Monday, 31 August 2015

Deep Sequencing: Subcutaneous Storytelling

Or a look at how attention tagging is used in COPRA Round 2
by Michel Fiffe

COPRA is a remarkable comic on a lot of levels. The story is action packed fun with an emphasis on totally radical action. The artwork has a distinct style that frequently veers into the territory of experimental storytelling or feats of surreal imagery. It's also a comic that very deliberately teaches its audience without using explicit coaching: it shows in very clear yet subtle rather than directly telling. Which results in a really interesting and surprising experience and some very cool storytelling.

I'd like to showcase my favourite example of this from COPRA: Round 2.

There will be *SPOILERS* for COPRA Vol. 2.

First though, I just want to take a moment to emphasize how stylish and bold COPRA is. The page shown above is part of an ongoing battle between COPRA and a kind of four horseman of the apocalypse type team of villains. The two panels shown here are part of the jagged snapshots of a battle montage that sweeps between combatants in a really organic but very chaotic feeling way. What I especially love about this sequence is how the superspeedster villain is represented in COPRA: he is depicted as a pencil sketch blur made out of a number of poses in a chain with varying degrees of incomplete erasure. This instantly gives the character a sense of speed: that he is too quick to properly render, ink, and colour by the "camera" of the artists hand. Which goes to sell this character as being super fast without the audience ever being explicitly told this. Which is a really cool character design and an example of the show, don't tell mentality of COPRA.

An even better example of COPRA visually teaching the audience is the above selection. This collection of panels tell a sub narrative where the sketchiest of the COPRA agents removes a device implanted in his arm, secrets it on his target, and then tricks his boss/handler into activating the device, which is a bomb, blowing up the captured target. What's especially cool about this sequence is that none of this is explicitly explained to the audience and the events here are spread out, a panel here or there, over several chapters/issues of COPRA Round Two. In many ways, this story is just a little background element in a chaotic, action packed comic. And yet, I found my attention immediately drawn to the events. Which for me came down to the red boxes which overlay the explosive device and things related to it: COPRA visually tags this storyline in a way that is very eye catching. Which does a whole bunch of interesting things simultaneously. It instantly grabs attention and highlights that this subplot is significant in some way and provides a symbol that alerts the reader that the image they are looking at is part of this subplot. It also allows for a certain amount of ambiguity to the events: the reader is never *told* what is going on and therefore the events are somewhat mysterious which helps make the explosive finish to the subplot so satisfying. This is some higher level, brilliant comics.

COPRA is really must read comics.


Deep Sequencing: The exotic comics of COPRA
Deep Sequencing: Using the margins

Friday, 28 August 2015

Deep Sequencing: Marginal Dimensions

Or a look at how the gutter colours are used in storytelling in COPRA Vol. 2
by Michel Fiffe

COPRA is a pretty awesome comic. It tells the story of a bizarre team of government mercenaries sent on surreal suicide missions. It is just about as complete a comics experience as I read: the stories are action packed celebration of superhero comics brought to life in an extremely stylish, surreally unique way. COPRA is a comic you should be reading.

COPRA is also a comic that shows a fantastic attention to detail and uses some basic page elements as storytelling tools.

There will be *SPOILERS* for COPRA Vol. 2 below.

COPRA does the big things really, really well. Like in this above sequence that sees one of the COPRA team pursuing Dy Dy, a brain in a jar villain and crime boss, flying inside a building. Eventually the pair approach a grating to outside the building where Dy Dy pulls a jackmove and swoops upward, leaving the pursuing COPRA member to blast through the gate and outside the building. The way this sequence is encoded is really kind of ingenious: Dy Dy's upward motion is expressed in a "J" shaped panel that translates the fiends motion into the vertical and unexpectedly against the grain of the page flow. It's a panel that is easy to follow and quick to read, and yet surprising feeling with its convention violations. Then we track down from the top of the page to the next panel where we see the COPRA agent crashing into the grate in a simple, sudden panel. It's a great feat of storytelling and a good example of the kind of exciting, clear, and smart comics to be found in COPRA. 

But this kind of obviously good comics only shows one level of the smart storytelling in COPRA.

