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 – February 2012 – Week 5

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

Let’s get started!

I loved…

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

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

Page 10 (7 panels)

Panel 1

Wide elevated shot of the cafeteria showing PRISONERS having lunch.

NO COPY

Panel 2

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

NO COPY

Panel 3

Medium shot of the BOSS seated and eating.

NO COPY

Panel 4

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

NO COPY

Panel 5

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

NO COPY

Panel 6

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

NO COPY

Panel 7

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

NO COPY

Page 12 (6 panels)

Panel 1

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

NO COPY

Panel 2

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

NO COPY

Panel 3

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

NO COPY

Panel 4

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

NO COPY

Panel 5

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

NO COPY

Panel 6

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

BOSS: THANK YOU, FRED.

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

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

I liked…

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

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

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

Can it be all three at once?

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

I was disappointed by…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD #88: Say More With Less

STANDARD SPOILER WARNING: I’ll be discussing some very specific plot points that the average man on the street – at least the one reading comics – might consider spoilers. You’ve been severely warned!

Now that the disclaimer’s been taken care of,  let’s take out our Walking Dead #88 and open it at page 9.

Following a miraculous recovery, Carl has woken up from his brief coma induced by a gunshot wound to the head (#86). Partial amnesia seemed to have settled in (#87),  robbing him of the memory of his mother’s death. At the start of the scene, his father Rick has been backed into a corner and forced into finally telling him the tragic news. This is supposed to be the big emotional moment that was building up since last issue’s cliffhanger.

CARL: IS MOM THERE?

Kirkman judiciously leaves a silent panel before Rick’s reply and Charlie Adlard puctuates the moment further by depicting this scene in half silhouette. We go on with a close-up of Rick’s face as he finally speaks:

RICK: CARL…

RICK: YOUR MOTHER DIED…

This is the end of page 9 so we have to turn the page to see how the scene unfurls. For all we know, Kirkman is about to pull the rug from under us and switch to a new scene, but no: we go on with the exchange, except that it’s not quite the storm that was announced by the massing clouds.

CARL: OH…

The conversation that takes place in the following two pages is quite a blow for Rick: Carl is dealing a little too well with the death of his mother and sister. In fact, he seems so unaffected, that it’s scaring both us and Rick. Astute readers will understand that what’s going on under all of that dialogue is that Rick’s very fresh dread of losing his son is resurfacing with a vengeance. He barely got past the idea of him not surviving the bullet to the brain, and now he has to face this alien Carl, a person he’s recognizing less and less as he sits there at the edge of the bed.

Let’s not forget that the central idea of THE WALKING DEAD is how fragile our humanity is when we’re faced with the ultimate horror of a zombie apocalypse. The most shocking developments in the series haven’t been tied so much to the many deaths, but rather to how low the survivors could sink as the world burned around them. You have the Governor’s cruelty, the hunters’ cannibalism and that very chilling idea of a budding serial killer in the midst of Rick’s group. Rick himself has slipped down the slope more than a couple of times, but he’s always had Carl to help him climb back up again.

With Carl’s humanity now called into question, where’s the anchor for Rick’s morality?

Of course, Robert Kirkman wisely leaves all of this in the white spaces between the lines of text. It’s easy in comics to put it all in the open because comics are an essentially visual medium. Thus, we tend to forget as writers the old adage “Show, don’t tell”. We want to get it all out there, hoping that the readers will marvel at our deep meaningful character psychology and appreciate the cleverness of our not so subtle subtext.

We want to dazzle, we want to impress and by doing so, we achieve the opposite effect.

So here’s the lesson I learned from Kirman’s latest work: let the characters say what they can, not what they mean. Resist the temptation to lay bare what you want the comic to say, and let the characters themselves speak according to the circumstances in which you put them. If you can master the art of saying everything you want to say without  actually spelling it out in whole, you’ll have made a great step forward in your writing.

Witness this tidbit of wisdom in practice as Kirman brings the curtain down on the scene. Before a dumbfounded Rick can question him further, Carl brings the discussing to a close.

CARL: I’M TIRED NOW, CAN I GO TO SLEEP?

The answer is in its own panel, a superb close-up of Rick’s face showing just how shaken he is over the whole exchange – wide perplexed eyes and a single word:

RICK: YES.

And in that word, there are volumes being spoken.