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
Advertisements

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?