30 in 30 - Day 30: Royal City vol. 1 – Next of Kin by Frank Gogol

And last but not least—after great titles like 4 Kids Walk into A Bank and an entire week dedicated to Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory—we’ve arrived at day 3-0 of 30 in 30. Today I looked at a gorgeous and smart book both written and drawn by Jeff Lemire—Royal city.

Synopsis

Title: Royal City vol. 1 – Next of Kin
Storyteller: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of Publication: 2017
Page Count: 160

In a return to the literary and thematic territory of Lemire’s breakthrough graphic novel ESSEX COUNTY, ROYAL CITY follows Patrick Pike, a fading literary star who reluctantly returns to the once-thriving factory town where he grew up. Patrick is quickly drawn back into the dramas of his two adult siblings, his overbearing Mother and his brow beaten Father, all of whom are still haunted by different versions of his youngest brother, Tommy, who drowned decades ago.

SPOILERS FOR ROYAL CITY VOL. 1 – NEXT OF KIN BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

It’s not necessarily new information, but characterization is one of the, if not the, keys to a great story. Lemire’s cast consists of a broken family, and each character has their own unique baggage. Beyond that, they all have their own wants, needs, and neuroses. What’s truly masterful, though, is that each character is haunted by a version a family member, Tommy, and Lemire writes each version of Tommy as being a kind of manifestation of the character’s life drama. For instance, one of the protagonist’s brothers is a bum, and his version of Tommy is a bit of a bum too and an enabler. There’s a subtle art to how Lemire builds in characterization externally for the reader.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Another thing that Lemire does remarkably well is that he keeps the visuals of the book easy to follow. He more or less sticks to a six-panel grid with few deviations and variations. This helps the book to work. The content of the book is a strange Twilight-Zone family drama, much like Underwater Welder, and keeping the layouts and the style simple keeps the art from taking the reader out of the story. And Lemire knows what he’s doing. Anyone who’s looked at other books Lemire has worked on with artists like Andrea Sorrentino knows that Lemire is extremely conscious of the visuals in books he writes.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

***

And that concludes this year's 30 in 30. If you liked this and want more in the future, Follow me on Twitter to find out when my next post goes live!

30 in 30 - Day 29: The Dregs by Frank Gogol

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On the second-to-last day of 30 in 30, I’m looking back on another favorite of mine from 2017—The Dregs. A book could not be more different AND similar to yesterday’s Spencer & Locke. This tale of gentrification and addiction straddles so many lines, from noir to mystery, from torture porn to literary. It flew a bit under the radar, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a modern classic.

Synopsis

Title: The Dregs
Storytellers: Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, & Eric Zawadzki
Publisher: Black Mask Studios
Year of Publication: 2017
Page Count: 127

A gentrified city. Its homeless population restricted to six square blocks called The Dregs. When people start disappearing, a drug-addled homeless man obsessed with detective fiction becomes addicted to solving the mystery. Equal parts Raymond Chandler and Don Quixote set in a thriving metropolis that literally cannibalizes the homeless, The Dregs is the first homeless meta noir ever made.

SPOILERS FOR THE DREGS BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Nadler and Thompson tackle some big (and tough) topics in this book. Homelessness. Addiction. Gentrification. Corruption. The list goes on. Much to their credit, though, the book never feels like it’s preaching at the reader. Part of the reason this is true is because rather than call attention to any one of these items, they instead build them into the narrative. The reader sees these things and experiences them with the protagonist, rather than being told about them. Also, and again to their credit, Nadler and Thompson never tell the reader how to feel about these things. Information is experience, and the reader is left to make their own decisions about how to feel, much like the protagonist is left with a final decision at the end of the book.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Zawadzki draws a book that shouldn’t work. It seamlessly flows between different art styles and genres throughout. One of the biggest influences on all aspects of the book is noir. There are parts of the book where Zawadzki has to transition between his own cartoon-y-yet-realistic style and a more hazy, realistic noir style. He transitions slowly, over the course of a few panels, rather than a hard cut from one style to the other. Part of the reason these different styles can coexist is because they are handled so well. There’s nothing jarring about going between them.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

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30 in 30 - Day 28: Spencer & Locke by Frank Gogol

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For these final few days of 30 in 30—and with 2018 nearly upon us—I wanted to take a look back at a few of my favorite books of 2017. Chief among the cream of the crop is Spencer & Locke—a far cry from a book like Nemo: River of Ghosts—which flawlessly blends Frank Miller and Bill Waterson.

Synopsis

Title: Spencer & Locke
Storytellers: David Pepose & Jorge Santiago
Publisher: Action Lab Comics
Year of Publication: 2017
Page Count: 128

Spencer & Locke follows hard-boiled Detective Locke as he investigates a brutal murder with the strangest of partners ― his childhood imaginary panther, Spencer. But when they face brutal gunfights, deadly car chases and memories of Locke’s traumatic youth, can this unlikely pair survive long enough to find the truth?

