Saturday, November 5, 2016

Backgrounds in Ngozi Ukazu’s Check Please

I am probably the last person to find out about this but Ngozi Ukazu’s Check Please, a webcomic about hockey and pies among other things, is top-notch. Seriously, what’s not to love here? The best sport on Earth, baked goods, cute dudes, hilarious hockeybros, and all around solid storytelling. One of the coolest parts of Check Please, besides how it makes everyone hungry for pie, is its quality use of backgrounds. Backgrounds in CP are not there only to place its characters in a setting, but rather do an admirable job with providing us with essential information about its characters. The following are only a few examples.





This is one is not necessarily about the panel’s background but is more about how everything comes together to convey just how Jack feels in the moment. I like how Jack’s apartment is completely empty and devoid of life, yet occupies the vast majority of the panel. At the same time, notice how, even though Jack is alone in the apartment, his and Bittle’s conversation fills in the empty spaces. This trend of of Bittle having an effect on Jack’s apartment despite being far away continues in the next few panels. For example, the kitchen light comes on the moment Jack takes out Bittle’s note out of his bag.

The moment the light comes on is when we finally see colour in Jack’s apartment. The page culminates in the panel where the prominence of Bittle’s little love notes becomes unavoidable. The last panel of this page has Bittle’s notes on the same level as Jack, almost in the middle of the page.


This is a relatively minor detail, but it has got to be my favourite panel in the entire comic so far. The underdogs of Samwell hockey make it to the NCAA championships, but, unfortunately, drop their elimination game. The hockey match happens between pages 13 and 14, with only the team’s preparations and the game’s aftermath being shown to the readers. Page 14 is a silent page which makes it stand out immediately, as Check Please is a pretty mouthy comic. We’re also not explicitly told that our Samwell boys have lost their game, but the page makes it pretty clear. Even then, we’re so invested in these guys that we refuse to believe it, at least for a bit. Panel 10 (right side) is what cements the team’s loss, at least for me. It is my favourite page of CP due to how impactful yet subtle it is. We see Bitty, his red Samwell shirt on, walk through the mostly deserted stadium filled with blue and white confetti. We don’t even know what colour Samwell’s opposition wore, but we can sure as pie tell that the confetti is not meant for Samwell. The page gets even more heartbreaking by the end, but the confetti panel is the one that had the most impact on me. With a tiny background detail Ngozi Ukazu says everything there is to say about the team’s most important game of the season.


These are just two examples but there’s plenty more to look at. Check Please showcases quality comics work, which makes me very excited to see what it has in store when it comes back this December.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Hand Drawn Panels of Descender.



I have recently finished the first volume of Descender by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen. The comic is great, which shouldn’t be particularly surprising seeing that Jeff Lemire is involved in it. However, what I found especially cool about Descender is how it uses panel borders to its advantage.

Perhaps the most obvious example. Notice the uneven panels. 


The comic’s watercolour art and its panel borders add humanity to the story that is about trying to figure out what makes one human. The panel borders in Descender are visibly hand drawn and are often purposefully not drawn perfectly. We can see the panels that are supposed to be of equal size be slightly different, as well as some panel borders that don’t connect quite the way they should.

The little blemishes in the art and the panel borders point to the fact that this is a story that was created by someone. While it may seem counterintuitive to include various elements that may break the reader’s immersion in the story, Jeff Lemire has been pulling tricks like that for some time.

Here’ s page from Lemire’s Underwater Welder that fascinates me to no end. He shows the actual comic board in one of the pages where the main character is in the midst of an intense downward spiral.



It takes you out of the story for a moment, but it also contributes to the feeling this moment is trying to convey. The character’s world is completely falling apart. So much so that you start seeing the board the character was drawn on.

A similar thing happens in Descender, both through the watercolour art as well as the uneven panel borders. Only here it doesn’t show how the world is falling apart, but rather directs its audience to focus their attention on emotion rather than minor physical details. Panel borders themselves are not often used as something other than the boxes that simply house what really matters inside of them, so the way Descender uses its panel borders is particularly noteworthy as they’re utilized as effective means of storytelling.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Opening Double Page Spread of No Mercy


The only thing I'd known about Image’s No Mercy before I purchased it was that it’s about a group of teenagers surviving in the wilderness. I liked hearing what Alex de Campi, the comic’s writer, had to say about comics during an Image panel at ECCC, so I figured I would try some of her work. No Mercy is a dark and violent comic about a group of teens trying to survive in the middle of nowhere after a bus crash. Basically, if it’s possible for something to go wrong, this comic will make it happen. If you’re into survival horror, or into watching horrible people in general, then No Mercy is the book for you. The comic makes quite a few smart art decisions throughout the first 4 issues. While the layouts are pretty standard most of the time, No Mercy knows when to throw something different at its reader. I found this comic very effective at finding the right moment to use double page spreads. There five of them in the first four issues, and each one has a tremendous effect. The first one, the one that I want to talk about, is just a page into the series. 

