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 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.