Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 4

Welcome back to Points of Impact, where we don’t really review anything but you sure get to know what we think! It’s the only place on the Web where we tell you how your weekly comic haul can help you become a better writer.

As always…

  • The “BULLSEYE!” section presents something that really wowed me. That’s usually when a writer does something unique among his peers.
  • The “HIT!” section picks up on a cool trick that gets used pretty often – mostly because it works – but of which I’ve found a prime example.
  • The “MISS…” section however isn’t about praising a good shot but – as you guessed it – pointing out where a writer stumbled so you don’t put your feet in the same hole.

Now even though these aren’t reviews per se, remember that a well-written comic always makes for an agreeable read, even though the reader might not possess the technical knowledge required to express exactly why it is so. It will simply feel right to him. That’s why creators are strongly advised to take care honing their craft as it can lead to great sale figures as much as the best marketing your publisher can afford.

Before we take the plunge, a word of warning: I get particularly spoilerific this week again so I’ll strongly advise you to go read your comics before coming back here. I’ll wait.

BULLSEYE!

The presence of seldom-used panel transitions in Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD #95

I hope you guys brought your study caps because we’ll be delving into some heady stuff in the next few paragraphs. This week’s BULLSEYE! is awarded to a comic that dared to stray off the beaten path and into the wild territory staked out by other formats.

In his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud talks about closure, the reader’s mental act of filling the gap between panels with an unspoken transition that completes the meaning set down on the page by the comic’s creators. Closure is essentially what permits us to make sense out of a series of side-by-side images and enjoy them for the story they represent.

Of course, closure isn’t achieved in the same fashion every time. The type of transition the writer calls for – and that will play out in the reader’s mind – depends on the content of the panels on each side of a particular gutter (the space between panels).

Thus, McCloud lists several types of transitions. The three most common types that we see are:

  • Action-to-action: This type of transition follows a single subject through a sequence of actions.
  • Subject-to-subject: This type of transition asks the reader to switch to a different subject while still remaining in the same scene.
  • Scene-to-scene: This type of transition requires the reader to stick to the same general idea but to switch to another time or location.

There are however two other types of transitions* which are rarely seen in the pages of American comic books but will be familiar to those of you who read manga:

  • Movement-to-movement: Here, a single action is decomposed into several consecutive snapshots.
  • Aspect-to-aspect: With this type of transition, time stand stills as we’re shown multiple viewpoints of the same setting, all occurring at the same moment.

I’ll start with the latter since it’s the first one we encounter in THE WALKING  DEAD #95. When Rick and his group first enter the other community’s compound, we’re treated to a wide shot of the installations. Then, when Jesus asks for their opinion, we get this series of panels:

Notice how Kirkman has the the artist decompose what the characters see into a series of shots, each panel showing us an aspect of the whole experience: a blacksmith at his forge, people tending to animals, other people talking and finally guards manning the ramparts.

A wide shot will give you a general sense of the environment (for example, a gently sloping path up to the compound’s wall) whereas multiple panels with aspect-to-aspect transitions makes it possible to concentrate on specific elements of the setting (a sample of the ongoing activities inside the compound). And this isn’t an either/or situation: the magic of closure makes it so that the reader still gets a general sense of the environment since it associates all of these distinct views into one single composite image which will stay with him as an effective establishing shot.

That’s right: if you choose your aspects well enough, you can actually forego the use of an establishing wide shot entirely.

The other kind of transition – movement-to-movement – occurs near the end of the issue, just after Rick has managed to subdue and kill Ethan.

Ethan is dead. It’s been made eminently clear in the previous panels that he’s not getting up from what Rick did to him. However, instead of skipping ahead to the next talky bit, showing the group tending to Gregory’s wound or the surrounding crowd’s reaction to the fight’s outcome, Kirkman lets the focus linger on the corpse. Over the course of three panels, we see the pool of blood spreading under the motionless body, the bright growing stain the only indication that time has passed at all.

The effect here is that the reader is forced to witness the life seeping out of Ethan, driving home the heavy significance of Rick’s act in the eyes of the community. The movement-to-movement transition decomposes the action in a way that stretches time, subjectively conferring more importance to this single occurrence by making it occupy more panel space than another action of the same length would normally get. This makes the later panel showing the crowd silently staring at a bloody Rick all the more eloquent despite the absence of any speech balloon stating their shock and disbelief.

In a way, movement-to-movement transitions and aspect-to-aspect transitions are two sides of the same seldom-traded coin: both play tricks that break the comic out of the usual chronological structure, treating time subjectively in order to better direct the reader’s attention. It goes to show you how close American comics stick to reality and why experiments like what last week’s REBEL BLOOD #1 did can easily stand out.

*Yes, I know there’s a sixth type of transition, the Non Sequitur, but it’s rarely ever squirrel taxes industrial flapper gong.

Lesson Learned

Let go of the wide shot, let go of the splash page! Aspect-to-aspect transitions lets you focus your reader’s attention on each element of the setting, making sure their eye just doesn’t gloss over to the next panel with a speech balloon in it. As such, it’s an original and efficient way of doing an establishing shot. In the same vein, don’t be shy to decompress your narrative with movement-to-movement transitions if it means you can do a better job of making the story clear. As a writer, it’s your primary task! Simply put: don’t be afraid to linger from time to time. Giving your reader some space to savor and appreciate the potency of certain plot points sometimes requires you to sacrifice some real estate. You can always make up for it with the other types of transitions!

HIT!

The closing hooks in Scott Snyder’s AMERICAN VAMPIRE #25

With this issue, Scott Snyder nails the final stake into his latest story arc, the quest for young Travis to avenge his parents’ death by destroying the notorious Skinner Sweet. Taking up issues 22 to 25, this narrative showed us the rock’n-rolling fifties with its big cars, its loud music and its growing fear of young people.

Of course, no one expected Travis to kill Skinner Sweet. We’d have believed Superman staying dead in the 90s, but not this. The titular American Vampire surviving to the end is not the spoiler I was mentioning in the beginning.

This is your last spoiler warning before I go and DESTROY US ALL!

AMERICAN VAMPIRE #25 ends with a staggering one-two punch – a left and a right hook I should say. First of all, it’s revealed that Skinner Sweet works for the Vassals of the Morning Star when they arrive on the scene of the fight and prevent Skinner from killing Travis.

This isn’t merely raising a question; it’s turning the world upside down! Skinner Sweet has always been painted as the Vassals’ ultimate foe and we’re now led to believe that he’s working for them. They even treat his wounds! That’s like seeing the Joker working alongside the Bat-family.  Not only does it make us question the relationship between these grotesque bedfellows, it also brings up doubts about the nature and purpose of the whole vampire-hunting organization.

Not content to just leave us reeling with that blow, Snyder resolves to floor us with one last punch, putting aside the last few pages for this devastating uppercut:

Henry Preston, Pearl’s husband, dead! With the death of one of the major characters of the series, the status quo is reduced to rubbles. Even though death isn’t permanent even in this relatively realistic Vertigo title, the only way Henry could come back promises even more drama. Will Pearl let go her companion of the last thirty years? Or will she do what he’s always forbidden her: turn him into a vampire himself? And what if she does? Will he be the same Henry Preston? And if he is, would he forgive her?