I love how this spread is overloaded with information. The whole first part of the first issue works in a similar way, with lots of word balloons and caption boxes that illustrate texting. All of this changes dramatically once the crash happens. Anyway, I think it’s great that we first get to know the whole cast of characters through a facebook photo. We do encounter a couple of them on the first page, but the first time we see the whole group is online, even though we're following them on this trip. I also like how the creators of the comic are incorporated into the page as ads. This acknowledges the creators, but not in the way that takes you out of the story. On the contrary, the titles further add to the chaos of information happening on the page. The comments under the photo might be my favourite part, though. The contrast between the photo that features (mostly) happy faces and the grim comments is great. The comments themselves are an example of some top-notch dark humour that runs through No Mercy’s veins. There’s your serious sympathizer with a dog avatar, a person who griefs primarily through emoji, and someone ranting about Obama. There’s always that someone. Finally, it’s clever how the accident does not happen right after this spread but 10 pages later. No Mercy doesn’t show its true self from the beginning, but keeps dropping hints that something horrible is about to happen until it does, in another double page spread. And once it does, it only gets worse from there. 

---
The team behind No Mercy is Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil, Jenn Manley Lee, and Felipe Sobreiro.
Buy the comic on Comixology, Amazon, or in the real world.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Brief Look at 4 Successful First Pages: Midnighter, Plutona, Jonesy, Southern Bastards

Comics writers often say that debut issues are the hardest to write. That’s especially true for original stories, where the creative team hast to establish the world, the characters, and provide you with a reason to come back in the span of 20-30 pages. However, that’s also the case with lesser known superhero comics.

But first issues are even more important than that. First issues have to convince you that this is a book worth reading. They have to grab your attention and not lose it before the end. All of that has to start on page one. That’s why I decided to look at the very first page of four comics I’ve read and enjoyed recently, and figure out why those first pages make me want to keep on reading. The comics I want to look at are DC’s Midnighter, Boom!Box’s Jonesy and, finally, Image’s Plutona and Southern Bastards. This is just a random sampling of successful number ones, but it’s also interesting that the first pages of each of these comics do very different things.



Midnighter (Steve Orlando, Aco, Stephen Mooney, Alec Morgan, Romulo Fajardo Jr.)

If you want a comic to tell you what it is about right from the beginning, then Midnighter is your book. The comic establishes so much just on its first page, it honestly is one of the best intros to a story I’ve seen in a long time.

Let’s look at all the information the first page gives us in 7 panels. Panels 2 and 4 hint at the supernatural element of the comic with the floating call. Panel 3, with the Batman undies, as well as the dialogue in panels 5-7 set the humorous tone of the comic. Panel 4 illustrates the physicality of the protagonist as well as his cocky demeanour by how he jumps off the bed. Finally, the last 3 panels of the first page clearly tell us what it is that this guy does. Everything you need to know about Midnighter is right here on the first page. He’s tough, funny, queer, and never takes a break from kicking ass. The only thing left for you to do is decide whether that sounds like something you would be into. If the answer is yes, then the actual asskicking is a page turn away.



Plutona (Jeff Lemire, Emi Lenox, Jordie Bellaire, Steve Wands)

Here’s a completely different approach from Midnighter. The first page of Plutona gives us very little information. All we learn from the first page is that there’s a dead female superhero out there somewhere.

Panels 1,3 and 4 show bruises on the her body, and the second panel features her broken foot. That, along with the fact that the woman appears to be relatively young, leads us to believe that this death was not due to natural causes. We can also guess that she hasn’t been dead for long, judging by the fact that her body is still intact.

I’d say that this is a successful first page, but, unlike Midnighter, its success comes from how visceral it is. Not only does the book deliver a gut punch by showing a lifeless body on its very first page, the fact that this page features no text means that we take in all 4 panels almost at the same time, which makes the impact that much stronger. Plutona doesn’t give you any time to decide whether you want to keep reading the comic after the first page, the impact of its opening images makes it almost a reflex that you turn to the next page.



