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.

The Chosen Few

Times are hard, work is hell and money doesn’t come easy. When it comes to choosing which comics make the cut week after week, I have to be very sure that my limited resources are well spent. After all, I’m going to need that money soon enough to hire a creative team!

That’s why maintaining a healthy and cost-efficient pull list sometimes seem like more work than actually writing my own comics. Like any other expense in my budget, I have to balance my WANTS and my NEEDS. I know it might sound ridiculous to use the word NEEDS when talking about the purchasing of entertainment items, but I have my reasons.

Essentially, since I hope one day to make a career out of comics, I feel like I need to consider my comic collection like a reference library. Hence, I pick my books according to what I feel I can learn from them. Oh sure, I have my guilty pleasure (I’m looking at you, SUICIDE SQUAD!) and other quirky preferences and allergies, but I treat my comic reading largely as a learning experience. If a title offers me little substance for my buck, off the list it goes.

Up to now, this has been an intuitive process. Once I’ve tried a book, I know whether or not I’ll keep on buying it in the future. However, I thought it would make for an interesting little experiment to try and actually quantify my evaluation of titles. Doing this might help me understand what I like in a comic – and how I would like the comics I write to be. It might also open up new possibilities for trying out comics which I never dreamed of sampling, because I never realized before how close to my tastes they really are. Feel free to sound off in the comments if you think of any!

Now how does this work? As soon as the first previews hit the Web, prospective titles accumulate or lose points based on the criteria listed below. If the final score is positive (that is more than zero), that title will be bought and considered for becoming part of my pull list.

Good points

  • Writer in my top 5: +15Either Scott Snyder, Warren Ellis, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka or Nick Spencer
  • Good writer: +5An established writer reputed to consistently put out good work: Brian Wood, Gail Simone, Mike Mignola, Grant Morrison, and so on
  • Hot newcomer writer: +10A writer new to the business but who surprised with his first few offerings: Brandon Seifert (WITCH DOCTOR), Nathan Edmondson (WHO IS JAKE ELIS?, THE ACTIVITY), Kurtis J. Wiebe (GREEN WAKE) and so on
  • Favorite character: +5Batman, Batwoman or Hellboy (but not B.P.R.D.)
  • Original premise: +5“Original” as in “stands out among the crowd”
  • Historical setting: +5
  • Literary adaptation: +5 – If it’s an adaptation of a literary work set in a historical setting, only count 5 points once.
  • ComixTribe or IC Geeks book: +10Because I usually personally know at least one of the creators
  • Artist in my top 3: +10Either J.H. Williams III, Amanda Conner or Ben Templesmith (I don’t really care about any other artist enough for it to influence my purchases.)
  • Zombie book: +5Yeah, yeah, I know…
  • Creator-owned title: +5
  • Not a super hero book: +5Deconstructions of super heroes like POWERS or WATCHMEN don’t count as super hero books.

Bad points

  • Decades-old DC property: -10
  • Green Lantern or Legion of Super Heroes: -20
  • Decades-old Marvel property: -15
  • X-Men or Fantastic Four: -20
  • Any of the Image properties dating back from the 90s: -15
  • Anything that LOOKS like it’s an Image property dating back from the 90s: -20
  • Movie, TV show or video game tie-in: -10
  • Artist in the writer’s seat: -5Unless it’s Will Eisner, Terry Moore or Joe Mulvey.
  • Rob Liefeld as artist: -20Apparently one of the sweetest guys in the business, but… well… it’s a matter of taste really. Sorry, Rob!
  • Any kind of “event”: -10
  • Gratuitous excessive gore: -10
  • Tries to be CROSSED: -15
  • Is CROSSED: -20Sorry, Garth, I love ya but I just can’t stomach that comic. I promise I’ll buy THE BOYS  in trades some day!
  • Gratuitous excessive swearing: -5
  • Gratuitous excessive cheesecake: -5
  • Simultaneous gratuitous cheesecake and gore: -20
  • Sounds like Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: -10
  • Sounds like Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS but IS by Frank Miller: -5One exception to this rule: it IS Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

However, even if a title passes muster, it might still get cut if it proves itself unable to entertain after a thorough reading. That’s when the post-reading criteria come into play:

  • Witty dialogue: +5
  • Clever plot: +5
  • Too wordy: -5
  • Not wordy enough: -10
  • SyFy Channel-worthy dialogue: -10
  • Confusing plot: -5
  • Predictable plot: -10
  • Issue in which nothing really happens AKA boring plot: -10 - The writing might be good, but never make me buy a comic in which the plot has simply no forward momentum. If I want to spend some time with people standing around being witty, I’ll go on Twitter.
  • Cheap death or gimmick: -10“Don’t miss this milestone issue in which Spidey changes his costume!”
  • Reversing of cheap death or gimmick: -20“Watch out, world! The old Spidey is back!”

