Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Deep Sequencing: Oggling Ody-C Vol. 2

Or a roundup of my favourite artwork and storytelling from Ody-C Vol. 2
by Matt Fraction, Christian Ward, and Chris Eliopoulos; Image Comics

Ody-C continues to be a kind of perplexing comics experience for me. It's clearly a comic, it uses the interaction of words and pictures to tell a story, but in a somewhat different mode than I'm used to coming from a mostly American, genre comics background. Ody-C, to me, skirts this fine line between a traditional comic that uses illustration to convey events and a lyrical/prose story accompanied and supported by illustration. When you add in the psychedelic, inventive artwork and the surreal, lyrical translation of the narration, Ody-C is a challenging and wonderfully unreal comic. It's definitely worth a look, if only to see something unexpected.

Ody-C is also, I think, interesting from the standpoint of execution. Team Ody-C commits some really innovative feats of comics storytelling that are lurid and instructive and, if you are a comics wonk, worth the price of admission. I feel that this is particularly true in the second volume, Sons of The Wolf, which, in my opinion, really shows the creative team growing into their collaboration and the story. If you were not swept away by the first Ody-C chapter/trade, a second look might be in order.

(Conversely, it's possible that I liked Vol. 2 more because I had a better idea of what I was in for and had tempered my expectations accordingly. Is it growth of the creators or the training of the reader, or both?)

This post is going to examine some of my favourite storytelling from Ody-C Volume 2.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Ody-C: Sons of the Wolf below.

The thing that so impresses me about Ody-C is the way the page is molded to the needs of the storytelling. The above examples, taken from a part of the comic that features a story read in a book, are one of the more simple, yet effective examples of this. In this part of the comic the panel shapes and layouts have been given shapes that evoke paper pages in an old, hardcover book. It's a choice that clearly delineates which part of the comic are occurring within the story-within-the-story which enhances clarity. It's also a choice that creates a motif, which gives this section an interesting visual flavour making this segment feel unique and special. This is all fairly straightforward, but is a nice, simple example of how Team Ody-C uses innovative flourishes to make a better reading experience.

Here are some other noteworthy examples of the use of flourishes to construct awesome, evocative moments. 

In the page on the left Ene the Conquerer is warned about Proteus, the leviathan monster who destroys all who try and leave the world she is trapped on. This monster has tremendous power, apparently over space and time, and this is conveyed in the structure of the page. The space panels around the monster warp, and when the leviathan attacks, it breaks the layout of the page itself. This choice instantly conveys what a fearsome, insurmountable challenge Proteus is. 

The right page shows Ene, who is trying to hunt Proteus on a kind of bone-strewn, charnel world, being overtaken by the animated/levitated bones that surround her. The conceit of the page has the bones of the world as white outlines, which blend seamlessly into the gutters of the comic. The page is also noteworthy in that it uses a 16 panel grid, one of the rare occasions the comic uses such a traditional approach. This is important because it means that the reader instantly understands how the page is supposed to work, and allows the bone-conceit to play out as the primary feature in violation of the underlying grid. The page is great in that it shows Ene and her company swallowed up the white of the bones and page, and, because of how Ene progresses across the grid, creates the sense of her being dragged down, down, down. It is a highly evocative page of comics that uses a cool idea coupled with a simple, clear layout to powerful effect. 

Another striking, highly dramatic sequence in Ody-C Vol. 2 is this double page spread. The story playing out here as the Sons of the Wolf, jilted by their respective husband and wife who have taken one another as lovers, slaughter there way through an orgy in a garden. This sequence is a visceral, emotional, page of madness and carnage that is brilliantly executed. The spread once again uses a simple grid layout so that the reader can easily navigate the page. This is very much a choice made to limit distractions and to allow the engines of the page to show through as clearly as possible. One of these engines is the juxtaposition of violence and beauty, tranquility and slaughter. The high panel count allows the comic to jump from severed body part to flower to act of horrific violence to plant, all the while milking the dissonance between these two extremes for dramatic effect. At the same time, the comic uses the visual similarity between a flowers bloom and a burst of blood, the garden and the violence to alternately taint the purity of the beauty and to show the aesthetics of the slaughter. It is a discombobulating and uncomfortable bit of comics. The other engine that drives this page is the use of colour. While most of Ody-C has this complex, nuanced, painted style filled with layered and complicated colours, this sequence uses flat colours in a tightly constrained palette making it visually distinct. The chosen colours, blue, green, and red are simple and stark and when juxtaposed and repeated are lurid and attention grabbing. This makes this sequence feel important and crazy and helps make every image land with maximum impact on the reader. This is a very effective span of comics and one uses a simple layout and dramatic colours to convey a truly horrific moment of insanity.