COPRA is also a comic with exquisite attention to detail. One of the ways this scrupulous approach to comics manifests in COPRA is how margins are used as active storytelling elements. The default margin colour in COPRA is white, with coloured panels floating on a white page background. This situation denotes that the portrayed events take place in the default world of COPRA and are, in some way, normal. The opening chapter of COPRA, in contrast, has all black panel gutters. The story is a quiet retrospective that examines the battered COPRA team as they bury one of their own. The black gutters on the page help sell the sobriety and grief of the chapter. COPRA Volume 2 also takes place in two alternate dimensions: a dystopian warscape reality and a psychedelic, demon-infested prison reality. Both of these alternate dimensions get their own gutter colour: every page in the dystopian world has a bright green background colour while every page in the prison plane has a hot pink page colour. This gives each of these dimensions a unique visual identity and, when compared to the white gutters of the default reality, provide these dimensions an exotic, alternate feel. It also goes a long way to helping readers keep the various worlds of the story straight without being explicitly told where things are happening. Which is a simple seeming choice that works really effectively in the comic.

Which is a great example of the really smart storytelling in COPRA.

COPRA Round One
COPRA Round Two

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

So I Read COPRA: Round 2

A 250 word (or less) review of COPRA Volume 2
by Michael Fiffe; Bergen Street Press

This is part of an ongoing story. To read about the beginning of it go here.

COPRA Round 2 continues the ass-kicking story of COPRA, a covert government team mercenaries and assassins, who are sent on dangerous, strange suicide missions. Following the explosive events of their last mission, this volume follows the battered COPRA team as they deal with the aftermath. In Round Two COPRA buries one of their own, goes on a suicide mission to a dystopian alternate universe, and takes down the government officials who betrayed them. COPRA remains one of the best overall comics I read. The story is pure genre comic gleeful excess providing brutal, frequently surreal action presented with superlative artwork. COPRA is also one of the most interesting comics I’ve read on a technical level: it is absolutely filled with the wonky, experimental storytelling and distinctive style that I absolutely love to look at and try to understand. It is no exaggeration when I say COPRA is one of the smartest, prettiest, and brashest comics on the stands. It is also a book you should absolutely be reading.

Word count: 168

Post by Michael Bround


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Half The World Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Half The World
by Joe Abercrombie

Half The World is the second novel in the Shattered Sea series by Joe Abercrombie. The novel takes place following the events of Half A King. In the novel Thorn, a young woman touched by Mother War dreams of being a warrior to honour and avenge her father, a hero killed in combat. She wants this more than anything, enough to brave the practice square and the indignities and petty cruelty of her male trainees. That is, until a she kills a boy in a training accident and is branded a murderer. Brand, a young man who considers himself a good person, also dreams of being a warrior. He dreams of being a warrior to do right by his sister, escape poverty, and to find the camaraderie and family he's always wanted. Except when he sees the injustice done to Thorn he has to say something, a decision that derails his plans. Now the pair find themselves swept up in the plans of Father Yarvi, the deep-cunning Minister and royal advisor, as he travels the world seeking allies against the tyrant High King. Thorn and Brand must decide if they are pawns or heroes and must discover out just how far they can trust a deep-cunning man.

Half The World is kind of perfect. While I thought it's predecessor Half A King was a perfectly enjoyable read, it suffered a bit by being too straight forward and familiar. Half The World, perhaps freed from the heavy lifting of world building, manages to be a much deeper novel. While still a very direct read, and one simplified a bit for a younger reader, it still manages to deliver a surprisingly nuanced story filled with remarkably deep and memorable characters in a complex and challenging world. As a lighter, taught Fantasy novel Half The World was a really enjoyable page turner. As a work of Young Adult Fiction, Half The World with its morally complex world, adult perspective on sexuality and violence, and nuanced touch on diversity is pretty incredible. This is a book made with teens in mind that still manages to deliver a fairly grown up story.

In a lot of ways Half The World feels like a response to criticism. Some of Abercrombie's earlier novels have been criticized for their lacklustre or problematic portrayal of women and relentless grim-darkness. Some of the key characters in Half The World seem a little like a second look at archetypes that didn't get the fairest shake in earlier novels: the sister left behind, the young warrior interested in doing good, and the prickly, violent woman out for revenge all return in this book and get a different look. As someone who still has feels about some of the darker moments in Abercrombie's novels, it is pretty refreshing to see this response to criticism. These same choices also go a considerable way into making Half The World the kind of YA Fantasy fiction avoids a lot of the sexist pratfalls that beset many of my own youthful favourites. 

