Friday, 29 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: Technocolour Character Design IN SPAAAACE!

Or a look at how the character design competition has been won by Saga,
by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics

Saga is visually tons of fun. There is just an endlessly imaginative and playful approach to the design of characters, technology, and location that just comes to life on the page. Sometimes it feels like Team Saga is just mashing together different things, seemingly at random, to create this constantly surprising parade of space oddities. Which is totally fine! The way Saga looks it's downright delightful.

The thing is though, the more Saga I read, the more I'm beginning to see a method to some of the madness in character design.

Specifically, I am really interested in the design of the Robots in Saga.

There will be *SPOILERS* For Saga Vol. 4

The Robot Royals have always been one of my favourite fixtures of Saga. There is something great about television headed robots wearing very old-fashioned looking military uniforms that is just iconic and fun. I think the crux of why I like these designs so much has to do with the amount of anachronism on display: the contrast between the retro-future monitor-heads and the 1800s-style jackets, trousers, and cavalry boots is just kind of delightful. Even without any other information, they are kind of the best.

Probably the main Robot character so far has been Prince Robot IV. In many ways he is prototypical to the Robot Royalty as he is usually depicted as a sleek-monitor-headed man wearing some variation on the old-fashion military uniform. He has the added elements of a black stipe on the sides of his head and a pair of rabbit-ear antennas that help make him stand out. Additionally he has a cracked screen, a visible mark of the physical and psychological scars he has suffered over the series. And, like the facial scar this crack is a fun play on, this disfigurement is another identifying feature that further differentiates the prince from other Noble Robots. Collectively he manages to look unique and somewhat removed from the mainstream of Robot society.

Princess Robot, the wife of Prince Robot IV has a subtly different and very clever design. She still has the grey humanoid body and monitor head, but hers is tweaked in ways that emphasize her role as an aristocratic woman. Specifically the two knob like projections on the side of her head create the illusion of ears while her sleeker, elongated monitor has a more traditionally feminine shape. Together these elements create a similar silhouette as hair piled into an elaborate bun, a style synonymous with aristocracy and pomp. This makes Princess Robot both recognizable as a character and cements her role in the story as a Noble Robot.

The son of Prince Robot IV is also an interesting bit of character design. Unlike the adult Robots, the infant and imagined child princeling has a round monitor head. This gives the character an instantly childlike look, his monitor approximating the rounder, chubby features of young human kids. It instantly sets him apart from his adult counterparts and cements his status as a wee one. Clever stuff.

Also, how great is it that the Royal Robots have literal Blue Blood? 

Saga Vol. 4 introduces us to the first Robot commoner, Dengo. It seems that Robot society is wildly unequal and is split between a wealthy aristocracy and a wretched commoner class who live in squalor in the shadows of the royal wealth. This class distinction is reflected in the design of the character. Instead of having a sleek, modernist monitor-head, Dengo has a more old fashioned looking television that is boxy and has large analogue controls on the front of it. His face is also, in a choice that is really effective, a black-and-white screen, as opposed to the coloured screens of the Robot Royalty. As readers we can instantly tell the difference in class by their heads: Dengo has an old fashioned TV like someone in his economic situation might, while the Royals have nicer monitors like a richer person would. The allusions inherent in this character design choice are amazing.

But it's King Robot who has maybe the greatest character design in all of comics. The King of the Robots just has a giant, whopping, high definition widescreen TV for a head. A modern flatscreen so big that it is introduced on a double page spread even! Just let that sink in. The highest class, most important Robot has both the largest monitor head, but also the most modern and expensive one. It is obnoxiously clever character design that conveys how important, arrogant (big headed), and wealthy the character is all at a perfectly executed first glance! It's pretty much the best.

So shut it all down folks, comic character design is over. It's done. It can't get any better.

Long live King Robot!

Post by Michael Bround


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

So I Read Saga Volume 4

A 250 word (or less) review of Saga Vol. 4
by Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples; Image Comics

This review is for an ongoing series and may contain *SPOILERS*. To read about the beginning of Saga go here.