I think this final, two part example is my favourite storytelling from Ody-C Vol. 2. In the comic the Sons of the Wolf, although twin brothers, are raised separately and unaware of each other. As the story goes their drive, strength, and unnatural charisma leads them to become rulers and amass armies and go to war with each other. This is told and conveyed in part on this beautiful double page spread. I love how this page uses symmetry of design and colour motifs (blue for one brother, red for the other), to show how the Sons of the Wolf are opposed to one another but evenly matched. I also really appreciate that the swirling design manages to create a sense of conflict. Part of this is that the swirl creates paths for the brothers to march along, creating a sense of progression towards a central climatic conflict. I also like that it creates a tense, unbalanced feeling layout that despite its symmetry, feels like it could tear itself apart. It is, at a glance, a layout that conveys two equally matched foes coming to battle. And that is amazing comics. 

This sequence is closed by this page which shows the brothers fighting, discovering their identities, and reconciling to form an empire building alliance. It is a great page. For one the page uses long, apposed motion of the sword swings break through the plane of symmetry created in the previous spread, to violate the balance of the page to show the brothers coming together. This page is also smart in how it uses the arrow created by the crossing blades and moon(/sun?) backlight circle to emphasize the hugging brothers on the bottom of the page. This makes this feel like the most significant moment on the page. I also love how the brothers hugging become this balance point for the rest of the page, a kind of foundation for a layout that feels more secure than what came before. The story transitions from symmetrical, unbalanced layout to a page that crosses over and finds a new, more steady state of rest. It is a very great segment of storytelling.

This is just a random sampling of the moments I found most interesting or useful to talk about as a comics wonk. Ody-C is filled with these kinds of bold storytelling choices that are worth checking out as well as moments that, while maybe less technically involved, are just glorious pictures to look at. If the artwork in a comic is important to you, Ody-C: Sons of the Wolf is a comic you should read.


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Uncaging Bitch Planet #8

Or a look at panel grids as story motifs in Bitch Planet #8
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Bitch Planet is ostensibly a feminist take on exploitative women in prison movies. I say ostensibly, because despite some stylistic similarities to pulp film, this comic is doing some pretty complicated thematic heavy lifting. Most of the thematic substance of Bitch Planet has to do with intersectional feminism, an area I am eminently unqualified to essay about. So in lieu of that, I think it's worth looking at some of the structural/layout motifs used in the comic to convey narrative information.

There will be *SPOILERS* in this post.

The above sequence is an example of a "normal" layout in Bitch Planet. It is clean, uses different sized panels, and provides a clear narrative space. The fact the panel size is varied creates a flexible storytelling where the panel number and relative size can be modulated to serve the events depicted and to customize the reading experience. Like in the above sequence, where the comic depicts a father cleverly determining that his beloved daughter, a noncompliant prisoner, has secretly died, this storytelling can be effectively used to create heart rending, brilliant comics. It's a very good business as usual.

The first page of every issue of Bitch Planet has used this 12-panel grid layout. I've written about this approach before, but it bears repeating here in the context of BP #8. These pages, like the selection here, show women living in the "compliant" world, behaving within the patriarchal, garbage world of Earth. This approach ties layout to the motif of control that exists within the Earth of Bitch Planet since the 12-panel grid is a very rigid, orderly, and somewhat old fashioned storytelling approach. It is a comic style that bends the action depicted, the movement of the characters to a set layout, which is an approach that puts the system before the action/characters. It is a strong, visual metaphor for oppression. The white panel gutters of a 12-panel grid also forms a shape reminiscent of prison bars, making these pages look like the view through an idealized cell window. We are gazing into, or perhaps out of, a prison. This sequence, and it's counterparts in other issues of BP, provide a wonderful example of how layout and structure can create visual, thematic motifs.