Questions, questions, questions… and thus the reader is committed to buying AMERICAN VAMPIRE #26.

As you can see, what we have here are more than cliffhangers. Indeed, regular cliffhangers pose an immediate short-term threat to the status quo, often in the form of bodily harm to a protagonist or a revelation that overthrows his viewpoint – and it usually pertains to the plot at hand, circumscribed by the story arc. Their role is to ensure you come back for the rest of the story. When that story ends, all cliffhangers have been resolved as have most of the plot points.

However, the end of a story arc creates the perfect drop-off point for readers since it signifies the end of their emotional investment. That’s why, as a creator, you don’t want everything to be resolved. You want your readers to come back next month when you start a new story arc. That’s when you need a SUPER cliffhanger – or two in this case – something that challenges the status quo of your book’s universe.

The best thing about this? When you start that new story arc, you get to play with new toys!

Lesson Learned

When the time comes for ending a story arc, be sure to resolve the arc’s plot points, answering most of the questions raised in the course of that narrative. However, also make sure to hit your reader with some new questions – a SUPER cliffhanger – something that casts your universe in a new light in order for him to come back for your next arc. By doing this, you negate some of the readers’ natural tendency to consider the ending arc as a drop-off point. Hook them up again and hook them good!

MISS…

The lack of causality in the plot of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s ALL STAR WESTERN #7

This week’s BULLSEYE! and HIT! were awarded to comics that demonstrated great mastery of the art of transition: panel-to-panel transition in the case of THE WALKING DEAD #95 and story-to-story transition in the case of AMERICAN VAMPIRE #25. The MISS… mention doesn’t stray far from this theme because it’s conferred to a comic that shows how not to do transitions, this time from plot point to plot point.

ALL STAR WESTERN seems to stumble while passing the threshold of its newest story arc, in the process loses some of the dignity it had taken on with its sterling first arc. For the most part, it seems the problem is that plot points follow each other so loosely as to appear almost random. Let’s have a closer look…

Jonah Hex arrives in New Orleans to track down the man responsible for kidnapping the children up north in Gotham City, Thurston Moody. I want you to remember this sentence because it’s the only plot point that’s linked in any way to the events preceding it. In fact, it goes downhill from that point on.

Right off the bat: why is Doctor Arkham still with Jonah? As long as they were in Gotham, his presence in the story was justified. Here, his presence is hand-waived away in a fleeting caption box. “Despite vigorous opposition, foul language and  offers of monetary compensation, Hex has allowed me to accompany him on the hunt.” But why? Especially since his presence proves absolutely useless in the entire book. When all the other protagonists go out to hunt bad guys later on, Arkham stays at the base and… makes sandwiches, I guess.

Why does the factory explode right just as Hex and Arkham get off the boat? “Our arrival was greeted with tragedy, something that seemed to hang over Hex like a black cloud.” And that’s all the explanation you get.

Why does Hex risk his life to save the people caught in the fire? Even the other characters remark on this odd discrepancy with his usual behavior: “Never thought I’d see the day when Hex risked his life for another person.

Why were Nighthawk and Cinnamon even in the vicinity of the explosion? Who are they for that matter? “Friends” is the verbatim and very laconic reply.

Why do they accept Arkham’s presence? He says he’s a doctor and can help heal Jonah – but they already put their magical healy-amulet-thingie around his neck so they know he’ll be useless.

Why do Nighthawk and Cinnamon need Hex’s help? Because he’s “an expert at finding people who don’t want to be found.” Tenuous at best, but I’ll accept it. However, they’re not the greatest heroes in New Orleans if they need a private investigator to help them out.

So once Hex agrees to help them, do we get to see them share what info they’ve found with the bounty hunter and formulate a plan? No.

Hex goes to a private gladiatorial arena where he meets one Hiram Coy (who looks like he just stepped out of Aspen’s LADY MECHANIKA). While they watch a waifish girl fight some generic brute and exchange mild family-friendly racism, Nighthawk and Cinnamon go out “hunting down anyone who might be supplying the August 7 with explosives.”

The comic ends with Hex winning a fight against another brute (tattooed, this time) and about to start another with the blade-wielding waif.

Why does Hex have to go to the arena? How are Nighthawk and Cinnamon supposed to track down the explosive suppliers? What’s the link between the two missions? Beats me.

Now does that mean that I’m dropping ALL STAR WESTERN  off my pull list? No, because I still think it’s a really fine comic and I’ve enjoyed reading it a lot. However, if someone came up to me and ask me what’s the best way to start a new story arc, I wouldn’t give them this issue – maybe the first one but not issue 7. Once again, that’s what I’m talking about when I say these aren’t reviews and why you shouldn’t consider them as such: sometimes a comic can be a remarkably entertaining read, but still prove a poor learning opportunity.

In short: read this one as a reader, not as a writer.

Lesson Learned

A plot is not a simple sequence of events. Each plot point must be firmly based on consistent cause-and-effect deriving either from the events depicted or the characters involved. Without this foundation, your plot is nothing more than a shopping list of story elements you’re pushing onto your reader. Without logical consistency, what you have is a collage, not a plot.

Honorable Mentions

  • Mike Mignola and John Arcudi bring the reader into three different flashbacks in B.P.R.D HELL ON EARTH: THE PICKENS COUNTY HORROR #1 of 2 and we barely feel them. In and out, clean and painless – that’s the way you do flashbacks!
  • Dan Abnett sets down his rules in THE NEW DEADWARDIANS #1 of 8 and he stuck to them when the time came to create a mystery. A proper mystery comes from an event seemingly unexplainable in the framework of existing rules, but you need a proper framework first if you want it to work!

Dishonorable Mention

  • In CHOKER #6 of 6, Ben McCool resolves all of his plot points by having his characters duke it out. Even more grating is the fact that the main character wins the day simply by deciding to turn his life around. This is the opposite of what we were talking about last week: resolving situations by showing your readers that your hero is more clever than them. Oh and the way to expose the corruption in the police department? The solution is literally given to the main character.

That’s all there is for this week! Feeling good? Feeling bad? Feeling all funny inside? Let me know by sounding off in the comments below!

Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 3

Points of Impact is now a regular weekly column on ComixTribe!

The idea is still however the same: every week, I read through my Wednesday haul of comics as if they were reading assignments, searching through them for tips, devices and principles that can be understood, explained and then reapplied in your writing. These are not reviews – as I like to say often – as even a “bad” book can still have something to teach. Rather what I do is read comics with a writer‘s perspective, looking for the tidbits of knowledge hidden in them, extracting whatever I think are useful lessons for someone interested in learning the craft of writing comics.

Or if you prefer: what are the *points* that had the most *impact* on me as a writer this week.

The column will always present information in the same way:

  • The “BULLSEYE!” section presents something that really wowed me. That’s usually when a writer does something unique among his peers.
  • The “HIT!” section picks up on a cool trick that’s used pretty often – mostly because it works.
  • The “MISS…” section however isn’t about praising a good shot but – as you guessed it – pointing out where a writer stumbled so you don’t put your feet in the same hole.

Before I forget: this column is very spoilerific so you might want to go read your comics before going on.