Saga is a comic about building families and trying to sort out how to be an adult. I mean, it's also a Space Opera about fugitive lovers from opposite sides of a galaxy spanning war filled with imaginative and awesome Science Fantasy amazingness who against all odds have a kid. But really, it's about making a marriage work, raising a kid, and making that transition into being a grown-ass person. While I may not have goat horns and a magic sword, as someone who is in their late twenties whose education is finally turning into a career, who is recently married, and whose spouse is currently pregnant with our first spawn (which is amazing and existentially awesome and scary), Saga is just a story that profoundly resonates with me. Saga Vol. 4 specifically deals with the reality of what comes just after: protagonists Alana and Marko are married, have their kid, a career, and a functional family thing and now have to fight to hold onto it. To fight against the slowly brewing forces of Robot Class Warfare, Space Empires, violent Bounty Hunters, but mostly against ennui and temptation and the fact that reality is kind of an unromantic drag. Saga Vol. 4 is a fantastic roller-coaster filled with imagination and fun and also a fraught meditation on this stage of life I've suddenly found myself in. It's scary and arresting and perfect. Please let everything work out. Please.

Word count: 239

Post by Michael Bround


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Long Goodbye Is A Good Book

Why you should read The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

There are certain authors and novels that manage through some clarity of vision, style, or competence to inspire whole genres of fiction. I think of these books as Ur-fiction, literary artifacts that are worth studying to understand whole tracts of fiction. I'm talking about books like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or the collected works of H P Lovecraft, or in the case of many of my favourite authors, the author Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye is often touted as Chandler's best novel and a classic of American literature, and so I thought it would be an interesting Ur-text to give a read.

The Long Goodbye is functionally a pulpy, noirey mystery novel that features Chandler's titular hero the private investigator Philip Marlowe. The Long Goodbye starts with Marlowe meeting Terry Lennox, a war veteran and sometime drunk with an on-again off-again marriage to a nymphomaniac millionaire wife. Marlowe and Lennox strike up a friendship until Lennox's on-again wife turns up dead and sends a fleeing Lennox to Marlowe for help. A decision that will send Marlowe afoul of detectives, gangsters, a powerful millionaire, and a famous author with a drinking problem.

The Long Goodbye is a quintessential ur-text. It's immediately apparent why the novel has inspired so many imitators and influenced so many authors: it's really, really good. The central mysteries of the novel are convoluted, scrupulously honest, and doled out in a really fun and challenging way: I could not put The Long Goodbye down. Add to that the very idiosyncratic, iconic prose style that is full of swagger, mugging, and a kind of utilitarian beauty and this surprisingly well presented snapshot of 1950s America and The Long Goodbye really demonstrates why Chandler looms so large in prose and comics. I was really impressed with the novel both as an enjoyable piece of fiction and as a literary rosetta stone.

I would recommend The Long Goodbye to any genre fan. Chandler is just such a titan among my favourite genre novel and comics writers and artists that to not at least sample his work seems kind of criminal. While I can't speak for his other works (yet...), The Long Goodbye is a novel that will let you explore Raymond Chandler and tell you a really engaging story in the process. You won't be disappointed and you might just understand some of your favourite writers a bit more.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #7

Or a look at the genius of an inset panel in Spider-Woman #7
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Munsta Vicente, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics

Spider-Woman continues to be a fun, mystery driven detective comic with superhero elements. It's quickly become a staple of the lighter side of my comics reading habit. Part of this is due to the stories which blend a nicely constructed caper, a geek-eye for trivia, and the charm, humour, and scruffiness of the best down-on-her-luck detective characters. A lot of the credit, though, is the artwork in Spider-Woman which blends an effortless, clean style with some really clever layouts to make for a really great looking and effective comic. If you like good comics, Spider-Woman is something you should be reading.

