Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Monitoring Moon Knight #1

Or a look at the use of style to convey narrative in Moon Knight #1 
by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood, Jordie Bellaire, and Cory Petit; Marvel Comics

Moon Knight #1 is the kind of comic I usually steer clear of. It's a relaunch of a series that has just been relaunched several times. I fairly recently read an iteration of the series that I *really* enjoyed as a cohesive, complete experience. I don't really have strong feelings about Moon Knight as a character, and since reading a little Cerebus I'm having some trouble taking him seriously ("Unorthodox Economic Vengeance!"). And yet... Jordie Bellaire only seems to work on good comics, Jeff Lemire has created several comics I enjoy, and Greg Smallwood's artwork is immediately, obvious good. So it's really on the strength of the creative team that I even tried this comic. And I am pretty glad that I did.

Moon Knight #1 is also the kind of comic I love to write about: it is a very accomplished comic that uses a number of stylistic elements to convey narrative information and create an immersive reading experience. Which I'll try and unpack below.

There will of course be *SPOILERS*.

One of the choices I really like about Moon Knight #1 is the use of very wide white gutter spaces. This choice gives the entire comic a soft, almost hazy feeling. This effect is apparent throughout the issue, but is particularly obvious in certain pages which actively use the white space to show Spectre slipping in and out of consciousness, whiting out in what feels like a slow and muzzy way. Overall, I suggest the passive and active use of white margins works to create a sense of floating, semi-conciousness that really adds to the ambiguity of the comic and sense that the narratoring perspective may be unreliable. It's great stuff.

Another of the stylistic choices in Moon Knight #1 that I find so effective is the dual colouring styles used in the issue. The comic opens on a pair of pages of Marc Spectre exploring an Ancient Egyptian temple as part of a hallucination/vision. This sequence features a grainy, sketchy colour palette that uses 'painted' highlights and specks of pigment to create a decidedly artificed world.  By which I mean, the stylistic choices of this opening sequence manages to look like something created by an artist (a fictional environment) but also extremely granular and high resolution (a hyper-realistic environment). The more mundane elements of the comic which tell the story of Marc Spectre committed to some sort of mental hospital feature flat colours and a much more conventional comics look. This creates an immediate codified demarcation between the fantastical world of the comic and the mundane world.

Part of what makes this colouring choice so powerful in the comic is how it works to collide the supernatural/insane elements of the comic with the mundane. When Spectre becomes Moon Knight or hears the voice of his god Kohnshu elements of the scratchy, granular colouring creep into the comic, creating an emotional contrast between these elements. This also creates a palpable sense of dread/power in the supernatural elements: they feature distinct colouring so *something* must be happening, maybe Spectre isn't insane...

And then there are the pages where the divisions break down and the flat colouring of the mundane world and the gritty, sketchy aesthetic of the supernatural collide. Where Moon Knight is free to attack the nurse/jackals that have been imprisoning and seemingly abusing him throughout the comic. This is depicted wonderfully in a flurry of small, circular panels that chaotically capture individual moments of violence. It's a page out-of-control and unhinged, and manages to capture a maniac fury in a clear and visually interesting way. Collectively, it's a great choice that I think manages to establish this incarnation of Moon Knight as dangerous and which implies that there is potentially an element of supernatural power about the possibly insane man.

I think this double-page spread is my favourite use of the supernatural/mundane colouring. The page depicts New York apparently mixed up with some sort of Ancient Egyptian-inspired hellscape. While I can spot elements of paint splatter and sketchy colours, these elements are subdued compared to panels and sequences that are more clearly entrenched in either Spectre's mind or the possibly hallucinated. Instead this page features mostly the more flat colouring of the mundane elements of the comic, despite the impossible thing being depicted. The white margins also fall away for the first time in the comic, making the page feel bigger, sharper, and more real. This creates this wonderful moment of ambiguity: is this all a hallucination of Spetre's? Could this really be happening? The colouring, which has been used to codify this, is unclear. And so by establishing, utilizing, and then subverting the colour conventions of the comic, Moon Knight #1 manages to call into question what in the comic is even really happening. Which is great.

