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 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