SPOILERS FOR SPENCER & LOCKE BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Pepose approaches homage in a smart way. One of the dangers of homage is skirting, or passing, the line into parody. Parody has its place, but no one want’s their homage mistaken for it. One of the big reasons Spencer & Locke never crosses that line is because as over-the-top as the content of the book can be, it’s always deadly serious. A high-stakes delusion is written as a Spaceman Spiff homage, and because it’s part of the plot and the protagonist is in danger, the reader remains aware that it’s a reference, a callback—anything but a joke.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Handling dark story material can be a tricky feat to pull off. Spencer & Locke goes to some pretty dark places, but Santiago makes the violence and heavy topics more palatable with his art styles. The main style of the book is best described as a noir-y, serious cartoon. It leans hard away from photorealism, which helps to both suspend readers’ disbelief about a giant talking blue panther and to make the violence (physical assault, gunfights, etc.) a bit more digestible. The other style of the book occurs in small flashback vignettes in which Santiago channels his best Bill Waterson homages. These scenes, strangely, tackle some of the darkest material in the book, including young Locke’s possible attempted suicide. Fittingly, Santiago pushes even further away from realism in the art for these scenes, which, again, helps to lessen the weight of these sections.   

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

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30 in 30 - Day 27: LoEG - Nemo: River of Ghosts by Frank Gogol

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It’s the final day of my Nemo Trilogy read through for 30 in 30 2017. Following up Heart of Ice and The Roses of Berlin is River of Ghosts, the final chapter of the LoEG spinoff starring Captain Nemo’s daughter, Janni. The story is a visual and narrative finale to the trilogy, with a fitting, if a bit cliched, ending.

Synopsis

Title: LoEG - Nemo: River of Ghosts
Storytellers: Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Publisher: Top Shelf Comics
Year of Publication: 2015
Page Count: 56

In a world where all the fictions ever written coalesce into a rich mosaic, it’s 1975. Janni Dakkar, pirate queen of Lincoln Island and head of the fabled Nemo family, is eighty years old and beginning to display a tenuous grasp on reality. Pursuing shadows from her past — or her imagination — she embarks on what may be a final voyage down the vastness of the Amazon, a last attempt to put to rest the blood-drenched spectres of old. With allies and adversaries old and new, we accompany an aging predator on her obsessive trek into the cultural landscape of a strange new continent, from the ruined city of Yu-Atlanchi to the fabulous plateau of Maple White Land. As the dark threads in her narrative are drawn into an inescapable web, Captain Nemo leads her hearse-black Nautilus in a desperate raid on horrors believed dead for decades.

SPOILERS FOR LoEG – NEMO: RIVER OF GHOSTS BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

One my big takeaways from my Advance Comic Book Writing course with Comics Experience last month was that every character in a story should serve a narrative purpose. There should be no fat on a story, and River of Ghosts is a masterclass in this rule. Every character Moore adds, including background characters in some instances, is part of the storytelling machinery. A brief glimpse of the creatures from the Black Lagoon pays off in the climax. Janni’s grandson Jack is at the forefront of the story for reasons unknown until the denouement. Moore understands the value of narrative real estate and cuts away all of the unnecessary baggage from his story.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

For Heart of Ice, I wrote about O’Neill’s use of two pages spreads and how he uses the left two-thirds of the pages for an image that’s got scope or that impresses upon the reader the importance of something. In this story, he uses two-page spreads to seed plot points and important narrative items. Two items come into play in the climax—pterodactyls and creatures from the Black Lagoon. Earlier in the story, both receive the two-page spread treatment in what simply look like cool images. But what O’Neill was really doing is impressing upon the reader that, though it doesn’t seem so at the time, these are important. Then, when they reenter the narrative in the climax, their visual priority in those spreads makes sense.

Recommendation: B (Worth a Read)

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30 in 30 - Day 26: LoEG - Nemo: The Roses of Berlin by Frank Gogol

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Following up on yesterday’s Nemo: Heart of Ice, I read the second installment of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Nemo Trilogy—The Roses of Berlin. While this installment felt steeped in literature that I was less familiar with than Heart of Ice, it read more smoothly and was more enjoyable.

Synopsis

Title: LoEG - Nemo: The Roses of Berlin
Storytellers: Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Publisher: Top Shelf Comics
Year of Publication: 2014
Page Count: 56

Sixteen years ago, notorious science-brigand Janni Nemo journeyed into the frozen reaches of Antarctica to resolve her father's weighty legacy in a storm of madness and loss, barely escaping with her Nautilus and her life. Now it is 1941, and with her daughter strategically married into the family of aerial warlord Jean Robur, Janni's raiders have only limited contact with the military might of the clownish German-Tomanian dictator Adenoid Hynkel. But when the pirate queen learns that her loved ones are held hostage in the nightmarish Berlin, she has no choice save to intervene directly, travelling with her ageing lover Broad Arrow Jack into the belly of the beastly metropolis. Within that alienated city await monsters, criminals, and legends, including the remaining vestiges of Germany’s notorious ‘Twilight Heroes’, a dark Teutonic counterpart to Mina Murray’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And waiting at the far end of this gauntlet of alarming adversaries there is something much, much worse.

SPOILERS FOR LoEG – NEMO: THE ROSES OF BERLIN BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

After the penultimate set-piece reintroduces Ayesha (one of the antagonists from Heart of Ice) Moore splits the narrative two ways. Over a sequence of pages, he alternates panels between Ayesha and Janni, showing how each reacts to the previous scene and how they each move forward. It’s an interesting choice that visually lends each character the same narrative weight, setting them up as foils. The two narratives dovetail back together when the women finally come to blows during the climax. The effect, again, is that the two characters are, without it being said, made to be equals visually and narratively.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

O’Neill, a master storyteller, understands the rules. Yesterday, I wrote about his two-page spreads and how they exemplify his understanding of the rules them out. In The Roses of Berlin, though, O’Neill draws a two-page spread that stacks panels on the left, breaking convention. The layout is three stacked panels on each side of the spread, connected by one large central image. The spread works because the stack panels are so widely separated by the central image that there’s no chance of confusing the panel order. O’Neill understands the rules of what makes a comic page work, and because of that he can bend and break the rules effectively.