I read Moon Knight #1 because of the creative team, but will read #2 on the strength of the execution of the first issue.


Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Deep Sequencing: Space Crime Scene Investigation

Or a look at the use of setting in The Fuse Vol. 1 and Mercury Heat Vol. 1
by Antony Johnston, Justin Greenwood, Shari Chankhamma, and Ryan Ferrier, as well as, Kieron Gillen, Omar Francia, Nahuel Lopez, Digikore Studios, Kurt Hathaway, respectively

In my day job I have often meet accomplished clinician-scientists who have built careers on studying people with diseases caused by rare mutations. These researchers find interesting, serendipitous comparisons between people that uncover novel facets of biology and also potentially treat people with rare diseases. I think the same principle can be applied to comics: finding comics with some unifying aspect and contrasting how they approach that commonality can be informative. (A classic example is the different approaches to scripting a beach scene between Moore and Ennis.) And I think The Fuse and Mercury Heat are a pretty ideal pair to examine.

The Fuse and Mercury Heat are both Science Fiction comics that revolve around Space Police solving a murder. The Fuse takes place on an orbiting, power-collecting space station and is functionally a detective procedural that provides a social commentary and satisfying mystery. Mercury Heat takes place on Mercury, in a space colony built around exporting solar energy to Earth, and skews toward an Action-Sci-fi adventure with policing elements. While these comics are distinct from a plot/theme perspective, The Fuse and Mercury Heat have similar enough settings that comparing the two comics is interesting. Moreover, I think The Fuse does a much more effective job utilizing it's setting than Mercury Heat and I think it's instructive to examine this in more detail.

Before I do that, though, I'd like to just point out that I enjoyed both of these comics quite a lot. I think The Fuse is maybe the better social critique of the two, and is certainly the better police-comic with a much more granular and engrossing mystery. However, I also think Mercury Heat is a better work of Science Fiction: some of it's ideas, like everyone being freelance contractors working for a central-sorting AI-application, are kind of brilliant. My point is both comics have their strengths and both are worth reading; I just happen to think The Fuse makes better use of setting than Mercury Heat. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for both Mercury Heat Vol. 1 and The Fuse Vol. 1 below.

The cold open in Mercury Heat is that a man is stranded on the surface of Mercury. Mercury is noteworthy because dayside of the planet surface is inhospitably hot while the nightside of the planet experiences temperatures which are unendurably cold. The trick to surviving on Mercury, depends on living in the twilight/dawn region that exists between the two extremes and which, due to Mercury's very long day, moves at something like walking speed. So this man stranded on Mercury is trying to outrun the dawn and avoid frying to death. Except he can't and he dies by solar immolation.

The issue here is that this isn't at all clear from the artwork in Mercury Heat. The camera is focused in so far that as a reader I never get the sense of impending dawn or that the doomed man is running on the surface of the planet. Or really, that the comic is taking place on Mercury at all since what is shown is a non-descript Sci-fi setting. Which is, in my opinion, a shame because I think this could have been a grand, hook the reader kind of moment that doesn't quite work because the setting isn't used effectively.

The issues with communicating setting continue past the opening sequence of Mercury Heat. While the comic takes place inside some sort of Mercury-based space colony, I still can't really describe what that entails or what it looks like. Most of Mercury Heat portrays its world as a series of generic looking space-corridors and while there are some establishing shots (I've tried to gather the best I could find above), they fail to provide good information on what the Mercury Colony looks like, or what the lives of its denizens might be like. Like, I cannot tell you if Mercury has a surface city, a buried city, or as is the case in a few Sci-fi things I've read, a moving city that paces the twilight/dawn zone. Which is a shame, because it deprives Mercury Heat a sense of place, some degree of believability, and fails to capitalize on the awesome fact that it takes place on Mercury.