There is one spread in Spider-Woman #7 that I think does a great job demonstrating what makes Spider-Woman such an infectious read.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #7.

This double page spread does a great job encapsulating everything I'm enjoying about Spider-Woman. The story of the issue is that Jessica Drew, disguised as blackmailed criminal, the Porcupine, allows herself to be taken captive to track down the blackmailer. These pages depict how Jessica escapes her captor and stows away in her abductors car to get closer to the heart of the mystery. From a pure storytelling perspective this spread does a great job showing how Jessica Drew moves through her environment and transitions from the very different positions of being chained up to smuggling herself in a car. This transition could be a huge mess, or an unsatisfying muggufin, but because of the quality of the draftsmenship here, it is instead an intellectually satisfying and fun bit of story. I also really love how much character gets built into these events: we see Jessica go from looking kind of timid in the cell, to almost casually strolling across the roof (with a stretch even), taking a clever moment to survey where she is, before skillfully slipping in the car's trunk. While this complicated escape is happening, we get to see that special mix of in-over-her-head, bravado, and skill that makes Jessica such a compelling protagonist. This spread here is basically why you should be reading this comic. 

This spread is also interesting from a more wonky comics storytelling perspective, I think. The actual doublepage spread has an inset panel that overlays the eyecatching narration and gas station sign text in the top right corner. This is a really clever decision because it primes the sequence and makes sure the reader focuses on Jessica Drew slipping out of her disguise as the beginning of the sequence. It tells us, this happens before everything else, probably before the captor is in the window, and that all of the other Jessicas on the pages come after and happen in the sequence of the intuitive path from this starting position. It is a *really* smart choice. To try and illustrate just why I am hung up on how great this inset panel is, I crudely photoshopped it out of the page and included it above. Notice how much messier the page looks, and how much harder it is to find the start point. Without the extra panel, I find myself drawn first to Jessica popping out of the roof hatch and then having to swirl around and back track to the start, which is a much less effective way of experiencing the page. This sequence might seem effortless to read, but it's only that way because of really smart, really effective comics choices.

Which is yet another reason you ought to be reading Spider-Woman.

Spider-Woman #6: Guided chaos and multiple reading paths
Spider-Woman #5: Character Design and composition

Friday, 22 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: Persepolis Symbology

A look at the symbology in Persepolis,
by Marjane Satrapi; Pantheon Books

Persepolis is a pretty interesting comics artifact. It is a deeply intimate autobiography of a woman growing up against a tumultuous backdrop. It is a primary source document detailing the civilian life of an Iranian woman during the Revolution, ascension of Islamic Rule, and the ensuing war with neighbouring Iraq. Persepolis is also an olive branch document, one of those wonderful machines that communicate the common humanity of people from wildly different cultures. And it's also a really great comic that does some properly interesting things.

Specifically, I'm really interested in the way Marjane Satrapi is able to distill really complex ideas down to immediately understandable images. 

There will be *SPOILERS* of a sort for Persepolis below.

One of the awesome things about comics is that the picture elements of comics can be used to encode information in symbols. Instead of directly depicting the literal events happening, comics can instead use pictures that convey the idea of what is happening conceptually. It's a mode of comics that is maybe uncommon to see in more mainstream genre comics, but Persepolis is absolutely full of.  In the above selection we can see competing protests between modern and conservative dress for Iranian women distilled to it's simplest, most iconic form. Or below that the metaphor of a crowd tumbling off a large multi-person bicycle as a representation of a faltering revolution. A crowd of theatre goers who died in a fire are represented as horrific fire ghosts. A storyteller telling a scary story is represented as a simplified, gleeful monster. Refugees from the border between Iran and Iraq are shown driving between tongues of flame. A day spent aimlessly riding streetcars around and around a city is represented as a streetcar on a path of crazy unconnected lines. In each of these cases the comic chooses to shun the complexity of the actual events and instead present a simplified representation. This decision really distills each of these moments and presents them with an immediate understanding and a rapid emotional  reaction to what is depicted. It's great comics and a showcase of one of the most special elements of this media. 