Jonesy (Sam Humphries, Caitlin Rose Boyle, Mickey Quinn, Corey Breen)

Jonesy is a fun little comic every issue of which opens with a splash page. The first page of #1 doesn’t provide us with too much information, but it’s very effective at setting the tone of the comic.

Jonesy immediately grabs your attention with a 4th wall break followed by a hyperbole, both of which are major elements of the comic. Furthermore, “Hey!” and “Jonesy!” which don’t fit into their small word balloons create a sense of uncontrollable emotions. In fact, everything is a bit out of control here: the first panel is a splash, Jonesy’s words don’t fit the balloons, her day is the worst ever, her hair is ⅔ of her own size. Jonesy is absolutely fantastic at portraying the frenzy of adolescence, and it does so in its opening page alone.



Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron, Jason Latour)

Southern Bastards also starts with a splash, and what a splash it is. Basically, the first page of this comic reveals nothing about its plot or characters, but holy shit (get it?) does it establish the setting. Southern Bastards is a comic about the South more than anything else. The first page gives us everything we need to know about the South as it is portrayed in this comic. There’s your obsession with church and god, with the church signs practically stacked on top of each other, your empty cans and bottles, and, to complete this idyllic scene, an old beat up dog crapping right in the middle of the page.

Does the comic tell you about what is about to happen? Not at all. But it sure does tell you where it’s going to happen. So much so that you’re unlikely to ever forget it, especially not after such introduction. And that is the whole point.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Close-ups in Paknadel & Trakhanov's Turncoat



Turncoat is a dark sci-fi miniseries released by BOOM! Studios last week. Written by Alex Paknadel with art by Artyom Trakhanov, Turncoat takes place 300 years after Earth is taken over by aliens referred to as “management”. While this genre is not a frequent guest on my bookshelf, I did enjoy this comic and can’t wait to read the remaining 3 issues. 

The element that stood out the most to me in my several read throughs of the debut issue, is how the team uses close-ups. They frequently opt against separate panels for close ups, and instead use embedded smaller panels inside the larger ones to focus the reader’s attention on particularly significant details. This is a pretty smart trick that pops up in Trakhanov’s previous comics and that works surprisingly well. These small round panels slow down the reader’s eye just enough to fully take in the artwork but also do not break the story’s flow like separate larger close-up panels might have. Furthermore, they are effective at preventing unnecessary clutter on pages. At exactly 5.5 panels per page Turncoat is already a busy comic, and these embedded panels are a great help at not making it overloaded. 

image courtesy of all-comic.com


Of course, the method is not without flaws. Excessive use of these panels may feel like handholding in that the artwork explicitly points to where you have to look and doesn’t let you think for yourself. Or, at least, doesn’t provide you with an illusion that you are thinking for yourself. Fortunately, the comic uses these panels not only to highlight parts of already existing images but also, on several occasions, as regular inset panels that show something different from the main panel. That seems like a good call, as the panels end up being varied and spread out enough to not feel tiring or overly controlling. 

Turncoat is not a groundbreaking comic, or, possibly, not groundbreaking yet. But it features solid storytelling with great art and a concept original enough for me to be interested. Knowing that first issues are often the most difficult, I look forward to seeing what the comic’s team is capable of once they get going. Turncoat is a welcome addition to my pull list and may very well be one on yours too. 

----

Turncoat is written by Alex Paknadel and illustrated by Artyom Trakhanov. The colours are provided by Jason Wordie with lettering by Colin Bell.

You can buy the comic on Comixology or at your local funny books peddler

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Brian K. Vaughan and Classic Hollywood Cinema: a pair of (somewhat) unlikely relatives

From Saga #10. Screenshot courtesy of comicsthegathering.com


I’ve been re-reading Y: The Last Man lately and thinking about why Brian K Vaughan’s books are so consistently good. I’m not sure I ever got to any satisfiable answer but I did come to realize that BKV’s writing style on his flagship series is very similar to the style of classic Hollywood cinema, albeit with more penises and swearing.

A big part of mid-century Hollywood was how unnoticeable its style was. Those films certainly had style, but it was rarely at the forefront. Filmmaking elements like editing and cinematography worked in tandem to provide the viewer with the most immersive experience possible. I feel like BKV’s comics work in very similar ways. However, I should emphasize that I’m talking about BKV’s two longest and most well-known series, Y: The Last Man and Saga, as his other work, like Paper Girls, does seem to be a bit more experimental.