Well that’s enough introduction! Let’s do like Kate Bush and see how deep the bullet lies!

BULLSEYE!

The hypothetical scenes in Alex Link and Riley Rossmo’s REBEL BLOOD #1

Most of the comics we read every week follow the tried-and-true method of showing events in a chronological manner. As we move from one scene to another, it’s assumed that every following sequence is further ahead in time. That’s why flashbacks – the most recurrent occurrence of breaking this rule – require special artifices to make them appear as outside the normal flow of time: captions, special panel borders, washed-out coloring and so on.

Alex Link and Riley Rossmo push the envelope on playing with time flow. Not only do they show scenes that don’t follow normal chronology, they show scenes that never actually happened – nor ever will! What they do is use the visual shortcuts associated with flashbacks and use them to show us scenes that only happen inside the main character’s head.

But before we go any further, let’s meet Chuck. Chuck is a former fireman who is now manning a fire tower in the middle of the forest. In a flashback, we see that he lost his old job following an “accident” which is heavily implied he caused himself. Why? The authors don’t come out and say it but it appears that Chuck is going through some sort of life crisis bad enough to make jumping off a roof seem like a viable alternative. Isolating himself in the middle of the woods seems to be the ideal way of also getting away from his wife berating him for losing his job.

That goes to show us that Chuck is a runner. When there’s trouble, he runs. And this time, the trouble is zombies.

So right from the start we have a character with some complex inner machinery. What can you do with such a character? Well if you’re reaching for the usual tools, you’ll present him with dramatic situations that challenge his way of thinking and have him interacting with other characters in a manner that underlines his complex personality.

Or you could also do what Link and Rossmo did here and show your characterization through hypothetical scenes. Basically, we get to see what Chuck fantasizes will happen once he gets to where he left his wife and kid.

What’s interesting here is that we’re not really seeing Chuck as he is but rather as he sees himself – which might be even more eloquent. This isn’t your usual objective viewpoint with a dash of monologuing caption boxes; this is the notion of unreliable narrator at its fullest since we get to literally see inside the character’s head. And it gets increasingly dark in there as Chuck’s thoughts turn from failure…

…to new beginnings…

…to finally revenge fantasies.

You know what this is essentially doing? It gets rid of all of the inner monologue captions and replaces them with actual scenes, actively engaging us in the flow of the narrative instead of having us sit back and swallow everything.

Lesson Learned

You don’t have to stick to a strict chronological telling of events. You don’t even have to constrain yourself to things that actually happen for real. Hypothetical scenes are fair game, especially if you present them through the strongly biased viewpoint of one of your characters. That way, you can not only break out of the classic “what happens next” mold, but also gain a powerful tool for presenting some refined characterization. Just don’t forget to use obvious visual clues to denote the subjective and unreal nature of your hypothetical scenes!

HIT!

The multi-layered narration in Scott Snyder’s BATMAN #7

If you’re familiar with Scott Snyder’s writing, you’ll know he’s fond of starting with a few pages of heavy captioning. Just off the top of my head, I recall an interesting lecture in AMERICAN VAMPIRE about the deficiencies inherent to the teenaged personality, as well as a reflection on the importance of community in the opening pages of SEVERED #6. In both these cases, Snyder made sure the subject matter fit – ironically or not – with the action at hand in the panels where the captions appeared.

You then find yourself with a commentary track that’s both entertaining and relevant without being redundant, like so many inner monologues can be.

In the case of BATMAN #7 however, he does something special: the captions don’t contain the hero’s thoughts or even an essay-like piece by a neutral narrator. Notice the quotation marks…

Yup, this is dialogue, dialogue from characters who are nowhere in the present location, characters who might not even be speaking at the exact same moment in fact. But the important point here is that even though these lines are in a way “designed” to fit with another scene, they still apply perfectly to what we’re seeing on the present page.

Hence, Scott Snyder is writing for two different scenes at the same time:

  1. The primary scene is the one that’s not shown at the moment. It’s the leader of the Court of Owls speaking to their newest batch of Talons before sending them out to conquer Gotham City. At base level, these captions are referring to the process a Talon must go through before being “reactivated”.
  2. The secondary scene is the one shown: a dream sequence of an alternate interpretation of Batman’s origin myth. Bruce Wayne has just chosen to become the Caped Crusader instead of bleeding to death in his living room. In this second level, the text drives home the realization that has dawned upon Batman in the last few issues that the Court of Owls has always been there, long before his pointy-eared persona was ever invented. Hence, as Batman teeters on the brink of death in reality, this last dream reveals the horrible truth about his crusade: that he never truly was in control of anything and that the Owls had their talons sunk deep since the very beginning.

But these captions strike the hardest at the end of the following scene…

The same way a Talon raises ever stronger from every defeat, Batman is now called to readjust his worldview and emerge even more powerful from his recent undoing. Thus Snyder takes it up one more level, above the immediate narrative and into commenting the new status quo of the BATMAN series itself.

Not only that but the fact of having the same text applying to both Batman and the Court of Owls’ army of killers draws an interesting parallel between these characters, showing in words how similar they can be, and then contrast how different they are with their actions.

Lesson Learned

Narration in caption boxes can be made to have more emotional impact if you take care of giving them at least two separate yet relevant meanings. To accomplish this, you need one primary scene with some running dialogue that you will layer onto another secondary scene with caption boxes. The two scenes don’t have to be simultaneous. What’s important is that the text applies to both presented situations. More often than not, this relevance will be purely figurative in the case of the secondary scene. Be careful not to write dialogue that’s too specific to your primary scene or you won’t have enough leeway to make it stick to the secondary one. If you can insert even more layers of meaning in there, more power to you, but aim for two layers only if you want to be sure to pull this trick off. We can’t all be Scott Snyder after all!

MISS…

The lack of structure of Selwyn Sefu Hinds’ DOMINIQUE LAVEAU: VOODOO CHILD #1

They say you only get one chance at making a good first impression. That goes doubly for comics when a bad impression usually means no second impression. (As in printing. See what I did there? OK, forget it.) Anyway, it’s always a sad sight to see a new series stumble at issue 1.

DOMINIQUE LAVEAU: VOODOO CHILD#1 (henceforth referred to as DLVC #1) suffers from a bad case of meandering storytelling. To say it in colloquial terms, it’s all over the damn place and back again. Like its sweatshirted heroine, the plot spends most of this issue running around town, barely stopping to catch its breath and being tossed and threatened at every turn. It’s a rough ride and the reader no doubt feels the same way as Dominique does after turning the last page.

Let’s break down the sequence of events that make up DLVC #1…

  1. Dominique is running through New Orleans pursued by a werewolf and caption boxes. She defeats the werewolf in a way that’s not entirely clear (magic snakes?).
  2. Dominique runs into a policeman friend. Their conversation (“My friends re dead!”) is interrupted by two gang members shooting at them. While the cop shoots back, Dominique runs away.
  3. Down in the French Quarter, a creepy guy gets a boy possessed by a Voodoo… god? Anyway, creepy gets ordered to find Dominique on the double. That tells me she’ll probably have to run.
  4. Back to Dominique running through a cemetery - because that’s certainly the first place you think to go to when you’ve just been chased by an extra from a Universal horror movie. She somehow gets transported to the Voodoo Queen’s court where – as an unseen presence – she discovers all members of the Court and the Queen herself dead. She’ spotted by a guy who has been seemingly following her since the start of the comic – running, no doubt. She escapes him and utters the strangely empathetic line: “What the hell was that?”
  5. Dominique runs home to find her aunt dying from… a profuse nose bleed – it’s not really clear but she did leave a big stain on the carpet. She’s then cornered by the guy who was tailing her and he goes all 90s glamour in the last splash page.