Persepolis is a comic everyone should make an effort to read.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read Persepolis

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

So I Read Persepolis

A 250 word (or less) review of The Complete Persepolis Graphic Novel
by Marjane Satrapi; Pantheon Books

Persepolis is an autobiographic comic about being Iranian following the revolution in the 1970s. The comic depicts the life of Marjane Satrapi. It starts with her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and follows Iran's gradual transition into a repressive, fundamentalist country. Persepolis then depicts the war with Iraq, Marjane's time studying in Europe, her return to Iran as a young woman, and her eventual self-imposed exile to France. Along the way we get to experience the emotional arch of the Iranian people: see their hope in revolution, their despair as their movement is co-opted, their anguish in war, and the complex coping strategies they develop to live their lives under Islamic law. We also really get to know Marjane and watch her grow from a precocious girl to an uncertain young woman to a confident, bold woman who has outgrown the limitations of her home country. It's a wonderful and fascinating comic that let's you learn about Iran, with its good and its bad. What's more it allows us to visit and experience a part of the world that is so frequently portrayed as a caricature bogey-land in Western media. It's really a fantastic empathy engine. It's sometimes easy to think of comics as only these escapist machines, but comics like Persepolis serve as reminders that sequential art can be applied to some really powerful real life stories. 

Word count: 230

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Ancillary Justice Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is a novel about The Justice of Toren, a sentient troop carrier in the armed services of the Radch Empire. She is crewed by Ancillaries, enslaved bodies which are extensions of the ship and which are deployed ruthlessly during the annexations that grow Radchaai Space. Justice of Toren has served faithfully and diligently for centuries, but on her most recent mission, a turbulent and troubling assignment, she is betrayed and destroyed. Now only a single Ancillary, a segment of the platoon One Esk, has survived to avenge The Justice of Toren and her beloved human officers. Posing as Breq, a wandering ex-soldier, Justice of Toren One Esk is on a quest for the weapon she needs to kill the tyrant who destroyed her.

Ancillary Justice is kind of the perfect Sci-fi novel. The novel is constructed around an engrossing revenge plot and the mystery of what exactly happened to The Justice Toren and is written with this brutalist clarity that makes the novel accessible and readable. Built into this is the central conceit of the novel: a character study of someone inhuman composed of many human bodies and how that informs their views and opinions. It's a really well executed and fascinating thought experiment. The other interesting bit of speculative fiction is that Radchaai society doesn't discriminate based on gender, which leads the protagonist, Justice of Toren, to treat everyone with the same pronouns and really struggle when she has to operate in gendered situations. What's perhaps even more interesting is that the default pronouns Toren uses are feminine. It's such a small choice, but the way it constantly calls gender into question, makes every character a woman by default (where are all the men?!), is uncomfortable and weird. Which is crazy! We constantly use male pronouns as default human pronouns without thinking about it. By simply inverting this convention, Ancillary Justice really hammers home how messed up it is to us a gender-pronoun as the default since it erases half of people. It's this simple, constant, and biting analysis of gender in our society and it's great. Really, Ancillary Justice is just a great novel filled with a tense, smouldering plot, memorably characters, great Sci-fi high concepts, and really insightful contemporary analysis. It's basically everything I want in a Science Fiction novel.

I would recommend Ancillary Justice to anyone. It's won two of the most prestigious awards in genre fiction and seems to be critically acclaimed. It certainly gets my unreserved recommendation as a masterful bit of fiction. I think it's the kind of novel that transcends genre based on it's quality and is so accessibly written that I think anyone can read it and enjoy it. Regardless of your reading tastes, if you like fiction, you owe it to yourself to give Ancillary Justice a try.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #10