I would recommend Half The World to just about anyone. As an adult reader and occasional Fantasy fan, I had trouble putting the book down and thoroughly enjoyed myself. By the time this post is published, I'll also be a parent of some sex-to-be-determined child. (INSERT UPDATE) Which has really gotten me thinking about the kinds of stories I want to share with my kid. Half The World is the kind of novel that I would have loved as a younger reader and is also, due to its nuanced portrayal of adult themes and empathetic portrayal of people, the kind of novel that I hope my kid is exposed to when they are old enough to appreciate it. I'll be handing this book to my kid in 13 or 14 years and I can't think of a higher recommendation for this kind of book. You and your younger readers should read it.

Post by Michael Bround

Half A King
The First Law, Best Served Cold, The Heroes
Red Country

Monday, 24 August 2015

Visiting The Island #2: I.D. pt 2

Or a look at the effects of research and detail in ID pt. 2 
by Emma Rios with consultation from Miguel Alberte Woodward, MD; Image Comics

I once read an X-men comic allegedly set in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. I was pretty excited since very few comics are set here, and seeing my favourite city portrayed in media is always fun. Unfortunately the artist on the book didn't bother to actually reference what Vancouver looks like. So instead of the intersection of ocean, looming mountains, and skinny green-glassed skyscrapers, there was a vaguely defined collection of generic highrises and apartments with the odd Canadian flag thrown in. Instead of seeing the familiar shape of my home in an X-men comic, I was reading a comic that might as well have been set in Cityville City. It was a huge distraction.

Which goes to show that details matter in fiction.

I.D. in Island #2 is a great example of how fine attention to detail can enhance a storytelling world.

This post will contain *SPOILERS* for I.D.

In my day job I work as an academic research scientist in cardiac cell biology. This is only relevant here in so far as it makes me really picky about the portrayal of Science and Biology in fiction. I mean, it's fine when things are left extremely vague ("there is a surgery that let's us transplant brains, cool?"), I can go along with the premise in service to the story. But once a story tries to engage with the Science-maguffin, I find that this invites scrutiny which often just blows holes in the story, subtracts from my suspension of disbelief, and leaves me distracted from the core narrative. It can be another un-Vancouver moment. 

Like, in I.D. #2 the volunteers are told they will be infected with a virus that adds light-sensitive firefly proteins to their brains. The goal being to allow for optogenetic surgery which allows lasers to cultivate neuron growth and brain integration. Which, despite the delightful moment about bug-DNA, is kind of problematic. Fireflies are best known in Science as the source of luciferase, a bioluminescent light-emitting protein that gets used a lot to measure when a particular gene is being transcribed, or activated. Off the top of my head, fireflies are not really a source of commonly used light sensitive proteins. Optogenetics, the use of light to control cells, generally uses channelrhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein derived from the eye that can be used to transport ions and which has been implicated in neuron activation, axon growth, and synaptic potentiation. Jargon speak aside, this means that channelrhodposin would make a more plausible tool for the kind of brain-integrating surgery portrayed in the comic than a "modified firefly gene".

I can be downright crazy about this stuff.

The thing is, despite this crazy person quibble, I.D. does a fantastic job incorporating Science. The overall approach of using optogenetics, light directed surgery and virally transduced genes, is shockingly plausible. The drawings displaying the surgical setup, or the process of using a lentivirus and vector are textbook precise. The use of Science jargon is pitch perfect and complex. Basically I.D. displays a level of biological expertise beyond what I have ever encountered in another comic book. I mean, the fact I can quibble about which light-sensitive protein would be the most realistic in this situation at all is truly remarkable event.

The effect of this is that I.D. is elevated from a clinical character study using a Sci-fi plot device to a serious work of Science Fiction that is having a serious discussion about well developed and well thought out technologies. Which for me makes the entire premise feel more real, which lends the comic an unsettling, visceral quality that a less realistic, un-Vancouver-style comic would lack.

I think this really showcases the value of researching background/setting material in fiction: while a scant go-with-this contract works, a comic that invites and stands up to technical scrutiny is much more satisfying a reading experience.

Which goes to show that detail matters,

Island #1: I.D. Part 1
Island #1: Multiple Warheads

Friday, 21 August 2015

Deep Sequencing: Head Of The Family

Or a look at how narration and captioning empower a character in Lazarus Volume 3
by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, and Jodi Wynne; Image Comics

In the comic Lazarus, the world is ruled by plutocrat families which function essentially as corporate royalty. Forever, the protagonist of the comic, is a genetically engineered supersoldier who exists both as an enforcer and a junior member of the Carlyle plutocrat family which rules much of western North America. An important aspect of Forever's life are the complicated family dynamics of the Carlyle family, particularly her relationship to her father, the head of the family and business, and de facto ruler of the Carlyle domain. It is a strange relationship and Malcolm, her father is an interesting and intimidating character.

