Points of Impact – February 2012 – Week 4

Slim pickings this week as I didn’t get much from my pull list. Still, there are always interesting things to talk about when you sit down and really READ these things instead of blasting through them in ten minutes.

A short reminder before we go on though: let’s not forget that what I’m doing here is not reviewing these books. What I’m doing is searching through them for items of interest for someone learning the craft of writing comics. Thus, I might completely overlook major features of a particular issue to focus on something as insignificant as… well, you’re going to see below. In any way, the point is that although I might declare that “I’m disappointed” by something, it in no way implies I’m about to drop a book. The same way, “loving” something about a book doesn’t mean it gets a free pass to my longbox. Every comic has something to teach, whether by giving good or bad examples. My wallet decides what comes back home, but my heart determines what I keep locked away as a lesson.

I loved…

The dialogue spilling over into captions in Scott Snyder’s AMERICAN VAMPIRE #24 – I didn’t gush over Mr. Snyder’s BATMAN #6 last week – OK, well I did slip in a mention at the end. Anyway, this month’s issue of AMERICAN VAMPIRE give us a prime example of a transition device I love so very much. I’m talking about making your dialogue spill over into the following scene’s first caption.

It’s not a simple matter of just making the conversation go on past the point where the speaking characters are actually shown. To properly use this device, the writer has to make sure the dialogue spilling over gains a second meaning in the beginning scene while still remaining relevant in the context of the one that just ended. This makes for a nice seamless segue into a new portion of the plot.

An example?

Page 4 – Panel 5

Tight shot of TRAVIS straining to hang onto the front of the rolling car, seemingly on the verge of slipping under it.

SKINNER: You keep hanging on, kid…

Page 5 – Panel 1

Tight shot of TRAVIS lying on a stretcher and being electrocuted by DR. MALIK.

CAPTION: La Jolla Sanatorium. Six years ago.

CAPTION (SKINNER): “…hanging on to that dream.”

Here, the line “hanging on to that dream” refers not only to Skinner taunting the young Travis as he hangs on for dear life but it also takes on a second richer meaning when applied to the second scene where Dr. Malik is attempting to make Travis admit that the vampires are only a figment of his diseased psyche.

There are seven scene transitions in all and only one of them doesn’t use this device. In fact, the only time it’s not used is because the story segues into a magnificent spread that blends different flashbacks into a single striking image. It goes to show that even when you know how to use something to its full benefit, you also need to know how NOT to use it for a greater benefit still.

I liked…

The various sound effects in Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin gray’s ALL STAR WESTERN #6 – I’ll admit it: this is just candy. But candy is good. You need candy from time to time if you want to keep your reader interested – vividly interested.

There’s a battle occurring in the middle of this comic when the police corner a gang of slave drivers in the Gotham City sewers. Although this isn’t the first fight in the book (it opens with Jonah Hex fighting a giant bat – yeah, don’t ask), the writers decided to go all-out on the sound effects. What’s making me smile is that instead of resorting to the same run-of-the-mill BANG-BANGs, they insert a few that wouldn’t be out of place in the old cheesy Adam West Batman TV show.

Here’s the rundown as they occur in the three pages the fight lasts:

PWEENG
BLAMBLAM
CHOK
KAPWEENG
SOK (This accompanies a cop in a very gentlemanly stance, knocking out a thug, all Marquess of Queensbury-style. “Sok to you, sir!”)
CHOK
BLAM
BANG
BLAMBLAM
CHOW
KRAK
CHOW

Now tell me you can’t smile when you read that KAPWEENG!

When I read it, this was the first thing I thought of:

Hehe. KAPWEENG!

I was disappointed by…

The event-driven plot of Angelo Tirotto’s NO PLACE LIKE HOME #1 – There’s something particularly disheartening about not finding yourself excited about a debuting indie title. There’s a part of me that wishes huge success to whatever little guy throws his story in the ring, trying to tell us another kind of tale than the ones we’re getting sold month after month. There is however another part of me that has to evaluate these new books using the same criteria as I would any established creator. Ultimately, to succeed in this market, you have to understand that the money used for buying your comic comes from the same pocket used to buy AVENGERS vs. X-MEN. There’s no special fund for the little guy.