Or a look at colour tagging characters in WicDiv #10
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine continues to be a comic with some really fascinating character design work. Every character looks like a story, with garment choices that provide a huge amount of information about their personality and role in the story. It's masterful stuff. At the same time, these elaborate character designs are also brilliantly economical, with the complexity within a recognizable motif throttled to the story demands of every issue. With WicDiv #10, it's apparent that this attention to character design even extends to the powers of the various gods, which are each recognizable and informative about the personality of their wielder. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv #10 below

I think this panel here is what really clued me into how smart the power design of WicDiv is. Here we have Inanna flying Laura to a gigantic concert in Hyde Park in a cloud of hot pink sparkles. There is just something so... care free, so Pete Pan about this image and the manifestation of Inanna's powers here that this moment feels somehow emblematic of the god.  Which I think is an effect of the pink sparkles, which have a harmless, fun, and decidedly fae aspect to them. It makes Inanna seem safe and friendly and fun and otherworldly all at once based only on the manifestation of his powers. Which is really smart comics.

This attention to power design is also really on display in the battle between Morrigan and Baphomet. Morgan's powers manifest as a murder of crows surround by an otherwordly green light. This gives her powers a goth-as-fuck quality with the scary black birds and their elegance and ornate feathers, but also, I think, something fragile and human about her living avatars. Morrigan might be dark, but she is also vulnerable. In contrast we have Baphomet whose powers manifest as fire and flaming bird skeletons. This, I think, gives us a pretty insightful look at Baphomet: fire is destructive and passionate, useful but liable to turn on those around it, it's chaotic. Baphomet's fire is also, given how it's used to repurpose Morrigan's crows, parasitic, flames need fuel and Bpahomet is clearly willing to burn down those around him to fuel his fire. Just by examining these god's powers you get clear visually distinguishable powers which makes for a cinematic fight and a glimpse into a fight between a powerful, but vulnerable woman and a destructive pyro-vampire that makes me genuinely worry for Morrigan's ability to survive this relationship. 

My favourite power/character interaction is definitely in the portrayal of Urdr's powers in her performance. Cassandra, the woman who became the god, was a journalist deeply invested in the truth, which seems to have carried over to her new role as the goddess Urdr. And I think this is reflected in her powers. For one, her performance exists in a state of black and white, colours that exist in a strict binary and carry with them a definitive weight. Cassandra/Urdr sees the world as being built of concrete facts, that reality is a metaphorically black and white construction and this is reflected in her powers. I also *love* the way lines are incorporated into the portrayal of Urdr's powers. Urdr, a goddess of fate, is tied up with the idea of measuring a person's life or future along a yarn-like strand. Also, Cassandra the human, as a journalist is dedicated to untangling facts and finding the connections between them to weave a story, so this motif also works quite well for the pre-Urdr human as well. So this motif of strands, of literally connecting people together in a web is perfect visual symbol for the goddess and a great glimpse into the way that Cassandra/Urdr hopes to use facts to connect people to a broader truth. Which is all just really deep comics.

Also, just as an aesthetic choice, the way the shadows around Urdr are constructed of crosshatched lines, is just too clever. The attention to detail in Wicdiv is endlessly fun.

Another great example of the way powers are used to inform characters is in WicDiv #7 when Woden tempts a former Valkyrie with a return to glory only to reveal that it is an illusion and that he is a jerk. What's significant about this scene is that there is a degree of pixelation in Woden's illusion as it breaks down, which plays into his Daft Tron motif. Which makes this manifestation of Woden's power instantly recognizable as belonging to him. This way his powers are portrayed also suggests a degree of robotic-ness to Woden, that he is unemotional or at least that he lacks a certain human empathy. Given his shitty behaviour in this scene, the pixelation here gives just that little bit extra insight into the fact that Woden is really not a very nice person.

The Wicked + The Divine might be one of the best examples of how excellent design choices can really play into the portrayal of characters to make for some really efficient and evocative comics. It's great stuff.

Also, I think I've developed a theory about how WicDiv might end. I'm not going to say what it is, mostly on the very off choice that I'm right and accidentally spoil something, but I do want to kind of put it in writing that I have an idea. 