(I'm willing to concede that the narrow focus and sheer corridor-ness of Mercury Heat *could* be a meta-commentary/nod to other Sci-fi works that, constrained by budget, also go heavy on the corridor and light on the awesome space setting. I'm pretty sure the tight outfit and undesirable "personality type" of the protagonist (among other things) are an unspoken commentary/satire of the Sci-fi girl-with-a-gun trope, so it's not impossible that Team Heat is Doing A Thing. Or that what I'm examining here as an omission may actually be a deliberate creative choice.)

The Fuse, in contrast does a much better job establishing its setting. The comic also opens with a murder, although this sequence is much more mundane and takes place in a fairly nondescript communal space that could literally be anywhere. Immediately following this, however, The Fuse gives us a double page spread showing us the entire space station. This gives the reader an immediate sense of place and established that the reader is in a fantastical, space world. The juxtaposition of the mundane murder with the space station also helps establish one of the thematic cores of the series: despite the futuristic and exotic setting, the denizens of The Fuse are beset by the same squalor, corruption, and immorality as humanity always has been. This contrast between the Sci-fi promise of the premise and the mundane reality of the story really drives home the social commentary of the comic.

The Fuse builds on this setting and continues to make use of the contrast between fantastical and mundane elements. The comic takes us to what is recognizably an inhabited city inside the space station, or a wealthy suburb inclosed beneath a space-dome. It shows us a vagrant camp built into an out-of-the-way bit of station infrastructure. The comic takes the reader to a gravity-free observatory where station inhabitants can watch Earth (and where they explain the super-clever origins of "The Russia Shift). These are settings that manage to incorporate the space-elements of the station and merge them with recognizable, contemporary elements which convey information to the reader about things like economic class, but also carefully maintain the juxtaposition of the mundane and futuristic. It is very effective comics that really makes the most of the setting a socially conscious police procedural in space.

Mercury Heat does have one sequence that makes great use of its setting. In one of the final chapters, the comic's protagonist finds herself marooned on the surface of Mercury and, like the poor soul in the opening sequence, forced to outrun the dawn to survive. In this instance the camera pulls back to give the reader a view of rugged, craterous Mercury and the context to appreciate the predicament of the protagonist. The sequence feels dangerous and suspenseful and great, in large part, I think, because of the large scale portrayal of setting. It is also, I think, one of the most enjoyable sequences in the comic, and I hope, a sign that setting is going to be a more active element of Mercury Heat going forward.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Interrogating Black Widow #2

Or a breakdown of a really great page in Black Widow #2
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Black Widow #1 was one of the most satisfying single issues of comics I've ever read. It made tremendous use of mystery and silent-running comics to drive an engrossing, amazing action sequence that perfectly establishes the stakes and tone of the series. Black Widow #2 has the unenviable job of providing the context and underlying details to make the series work. Fortunately, Team Widow is up to the task and created a compelling comic filled with atmosphere, style, and fantastic storytelling. One page of which I want to take a closer look at, because it pulls off a really cool trick.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Black Widow #2

One of the aspects of comics storytelling that I find really interesting is the interplay between artwork and the readers path through a page. And this page is a fantastic example of why I find this stuff so compelling. The story here is that Black Widow is quietly dispatching a group of soldier/assassins set to attack a secret SHIELD funeral. The reader enters the page in the top panel, reads some dialogue, and then carriage returns across the page to meet the silhouette of a running Black Widow in the second panel. This primes an action where Widow tackles the goon in the foreground of the second panel, through the third panel, and leaving him sprawled in the fourth. This action feels heavy and significant as it carries through multiple panels. It also feels quick and fluid since the motion carries along a tangent line created by an underlying triangle formed by the standing-goon, motion blur, and sprawled goon. This provides a clear reading path for the reader and increases the speed of the reader. This triangle/reading path also deposits the reader in the bottom right corner of the fourth panel, which means the reader looks back at the next-goon and sees Black Widow swinging around his neck. This means the reader moves along the path of Widow jumping onto next-goon in a quick, kinetic way. The position of Widow on next-goon also provides a shape that pulls the reader up and around the pair and then down along the cross page carriage return to the final panel where Widow has broken next-goons neck. When you put this entire sequence together the reader follows Widow's motion as she carries out the entire takedown: jumping onto the goon, swinging around him, and then throwing him down to a violent neck-snapping crash. This is the reading path that is established and provides the reader with an evocative sequence that animates the static artwork into a kinetic experience. And given the sheer complexity of the motion this effortless seeming reading path is a remarkable and bonkers bit of comics magic.