Malcolm Carlyle is portrayed as an authoritative character. He is white, apparently middle-aged, and has a generally stern baring. He dresses in a grown up, all business way usually wearing suits or dress shirts. He is always seen in command of the room he is in with his family members, and even members of other plutocrat families deferring to him. Malcolm Carlyle is obviously a big deal in a very consistent, systemic way.

The thing is, Malcolm Carlyle is also portrayed as a big deal using a really cool comic trick in Lazarus Vol. 3.

Which of course, involves some *SPOILERS*

The story of this page is that Forever, acting in her capacity of Family Lazarus is sent to deliver a message to her counterpart from a rival family. The goal of her trip is to negotiate a Conclave, a gathering of the plutocrat families, to settle a dispute. What is so remarkable about this sequence is that the actual negotiations depicted occur silently, and are instead narrated in the instructions Malcolm Carlyle gives Forever. This choice depicts Malcolm as being a deeply cunning and prescient strategist that can accurately predict the shape of the negotiations ahead of time. It is also a choice that lends Malcolm an authorial voice: this page reads less like conventional narration than as a literal script dictating how the scene and artwork should look. This script-iness is built into the structure of the narration captions as they, unlike normal narration in Lazarus, blend into the gutters of the page and appear to somewhat outside the bounds of the panels and comic world. Collectively this lends suggests Malcolm exerts a great deal of power and control to the point that it can seem that he is writing the comic world he inhabits. Which is really, really smart and interesting comics.

And why I totally accept Malcolm Carlyle as a truly intelligent and formidable leader. 

Lazarus Vol. 1
Lazarus Vol. 2
Lazarus Vol. 3

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

So I Read Lazarus: Conclave

A 250 word (or less) review of Lazarus Volume 3
by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and Santi Arcas; Image Comics

Lazarus is part of an ongoing series. To read a review of Volume One, go here.

The first chapter of Lazarus focused on introducing us to Forever, the superhuman bioengineered enforcer of the Carlyle family, and the second chapter constructed the dystopian world of life inside the Carlyle family holdings. Lazarus: Conclave shifts the focus from establishing internal conflicts to the international world of Lazarus and the complicated framework of warring plutocratic families which control the globe. In this chapter wayward Carlyle son Jonah seeks sanctuary with rival family Hock and instead finds himself held hostage. This leads to a Conclave where leaders from the ruling families and their Lazarus enforcers meet to settle the dispute between Carlyle and Hock. This gives us a much deeper look into the ruling class of Lazarus and a fitting stage for a great story of intrigue, romance, drama, and betrayal and maybe the impetus for the central conflict of the series. Lazarus: Conclave also represents a tonal shift for me: while still very smart, very well made Sci-fi, Volume 3 feels less obviously horrific and focused on examining sociopolitical trends and more interested in telling a compelling story and character development. Which is a welcome change in that it gives the creative team a chance to show their great ear for dialogue and eye for acting to really breathe extra life into the comic's characters. Lazarus was always good, but now it feels inhabited by real people. Which has transformed Lazarus from a smart, scary Sci-fi comic, to a smart, scary Sci-fi comic that I’m deeply emotionally invested in. 

Word count: 250

Post by Michael Bround

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Steel Beach Is An Interesting Book

Or why you could read Steel Beach
by John Varley

Steel Beach is a novel about a future where humanity has been exiled from Earth by conservationally inclined aliens. The surviving humans now live on the Steel Beach of the lifeless planets of solar system in manufactured habitats. Here humanity has prospered, living a permissive, technologically advanced life and cared for by a benevolent computer intelligence. People are functionally immortal, able to change their appearance and sex on demand, and provided with all of their basic needs and wants. But gifted with all of these wonders, people are beginning to feel bored and, more and more, worryingly depressed and suicidal. Which is an even bigger problem when the NAME NAME, the lifegiving computer intelligence itself, becomes infected with suicidal thoughts and feelings. The novel follows Hildy NAME, an experienced reporter, struggling with ennui and depression, who is commissioned by the NAME NAME to help uncover the source and solution of this growing dissastisfaction.