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

WicDiv #4 and body language 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character
WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering
WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout
WicDiv #9 and the economics of design

Friday, 15 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: One Wickedly Divine Plot Map

Or a radial plot map of The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine is one of my favourite comics right now. It is a comic that does everything well and is a showcase for the many ways you can encode information into sequential art. It's also a comic with a pretty great design aesthetic and a chapter intro/recap page that has a really great character/plot diagram. One that I thought would lend itself to a unique plot diagram of the entire first volume.

Or put another way, it's infographic time!

Since it's a plot map there will be *SPOILERS* for WicDiv Vol. 1 below.

Click on the image below to see a bigger version. Or here for the full size.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read WicDiv: Vol. 1

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

WicDiv #4 and body language 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character
WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering
WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout
WicDiv #9 and the economics of detail

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

So I Read The Wicked + The Divine: The Faust Act

A 250 word (or less) review of WicDiv Vol. 1
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine is a comic about the glorious, precarious act of being a famous creative. In the comic a pantheon of pan-cultural gods are reincarnated every 90 years. The once-human hosts of these deities are given tremendous power and fame, but there is a catch: they only have 2 years to enjoy it before dying. The modern reincarnation has styled themselves popstars, and Laura, a young fan, wants a piece of the action, fuck the consequences. WicDiv is a triumph of collaborative comics showcasing a group of talented creators at their best, working together seamlessly to create a great comics experience. The writing is top notch delivering an exciting, fun plot and dialogue that just roars off the page. This is wedded to expert artwork filled with wonderful character designs, achingly perfect character acting, excruciating attention to detail and some incredible, bold flourishes of experimental comics. WicDiv is one of the most technically complete comics I'm reading. It's also one of the most thematically dense. WicDiv uses it's lens of Pop music gods to examine life in the spotlight, the relationship between creators and fans, ancient myths, and the looming spectre of inevitable death. It's a really smart book that is a treasure trove of comics craft. The Wicked + The Divine is also a comic that's just really fucking fun: it's a comic about sexy Popstar gods! Comics this enjoyable and this well made are treasures and we should all read them before our ultimate demise. 

Word count: 250

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 

WicDiv#5 and facial acting

WicDiv #6 and possessions as character

WicDiv #7 and the power of lettering

WicDiv #8 and the disorienting layout

WicDiv #9 and the economics of detail

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Just The Tips Is A... I Want To Say Good Book

Or why you could read Just The Tips,
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky; Image Comics

Just The Tips is a sex advice book from the creators of the Sex Criminals comic. It answers some questions about sex, I guess. I mean not very effectively; I wouldn't give Just The Tips to like, a curious teenager looking for information to make informed decisions about doing it. But if you want to read some hilarious not-very-helpful and, yeah, sometimes terrible sex advice, dirty talk suggestions, and pick up lines mixed with some amusing sex anecdotes and porn-in-the-woods stories from Brimpers, the unofficial official fanclub of Sex Criminals, this is a pretty enjoyable little book. 

Also, book design, excellent book design. Seriously you guys look at the book design. This has to be the best looking inane sex advice ever printed. Easily. 

I would recommend Just The Tips for sexually active adults who have a sense of humour about sex stuff. It's obviously not for minors, the prudish, or my parents. So uh, enjoy responsibly.

Post by Michael Bround

Scientific Errors in Just The Tips
So I Read Sex Criminals Vol. 1
Deep Sequencing: Sex Criminals and adult sex portrayals
Sound Advice: Sex Criminals

Monday, 11 May 2015

Uncaging Bitch Planet #4

Or a look at structural separation and breaking barriers
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles

Bitch Planet is a comic about a Sci-fi penal colony for Non-Compliant women who reject the control of a dystopian patriarchy. It's a badass, middle-finger raised take on women-in-prison exploitation cinema and a feminist examination of the bullshit woman experience at the hands of society. It's also a really, really well made comic that does a variety of technically impressive things worth taking a closer look at.