Notice a trend? Apart from all the running, I mean? No, you don’t and that’s because there isn’t any.

Every part of this plot follows the other in a way that denotes no causality between them. Why is there a werewolf pursuing Dominique? We don’t know. Who were Dominique’s friends who were killed? We don’t know. Why are gang members shooting at her and her cop friend? We don’t know. Why is the creepy guy looking for Dominique? We don’t know. Why has the Voodoo Queen’s court been assassinated? We don’t know. Who is this guy who keeps following her? We don’t know.

But most importantly, why do any of these things happen in this order? Everybody now: WE DON’T KNOW.

That’s because DLVC #1 is made up of nothing but beginnings. Dominique is introduced. The being-chased-by-monsters is introduced. Her “power” is introduced. The cop friend is introduced. The murdered Court is introduced. The blond shuriken-throwing guy is introduced. The creepy god-summoning guy is introduced. The murder of Dominique’s aunt is introduced. Yet nothing is ever dwelled upon but very superficially before we run off somewhere else.

This isn’t a first issue; it’s a table of contents.

Lesson Learned

It’s OK to introduce elements to your story and then wait a few pages – or even issues – before explaining them. That’s what suspense, cliffhangers and big revelations are all about. However, if you overdo it and fill your comic with nothing but teasers, you won’t be giving your reader any reason to come back. You need substance – you need meat! – between each new element to keep your reader interested and emotionally invested in your story. Don’t let your comic be nothing but an enigma to your reader!

Honorable mentions

  • There’s some fantastic world-building done in Mike Costa and Jon Armstrong’s SMOKE AND MIRRORS #1. This is what happens when you grab onto a concept and follow it through in all its logical extremities.
  • Mark Millar’s SUPERCROOKS #1 subverted the whole scheme of classic hero and villain characterization by successfully inverting who you should actually root for.

Dishonorable mention

  • Brian Azarello seems to forget he’s writing an ongoing title this week as his WONDER WOMAN #7 ends flatly with the resolution of a situation that had no detectable weight in the grand scheme of things. Since the reader is left with no motivation to come back the next month, this created the perfect drop-off point for anyone who had doubts about the series.

Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 2

And we’re back for another exhilarating edition of Points of Impact. Like I wrote last night on Twitter, this week’s haul was quite impressive: close to a dozen books! No wonder I took the entire evening to read through it all so I could have something enlightening to tell you today!

A now customary caveat:  these aren’t reviews; they’re more like pointers to interesting tricks and devices that a beginning comics writer could find useful. Hence even a book that many would consider “bad” can still have something to teach us about writing – even if it’s by a bad example. To further drive that point in, I’m beginning this week to add a closing statement to each part called Lesson Learned. If you feel like just skimming the blog post, those are the parts for which you want your eyes to slow down. At the end of every month, I’ll be doing a digest of all of the month’s bits o’wisdom in a single post I’ll probably title Lessons Learned. Yeah, that’s my great imagination at work, folks – buy my comics!

I loved…

The dialogue in Brian K. Vaughan’s SAGA #1 – Before I start catching too much flak for praising writers for not writing dialogue, this week I’m going in reverse. No, I won’t be talking about writing a lot of dialogue (sorry, Mr. Bendis!), but rather about writing the dialogue that was exactly required.

But first a confession: I’ve never read Y: THE LAST MAN and only the $1 sampler of EX MACHINA. That means my familiarity with Vaughan’s work could be considered sorely lacking. However, it also means that my expectations were at an ideal point, that is completely neutral.

Despite hitting me right off the bat with a splash page of a woman wondering if she’s defecating or not, this comic contains some of the best dialogue I’ve read in a long while. This is saying a lot considering that it’s part space opera, part high fantasy – two genres I absolutely loathe. Indeed the dialogue elevates the whole experience above the simple context of the story, far beyond the winged guardsmen, unicorn ladies and robots doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel.

I’m not making any of this up by the way.

But the heart of the matter is that Vaughan succeeds in creating dialogue that not only advances the story and serves as a great introduction for his world and his characters; he also makes us care deeply about these characters. It’s thanks to dialogue so perfectly on-target – especially in highly dramatic moments where it would be easy to fall back into whine and cheese – that we can almost lose sight of the funny aliens and intergalactic wars and see this story for what it truly is: a universal tale about two people in love nurturing the life they created together.

My very own personal favorite line in the entire comic? As Alana and Marko, our two protagonists, are caught in a crossfire between enemy troops and will surely die, Marko utters a sentence that is very simple yet so powerful at that moment:

MARKO: I loved you so much.

That use of the past tense, as if they were already dead, it hits you like a pack of gunpowder in a mouth full of fire.

Lesson learned: Writing dialogue is a precarious balancing act between moving the story forward and establishing characterization. Too much of the former and you get a plot-driven story peopled by interchangeable robots. Too much of the latter and you get quirky talking heads show that goes nowhere. Good dialogue keeps the balance between the two; GREAT dialogue pushes both to the limit. That way, you can maybe reach out to people who would have no interest in your story in the first place.

I liked…

The amount of research done by Nathan Edmondson for THE ACTIVITY #4 – This is the second time that THE ACTIVITY makes the list as the “liked” item. Will it ever attain the coveted “loved” spot? Only time will tell but it’s racking up a pretty good track record in the meantime. (2012-03-16 UPDATE: I checked and it did get “loved” already. Sorry for the lapse in memory!)

Once again, this is not about shutting up. This week, I’m all about the talky bits! Here, I’m amazed by the load of research Edmondson no doubt had to get through to incorporate so much authenticity in his plot and his lines. We’re talking about:

  • Diplomatic relations
  • Military operating procedures
  • The military structure and chain of command
  • Bleeding edge covert ops technology
  • Military lingo

And this isn’t flavor text peppered all over the dialogue just to make it sound real. These notions are also integral part of the plot. This is one of the elements that make THE ACTIVITY such a good book: it’s done its work and it shows!

Of interest too is the fact that these characters not only talk like soldiers, they also act like soldiers. They’re solid and reliable professionals who do their job without angst nor exaggerated relish. Hence you won’t find among them the usual characterization shortcuts, the stereotypes like the hard-assed drill sergeant, the young hot impulsive hotshot, the contemplative wisdom-sputtering mentor, the PTSD victim teetering along the edge – you know them because you’ve seen them all in the other comics and at the movies.

Lesson learned: If you’re going to write about anything that steps outside the bounds of your everyday life, do your research. Don’t half-ass it either. We’re living in the information age so it’s easy for anyone to look it up and second-guess your “facts”.

