Points of Impact – March 2012 – Week 3

Points of Impact is now a regular weekly column on ComixTribe!

The idea is still however the same: every week, I read through my Wednesday haul of comics as if they were reading assignments, searching through them for tips, devices and principles that can be understood, explained and then reapplied in your writing. These are not reviews – as I like to say often – as even a “bad” book can still have something to teach. Rather what I do is read comics with a writer‘s perspective, looking for the tidbits of knowledge hidden in them, extracting whatever I think are useful lessons for someone interested in learning the craft of writing comics.

Or if you prefer: what are the *points* that had the most *impact* on me as a writer this week.

The column will always present information in the same way:

  • 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’s used pretty often – mostly because it works.
  • 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.

Before I forget: this column is very spoilerific so you might want to go read your comics before going on.

Well that’s enough introduction! Let’s do like Kate Bush and see how deep the bullet lies!

BULLSEYE!

The hypothetical scenes in Alex Link and Riley Rossmo’s REBEL BLOOD #1

Most of the comics we read every week follow the tried-and-true method of showing events in a chronological manner. As we move from one scene to another, it’s assumed that every following sequence is further ahead in time. That’s why flashbacks – the most recurrent occurrence of breaking this rule – require special artifices to make them appear as outside the normal flow of time: captions, special panel borders, washed-out coloring and so on.

Alex Link and Riley Rossmo push the envelope on playing with time flow. Not only do they show scenes that don’t follow normal chronology, they show scenes that never actually happened – nor ever will! What they do is use the visual shortcuts associated with flashbacks and use them to show us scenes that only happen inside the main character’s head.

But before we go any further, let’s meet Chuck. Chuck is a former fireman who is now manning a fire tower in the middle of the forest. In a flashback, we see that he lost his old job following an “accident” which is heavily implied he caused himself. Why? The authors don’t come out and say it but it appears that Chuck is going through some sort of life crisis bad enough to make jumping off a roof seem like a viable alternative. Isolating himself in the middle of the woods seems to be the ideal way of also getting away from his wife berating him for losing his job.

That goes to show us that Chuck is a runner. When there’s trouble, he runs. And this time, the trouble is zombies.

So right from the start we have a character with some complex inner machinery. What can you do with such a character? Well if you’re reaching for the usual tools, you’ll present him with dramatic situations that challenge his way of thinking and have him interacting with other characters in a manner that underlines his complex personality.

Or you could also do what Link and Rossmo did here and show your characterization through hypothetical scenes. Basically, we get to see what Chuck fantasizes will happen once he gets to where he left his wife and kid.

What’s interesting here is that we’re not really seeing Chuck as he is but rather as he sees himself – which might be even more eloquent. This isn’t your usual objective viewpoint with a dash of monologuing caption boxes; this is the notion of unreliable narrator at its fullest since we get to literally see inside the character’s head. And it gets increasingly dark in there as Chuck’s thoughts turn from failure…

…to new beginnings…

…to finally revenge fantasies.

You know what this is essentially doing? It gets rid of all of the inner monologue captions and replaces them with actual scenes, actively engaging us in the flow of the narrative instead of having us sit back and swallow everything.

Lesson Learned

You don’t have to stick to a strict chronological telling of events. You don’t even have to constrain yourself to things that actually happen for real. Hypothetical scenes are fair game, especially if you present them through the strongly biased viewpoint of one of your characters. That way, you can not only break out of the classic “what happens next” mold, but also gain a powerful tool for presenting some refined characterization. Just don’t forget to use obvious visual clues to denote the subjective and unreal nature of your hypothetical scenes!

HIT!

The multi-layered narration in Scott Snyder’s BATMAN #7

If you’re familiar with Scott Snyder’s writing, you’ll know he’s fond of starting with a few pages of heavy captioning. Just off the top of my head, I recall an interesting lecture in AMERICAN VAMPIRE about the deficiencies inherent to the teenaged personality, as well as a reflection on the importance of community in the opening pages of SEVERED #6. In both these cases, Snyder made sure the subject matter fit – ironically or not – with the action at hand in the panels where the captions appeared.

You then find yourself with a commentary track that’s both entertaining and relevant without being redundant, like so many inner monologues can be.

In the case of BATMAN #7 however, he does something special: the captions don’t contain the hero’s thoughts or even an essay-like piece by a neutral narrator. Notice the quotation marks…

Yup, this is dialogue, dialogue from characters who are nowhere in the present location, characters who might not even be speaking at the exact same moment in fact. But the important point here is that even though these lines are in a way “designed” to fit with another scene, they still apply perfectly to what we’re seeing on the present page.

Hence, Scott Snyder is writing for two different scenes at the same time:

  1. The primary scene is the one that’s not shown at the moment. It’s the leader of the Court of Owls speaking to their newest batch of Talons before sending them out to conquer Gotham City. At base level, these captions are referring to the process a Talon must go through before being “reactivated”.
  2. The secondary scene is the one shown: a dream sequence of an alternate interpretation of Batman’s origin myth. Bruce Wayne has just chosen to become the Caped Crusader instead of bleeding to death in his living room. In this second level, the text drives home the realization that has dawned upon Batman in the last few issues that the Court of Owls has always been there, long before his pointy-eared persona was ever invented. Hence, as Batman teeters on the brink of death in reality, this last dream reveals the horrible truth about his crusade: that he never truly was in control of anything and that the Owls had their talons sunk deep since the very beginning.