Bitch Planet #4 continues the trend and pays off a long running structural element in a really interesting and satisfying way.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Bitch Planet #4.

One of the recurrent elements in Bitch Planet are two semi-omnipresent guard characters. These two characters seem to run some sort of prison control station and have a very high degree of access to the events happening on Bitch Planet. On the one hand, they are interesting in that they operate as semi-narrators, sharing their knowledge of Bitch Planet with the reader from a position of authority. Which is, in and of itself, a pretty nifty choice.

What is also interesting about these guards is their ironclad separation from the inmate population. We never see these guards in the same panel as any of the Non-Compliant women. Which is a choice that helps cement these control room guards as semi-narrators: they exist in a story... zone between the reader and the story as they are observers who are apart from the main story. This choice is also quite significant as these guards are the only male faces we see on Bitch Planet, and they are scrupulously kept separated from the women. This helps establish a story rule where the men in charge of the prison are segregated from the women.

Of course, Bitch Planet does have other male guards. However, we never really see them as individual people. All of the guards who actually mix with the inmate population wear masks that completely cover their faces. This further suggests that their is a structural, institutional rationale for the strictly enforced separation between women and men. I think you could argue this is interesting from a feminist perspective since we see a patriarchal penal system that punishes women and drives structural divisions between genders.  I also think it's quite interesting from a storytelling perspective since it sets a precedent and creates a narrative tension that can be exploited in interesting ways.

And Bitch Planet #4 pays this tension off in some really cool and satisfying ways.

One of the most technically impressive sequences in Bitch Planet so far leverages the separation between men and women on Bitch Planet to tell a really daring and effective bit of story. The story of the scene is that Kam is given covert information by a pair of women who enjoy shower sex, in part, as a smokescreen for moments of "privacy". This being Bitch Planet, there is no real privacy, and their sexual relationship is observed by a peeping tom who doesn't report their illicit dalliance in return for being allowed to peep. Which is quintessential women in prison exploitation story fodder.

This is also a scene that is some expert level comics. For one it plays with the barrier between women and men in some cool ways. The peeping tom is separated from the non-compliant women in the shower by a wall and his mask, which is, in a way, consistent with the rules of segregation on Bitch Planet. In a perverse way the barriers between men and women are still intact. And yet, the separation of sexes is incomplete since the peeper has a hole in the wall to peak through and we can clearly see his eyeball. This is a clear violation of the narrative rules of the comic and represents a storytelling transgression which enhances the inherent perversity of the peeper's behaviour. Which is a pretty nifty use of the gender separation trope which has been established.

This scene is also pretty great in the way it makes the hole in the wall and the peeper the central part of each pages composition. By driving the readers attention to the peeper instead of the naked women, this composition drives home the wrongness of the peeper's behaviour and serves to associate any titillation we might experience as readers with his perversity. Which really takes what could be a pervy, exploitive scene and repurposes it into something that transcends its problematic roots and makes some broader points.

The conclusion of Bitch Planet #4 also does some pretty spectacular things with the separation of men and women on the prison planet. Specifically, the closing pages of the comic see Kam smash through the shower wall, breaking down the barrier between genders, and drag the peeping tom guard into the prison. This is significant because it represents the first time we have seen a man on panel with the Non-Compliants. As such this represents a complete violation of the segregation rules in the prison. It also represents a violation of the narrative rules that have, until this point, served to keep the women and men apart in the comic. As such this scene feels hugely significant and deeply transgressive: because Kam is overcoming the inertia of the comic structurally keeping men and women apart this scene feels extra shocking and powerful. It also makes Kam's achievement here that much more impressive since, in a way, she defeated the comic itself to nab herself a perverted man-guard. Which is a great payoff to a thoroughly established narrative tension and really sells just how much trouble this perverted guard is in.

Bitch Planet is a comic you should be reading.