I was disappointed by…

The main character’s lack of presence in Mike Mignola and John Arcudi’s LOBSTER JOHNSON: THE BURNING HAND #3 of 5 – Just to drive the point home even further, this week’s disappointment stems from actually not saying enough. Specifically, it deals with the authors opting to keep their main character mostly silent, absent and/or ineffective for three straight issues, an irritating habit that reaches its low point in issue 3.

Throughout this installment, Lobster Johnson appears on only 6 pages, and on these pages he has no more than 13 speech balloons, a little more than 2 speaking lines per page on average. None of these are particularly meaty character-wise. Apart from one admittedly cheesy opening line, all of his dialogue refers to the plain situation at hand, no insight, quips or flavor at all.

That bothers me.

First there’s no way for the reader to get inside the hero’s head and thus identify with him. We’re irremediably stuck outside this character, getting the story told to us instead of having the slim opportunity to live it through Lobster Johnson. Even worse, since the main villain gets both more face time and more substantial dialogue, it’s actually easier to identify with him instead, thus making for a strangely skewed reading experience.

Then there’s the fact that Lobster Johnson seems like he’s guest-starring in his own comic, like Wolverine visiting a Spider-Man title in the 90s (he used to do it at least twice a month). The same way his appearance proves completely extraneous to the plot – he accomplished nothing and affected no one in any way – the reverse is also true: the plot leaves absolutely no trace on him. Issue 3 leaves us with a “hero” that’s left curiously unaffected, having learned about as much about himself as we already knew about him: nothing.

Talk about a classic mystery man!

Lesson learned: If you want your readers to like a character, introduce him properly. That doesn’t mean info-dumping his whole resume, but keeping a steady diet of characterization through interactions with other characters. Also, in order to really become “heroes”, characters have to be challenged by events and be transformed by them in order to bring a satisfying close to their journey. A character that passes through a story without change is not a hero but an extra.

Honorable mentions this week

  • The quirky scenes (“bring this horse to the race” and sex with a view to David Hasselhoff (please don’t ask me to explain; I already had to do it with my girlfriend who happened to pass by and see this over my shoulder)) in Andrew Osborne’s BLUE ESTATE #10
  • A 14-page fight scene that’s still an interesting read in Brian Wood’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN #2
  • An intricate plan that would actually work in the real world in Kurtis J. Wiebe’s PETER PANZERFAUST #2
  • The sniping scene and the fact that the Punisher actually sounds like someone with a background in the military instead of a goon with a gun in Greg Rucka’s THE PUNISHER #9
  • Examples of decompression that works in Nick Spencer’s THIEF OF THIEVES #2

Dishonorable mention

J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s BATWOMAN #7 is still a sorry mess and came in close to being this week’s disappointment. Normally, I’d leave it at honorable mentions and keep mum about everything else that didn’t particularly wow me but I thought this particular case warranted a special treatment.

I think I’ve expounded enough on this title’s problem last month and this issue gives us more of that same problem. However, one thing that stands out and underlines this book’s slow descent into meh-ness is the fact that the authors seem to have completely forgotten what made Batwoman special in the first place. Gone is the fiery fierceness, gone is the unflinching pride, and gone is the barely held-back grief behind the façade of the soldier. Batwoman’s characterization has been completely pushed aside in favor of an intricate plot structure that honestly fails at the most basic level: it can’t properly tell us what is actually happening.

Remember the first five issues: each scene was leading into the other almost seamlessly, all of them driven by the clashing of strong characters like Chase, Maggie and Batwoman. Heck, the comparison is even less flattering if you go further back to the BATWOMAN: ELEGY days, when Greg Rucka reinvented the character in the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS. That was when characters were driving the plot. Now it’s the plot – hindered by a gimmicky device – that leads the characters.

Here’s a fun thing to do while reading BATWOMAN #7: replace Batwoman with Nightwing in every panel in which she appears and see how much it changes the story or even just her lines. Not much, right? That’s a good litmus test right there for knowing if your characterization is strong enough to carry a plot.

Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 1

Quite the haul this week compared to last week – double the load in fact! Not nearly enough to throw my back out but still an appreciable quantity of reading material.

Not to mention the fact I had no less than three first issues this week. Oh how I love first issues! There’s just something about that sink-or-swim approach that makes reading one so exciting. You can almost picture the publisher throwing the creators out of the nest and into the terrifying void, seeing if they’ll catch on to flying on the way down.

Anyway, we’re just going to talk about three of this week’s comics however, starting first with something…

I LOVED…

The inventiveness of the story in Jonathan Hickman’s THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS #1 – When you want to impress a crowd, you put everything you got into one eye-searing shot. After all, the best motorcycle stuntmen in the world don’t just jump over a couple of cars, they line up around twenty buses. If I want to bring this analogy into range of what Jonathan Hickman did, I’d have to say he filled those buses with burning grizzly bears and tore up that ramp.

THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS starts off its run in a delightfully crazy way with Hickman going all in to show us how demented things really are in that underground military bunker/scientific research facility. Instead of just coping out with: “Oh you know, science stuff, very hush-hush,” he cranks it out with extra-dimensional mining, artificial intelligence decades before its time and imaginary weapons.

But not it’s not only a showcase of scientific wonders, there’s also a good bit of action when the base gets attacked by the Japanese. See, they have their own version of the Manhattan Projects, although one with a rather mystical bent to it. So when they attack, they’re not sending in troops, they’re sending in robots – samurai robots armed with flails and shurikens coming in though a dimensional portal that was dropped like an arcane ICBM.

And really, I ask you: where else can you read a line like: “A Red Torii. No doubt Zen-powered by Death Buddhists!”

I hear you say: “Well those are all nice little gimmicks, but what about the story?” Let me assure you: the same inventiveness was put to good use while plotting the story. There’s a twist that will hit you sideways as you gape at the robot attack, leaving you on a cliffhanger that guarantees you’ll be back next month.

The lesson? If you have to create something, create all the way instead of reusing the same tropes rearranged in a new pattern.

With this first issue, Hickman is telling us: “Stick around, ‘cause I’m not about to run out of ideas!”

I LIKED…

The horror-story vibe of Jeff Lemire’s ANIMAL MAN #7 – When I first heard that DC’s New 52 relaunch initiative was folding Vertigo titles like SWAMP THING and ANIMAL MAN into the DC universe with the likes of Superman and the Flash, I felt a twinge of worry. These were properties that were thoroughly rooted in mature storylines and complex narrative structures the likes of which are rarely seen in the spandex-clad side of that publisher’s business.

However, these two titles were put into very good hands with Scott Snyder (AMERICAN VAMPIRE, SEVERED) penning SWAMP THING and Jeff Lemire (SWEET TOOTH) grabbing ANIMAL MAN. They were two authors who had proven that they knew how to helm more complicated storylines and they proved it again in the DCnU.

In this case, I’m particularly interested by the way Jeff Lemire builds his story and this month’s issue is a prime example of how a comic can still star a super hero but give off a horror-story vibe.

The Baker family is on the run as they’re hunted by the agents of the Rot. Do we see Buddy and his daughter Maxine hulk out and kick some righteous ass? No, because this isn’t a power fantasy, it’s survival. They’re lost, the cell phone battery is dead, they’re living in a camper (hello, WALKING DEAD!) and even the Justice League is too busy to help them out. All they can do is hunker down and hope to see the next day.

