Monday, 23 November 2015

Deep Sequencing: Hostile Babylon

Or a look at depictions of violence in East of West. Vol. 4
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, Rus Wooton; Image Comics

I think violence is seldom portrayed in truly visceral, satisfying ways in most media. In comics, I find depictions of violence tend to be mitigated, rendered down to a palatable, symbolic state that conveys that injuries and pain are happening in a story sense without the felt-in-the-guts-horror of the violence being depicted. A lot of this, I think, comes from the tamed down nature of most depictions: a lot of violence in comics reflects that weird videogame/movie/TV language where consequences are cartoonishly minimized. (In a way that I find endlessly messed up when I actually think about it. Selling, like, gun violence as commonplace or where victims of gunshot wounds basically walk it off as opposed to being irrevocably damaged is super fucked up.) So I always find it interesting when comics find a way to depict violence in a way that captures the sheer awfulness of it.

Generally, I find most effective depictions of violence use two general strategies. The first is that they make heavy use of eye-guiding and layout to build a significant element of velocity into the artwork, making every action kinetic and maximizing every impact. The second is that they portray realistic violence: realistically drawn people are injured in the horrible ways that real people would be if stabbed, or bludgeoned, or shot. It's authentic and traumatic in a way that more sterilized depictions just aren't. A great example of a kinetic, realistic, and horrible depiction of violence was in the Ellis/Shavley/Bellaire run of Moon Knight.

What is interesting about East of West is that it uses a very different approach to depicting visceral violence that is pretty interesting.

There will be *SPOILERS* for East of West Vol. 4 below.

The context for the next sequence has to do with Babylon, the son of Death, who is the harbinger of the end times. Or, at least the fated harbinger of the End Times. Right now, Babylon is just a generally innocent child, raised by an AI in seclusion who is being manipulated by pro-apocolypse forces into growing up to end the world. In the course of Volume 4, his AI "balloon" is reprogrammed to push young Babylon into choosing to do violent, evil things in an effort to catalyze his development into a monster.

What I find so interesting about this effective sequence of violence, where Babylon is driven to kill a herd of wild pigs, is how it uses omission to create a visceral portrayal of violence. Rather than show snapshots of Babylon murdering the pigs, this sequence uses shadows and splatters to hint at the violence being done. This allows the reader's imagination to fill in whatever grisly moments of violence they picture occurring, which I find a weirdly effective choice. Part of this is the size of an imagination compared to the size of a page: the reader can picture more events, more moments of graphic violence than there is space in the page to show. Similarly, by not showing the actual events, the creators leave an ambiguity that allows the reader to picture an endless spectrum of depravity. It's a really cool use of the reader/creator/comic relationship to encode extra meaning and to use minimalist storytelling to make a really visceral moment.

Another aspect of this choice that I find interesting is even a bit more meta. By inviting the reader to envision the horrible things Babylon is doing to his victims, the comic is essentially making the reader choose to kill the pigs in their imagination. It's putting us in the characters place, putting us ideologically through the same process as Babylon, and making us complicit in his acts of violence. It's a really effective, transgressive bit of comics.

Of course, despite the apparent simplicity of the sequence, this bit of comics is filled with some really astute bits of layout and tracking to make the page kinetic and exciting. The central tool being used throughout this sequence is tangent lines (or honestly, I've always thought of them as "speed lines", but I have no idea if that is a term of art... but screw it, let's call them speed lines). Anyway, these speed lines, give every panel a sense of motion and an orientation of that motion. This makes every stab and slash, bloody splatter and splash, feel dynamic and in motion which substantially increases the drama of the sequence. It is also significant how the vectors of the action clash with each other and work against much of the eye tracking in the page giving each action a brutality and sense of chaos that wonderfully feeds into the ambiguity of the panels. Which I think is the true magic here: the exciting and dramatic storytelling creates a sense of danger and violence that allows the ambiguity to drive the reader into manufacturing a truly horrific episode of violence. 

Another aspect of this sequence that I think is kind of cool has to do with the character design of Babylon. When the sequence starts, an innocent Babylon is dresses in his all-white outfit. However, after enacting his slaughter of the pig herd, Babylon becomes covered in blood and gore, which shows prominently on his white garb. This works as a wonderful visual metaphor for the corruption that Babylon is undergoing in this sequence. It's a seemingly small choice, but it evocatively depicts the evolving status of the character.


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