That’s why it saddened me to finish reading this first issue and being left with a feeling of… shallowness. There was something missing and I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. After my third reading, it finally struck me like a Kansas tornado: it’s an event-driven plot in a near-featureless setting. I’ll explain…

There are two types of plots in fiction: character-driven or event-driven. In character-driven plots, the story goes forward under the influence of the characters’ thoughts, emotions and actions. The plot goes where it goes because there are these specific people participating in the action. Shakespearean tragedies, Woody Allen movies and HBO dramas are all examples of character-driven plots. On the contrary, event-driven plots present a pre-set trajectory that no one can deviate; events follow one another in a causal chain or happen fortuitously, without any of the characters being able to influence their course. This is the domain of action movies, soap operas, situation comedies and most superhero comics. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. Action movies are good as is Shakespeare – and I happen to watch a lot more kung-fu flicks than tragedies. The key however is to choose the right engine for your plot according to the kind of story you want to tell.

Now why do superhero comics succeed with event-drive plots? Because they got the BANGs, the POWs and the KAPWEENGs (hehe) to entertain us on the ride. Fights, explosions, gadgets, alien invasions – you name it. All things that are mostly lacking in books like Ed Brubaker’s CRIMINAL tales or Warren Ellis’ FELL. These are character-driven plots because it’s the actions and motivations of Leo the coward or detective Richard Fell that lead the story.

Now let’s come back to NO PLACE LIKE HOME after a very long detour. The awkwardness I felt felt was due to the feeling that none of characters had any traction whatsoever on what happened. They were all simply passengers in the story, being taken along without much protestation. Character-driven plots need strong characters that can surprise both the writer and the reader by hijacking the story to unexpected places. Plot-driven plots usually dress up their characters and have them make funny faces while they go through the motions.

And that’s worrying me about NO PLACE LIKE HOME. None of the characters seem strong or defined enough to influence the plot into going into any definite direction. They could be replaced with any other character and the plot would not change one bit. I have no doubt that we’re only just beginning to peel back layers and uncovering a very clever machination. However, complexity without depth is nothing but cold clockwork parts. A beautiful machine that works but fails to move us.

In short: it’s superhero plotting in a world without any colors.

That being said, NO PLACE LIKE HOME is shaping up to be a good story anyway. The premise is quite intriguing, mixing what seems like elements of a dark conspiracy in rural America with L. Frank Baum’s Oz mythos. It’s a twisted cocktail of noir, grit and wonder that can’t help but pull me in.

And that’s why I hope it gets better. It deserves to be.

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5 thoughts on “Points of Impact – February 2012 – Week 4

  1. I really like the way you explained character driven plots, as opposed to event driven plots. I mean I’ve read these same observations before, but you’re very succinct in you break it down.

    • Thanks, Don! You know I was still thinking about this as I was stuck in traffic this morning. More specifically, I was thinking about the notion of strong vs. weak characters.

      Strong characters are mostly defined by what they WANT and what they FEAR. Hamlet *wants* to avenge his father but he *fears* being led astray. Batman (under a good writer’s pen) *wants* to eliminate crime so no one else has to endure the same trauma he did as a child and he *fears* slipping beyond justice and into blind vigilantism.

      In NO PLACE LIKE HOME, it’s not clear what Dee, the central character, wants or fears. All that we know is that she lived in LA for a while, came back to her home town to bury her parents and now she’s sad. In fact, except for Thomas the town drunk, all of the characters seem equally devoid of motivations or fears and are thus easily interchangeable. Lizzie is Dee with only half a hair of head and worse language. Their other friend (whose name quickly escaped me) could be entirely cut out and her lines mostly given to Lizzie and the plot would move on anyway. It’s like removing a hairpin from a freight train: it’s not gonna go any faster after that.

      So that’s why I say the plot of NO PLACE LIKE HOME is event-driven: it just can’t rely on its characters to get it moving.

  2. I’m happy you said, “Most super hero plots.” Because I had a lengthy conversation with my girlfriend last night about the complexities of Matt Murdock. And how he character driven many of his greatest stories are.

    • Good point, Conner. Like my Batman example above, super hero plots can be character-driven when the writer takes the time to develop or use a strong representation for the characters instead of using them as stage dressing for their chain of events.

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