Writing-wise, the horror story vibe is about stretching out the tension and piling up hopeless situations upon your characters until they either succumb or pull through, revealing the strength they harbored within. It’s one long descending slope into a challenge that gets bloodier by each passing issue. It is not a cycle of challenge, defeat and victory as we so often see with superheroics but a gauntlet that has to be run with no promise of the end turning out to be a desirable exit.

In my opinion, this makes for a far more compelling narrative and far more engaging characters. It actually makes one wonder what a Superman story told in this fashion would read like.

For more about horror in comics, I’d advise you to take a look at John Lees’ blog. John has made some very interesting observations on the genre which I’m sure you’ll find as captivating as I do.

I WAS DISAPPOINTED BY…

The decompressed script of Joe Keatinge’s HELL YEAH #1 – Let’s get one thing straight before I go on: I have nothing against decompression itself. Well used, it’s an invaluable device in a comic writer’s toolkit. I recall some pages of Mike Mignola’s HELLBOY that were masterpieces of decompression: nothing but twirping birds and swaying trees – and it worked. Why? Because Mignola had understood that for decompression to be effective, it has to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to set a mood. There are no other good reasons for it.

When I put down HELL YEAH #1, I realized I had just blown through 32 pages of comics by the time it usually gets for me to read through three or four spreads of Joe Benitez’LADY MECHANIKA. Although the latter is a formidably dense read to make a valid comparison, it was still way too fast to my liking.

The reason for such a speedy consumption lies in the extremely decompressed nature of Joe Keatinge’s script. There are multiple instances of pages where there are no more than three or four panels. In fact, it’s the case for easily half this comic. That’s counting pages where captions take up whole panels, all the unnecessary splash pages and mostly conversations between two people. That’s right: talking heads. If the majority of these pages were fight scenes, I could understand the reduced panel count. Usually, when doing action, you want to speed up the reader’s eye movement to get him into the mood of a fight, a chase or what have you. Here, it’s just people having a drink and a quiet chat.

One particularly egregious example is page 7 with five panels. Here it is:

There are six speech bubbles. There are 21 words. That’s just barely 4 words per panel. That’s not a fast read, that’s you wondering if the letterer was on strike.

And page 6 just before it is even worse:

If I wanted to be generous, I’d say this is a 3-panel page. But I’m not in a generous mood. This is a splash page with two oversized caption boxes.

Now just to show I’m not blowing smoke out of my ass, here’s my version of these two pages, condensed into the space that’s actually required:

Page 6

Panel 1
Wide shot of BENJAMIN sitting in the DEAN’s office waiting room, reading a magazine.
TITLE: LAST DAY ON EARTHS
TITLE: CHAPTER ONE – THE WORLD THEY MADE
RECEPTIONIST: Benjamin?
RECEPTIONIST: Benjamin Day? The Dean will see you now.

Panel 2
Wide shot of the DEAN’s office. The DEAN himself is facing away from us, standing in front of the high windows making up the whole wall behind his desk. BENJAMIN can be seen entering the room. BENJAMIN’s file with his photo are lying on the desk. There’s a swiveling armchair behind the desk and a simple wooden chair in front of it.
DEAN: Sit down.
BENJAMIN: It’s nice to see you again.
DEAN: No. No, it’s not.

Panel 3
Close-up shot of the file on the desk. We can now see that BENJAMIN is making a funny face on the photo.
DEAN (OP): You’re in here too often, Benjamin.
DEAN (OP): It’s getting old.

Panel 4
Side shot of BENJAMIN leaning back in the chair while the DEAN is leaning on his desk, facing him.
BENJAMIN: I do believe you invited me here.
DEAN: You’re in here because of you, Benjamin. What you’ve done and how often you do it.

Panel 5
Tight shot of the DEAN.
DEAN: Kurtzberg University is meant to house the most elite up-and-coming minds of the super-powered community. It takes more than a 4.0 GPA and super-powers to be enrolled. Staying is even harder.

There. I just fitted two and half pages in the same number of panels as in page 7 alone and I didn’t have to overly crowd any of them. All I did was combine lines of dialogue into the same panel and eliminate some extraneous shots. I reduced the entire page 6 into a single establishing shot in the first panel. You don’t need splash pages for people reading magazines. Come on!

I’m very disappointed to see an indie title show so little care for providing a worthwhile product. When Marvel or DC does this, we shrug it off because we’ve come to expect some duds from such prolific publishers. However, like I said two weeks ago when I was decrying the hollowness of NO PLACE LIKE HOME, it pains me to see independent creators not acting as ambassadors for comics outside the Big Two. Having the publishing power of Image propelling your comic to center stage is a tremendous opportunity to make a statement about the often unexploited potential and unknown quality of indie comics. It saddens me when I feel such an opportunity has been squandered.

If you get people interested enough to buy something new, the least you can do is have something substantial to show them. Simply put: I don’t think I got enough comic for my money. In fact, I think Image owes me at least two more HELL YEAHs worth of comics.

In closing, here’s a page that shows decompression done right, from THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS:

Honorable mentions this week:

  • The scene where Buddy helps his son impress some girls in Jeff Lemire’s ANIMAL MAN #7
  • Someone actually using the word “Zounds!” and making sound right in Bill Willingham’s FAIREST #1
  • The running narrative in Ed Brubaker’s FATALE #3
  • The accident scene  focusing on the crow in Terry Moore’s RACHEL RISING #6
  • The fact that the main character is still a hidden surprise after more than half a year of publishing of Scott Snyder’s SWAMP THING #7

Points of Impact – February 2012 – Week 5

It’s Wednesday again! That means another load of fresh comics to devour! Unfortunately, if you think there were slim pickings last week, my list was even shorter this week. In fact, I have just enough comics to talk about three of them. Do you think that means I’ll have less to say this time? Noooooo!

Let’s get started!

I loved…

The prison cafeteria scene in Nate Cosby and Ben McCool’s PIGS #6 – I know what you’re going to say: once again, I’m about to praise writers for actually NOT writing. Indeed, in the whole three pages that this scene takes, there are no more than eight speech balloons for a grand total of only 31 words.

However, it’s easily one of the most characterization and mood-heavy scenes I’ve seen in a while. It’s all done by the actions of background characters and switching camera angles. Here’s the setup: a crime boss (name unknown – correct me if I’m wrong) is sitting in the cafeteria when his bodyguard, “Fred”, comes in. Now keep in mind Fred is covered head to toe in swastika tattoos and has just cut off a man’s foot with what looks like a dozen plastic knives – one AFTER the other.

Page 10 (7 panels)

Panel 1

Wide elevated shot of the cafeteria showing PRISONERS having lunch.

NO COPY

Panel 2

Wide shot of a single table with PRISONERS eating and taking every seat except one in front of the BOSS. From the right side, we can see FRED’s hands entering the panel, holding his lunch tray.

NO COPY

Panel 3

Medium shot of the BOSS seated and eating.

NO COPY

Panel 4

Inverted shot: FRED is sitting down with his tray in front of the BOSS.