Steel Beach is a novel that I have a pretty mixed reaction to.

Steel Beach is without a doubt an interesting book. Steel Beach is at it's core a novel that explores the meaning of contemporary life through the lens of a madcap Sci-fi adventure. We see the role of technology explored through the guise of a suicidal AI that humanity needs to live. We see celebrty culture, the news media, animal rights activists, libertarians, Sci-fi dreamers, parents, athletes, and more all examined and lampooned. We see gender roles and identity and sex all explored in intimate detail. If anything, Steel Beach reads like a smart man trying to figure out life and what it means to him and sharing that exploration with readers through this story. In that context, this is a fascinating book; like or hate his ideas, seeing these concepts worked through in such a rigorous and gonzo way is pretty interesting. 

Steel Beach also has a lot of problems, though. John Varley was born in 1947 and has views that jar with a contemporary reading. (For context I was born in 1987.) While he's clearly a liberal guy, some of his ideas, particularly those dealing with gender, sex, and sexuality are out-dated and problematic by my standards. This leads to some pretty infuriating moments in the novel and just a general sense that other authors probably could say more interesting and current things about gender than Varley. (I would love to read a Sci-fi novel by a Trans author exploring gender in a society where bodies are fully mutable.) There is also a pretty systemic future-anachronism problem: Steel Beach is rife with contemporary cultural references from the 19th and 20th centuries which in a novel set in a post-civilization moon colony in the distant future make zero sense. I only kind of understand cultural references from the 1920s and know virtually nothing about popular culture from like, the 1890s. The idea that people living in a distant, alien future who are deeply versed in contemporary culture is bonkers and frustrating. It's kind of one of my Sci-fi pet peeves.

(As an aside, Steel Beach is kind of interesting in that it clearly is riffing on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein, and the novel Glasshouse by Charles Stross, a personal favourite, draws some inspiration from Steel Beach. Novels!)

On balance I think I would recommend Steel Beach. It wouldn't be my first choice of book for most readers since I'm not sure it's good enough to be a timeless classic or current enough to work especially well as contemporary Sci-fi. That said, I found Steel Beach engagingly insightful, engrossingly infuriating, and always interesting the entire way through. As a person trying to sort out what adult life means, reading a smart person from a generation before trying to sort it all out was worth the time invested in the read. I can't guarantee that Steel Beach will please every Science Fiction fan, but if you are interested in reading someone examine the modern meaning of life, Steel Beach might be up your alley.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Worshipping The Wicked + The Divine #13

Or a look at the use of active narration in WicDiv #13
by Kieron Gillen, Tula Lotay, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

Despite a rotating cast of creators, The Wicked + The Divine continues to be a comic worth examining for creative flair. WicDiv #13 features the addition of Tula Lotay to the team, and honestly I'd write in depth about it, but it would mostly be a series of superlatives about how much I like it. Since I think it might be more interesting and instructive, I'll just take for granted that the art in WicDiv #13 is really great, and instead focus on the narration in the comic, which pulls a very interesting trick.

A trick that is made of *SPOILERS*, so this post is going to be quite *SPOILER* heavy.

The Wicked + The Divine has established itself as a comic with an active narrator, a character within the story who relates some amount of the events and glimpses of their inner lives. At first glance WicDiv #13 operates by the same rules, with Tara playing the role of narrator. With this we get a glimpse of "fucking Tara", the immensely popular pop idol goddess who the rest of the pantheon views with a certain jealousy and disdain. What we see initially is a pretty sympathetic portrait of a woman struggling with being respected as an artist in the face of her glamorous image and divine powers. As a purely surface narration device, this inner monologue is an arresting look into the fraught relationship between beauty and fame, and the toxic environment that can exist there.

That is until you reach the climax of the comic and realize that the active narration in WicDiv #13 is the contents of a suicide note written by Tara. Which, after being lulled into complacently by the familiar seeming narrative structure, leads to a shocking reframing of the entire comic. Instead of being a story about a woman struggling with the costs of beauty and fame, or a cautionary story of about how even the most shallow seeming star is a complex human being, it's the last testament of someone who has already given up, already been destroyed. This of course, adds a serious weight of gravitas to the end of the comic. But, more interestingly, the narration reveal allows WicDiv #13 to be experienced twice, once as a complex character study and again as a darker tragedy. Which is really cool comics.

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

WicDiv #10 and powers as character design

WicDiv #11 and stretching the moment

WicDiv #12 and layout encoding