Recommendation: B (Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when for part 3 of my Nemo Trilogy read-through—LoEG – Nemo: River of Ghosts.

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30 in 30 - Day 25: LoEG - Nemo: Heart of Ice by Frank Gogol

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In the second half of this 30 in 30 journey, I’ve moved away from trying new stories and moved toward tackling modern classics that—like Seven Soldiers of Victory—that I’ve been meaning to get to. So, for the next three days, I’m reading Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Nemo Trilogy, starting with Heart of Ice today.

Synopsis

Title: LoEG - Nemo: Heart of Ice
Storytellers: Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Publisher: Top Shelf Comics
Year of Publication: 2013
Page Count: 56

It's 1925, fifteen long years since Janni Dakkar first tried to escape the legacy of her dying science-pirate father, only to accept her destiny, at last, as the new Nemo, captain of the legendary Nautilus. Now, tired of her unending spree of plunder and destruction, Janni launches a grand expedition to surpass her father's greatest failure: the exploration of Antarctica. Hot on her frozen trail are a trio of genius inventors, hired by an influential publishing tycoon to retrieve the plundered valuables of an African queen. It's a deadly race to the bottom of the world -- an uncharted land of wonder and horror where time is broken and the mountains bring madness. Jules Verne meets H.P. Lovecraft in the unforgettable final showdown, lost in the living, beating, and appallingly inhuman HEART OF ICE.

SPOILERS FOR LoEG – NEMO: HEART OF ICE BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Heart of Ice is one of the more straightforward Alan Moore comics I’ve read. Sure, there are some confusing parts, but on the whole, it reads fairly clearly beginning-to-end. As a result, the character art is clear as well. Janni, the daughter of famed voyagers Captain Nemo, resents her father and hopes to recreate (and complete) the journey that killed him. Janni is embittered by her resentment, but the trial and tribulations of her journey to the Mountains of Madness thaw here heart of ice. For Moore, this skirts a bit close to cliched, but considering the Moore-esque execution of the story itself, that’s a minor complaint. The lesson here, I think, is that Moore grounds his grand and strange adventure on a relatable human story.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

In many ways, Heart of Ice is a very traditionally drawn comic. O’Neill sticks to simple panel layouts—often using only widescreen panels on most pages. Throughout, though, he almost exclusively lays out his two-page spreads one way. The left two-thirds of the spread will be a big reveal or some kind of show-stopper moment, while the right third will be stacked panels that move the plot along. There’s something aesthetically pleasing about the consistency of this layout, and it adheres to the best practices for laying out a two-page spread AND a single page (no stacked panels on the left). In that way, the spread reads more like a single unit than two pages.

Recommendation: B (Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when for part 2 of my Nemo Trilogy read-through—LoEG – Nemo: The Roses of Berlin.

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30 in 30 - Day 24: Seven Soldiers of Victory 1 by Frank Gogol

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This is it—the final Day of Seven Soldiers of Victory Week for the 2017 30 in 30. Williams III returns to help Morrison close out this epic megaseries with a one-shot that ties it all together. The pair effortlessly bring the story to a brilliant close that not only satisfies, but also pushes the bounds of what comics can do narratively and visually. 

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers of Victory 1
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & J. H. Williams III
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2006
Page Count: 40

Fresh from their hit miniseries, seven unique and unlikely soldiers must join forces to save humanity from its own future! The only catch? They can never meet! Klarion, Zatanna, The Manhattan Guardian, Bulleteer, Mister Miracle, Frankenstein and The Shining Knight return as the apocalyptic threat of the Sheeda intensifies to a terrifying, unexpected climax.

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY 1 BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Like his fellow comics titan Alan Moore, Morrison plays with the comic book form in this final issue of Seven Soldiers of Victory. Each of the seven series dovetails with its own unique form in this 40-page bookend. Manhattan Guardian’s part of the book reads like a newspaper. The sections concerning Aurakles and the New Gods sees Morrison doing his best Jack Kirby imitation. The effect is that each of the narratives in the book feels unto itself while occupying the same space as one another. In that way, the book feels both whole and fractured, much like the titular Seven Soldiers who are all fighting the same battle, but on their own. Morrison, as mentioned in previous entries, pushes the bounds of what a comic book can be and can do. He never stops experimenting. It’s one of the best attributes a write can possess, and just one of the many reasons he continues to be one of the best writers in the medium.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Following Morrison’s lead, William’s III gives each of the narratives it’s own visual style. The Aurakles portion is Williams III’s best Kirby impression, too. The Shining Knight pages utilize aspects of more classic comic art and illuminated texts. And so on. Again, this has the effect of making the book feel partitioned but connected and reinforces the idea of pushing boundaries and experimenting. 