NO COPY

Panel 5

Long shot from the opposite end of the table showing the PRISONERS picking up their trays and getting up. The BOSS and FRED are seated calmly at the end of the table in the background.

NO COPY

Panel 6

Same shot but now most of the prisoners have gone; the last two are getting up and leaving. The BOSS and FRED haven’t moved.

NO COPY

Panel 7

Same shot but the BOSS and FRED are now alone at the table.

NO COPY

Page 12 (6 panels)

Panel 1

Wide shot showing the BOSS’ head, cocked to the side, on the left side of the panel, with PRISONERS seated and eating in the background.

NO COPY

Panel 2

Wide shot showing FRED’s head, cocked to the side, on the right side of the panel, with nothing in the background.

NO COPY

Panel 3

Close-up of the BOSS’ glasses  reflecting the pudding in FRED’s tray, the same image repeated in both lenses.

NO COPY

Panel 4

Close-up of the pudding in FRED’s tray.

NO COPY

Panel 5

Tight overshot of FRED’s hand and arm, pushing the tray towards the BOSS.

NO COPY

Panel 6

Worm’s eye view from just beside the pudding looking up to the BOSS holding a spoonful of pudding near his mouth.

BOSS: THANK YOU, FRED.

This could easily have taken the form of a long exchange between the two criminals with some exposition and witty repartee. However, Cosby and McCool chose instead to focus on the essential: the relationship between the two men and the way they come into contact with others around them. And for that, not many words were needed but wisely omitted.

By the way, I have to mention the way letterer Rus Wooton has chosen to treat Fred’s speech bubbles: all shaky, no caps at all and not a single punctuation mark. It’s the kind of voice you don’t want coming from under your bed but you just know it would sound like this if you ever heard it.

I liked…

Andrea’s speech to Rick in Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD #94 – In this latest issue, Rick’s group is finally shifting gears and have decided to try their luck at finding this other community that their prisoner “Jesus” is seemingly scouting for. As Ricks gives his final orders before departing, he has an exchange with Andrea that ends on this panel:

Now part of me immediately shot up with “Andrea’s dying next!” After all, we’ve been long overdue on Kirkman’s credo of “No one is safe.” Andrea’s one of the last few remaining members of the “old guard”. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kirkman ramp things up on his way to his 100th issue by cutting short the existence of one of his most remarkable and enduring creations.

After all, declaring so frankly how you constantly cheat death is one of the surest ways in comics to reserve a seat on Charon’s yacht. But is this hubris at its best (worst?), an inspiring character mission statement or a rare tongue-in-cheek lampshade-hanging?

Can it be all three at once?

Only time will tell but I’m ready to wager a nice crisp Queen’s portrait that this little speech should come back to haunt us in one way or another in the following months. It’s not the best sample of foreshadowing, but it’s certainly one of the most entertaining.

I was disappointed by…

The fact that this was the final issue of Kurtis J. Wiebe’s GREEN WAKE – Yes, I’m already breaking my own rules and using this section to praise a comic instead of chiding it.

I was very saddened about a month ago when I learned that GREEN WAKE was getting cancelled after issue10 for lack of sales. To be perfectly honest, I was angry. It angered me to see something so thoughtful disappear while other publications could go on thanks to the simple rote purchasing habits of the blindly faithful.

Mostly, I was angry at the average and maybe hypothetical comic reader. The one that buys every comic with Wolverine on the cover. The one who has to own every spinoff and tie-in to an “event” that never ends. The one that only looks for premises he’s seen on TV first. The one who won’t take chances. The one who’s still stuck in his teenage power fantasies. The one who won’t hesitate shelling out four bucks for yet another polybagged mainstream title but bitches about not having any budget for creator-owned indie books with literally a dozen pages of backup material for the same price. The one who has memorized every Teen Titan roster in publication history but finds it too tedious to learn the names of unknown characters in a new mystery mini.

The main problem I think is that the average comic reader is not educated enough for the medium. I’m not talking about school education. I don’t care if you’ve got an MBA or if you flunked out of kindergarten. No, the problem is that he’s not educated enough about his options when buying comics. It’s not that there’s nothing that indie comics can offer to this reader, it’s just that getting him to learn about the alternatives means meeting him halfway – halfway of the ocean parting these two worlds. But I’m not getting into whose fault is that…

In the end, it’s all a business and publishing companies are there to make money. And so the wheel of the comic market keeps on turning and other ideas break the surface at the water’s edge.

That’s why I’m not as angry today as I was a month ago, not with the slew of new books coming for Mr. Wiebe. PETER PANZERFAUST is already off to a very respectable start, GRIM LEAPER has a premise that’s a sure-fire hit and DEBRIS, just recently announced at IMAGE EXPO, has him reunited once more with his GREEN WAKE accomplice, Riley Rossmo. So things are not completely bleak. Some projects die peacefully while others see the light of day. I just hope Wiebe’s growing exposition with these titles, his blog and his podcast are enough to better his chances at keeping afloat the sales figures wave.

I see GREEN WAKE’s early cancellation as a warning that if we don’t nurture burgeoning talent and originality on the comic market, we’re just condemning ourselves to more of the same old stories, retold, rehashed and regurgitated in redesigned costumes. That’s the real death of comics we need to be wary of, not by lack of sales, but by lack of creativity.

I think Kermit had the best words for closing: “It’s not easy being green.”

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.

Points of Impact – February 2012 – Week 3

Welcome once more to another (second in fact) installment of Points of Impact, where I tell you what had the most impact on me in my reading of the weekly harvest. Enough preamble, let’s get to the nitty-gritty!

I loved…

The use of silent panels in Nathan Edmondson’s THE ACTIVITY #3 – Sometimes you have to know when to shut up. With this third issue, Nathan Edmondson demonstrates that he masters that ancient and sadly oft-forgotten art.

After the first page (a splash panel with a single speech balloon), the following spread is completely silent until the fifth panel. However, during these silent panels, a lot is being said. Edmondson takes his time to let the mood set in, pacing his beats carefully until the silence is ready to be broken, when the tension has been deemed high enough to be broken in a dramatic way.

All throughout this issue, moments of silence come punctuate the narrative, as if it were one long conversation where the sentences need periods from time to time. This gives the whole story a kind of rhythm reminiscent of French novels that manage to be impervious to being put down despite the evident lack of action. The comparison isn’t that far off considering that THE ACTIVITY #3 is nothing short of a long argument between the team members after a failed mission. Sure, we get some glimpses of the mission in very brief flashbacks, but the meat of it is just the operatives arguing on a helicopter.

Well no. Because it ISN’T only that, because there are these moments of eloquent silence, Nathan Edmondson manages to tell a lot more than if he had crammed every panel with speech balloons.

I liked…

The space given to magical moments in Kurtis J. Wiebe’s PETER PANZERFAUST #1 – The same way Nathan Edmondson lets silence speak in THE ACTIVITY, Kurtis J. Wiebe lets special moments take some expansion in the first issue of his WWII-era Peter Pan.

Anytime the character of Peter does anything that approaches the magic performed by his namesake, it’s like time slows down around him. All of a sudden, the panel count grinds down to splash pages and we’re left taking in the epicness that seems to permeate the very air around Peter. For example, his introduction marks the first use of a splash page. In the same way, the panel count goes down when he later on dodges German fire and then jumps a 20-foot gap between two ruined buildings.

