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.

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: +5 – An established writer reputed to consistently put out good work: Brian Wood, Gail Simone, Mike Mignola, Grant Morrison, and so on
  • Hot newcomer writer: +10 – A 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: +5 – Batman, 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: +5 – Deconstructions 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: -20 – Sorry, 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: -5 – One 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?