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

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Check out my thoughts on the other Seven Soldiers of Victory series:

30 in 30 - Day 16: Seven Soldiers of Victory 0
30 in 30 - Day 17: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Shining Knight
30 in 30 - Day 18: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Manhattan Guardian
30 in 30 - Day 19: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Klarion the Witchboy
30 in 30 - Day 20: Seven Soldiers of Victory – Mister Miracle
30 in 30 - Day 21: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Bulleteer
30 in 30 - Day 22: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Frankenstein
30 in 30 - Day 23: Seven Soldiers of Victory - Zatanna

 

30 in 30 - Day 23: Seven Soldiers – Zatanna by Frank Gogol

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With just two days left of Seven Soldiers of Victory Week, I’m reading the Zatanna miniseries today. Like Bulleteer and Frankenstein, this series felt more intrinsically important to the ongoing narrative, with many of the threads connecting and being expanded upon. That all said, he and Sook tell a great Zatanna story about addiction and, again, the more human side of being a costumed hero. 

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Zatanna
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Ryan Sook
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

Zatanna tries to get her head together and figure out what to do with her life. She's come to an emotional impasse as her magical powers are waning, resulting in an obsession with finding her father's lost magical journals hoping they contain the secrets she needs of his black art.

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – ZATANNA BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

One of the most delightful aspects of the Seven Soldier of Victory has been the extreme focus on the human foibles of the characters. Morrison has found really human dilemmas for the larger-than-life figures to be struggling with in spite of the larger Crisis-level narrative that connects them all. These are the kinds of issue creator-owned books tend to talk more intimately these days, but Morrison was putting them front-and-center more than a decade ago and with some noteworthy characters. Morrison deals with big, big ideas in his writing. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to even make sense of it all. But he tends to tell great human stories while he’s blowing readers’ minds. And it’s the human aspects of the character that make readers care about them. Though it doesn’t always feel that way, Morrison understands that writing is about character first and plot second. 

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

This story takes the reader to some strange metaphysical, pseudo-science landscapes. In the first issue, Morrison writes a couple of two-page spreads that are visually confusing to drive home the idea that these places are strange. Sook, however, illustrates these pages masterfully, staging them landscapes and the characters so that the reader can decipher the images. In fact, he draw the page so expertly, that even when the lettering is removed, there’s still a clear visual flow to the pages and the eye is lead where it needs to go to make sense of things. Sook understands how to present complex images simply to the reader. It’s a skill that’s handy when working with complex images and writers, who like Morrison, push the bounds of what a comic book can do. 

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle the bookend one-shot—Seven Soldiers of Victory 1.

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30 in 30 - Day 22: Seven Soldiers – Frankenstein by Frank Gogol

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Seven Soldiers of Victory Week is in the home stretch with the second-to-last series under the microscope today—Frankenstein. These series are designed to be read in any order, but Frankenstein feels, like Bulleteer, like a proper lead-in to the second bookend of the series. That aside, the book reads nicely, almost as a collection of one-off stories, which was an interesting and effective structural choice on Morrison’s part. 

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Frankenstein
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Doug Mahnke
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2006
Page Count: 88

A bizarre butterfly store opens its doors in a small American town. Pretty, popular teenagers are mysteriously transformed into self-loathing, awkward nerds. A boy with the power to see human thoughts becomes the unwitting vessel of an ancient curse, and deep beneath the sunny sidewalks, something stirs and wakes and opens ancient eyes.

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – FRANKENSTEIN BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

What I found most interesting about this series is that it worked and didn’t work structurally. Morrison writes each issue of this series almost as it’s a standalone one-shot with small ties to the other issues. Normally this wouldn’t work for a miniseries because it’d be all over the place in terms of story, but because Frankenstein is part of a larger narrative, Morrison can get away with it an extent. If this had been the first miniseries, or the only one, I’d read from Seven Soldiers of Victory, it’d have made next to no sense. By design, a read should be able to pick up any or all of the series and read them in any order, and while that’s true, there are some Seven Soldiers series that really just don’t stand on their own as well as others. As with a couple of the other series, I take away from this that it’s important to take chances with storytelling, just like Morrison does.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Doug Mahnke’s art in this book is a great fit. It’s a little bit rough. It’s a little bit demented. It’s exactly what you’d look for in a book called Frankenstein. Looking over his work on other series, it’s plain to see that Mahnke tailored the art for this book to the project. This is an important consideration—how does the look of the book enhance it? Mahnke tweaks is style so as to layer in stylistic nuance that elevates the book. The end result is, as I said above, a book that looks deserving of the name Frankenstein.

Recommendation: B (Entertaining, Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Zatanna.

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30 in 30 - Day 21: Seven Soldiers – Bulleteer by Frank Gogol

It’s Day 5 of my Seven Soldiers of Victory round of 30 in 30 and after Mister Miracle swung things back in a great direction yesterday, Bulleteer kept hope alive today! Of the miniseries in this megaseries, Bulleteer felt the most connected to the ongoing mysteries and core narrative established in Seven Soldiers of Victory 0. While the other series added bits to the larger story, Bulleteer felt like it truly continued the story. For that reason, and because it’s incredibly well-crafted, Bulleteer is in the running for my favorite Seven Soldiers series.

 Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Bulleteer
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Yanink Paquette
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

Jobless, alone, and encased in super-hard, living metal, Alix Harrower survived a horrific accident and became a truly reluctant super-human. What happens when you get powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men but don't want them?