To start off, neither series includes any flashy page layouts. Both comics are very loyal to grids, with an occasional full page reveal mixed in between. The splash pages, by the way, are as close as these comics come to calling attention to their form. The first splash draws you in, and the last one delivers a gut punch which you spend the next month recovering from. Interestingly enough, Saga used to start and end every issue with a splash page. That teaches the reader to expect these splashes, yet the reader never quite knows what to expect in them. You know how the comic is going to begin and end, even if you don’t know the particulars, and that makes the story feel more engrossing.
What’s in between all the splashes? 5 panel pages. Lots of 5 panel pages.

Brian K Vaughan loves his 5 panel pages. Over half of almost every issue of Y and Saga are 5 panel pages. The rest are splashes and 3-4 panel pages, the latter of which are used primarily for action sequences. The cool thing about 5 panel pages is that they are not boring, because they can be laid out in a variety of ways, but they are also familiar and, therefore, never take you out of the story. This strikes me as a distinctly mid-century Hollywood way of thinking. The style is there, but only if you go digging for it. If you just want to spend some time experiencing a different world, then you are free to do so without any distractions.

Finally, page turns play an essential role in making BKV’s comics so immersive. Luckily for us, BKV is a master of page turns. Almost every page in Y and Saga has a payoff and a little cliffhanger that sets the reader up for another reveal on the next page. I would go so far as to say that even his splashes work like that. They are not merely payoffs to what came before, they give us reason to keep turning the pages as well. BKV’s comics are laid out in a way that they practically force you to keep turning the pages. More so than any other books I’ve read.

Brian K Vaughan’s most famous works are so similar to classic cinema because of how immersive they are. These comics and films want you to disappear in their stories and not come out until the end. They teach you things you might expect, but don’t give you too much, so the twists still feel real and shocking. These stories care about you, and want to provide you with fun and exciting time above all else (even if someone you care about dies every other issue. COME ON, BKV!). This is why these stories work and why they are such high quality entertainment.

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Want eSports Comics! And I kind of think you should, too.

photo courtesy of dotablast.com


Last week I reviewed In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang for The Book Wars. The book is pretty good at portraying gaming and how intertwined gaming and reality can be. This got me thinking about games and how they are portrayed in comics. I was especially interested in eSports, partly because I think eSports are awesome and important, and partly because I have yet to see a satisfying eSports narrative. Granted, I base that primarily on a couple of feature-length documentaries on the topic, so better portrayals might be out there.


Anyway, I went on a quest to find comics about video games, especially the ones about eSports. Unfortunately, my search didn’t reward me with much. My first go at searching video games and comics together yielded a number of tie-in comics for things like Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, and various DC titles. My second try was a bit more successful in that I found actual original webcomics that feature game content. While that was a bit better, it still wasn’t quite what I had in mind. There are lots of webcomics that satirize game news and make niche game-related jokes. Some of them even mentioned eSports. But that still wasn’t anything like In Real Life, not something that would be interesting for a nongamer and also not particularly deep. Finally, I stumbled upon Caster Comix, a comic about eSports casters and probably the closest thing to what I was looking for. Caster Comix is a pretty good webcomic, it also has its fair share of current event humour, but it also has some original strips that show a different perspective of eSports. While Caster Comix is not particularly newbie-friendly, it’s a good beginning of quality eSports portrayal.


Which (finally) leads me to my point. I WANT GOOD AND SERIOUS (WEB)COMICS ABOUT ESPORTS! Here’s why:


  1. eSports are already huge and are only going to get bigger.
  2. They are also messy and problematic, often due to trying to become a “real sport” and gladly adopting the good of sports along with the bad (looking at you, toxic masculinity). And all of it is well worth looking at.
  3. Webcomics are perfectly suited for the portrayal of eSports because both of them exist in the same realm.
  4. eSports already have some decent stories (here, here) and I am confident that there are more. These stories are almost exclusively male and that’s obviously problematic, but that’s also why I want more gaming and eSports-focused comics. Just like print comics are getting better and more inclusive because of Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, Lumberjanes, Rat Queens and many others, I’d love to see webcomics inspire current as well as future gamers and transform the world of eSports in a similar manner.

Sure, there are some difficulties with portraying eSports in comics: you are appealing to a very niche audience, at least at the moment, plus a person sitting in front of a computer is not the most visually stimulating thing around, but I think there are things worth talking about in eSports. I haven’t been following the gaming scene for that long, and I don’t live and breathe games like some others do, but I know that there are stories there. And I think now is the time to start telling them.  In Real Life is a good start, a few other webcomics are doing an admirable job, too, but I’m eager to see more.