Now let’s try to apply these to some of the books on my pull list and see if our methodology holds:

BATMAN

Writer in my top 5: +15 (Scott Snyder)
Favorite character: +5 (Batman)
Decades-old DC property: -10
Witty dialogue: +5
Clever plot: +5
Final score: 20 – It’s Snyder and it’s Batman. That’s like mixing peanut butter with choco– no, more like mixing Reeses and sex. Yeah, that’s the ticket…

BATWOMAN (the first five issues)

Favorite character: +5 (Batwoman)
Artist in my top 3: +10 (J.H. Williams III)
Artist in the writer’s seat: -5
Witty dialogue: +5
Clever plot: +5
Final score: 20 – Another good score. If would have scored even higher if this was the Detective Comics era when Greg Rucka was writing Batwoman (30 in fact).

BATWOMAN (since issue #6)

Favorite character: +5 (Batwoman)
Artist in the writer’s seat: -5
Witty dialogue: +5
Confusing plot: -5
Final score: 0 – Pull yourself together, guys! This title has suffered a big blow when J.H. Williams III gave Amy Reeder the drawing duties, not so much because Reeder isn’t doing a good job (she’s doing a great job!), but because they slacked off in the writing department. I’m rooting for you, Amy!

THE ACTIVITY

Hot newcomer writer: +10 (Nathan Edmondson)
Original premise: +5 (the plot follows the actions of a covert ops clean-up crew)
Creator-owned title: +5
Not a super hero book: +5
Witty dialogue: +5
Clever plot: +5
Final score: 35 – A very good score for a very good book from a promising newcomer on the scene.

GREEN WAKE

Hot newcomer writer: +10 (Kurtis J. Wiebe)
Original premise: +5 (If I go into this we’ll never be done with this post – just… just trust me, OK?)
Creator-owned title: +5
Not a super hero book: +5
Witty dialogue: +5
Clever plot: +5
Final score: 35 – Same score as THE ACTIVITY and it’s not surprising since it’s the exaxct same reasons that make me buy this title.

THE PUNISHER

Writer in my top 5: +15 (Greg Rucka)
Decades-old Marvel property: -15
Witty dialogue: +5
Clever plot: +5
Final score: 10 – Despite a very big flaw against it (it’s one of Marvel’s cash cows), THE PUNISHER is saved by the presence of a very strong writer who knows his craft. Take Rucka out of the equation however and we’re down in the negative.

That adds up pretty well. From a purely quantitative viewpoint, our methodology justifies the purchase of these titles. It even warns us about the possibility of dropping a book (BATWOMAN).

Speaking of which, does it work the other way around too? Does it justify why I’ve already dropped some titles? Let’s see…

ACTION COMICS

Good writer: +5 (Grant Morrison)
Decades-old DC property: -10
Confusing plot: -5
Final score: -10 – I’ll admit that, for me, this title was coasting on the Grant Morrison brand name even before he introduced the robots and all that. I did like Batman Incorporated however, but to be completely honest, that plot was even more confusing! Oh Batman! Why do you always make things so much better?

BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT

Favorite character: +5 (Batman)
Decades-old DC property: -10
Artist in the writer’s seat: -5
Sounds like Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: -10
Too wordy: -5
Predictable plot: -10
Final score: -35 – A beautiful book unfortunately sunk by abysmal writing. This is one I REALLY wanted to like.

MORIARTY

Original premise: +5
Literary adaptation: +5
Creator-owned title: +5
Not a super hero book: +5
Too wordy: -5
Confusing plot: -5
Issue in which nothing really hapens: -10
Final score: 0 – This book had a premise tailor-made to please (Professor Moriarty comes out of retirement to solve mysteries!) but as issues went by, I had to come to the sad realization that the execution wasn’t up to the expectations prompted by the idea. It was a close cut, but I sadly had to let it go.

NEONOMICON

Good writer: +5 (Alan Moore)
Literary adaptation: +5
Creator-owned title: +5
Not a super hero book: +5
Simultaneous gratuitous cheesecake and gore: -20
Too wordy: -5
Final score: -5 – The pool scene. That would have been a very good moment to IMPLY something had happened. Oh God, the pool scene…

KICK-ASS 2

Good writer: +5 (Mark Millar)
Creator-owned title: +5
Gratuitous excessive swearing: -5
Gratuitous excessive gore: -10
Final score: -5 – There’s a really good idea in there, buried under all that calculated edginess.

So it works for those too! Am I cocky enough to try and predict the future? There is after all a new title coming out this week that I’ll be picking up…

PETER PANZERFAUST

Hot newcomer writer: +10 (Kurtis J. Wiebe)
Original premise: +5
Literary adaptation: +5
Creator-owned title: +5
Not a super hero book: +5
Final score: 30 – And it’s not even out yet! If we factor in some posible post-reading criteria, Mr. Wiebe could very well have another winner in my book!

Well that was fun and all, but what about you? Do you have any criteria on which you base your comic purchases? How many points would they be worth if you were to go through with the same neurotic exercise I just did?