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – BULLETEER BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

There’s too much about the writing in this series to talk about here, but one thing stood out—Morrison’s ability to show the cost of what it is to be a superhero. This theme’s been explored in books like Amazing Spider-Man and others, but Morrison’s angle is fresh. Morrison tackles it from different aspects such as fandom and convention circuits. He’s likely having a discussion about the experience of being a comic book creator on some level, too. But what’s so interesting is that Bulleteer’s life falls apart in a…domestic way because of here new-found superpowers. Her husband dies. She has to pursue new career opportunities. Her life changes top-to-bottom. And the same is true of the antagonist, Sonic Sally, whose story is perhaps even sadder than Bulleteer’s. What I took away from this book is that there’s always a new, fresh take on an old story. Morrison is constantly reinventing and pushing, and his work is better for it.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Paquette art in this series really pops. It’s clean. It’s sleek. It’s everything I’ve come to expect from Paquette’s work. While there’s plenty to talk about regarding art-craft here, one small motif in the first issue really stood out. As we're introduced to the Bulleteer and her husband, there are inset panels on some of the early pages. These panels are all quiet and contain images that add context for the couple’s relationship. It’s classic “showing not telling” use to tremendous effect. It also helps narrative keep moving, and the pace of the series likely is part of the reason I enjoyed this book better than Manhattan Guardian or Klarion the Witchboy.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Frankenstein.

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30 in 30 - Day 20: Seven Soldiers – Mister Miracle by Frank Gogol

Another day, another Seven Soldiers series—and today I read the really fantastic Mister Miracle. While I liked yesterday’s Klarion the Witchboy, and even found some stuff to love in the less-than-stellar Manhattan Guardian, Mister Miracle is up there in quality with Shining Knight. It’s got a well-designed and smartly drawn character-driven story that talks about trauma and pain in a personal way the other series don’t scratch.

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Mister Miracle
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Freddie E. Williams II
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

Ever wonder what life might have been like if you'd chosen a different path? The Omega Effect can take you there! Join Shilo Norman, super escape artist, as he faces the ultimate challenge! The Life Trap is here, and the only way out is in a box.

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – MISTER MIRACLE BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

In this series, Morrison plays with metaphor and storytelling in a really interesting way. At the beginning of the series, Mister Miracle performs a stunt in which he attempts to escape a black hole. And for three issues that’s sees like a cool idea. Then, in the fourth issue, Morrison dives into Mister Miracle’s past, revealing that his brother was murdered while he was tied up and unable to stop the attack. That event, the death of his brother, is epitomized in the escape from the black hole. In reality, nothing can escape a black hole, just as Mister Miracle can’t escape his past. But in the end, he is able to successfully perform the stunt, suggesting he’s begun moving on with is life. The withholding of the backstory retroactively adds context and meaning to the parts of the story that came before it AND Morrison designs plot spectacle that assumes a metaphorical meaning/symbolism. Of the stories in the Seven Soldiers series so far, this one is by far the most well-designed.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Freddie Williams II understands storytelling in a space. Let me give you an example. There’s a page in the final issue of this series that sees Mister Miracle, the world’s best escape artist, trapped in a coffin. As he struggles to exit the coffin, the panels grow larger and larger until he breaks free in the final, borderless panel. When I write a script, I strive not to put much direction in my panel descriptions—to give my artistic collaborator as much freedom as possible. But, these days, I’m interested in writing comic pages as a unit and working with my collaborators to create a page that enhances the story, like Williams II does in this instance.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Bulleteer.

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30 in 30 - Day 19: Seven Soldiers – Klarion the Witchboy by Frank Gogol

Digging deeper into Seven Soldiers of Victory, today I read Klarion the Witchboy. After the (mostly) straightforward storytelling in Manhattan Guardian, Klarion the Witchboy came as both a shock to the system and a surprisingly humble story. It’s strange and magical, but also structured for simplicity. It could be because Morrison was writing as many as five series at once during the publishing of Seven Soldiers that these stories are reading as less complex--in structure, not content—but it’s a welcome change of pace.

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Klarion the Witchboy
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

Klarion and his cat familiar Teekl have been handpicked as potential recruits to the Submissionary Order. But Klarion's nature is to rebel against the powers-that-be, which isn't a good idea in such a tightly controlled society—one in which people who don't conform are swiftly judged and burned at the stake!

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – KLARION THE WITCHBOY BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Morrison, in this series, works in his most episodic structure. Each issue is, more or less, and clear chapter of the story that stands on its own two feet. That said, Morrison is able to successfully keep the narrative cohesive and recognizable by feeding the story through Klarion’s point of view. Klarion is a bit of a blank slate, so the reader learns things as he does, and it comes off as organic. And in traditional storytelling structure, the story circles back on itself and ends where it began and with things changed forever. Morrison is rightfully accused of making his stories complicated, but here he tells a clear sort of coming-of-age story, reinforcing that even the best-of-the-best can just tell a good, simple story.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Irving’s art is an interesting mix of both clear and unclear. One the one hand, he sticks to clear layouts with traditional(ish) panel sizes and borders. On the other hand, his work has a strange blurred quality to it, which lends itself to the strange magical story of Klarion the Witchboy. Of the Seven Soldiers stories so far, this is by far the slowest, most decompressed story. Most of that is on the script-side of things, so Irving keeps things interesting by playing with panel size. He uses thin panels and tall panels to keep the pace lively sometimes. And other times, he works with lots of widescreen panels to slow the pace down.

Recommendation: B (Entertaining, Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Mister Miracle.

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30 in 30 - Day 18: Seven Soldiers – Manhattan Guardian by Frank Gogol

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After tackling Shining Knight yesterday, Seven Soldiers Week continues today with Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Manhattan Gaudian. While not my favorite Morrison work, this book still has a lot to offer in terms of craft and big ideas.  