I bring all of this up again because Bitch Planet #8 uses another panel grid system as a stylistic motif. In this case the comic uses an 18 panel grid to create a unique visual identity and a sense of a unique storyspace. The basis of this grid is the 1-2-3 panel row which has actually been used and riffed on throughout the series. This three panel row, usually featuring the two guard/engineer/controller guys interspersed with surveillance video has been an ongoing visual motif that has been used to showcase the separation between Noncompliant prisoners and their guards, the attitudes/plight of the guards, and the pervasive surveillance the NC's live under. Here this three panel motif is repeated over and over to create an 18 panel grid. The first 5 rows of panels in the grid are directly the 'usual' layout with one of the 'usual' controller-guys, which provides information to the reader that they are viewing a story sequence that takes place in the controller's location/distinct storyspace. The 16 panel grid carries through to remind the reader that the following events remain within the special controller-space. What is particularly interesting about this is that the actual illustrated spaces do not conform to the 16 panel grid, but rather the underlying artwork is overlaid with the grid and broken up. This is a pretty good sign that the grid here is more about a visual motif/sensation than about the direct storytelling of the actions. Which is pretty cool. 

Beyond being a visual signifier of location (controller-land), this motif manages to capture the emotional sense of what it means to be one of the controller/guards. The 16-panels break the page into many small windows to see the action, like the bank of surveillance screens the controller-guys use to watch the prisoners. I also find that, particularly because of the way the panel gutters infringe on the underlying artwork, that these panels remind me of grating. It's as if the reader is peaking through an airvent or stormcover or, to geek out, Jeffry's tube gate to see a secret, mechanical space behind the comic. It really sets the world of the controllers up as a technical, but behind-the-scenes space and not part of the prison world or compliant world of Earth. It's evocative and a great use of layout as motif.

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

Uncaging Bitch Planet #4

Uncaging Bitch Planet #5
Surviving Bitch Planet #1

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Deep Sequencing: Nick Falling

Or a look at action construction in Civil War II: Choosing Sides: Nick Fury pt. 1
by Declan Shavley, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

A thing I am always curious about is how much of a particular comics storytelling approach is driven by the writer in their script and how much are choices made by the illustrator. It clearly differs from creator to creator and from project to project, but it's always fun to see artists I admire write and draw comics. So when I heard Declan Shavley was writing and illustrating a comic in the Civil War II: Choosing Sides anthology I picked the comic up despite not caring at all about Civil War II, being generally opposed to tie-ins on principle, and having very little interest in the other stories (although the one with demon excavator was pleasant enough if very, very silly.) And it's a pretty well executed comic with some flashy storytelling that I'd like to pick apart.

There will be *SPOILERS* below.

I really like how this fall sequence is constructed. The story of the scene is quite straightforward: Agent Fury jumps out of a flying transport taking an adversary with him, falls and lands on top of the adversary thus dispatching them. That said, the execution here, despite it's apparent simplicity involves many smart underlying choices. The first panel has the falling action start right from the top-left corner of the page, bringing the reader right into the fall. This maximizes the distance the fall can travel through the page and also gets the readers attention immediately. The action plays out along a very clear reading path that guides the readers eye cleanly down the fall, through the impact and into the dead adversary before following the motion of Fury crawling for his gun. This eye tracking is key to making the fall read and feel quick and kinetic. Another important aspect of the fall is how space is allotted. The distance between the first two images, the start of the fall and the first impact, is substantially larger than the distance between the second and final images. Since the reader is tracking through this sequence with a clean, quick pace this means that the final two images create the feeling of an abrupt stop. Put all together this creates a kinetic fall ending in a jarring, impactful stop. 

Another important aspect of this fall is a sense of height and the use of the blank background. I would argue that the first panel here has two key pieces of information to convey: that a fall is occurring and that it is from a significant height. The image of the fall satisfies this first storytelling requirement, and the huge white space satisfies the second. A large white space on the page feels very large, and having a large white space under the falling figures tells the reader the fall is happening from a great height. Including a background adds visual information that distracts from just conveying the idea of height. It's unnecessary visual noise that doesn't scream "there is a large space here" as clearly or dramatically as white space. So omitting the background, then, increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the storytelling in this panel. 

I also quite like this sequence here and how it uses horizontal space to create a visually interesting gun battle. Again the secret to making this page work is providing cues to push and pull the reader through the storyspace in the best possible way. The reader enters the page somewhere in the top-left and is drawn to the first speech bubble right at the top of the page. This sets the first panel up as a vertical storyspace where the reader has to look down, in the motion of the repellers, to take in Fury and the lower speech caption. This sells the feeling of the adversaries dropping into the panel and also conveys that the vertical direction is important for the following sequence. This is enhanced by the way the platform in the first panel hangs over the following panels, which really cements that this conflict is happening suspended on the side of a cliff. The reader then moves into the next panel in a right-to-left carriage return where they encounter Fury, highlighted by the colour and his active pose, and then follow the direction of his kick across the panel to the guy knocked off the platform.  This lends the kick a visceral sense of motion. The reader naturally wants to follow the arc of the kicked guy down, so they move into the third panel on the right side and immediately see a new adversary getting his head shot off. They move back to the left, see Fury whose arms create a guide line to steer the reader to the text box where they will notice the goons on the left. The reader moves down into the next panel, and if they are like me, they are immediately attracted to the speech balloon and the big black shape of Fury. The reader then moves left along the blast of the sonic-gun-thing and sees the two adversaries get blasted. The final panel is a simple left-to-right, but one where the colouring of Fury makes him the central, primary figure as he shoots the adversaries. It's a great, easy reading sequence that really constructs evocative, kinetic action.