But these captions strike the hardest at the end of the following scene…

The same way a Talon raises ever stronger from every defeat, Batman is now called to readjust his worldview and emerge even more powerful from his recent undoing. Thus Snyder takes it up one more level, above the immediate narrative and into commenting the new status quo of the BATMAN series itself.

Not only that but the fact of having the same text applying to both Batman and the Court of Owls’ army of killers draws an interesting parallel between these characters, showing in words how similar they can be, and then contrast how different they are with their actions.

Lesson Learned

Narration in caption boxes can be made to have more emotional impact if you take care of giving them at least two separate yet relevant meanings. To accomplish this, you need one primary scene with some running dialogue that you will layer onto another secondary scene with caption boxes. The two scenes don’t have to be simultaneous. What’s important is that the text applies to both presented situations. More often than not, this relevance will be purely figurative in the case of the secondary scene. Be careful not to write dialogue that’s too specific to your primary scene or you won’t have enough leeway to make it stick to the secondary one. If you can insert even more layers of meaning in there, more power to you, but aim for two layers only if you want to be sure to pull this trick off. We can’t all be Scott Snyder after all!

MISS…

The lack of structure of Selwyn Sefu Hinds’ DOMINIQUE LAVEAU: VOODOO CHILD #1

They say you only get one chance at making a good first impression. That goes doubly for comics when a bad impression usually means no second impression. (As in printing. See what I did there? OK, forget it.) Anyway, it’s always a sad sight to see a new series stumble at issue 1.

DOMINIQUE LAVEAU: VOODOO CHILD#1 (henceforth referred to as DLVC #1) suffers from a bad case of meandering storytelling. To say it in colloquial terms, it’s all over the damn place and back again. Like its sweatshirted heroine, the plot spends most of this issue running around town, barely stopping to catch its breath and being tossed and threatened at every turn. It’s a rough ride and the reader no doubt feels the same way as Dominique does after turning the last page.

Let’s break down the sequence of events that make up DLVC #1…

  1. Dominique is running through New Orleans pursued by a werewolf and caption boxes. She defeats the werewolf in a way that’s not entirely clear (magic snakes?).
  2. Dominique runs into a policeman friend. Their conversation (“My friends re dead!”) is interrupted by two gang members shooting at them. While the cop shoots back, Dominique runs away.
  3. Down in the French Quarter, a creepy guy gets a boy possessed by a Voodoo… god? Anyway, creepy gets ordered to find Dominique on the double. That tells me she’ll probably have to run.
  4. Back to Dominique running through a cemetery – because that’s certainly the first place you think to go to when you’ve just been chased by an extra from a Universal horror movie. She somehow gets transported to the Voodoo Queen’s court where – as an unseen presence – she discovers all members of the Court and the Queen herself dead. She’ spotted by a guy who has been seemingly following her since the start of the comic – running, no doubt. She escapes him and utters the strangely empathetic line: “What the hell was that?”
  5. Dominique runs home to find her aunt dying from… a profuse nose bleed – it’s not really clear but she did leave a big stain on the carpet. She’s then cornered by the guy who was tailing her and he goes all 90s glamour in the last splash page.

Notice a trend? Apart from all the running, I mean? No, you don’t and that’s because there isn’t any.

Every part of this plot follows the other in a way that denotes no causality between them. Why is there a werewolf pursuing Dominique? We don’t know. Who were Dominique’s friends who were killed? We don’t know. Why are gang members shooting at her and her cop friend? We don’t know. Why is the creepy guy looking for Dominique? We don’t know. Why has the Voodoo Queen’s court been assassinated? We don’t know. Who is this guy who keeps following her? We don’t know.

But most importantly, why do any of these things happen in this order? Everybody now: WE DON’T KNOW.

That’s because DLVC #1 is made up of nothing but beginnings. Dominique is introduced. The being-chased-by-monsters is introduced. Her “power” is introduced. The cop friend is introduced. The murdered Court is introduced. The blond shuriken-throwing guy is introduced. The creepy god-summoning guy is introduced. The murder of Dominique’s aunt is introduced. Yet nothing is ever dwelled upon but very superficially before we run off somewhere else.

This isn’t a first issue; it’s a table of contents.

Lesson Learned

It’s OK to introduce elements to your story and then wait a few pages – or even issues – before explaining them. That’s what suspense, cliffhangers and big revelations are all about. However, if you overdo it and fill your comic with nothing but teasers, you won’t be giving your reader any reason to come back. You need substance – you need meat! – between each new element to keep your reader interested and emotionally invested in your story. Don’t let your comic be nothing but an enigma to your reader!

Honorable mentions

  • There’s some fantastic world-building done in Mike Costa and Jon Armstrong’s SMOKE AND MIRRORS #1. This is what happens when you grab onto a concept and follow it through in all its logical extremities.
  • Mark Millar’s SUPERCROOKS #1 subverted the whole scheme of classic hero and villain characterization by successfully inverting who you should actually root for.

Dishonorable mention

  • Brian Azarello seems to forget he’s writing an ongoing title this week as his WONDER WOMAN #7 ends flatly with the resolution of a situation that had no detectable weight in the grand scheme of things. Since the reader is left with no motivation to come back the next month, this created the perfect drop-off point for anyone who had doubts about the series.
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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