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Manhattan Guardian
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

After the accidental shooting of a child that resulted in his handing over his badge, ex-cop Jim Harper tries to get his life in gear by applying for the job of The Guardian after spending more than a year dealing with personal demons. But Jim quickly learns to be careful what he wishes for, as the new Guardian finds himself in a pitched battle with Subway Pirates! Will he survive the ride of his life through the unknown subterranean world of New York?

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – MANHATTAN GUARDIAN BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

If I’m being honest, I did not love this book, which is about par for the course when it comes to Morrison for me. The protagonist and the core concept of the series (a crime-fighting journalism corps) just didn’t click for me. That’s not to say the book was a failure, though. This story told by (probably) anyone else would have failed. But because Grant Morrison is Grant Morrison, he was able to infuse this book with enough cool ideas and interesting world-building that it was worth the read. Subway pirates. Genius infants. Child Adventurers and their legacies. Manhattan Gaudian is a book of ideas, and when your name is Grant Morrison, that name can carry a book. There is a lesson to be learned here about taking chances and trying new things, though. Morrison, regardless of whether he pulls it off (and he usually does), is always trying new things. He’s constantly pushing himself as a storyteller, and that’s an incredibly powerful mindset to be in.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Cameron Stewart draws his comics fairly traditionally, sticking to the grid, not breaking too many panel borders, and aiming to just tell a clear story. In the final issue of this series, though, Morrison writes a scene that cuts back and forth between the present and flashback. Cameron draws the flashback portions with a bit of haze to them, to suggest that they’re taking place in the past—standard flashback scene execution. Two things were particularly interesting, though. This may have been on the script side or on the art side, but rather than have the pages work as units for past or present, there are two different standards for pages in this scene. Stewart either draws a page completely in flashback OR with one panel set in the present. It has the effect of anchoring the scene in the present, reinforcing that this is a story being told by one character to another even though the reader is seeing it play out visually. Stewart reminds the reader ever page or so that their reading about someone telling someone else a story. It’s interestingly meta. But the real lesson is that it’s okay to break convention. Most comics would have this scene play out in flashback with a voiceover, rather than cutting back and forth, especially in the way Stewart does. Stewart, being the pro that he is, knows that it’s okay to play with your work.

Recommendation: B (Entertaining, Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Klarion the Witchboy.

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30 in 30 - Day 17: Seven Soldiers – Shining Knight by Frank Gogol

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It’s Day 2 of Seven Soldiers Week and today I read Shining Knight. Sword-and-Sorcery has never been my genre of choice. It’s just never jived with what I like reading, except on rare occasion. Shining Knight happens to be one of those rare occasions. Morrison’s ability to simplify, organize, and expand mythologies is on full display in this book and with a science fiction (more my speed) bent.

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers – Shining Knight
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & Simone Bianchi
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 88

The Knights of the Broken Table stand ready to battle the forces of the Beyond. But the only one who can save what remains of their world is 16-year-old Sir Justin, a teenaged warrior who, with his winged horse Vanguard, finds himself thrust into the maddening world of the 21st century to save the future of all mankind!

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS – SHINING KNIGHT BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

What I love about writers like Jonathan Hickman, Geoff Johns, and (of course) Grant Morrison is that they’re always expanding mythologies. In this series, Morrison takes the classic Arthurian lore (historical, literary, religious) and organizes them all in to one grand tapestry. And that tapestry is woven out of a millennia-old archetypal Camelot that Morrison has created. Morrison takes these similar, but disparate, myths and streamlines them seamlessly into a grand epic build upon an origin story he’s built.   

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Bianchi, like others this month, draws comic book stories with clear panel layouts. The one place where he diverges from this, though, is when it comes to action scenes. Again, like others, his layouts and panel shapes become more dynamic when action is taking place. Bianchi, though, transitions into action scenes mid-page. The first tier of a given page, for instance, might be three rectangular panels running left-to-right, with his character drawing a sword in that final panel. Then in the next panel, when the fight begins, panels start to tilt and take on non-traditional shapes, as discussed with other books this month. But it’s that mid-page transition that’s so interesting. It’s a literal mid-page transition, but the page itself also works as a transition between the prior and next pages.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle Seven Soldiers – Manhattan Guardian.

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30 in 30 - Day 16: Seven Soldiers of Victory 0 by Frank Gogol

Shifting gears a bit from the first 15 days of the month and books like creator-owned books like Glitterbomb, I’ve turned my attention to series of series that I’ve been interested in for a while now: Seven Soldiers of Victory. The series consists of seven intertwining, yet independent, miniseries and two bookend stories, which makes for 9 solid days of 30 in 30.

First up, Seven Soldiers of Victory 0.

Synopsis

Title: Seven Soldiers of Victory 0
Storytellers: Grant Morrison & J. H. Williams III
Publisher: DC Comics
Year of Publication: 2005
Page Count: 40

Shelly Gaynor is the granddaughter of Golden Age hero the Whip. When Shelly answers an ad to join the aging crimebuster Vigilante and his new team of "Seven Soldiers" in the hunt for an ancient monster haunting the deserts of the southwest, her super-hero dream becomes a terror-trip into the heart of an undying nightmare!