Uncaging Bitch Planet #1

Uncaging Bitch Planet #2
Uncgaing Bitch Planet #3
Surviving Bitch Planet #1

Friday, 8 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: Through The Comics

Or a look at something awesome from Through The Woods
by Emily Carroll; McElderry Books

Through The Woods might be one of the most interesting comics I've read recently. It has a unique aesthetic that presents a wonderful command of the page. This is a comic that is just filled with great comics choices that carefully control the readers mood, attention, focus, and timing to tell these yawning, looming stories full of dread and emotional impact. If you are the kind of person who cares about technically well made and interesting comics, Through The Woods is must read material.

Through The Woods is also a comic that I am not really sure how to write about. So much of what makes it such an incredible experience has to do with how its stories work as complete machines. The way pacing and recurrent elements and colour work together to create the emotional effects in the comic is really something that has to be surveyed all at once to really grok. But, Through The Woods is also full of some really commanding small choices that lend themselves to my normal analysis, and because I think this comic is too good to not at least try to pick apart, I'm going to try to give a preview of why this comic is so bonkers good. But you know, this is should be taken as like, an appetizer of a full course comics meal.

There will be *SPOILERS* below. So you really ought to just go read it.

This is the opening page of one of the stories in Through The Woods and it serves as a flawless introduction to the characters of the story. The hand written lettering gives everything an intimate, journally vibe that helps give everything a homesteader feel and really solidifies the narrator as a fairly reliable young woman. But for me, the flourish of this page is the way panel size is used to introduce the three sisters. From oldest to youngest the panels become shorter in height which immediate gives the reader the feeling of their ages and the relationship between the characters. It's a really simple choice that is just beautifully effective at delivering the needed story information. It's just an example of the wonderful attention to panel construction and detail that Through The Woods delivers.

In the above selection the use of space, blue and red makes for an amazing, evocative sequence. The huge blue page on the left is calm, yet menacing in it's proportions, almost overwhelming. The next page enters on the same calm blue, but is broken by these red flashes of violence in panels that tear out the very layout of the page before returning to the serene, almost distant blue with its calmly staring face and single lock of hair askew. It's a great sequence that manages to capture this drawn out, schizophrenic quality to the events... the emotional state of the character and how she goes from this contained, pent up dread into this flurry of violence. It's just a masterful use of storytelling events to create this warped feeling bit of story. It's great.

Another great aspect of Through The Woods is just how planned the stories are, and the way parallel imagery is used to really hammer home key story moments. The above selections more or less bookend one of the stories in the anthology. The page on the left occurs early in the story and portrays the "good" times, when the woman is enjoying the calm blue garden in the golden light of day. Her red finery makes her the focus and gives the page a leisurely feeling to it. The page on the right occurs in the "evil" time and depicts the panicking woman fleeing her home in the black of the night. Now the garden is a raging red, appearing a nightmare bonfire that the woman's yellow dress belnds into. This helps make the woman's dress blend in and makes her black, terrified eyes the focus of the page and helps speed the time the reader takes to blast through the page with the fleeing woman. It is a horrifying page of comics all on its own, but when contrasted with the earlier, happier page it appears all the darker for it. It's great comics.

Maybe the most magical element of Through The Woods is the use of lettering and dialogue. For being a visual, silent medium this comic makes really remarkable use of dialogue captions. In the above selection, the sleeping woman is haunted by a horrifying song that physically intrudes into her sleep, gathers her attention, and eventually leads her to a it's source. What's so great about the execution of this is that the red (RED!) dialogue caption DEMANDS the readers attention like the haunting song, and then acts as a vision guide that drags the reader around the page and on the path to its source in the same way it does with the protagonist. It's evocative and powerful and creepy and just great comics.

And all of this is just the smallest portion of the cool comics at work in Through The Woods, glanced at and taken out of story context. If I haven't managed to convince you before, then let me try again: Through The Woods is a comic you absolutely need to track down. It's a force of comics.

Post by Michael Bround

So I Read Through The Woods