The empty space left in the splash page for that last occurrence is very evocative in itself; it occupies roughly half the page. That’s precious real estate for a story told in 22 pages – but it works.

And in that moment, you really can believe that Peter does fly.

I was disappointed by…

The confusing plot of Brian Azarello’s WONDER WOMAN #6 – I was almost hesitant to admit I understood next to nothing about the plot of this comic. I read it once, cover to cover, and then I had a moment of abject terror when my mind refused to accept that it didn’t understand something on the first try. “I’m a smart guy, dammit! Come on, this is a comic book! I had to study Kant in college and that went down well!” So I settled down for a second more attentive reading, hoping that I had read it too fast, being too eager to type up these fine precious thoughts you’re reading right now.

It didn’t work. I was still confused. “OK, I must be tired. It’s been a long day after all.” I got up, took a long shower and fixed myself a drink. Then I sat down with it again.

Still nothing.

I mean, I have a pretty general idea of what happened: I could recite by heart by now the exact sequence of events from the first page to the last. However, by my troth, I couldn’t tell you why what anybody did led to any of the events depicted. The links between cause and effect is so tenuous as to be almost nonexistent. Even worse: when it’s all said and done, I still don’t know what bearing the events in the comic had on the ending, how the status quo was changed and how that change was achieved.

In order words, the narrative went from point A to point B by passing though a wormhole.

Special mention: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo manage to do a 13-panel page in BATMAN #6 and it’s still less confusing that the entire 20 pages of WONDER WOMAN.

Points of Impact – February 2012 – Week 2

Long time no write, but it’s no use dwelling upon that sad fact. Life happens and we get carried off to unknown parts sometimes.

I thought I’d kick off the renaissance by introducing a new regular (I hope!) feature spotlighting what are the points that had the most impact on me script-wise in my weekly comic haul. I thought I’d proceed as such: name one thing that really surprised me by how good it was (I loved…), one thing that made me smile (I liked…), and one thing that frustrated me because I know the guy or gal is better than that (I was disappointed by…). And no, you’ll never see me do any I hated… because what would be the point in throwing a tantrum?

Ready for the first one? Let’s go!

I loved…

Conan the Barbarian #1 coverThe tone of Brian Wood’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN #1 – When I first heard that Brian Wood was going to pen the script for the new Conan series at Dark Horse, I knew it was the right moment to get into the notorious barbarian’s adventures. Contrary to your probable expectations, I knew of Wood’s writing through THE NEW YORK FOUR and its sequel THE NEW YORK FIVE, not through to thematically closer NORTHLANDERS. I had already been charmed by the way he can craft engaging and natural-sounding dialogue. This comic is… quite the opposite, to say the least. It is however a perfect fit for conferring that pulpy epic feel that the narrative needs. Let’s face it: we’re talking about grim fantasy fare here, not Blackberry-obsessed college girls. If you can’t go for natural contemporary sensibility, you better go all-out with the the epicness – which is delivered in spades.

Here, taste this sample:

Page 1 (5 panels)

Panel 1

CAPTION: Messantia, capital of Argus.

CAPTION: Like a gilded pearl glittering against the cobalt waters of the Western ocean.

Panel 2

CAPTION: A city of aristocracy, of the rule of law and the justice system.

CAPTION: A city where great merchant villas adorning terraces high in the hills look down over…

Panel 3

CAPTION: …grimy hovels bordering the quays, crime-infested bazaars where the abstract corruption of the upper classes translates down to a knife lodged in the ribs of a man dying in a dark alley.

Panel 4

NO COPY

Panel 5

CAPTION: Conan the Cimmerian does no notice this divide.

Page 2-3 (splash spread)

CAPTION: This barbarian from the north is busy riding for his life.

The most interesting thing about this is that Brian Wood is in fact adapting the original novelette QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST by Robert E. Howard, breaking down the prose into more digestible captions and dialogue for the comic while preserving the feel and tone of the original. The result is a magnificient homage to pulp literature instead of yet another watered-down modern adaptation. I strongly urge you to have a look at the writer’s commentary track on CBR for more details.

Here, have another sample straight from the book:

Also bonus points for Becky Cloonan’s character designs for Conan. Finally someone lets go of the Frazetta imagery and Schwarzenegger portayal to show a more plausible character. “Barbarian” was his origin, not his job. This isn’t Dungeons & Dragons!

I liked…

The witty dialogue in Adam Glass’ SUICIDE SQUAD #6 – You’ll have to forgive me for quoting a Monty Python sketch but: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is not being witty.” If there’s one thing that the comics world doesn’t lack, it’s witty people. Unfortunately, not all of of these people get to write dialogue. I wince at times when I read some of what passes for clever repartee, lines that would find a better fit in a 90s made-for-TV action movie than in a medium that should pride itself in part for its writing. Well to be completely honest, I don’t wince that much, I do groan more than I’d like, but most of the time I just go with the obligatory and unenthusiastic “heh”.

Such was not the case for this month’s SUICIDE SQUAD offering. This time, I replaced the “heh” with a heartfelt “Ha!”

After killing a roomful of Harley Quinn male impersonators (don’t ask)
SAVANT: Man, this is going to make for some *weird* chalk outlines.

DEADSHOT: Mind repeating that…
Gun pointed at SAVANT’s groin
DEADSHOT: …in a slightly higher voice?

Interrogating siamese twins (again don’t ask)
DEADSHOT: So… which one of you is the smart half?

Granted, the characterization of the Joker has something that felt slightly off to me but still, you can’t fault a comic when it has this line in it:

KING SHARK: Kill more clowns.

I was disappointed by…

The disjointed narrative in J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s BATWOMAN #6 – Oh how the mighty have slightly slipped half a point down my imaginary ladder of excellence. It’s not much of a drop, but when you start at such a lofty position as the first five issues of BATWOMAN occupied, it can’t help but feel like a huge disappointment, even though the comic is still very, very good.

The problem? This comic is literally ALL OVER the place. Every scene switch is a new jump in time as well as change in character POV.

Pages 1-3: Batwoman, now
Pages 2- 4: Colonel Jacob Kane, one month ago
Pages 5-6: Detective Maggie Sawyer, one week ago
Pages 7-8: Maro, four months ago
Pages 9-10: Kate Kane, three weeks ago
Pages 11-20: Chase and Batwoman, two weeks ago
Page 21: Batwoman, now

Now if the POVs had been limited to one or two characters of if the jumps always moved forward in time, it wouldn’t have been so disturbing. Not to mention that DC’s habit of slipping in ad pages at every two pages is not helping keeping up with the screwed up timetable at all. As it is, it’s a confusing narrative that forces you to manage an unwieldy timeline thus taking you completely out of the story. Reading comics should be an experience that engages your reader naturally, not something that requires more concentration than channel surfing. I’m not saying it should be mindless entertainment, but “what the hell is happenin right now” shouldn’t be one of the enlightening questions to occupy my mind as I’m reading.

And seriously, guys, you did this just as Amy Reeder was starting on her turn drawing the comic. Not cool at all.

That’s all for now! Come back next week for some new Points of Impact!