SPOILERS FOR SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY 0 BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

In just 40 pages, Morrison introduces at least seven characters that I was completely unfamiliar with. Throughout the book, though, he finds fresh ways to introduce and characterize each of the “soldiers.” In classic writer’s form, he uses actions most to tell the reader who these characters are, rather than telling the reader. And by the end of the issue, the characters are recognizable, defined, and mostly sympathetic.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

This is the second time I’ve crossed paths with Williams III’s art during 30 in 30. Like last time, it’s nothing by excellent and masterful. Interestingly, outside of some action sequences, his art in this book seems rather tame. He mostly sticks to widescreen panels. The art is still the same level of great as when Williams III lets loose with his page designs and storytelling. I guess the lesson here is that even for the best of the best, the classic and simple approach is still a viable option.

Recommendation: B (Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when I tackle the first full miniseries—Seven Soldiers – Shining Knight.

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30 in 30 - Day 15: Glitterbomb vol. 1 – Red Carpet by Frank Gogol

After the post-apocalyptic and strange world of Sweet Tooth, I was looking for something a little bit timelier. And with all of the sexual harassment allegations flooding Hollywood, a book that took that topic head-on seemed just right.

Zub and Morissette-Phan weave a bloody (and tragic) tale of revenge that really deals in all of the things that make for a quality comic book.

Synopsis

Title: Glitterbomb vol. 1 – Red Carpet
Storytellers: Jim Zub & Djibril Morissette-Phan
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of Publication: 2016
Page Count: 136

Farrah Durante is a middle-aged actress hunting for her next gig in an industry where youth trumps experience. Her frustrations become an emotional lure for something horrifying out beyond the water...something ready to exact revenge on the shallow celebrity-obsessed culture that's lead her astray.

The entertainment industry feeds on our insecurities, desires, and fears. You can't toy with those kinds of primal emotions without them biting back...

SPOILERS FOR GLITTERBOMB VOL. 1 BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Man, this was a lean story. There’s not a character or plot point that doesn’t pay off. Zub is master-planner. What’s more, he’s a master-designer. For instance, in the second scene of issue 1, there’s a character that plays a role in the scene. She comes back around in issue 4, calling back to her first appearance, but also adding to the final issue of the series in a relevant and new way.

Not one inch of this story is fat, nor is any scene or character wasted or not designed for maximum impact.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Morissette-Phan’s art has excellent pacing. He knows how to slow down and speed up pages and scenes. There are a few decompressed scenes in the book that slow the narrative down just enough to help the reader really connect with and for the struggle of the protagonist. There are also scenes of transformation and realization that use the same decompressed strategy to drive home the weight—emotional or otherwise—of the images.

Recommendation: B (Worth a Read)

Check back tomorrow when I shift gears and (finally) tackle Grant Morrison's storytelling masterpiece(s)--Seven Soldiers of Victory

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Caption Boxes 11/15/17 – The "Only 10 Days Left" Edition by Frank Gogol

T-minus 10 days.

I’m currently neck-deep in packing my house to move to California at the end of next week. Between packing and inspections and more packing, I haven’t had time to do much else with my life, including making sure this newsletter was scheduled for Tuesday.
 
Luckily, this is the only thing this week that’s behind schedule. I’ll chalk that up to a win.
 
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In comics industry news, Marvel mainstay Brian Michael Bendis has changed teams and signed exclusively with DC Comics. I wrote up this little editorial to talk about why that’s a good thing for everyone. In lieu of my usual extended discussion about process, check this out if you feel so inclined.  
 
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[WORKING TITLE]
 
Honestly, it’s been a bit of a slow work week, with the mountain that is packing my house in front of me. I’ve got two pages left to write for AFTER THE STORM, and then one last pass of the full script. Outside of that, I received my last round of edits from Andy Schmidt for SUBURBIA ROBOTICA, which were minimal. There are two scenes I want to add a page each to so that they can breathe, but after that, this story is moving into production when December hits.
 
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The Read Pile
 
I’m still plugging along on my 30 graphic novels in 30 days in November challenge. While this has been a bit hard to keep up with some days while packing my house up, I am incredibly glad I decided to do it. So far, all but one of the books I’ve read have been really excellent or better. Links to all of my write-ups through yesterday are below.
 
30 in 30 - Day 1: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 11: The Spread of Their Evil
30 in 30 - Day 2: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 11: One Girl in All the World
30 in 30 - Day 3: Nailbiter vol. 1
30 in 30 - Day 4: Promethea - Book One
30 in 30 - Day 5: 4 Kids Walk into a Bank
30 in 30 - Day 6: V for Vendetta
30 in 30 - Day 7: Battlefields - Dear Billy
30 in 30 - Day 8: Hellboy - Seeds of Destruction 
30 in 30 - Day 9: WE3
30 in 30 - Day 10: Kill or Be Killed vol. 2
30 in 30 - Day 11: Star Wars vol. 1 - Skywalker Strikes
30 in 30 - Day 12: Pride of Baghdad
30 in 30 - Day 13: Trees vol. 1 
30 in 30 - Day 14: Sweet Tooth vol. 1 - Out of the Deep Woods
 
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With both Thanksgiving and my cross-country move landing next week, Caption Boxes is going to take a week off. I’ll be back on 11/28—transmitting from good old San Francisco—with most of the rest of 30 in 30 and some other goodies.
 
See you in 14…
 
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After Credits Scene
 
It’s occurring to me that between now and the next edition of Caption Boxes the Thanksgiving holiday will have come and gone. To those of you who celebrate like me, Happy Thanksgiving!
 
To all of you who read this newsletter each week, I’m so incredibly thankful for your support!