While we are talking about great gun battle sequences that utilize horizontal story space well, this sequence from Scarlet Witch #7 by James Robinson, Annie Wu, Muntsa Vicente, and Cory Petit, is also pretty great. This sequence does take advantage of eye guiding, in part by using shapes and actions like the above sequence, but it also relies heavily on sound effects to manage where readers look. The reader enters the page in the usual place where they immediately have the character, the Wu, positioned such that their arms pull the reader across the page towards the shot up goons. The yellow KRAK sound effects help pull the reader this way, and critically to this sequence, they work to keep the reader focused on the right side of the page as they move into the second panel. This is important because it deemphasizes the goon sneaking around the dumpster in the second panel so that the reader notices them peripherally. This makes the final panel where, with a THUNK to draw attention, the Wu belts the goon in the face surprising and impactful. (It's also great how this breaks the border of the panel for extra pain points.) The reader then moves along the outstretched arms of the Wu to the next KRAK and into the next page. It's another great gun battle that feels dynamic because of how it manages the readers focus.


Injection Volume 1
Moon Knight #5
Moon Knight #2

Hawkeye #16
Scarlet Witch #2

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Pondering About Pretty Deadly #10

Or a look at contrast and story fulcrums
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles; Image Comics

Pretty Deadly continues to be one of my very favourite comics both as a reader and a comics wonk. It is perplexing, challenging, and virtuosic. With the issue #10 the second chapter closes on an appropriately spectacular note. The fulcrum of the issue in particular I think is a really amazing feat of comics, and I really want to take a closer look at it. It's inherently spoilery though. 

This post will contain *SPOILERS* for Pretty Deadly #10

To me this is the fulcrum of the comic, the turning point between an unwinnable conflict and the epic conclusion of the comic. It is also a wonderfully constructed moment that brings nearly every component of the comic together to create a tipping point, a honed moment of contrast that the story teeters on before crashing into resolution. And I think the way the contrast here is constructed and used is really interesting. 

The first page of the spread is a sequence of action and fire and blood. The page shows the armed combat between War and Ginny in a swirling open storyspace. The page flows along sweeping slashes of red capes and carnage and blood that trail across the page and drag the readers eyes through the violence quickly and precisely. It is idealized motion and a very quick page to experience. It is also a page of reds and hot smouldering greys, a page of fiery, passionate colours. It is a fantastic page that encapsulates everything I love about the portrayal of action in Pretty Deadly.

The next page is almost the perfect opposite: it is still, and structured, and cool. The page shows Cyrus, the would be Reaper of Courage, taming the Reaper of Fear. The page is broken up into eight discrete panel-areas, including inset panels which provide structure to the page and slow the progression of the reader and expand the sense of time. It creates stillness. The way the clouds and mist hang in the air, enhances that sense of stillness, since they could only linger like this in the absence of motion. And the colour palette is calming too, blue-grey and icy. It is artful, and beautiful and haunting. 

The way these two pages come together and interact though, is what is truly special. The fiery motion of the left page stands in distinct contrast to the cool, still page on the right. This puts both pages into sharp relief: the violence is brighter and the peace calmer for having the two moments in juxtaposition. It sets both pages as distinct and powerful, especially the right page since it is such a complete visual and structural departure from what's preceded it in the issue. It feels like a turning point built of opposites. At the same time, the pages feel balanced to me, as though even if they are opposite, they are somehow equal. That the combat and motion on the left are as important, as valid as the calm, and stillness of the right page. Which for me, signifies that an act of bravery, that calmly facing ones fear is just as strong, as powerful as actively fighting. To me, it's as if the two pages are balanced on a kind of narrative scale, and it's tipping this scale that is the climax of the comic. Which, to balance a story on such a keen edge, narratively and artistically, is a tremendous feat of story construction. 

Pretty Deadly continues to be remarkable comics.