Black Widow continues to be a really, really great comic.

Black Widow #1

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Deep Sequencing: East-SLASH-West

Or a look at action composition and the use of symmetry in East of West Vol. 5
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, Rus Wooton; Image Comics

East of West is a pretty great comic. It is a comic about the end of the world in a kind of Sci-fi/Western alternate universe. In the world of East of West the US Civil War (and concurrent American Indian Wars) ended in a stalemate when a comet crashed and decimated much of the continent. As a result the US is divided into a number of warring states, once locked in an uneasy peace, and now openly warring. Oh, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse stalk the land while Death rides in search of his lost son, the harbinger of the Endtimes. East of West is choked full of memorable characters, cool Sci-fi concepts, intrigue, and beautifully composed action. It is absolutely a comic worth reading.

I want to take a closer look at a particularly nifty action sequence from East of West Vol. 5 to try and unpack what I like about it and to showcase something cool it does using symmetrical layouts.

There will be *SPOILERS* below.




The sequence I want to talk about is a selection from a longer, excellent action set piece. The story of this chapter shows a number of ninja-like assassins infiltrating the palace of The People's Republic of America to murder Mao Xiaolian, the leader of this polity. Specifically sequence has the assasins corner the leader bathing, apparently vulnerable, and Xiaolian fighting back against her wouldbe killers. The entire story is wonderfully composed and very effective comics.

I'm going to focus in on these three pages though, since I think they showcase the strength of the storytelling and because they do a couple interesting things.

The first page is a pretty good example of the majority of the action storytelling in East of West. The composition here makes great use of how the reader naturally wants to navigate a comics page to deliver the action in a compelling way. The reader traces the arc of a tangent to quickly take in the key elements of the first panel in a way that creates a sense of the assassins charging at the naked, and seemingly vulnerable Xiaolian. This brings the reader to an across the page carriage return that is abruptly stopped by Xiaolian catching the sword blade in one of her robotic fists. The reader then sweeps up into the next moment and then into another carriage return that delivers the speed and force of Xiaolian's kick. It's overall a page that feels quick and visceral.

The second page initially uses the many of the same storytelling elements, except this time the flow of motion opposes the readers natural eye tracking. The first panel has a hilt-chop that moves against the left-to-right flow of the reader, making the moment more visceral, and then an impaling which also happens against the grain. And then this page does something really important: it zooms out and gives a static feeling glance of the action. This large panel reminds the reader that four of Xiaolian's servants sacrificed themselves to save her, reminding the reader of the stakes, shows how many assassins have been dispatched, and reveals how many killers are still active. This choice really highlights the scope of the remaining danger and provides critical context for just how dire the situation is. It is a great example of why pulling the lens out and establishing a sense of space can improve action storytelling.

The final page in this selection is the most interesting to me. Unlike the previous pages which use the normal back-and-forth path through the page, the third page here is all about convincing the reader to navigate straight down the page. I think this is largely accomplished through the use of symmetry in the layout. The way the top panel frames Xiaolian in the centre of the page makes her the obvious focal point of the first panel. When the reader moves down to the next tier, the narrowing of the central panels and simple, tall outer panels function to funnel the reader through the centre and into the final dramatic panel. When combined, this makes the page read as one clear motion, through the straining, splitting blade and into the double block in one amazing flurry of activity. It's a glorious page of comics that conveys a pretty complex sequence of events clearly, stylishly, and evocatively. It is fantastic stuff.