the top left in a panel where Titania snags Shulkie, pans down to Titania twirling She-Hulk by her leg and is thrown quickly to the top of the next panel column which mimics the motion depicted. The net column of panels is interesting in that the first image encountered is actually the final panel of a vertical sequence. The reader sees She-Hulk flying up off the page and then sees the preceding images of her smashing through the stories below and Titania's actual throw. By presenting these panels in reverse-chronological order this section of the page feels simultaneous, as if the events depicted are so fast that they cannot be presented in the normal order. It's like the comics equivalent of a sonic boom trailing a hypersonic jet. Also, by stacking these panels this section of the layout really sells the vertical orientation of the motion and sets the stage for the next region of the page. The last section of the layout takes the reader in a very clean, quick line from the top left with She-Hulk being launched from her office, over Manhattan at the apex of her flight, and down to her landing in the New Jersey Palisades. This part of the spread is interesting in that the reader path actually lies perpendicular to She-Hulk's flight path, and yet the details and iconography of her flight is so elegantly simplified that the reader can take it in as they progress from top left to bottom right. Which of course makes the page feel fairly quick. At the same time, the way that backsplash panel of She-Hulk in flight is sufficiently complicated that I found myself pausing on it and taking in the details for a moment, which for me is so amazingly evocative of that feeling of serene freefall. It's this moment of weightlessness and altitude that is just kind of perfect. This is a really, really cool chunk of comics.

This page from She-Hulk 12 is almost the polar opposite of the other double page spreads gathered here: perfect simplicity. While the other layouts are filled with complex guidelines and ornate layouts to capture complex storytelling or rapid motion, this double page spread distills everything down to a single perfect moment. Gone is the background. Gone is the design. All that remains is looming tidal wave of fearsome She-Hulk poised to crash down on Nightwatch hiding behind puny sibilant platitudes.  It's a breathless freezeframe of catharsis made all the better for it's scale and lack of distractions and cathartic ending to the series.

I hope She-Hulk is only in recess, because I am not ready for this concept and creative team to be adjourned.

She-Hulk #1: Fun layouts