30 in 30 - Day 14: Sweet Tooth vol. 1 – Out of the Deep Woods by Frank Gogol

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Jeff Lemire ranks as one of my top favorite creators of the past 5 years. Books like Essex County and Descender have been some of my favorite comics because of Lemire’s ability to tell a story with a ton of heart, like yesterday’s Pride of Baghdad.

Sweet Tooth vol. 1 – Out of the Deep Woods, though, didn’t resonate with me quite how Lemire’s other creator-owned books have. That said, it’s still a book with a lot to teach.

Synopsis

Title: Sweet Tooth vol. 1 – Out of the Deep Woods
Storytellers: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of Publication: 2010
Page Count: 128

SPOILERS FOR KILL OR BE SWEET TOOTH VOL. 1 BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Across Lemire’s books that are both written and drawn by him, there tend to be lots of quiet pages. In Sweet Tooth, like in Essex County, there are stretches of pages that have no words and that feature a series of images that set a tone, mood, location, and (most importantly) a sense of quiet. In a book like Sweet Tooth vol. 1, which takes place in the deep woods, that sense of quiet is incredibly eerie and lonely. This evokes in the reader the same sense of isolation that the character is feeling.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

One thing that Lemire did in this book that I thought had great effect was that he bisected a single panel into two panels. Often on close-ups of faces, he cut a panel in half with a gutter, creating two panels from a single image. In talking scenes, this created a sense of a small passage of time between, say, a question and a response. This also had the effect of making the page as a whole a bit more visually interesting.

Recommendation: C (Runs the Bases, nothing more, nothing less)

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30 in 30 - Day 13: Trees vol. 1 by Frank Gogol

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Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival holds a special place in my heart. Too often, science fiction does not live up to its potential to be more than just dystopias, aliens, and giant robots. So when Arrival came along and told a beautiful, tragic story about one woman’s experience when humanity makes first-contact, I fell in love.

Prior to the release of Arrival, friends had tried to sell me on Trees. But with so many good books coming out all of the time, Trees always fell to the wayside. Then Arrival happened, and it became the instant comparison for Trees, which sold me immediately. And while this books doesn’t quite live up to  Denis Villeneuve’s masterpiece, it’s a pretty great invasion story.

Synopsis

Title: Trees vol. 1
Storytellers: Warren Ellis & Jason Howard
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of Publication: 2015
Page Count: 160

Ten years after they landed. All over the world. And they did nothing, standing on the surface of the Earth like trees, exerting their silent pressure on the world, as if there were no-one here and nothing under foot. Ten years since we learned that there is intelligent life in the universe, but that they did not recognize us as intelligent or alive.

SPOILERS FOR TREES VOL. 1 BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

Like Brian K. Vaughn with Pride of Baghdad, Warren Ellis is a master of characterization in Trees. The opening of the book moves like the opening scenes of a typical Hollywood disaster movie. The reader is introduced to different people in different places. Quickly, these characters reveal information about the alien invasion that occurred 10 years ago (getting the reader up to speed) and give their unique feelings on the situation.

Through varying devices and strategies, Ellis is able to introduce his cast while building his work. Masterfully, he does so simultaneously while bouncing the reader around the world.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Stepping away from interior art for a day, I’d like to talk about Howard’s covers for this series. They’re simple yet striking, well-designed, and like so many Image series they make incredible use of white space.

For the first issue, in particular, Howard captures the essence of the story visually, without detailing plot points or even showing a character. One of the titular Trees extends upward from a city skyline, while below the Earth its roots dig deep and are designed to create the foreboding image of a skull. Howard shows a potential reader everything he or she needs to know about the series: Aliens have come. They’ve planted these massive “trees.” And there’s danger.

Recommendation: B (Entertaining, worth a read)

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30 in 30 - Day 12: Pride of Baghdad by Frank Gogol

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Like so many books this month, Pride of Baghdad is one that I waited far to long to read. And like so many books this month, Pride of Baghdad is both masterful and wonderful. Who knew a story about a few lions escaping from the zoo could be SO powerful?

Simply put, this book blew my mind.

Synopsis

Title: Pride of Baghdad
Storytellers: Brian K. Vaughn & Niko Henrichon
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of Publication: 2008
Page Count: 136

Lost and confused, hungry but finally free, the four lions roamed the decimated streets of Baghdad in a desperate struggle for their lives. In documenting the plight of the lions, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD raises questions about the true meaning of liberation - can it be given, or is it earned only through self-determination and sacrifice? And in the end, is it truly better to die free than to live life in captivity?

SPOILERS FOR KILL OR BE PRIDE OF BAGHDAD BELOW

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Writing

My biggest takeaways from this book, by far, is just what a talent Vaughn has for characterization on multiple levels. On one level, he is able to differentiate and characterize the different animals not only in their cadence but also in the frame of reference for talking about certain things. The bear character makes comparisons that make sense for a bear. The lions make comparisons that make sense for lions. Further, Vaughn writes each of the four main characters, who are lions, uniquely from one another. Every character has a unique voice that captures and projects his or her personality and point of view, and as a result, each character is memorable and discernable from there the others.

What I learned about Comic Book Storytelling in Art

Like in Frank Quietly so masterfully achieved in WE3, Henrichon uses visuals to characterize the cast of Pride of Baghdad. Each of the lions has his or her own aesthetic, but also a unique body language. Safa, the one-eyed older lioness, for instance, is slower and more lumbering than the younger lioness, Noor. It’s little visual queues like this that help further differentiate characters and that make the reading experience smoother for the reader.

Recommendation: A (Must Read)

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