Death and Television

I’ve always been drawn to television because it’s closest to how I experience life.

We don’t meet someone and experience everything with them in 2 hours. We form a first impression, start to like them, learn their secrets. Watch them grow. Each meeting pushing us forward.

But nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in death.

In movies, death is fireworks. Big, loud, tragic – lots of tears and pathos. I can’t relate to that. Thankfully (I think), no one I know has gone down in a blaze of glory.

In TV, there’s still the death, the pain. Sure. Funeral is next week. But after that, we have to live with the absence.

You visit the same places, see the same people, but something is missing. At parties, graduations, around the club table, at Easter. Waiting for a voice, looking for a face, that isn’t there. Replaced by a tangible emptiness.

And we always hope they’ll come back. It was all fake. They’ve got a way, a plan, I know it. And when we see them again, goddamn, that moment is such a rush. Because that just doesn’t happen here.

Gonna miss you, man.

A Few Thoughts on screenplays

Been spending most of my time lately working on TV scripts. It’s incredibly rewarding because screenplays feel so much more finished than a comic scripts.

You can hand your buddies a screenplay and, if you’ve done your job, they’ll feel like they’ve watched it. A comic script is like handing that same friend a stack of blueprints and asking him what he thinks of your new house.

Hollywood has gotten very good at screenplays. There’s a set of rules, all designed to imbue your script with a magical readability. Makes sense, because before you make a movie a bunch of people need to read a script.

But movies are a lot more than scripts.

These readable scripts are limiting. They limit the kinds of movies you can make. There are many movies (mostly art house or foreign) that would have died on the page. This explains the creative success of so many writer-directors, who write for themselves and not their readers.

The macro trend here: the world has gotten a lot better at writing scripts. But have we gotten any better at making movies?

…and we’re back

I’ll keep the obligatory “where we’ve been post” short and to the point.

We’re working on an insane graphic novel called Hatch with JD Smith. It looks like this:

And it goes like this:

A rock star wakes up one morning to find that an impersonator has stolen his life. To discover the truth of what happened, he will have to unwind a conspiracy that dates back to the beginning of rock & roll.

Item 2: Balloond.

As some of you may know at my day job I work at a software company. I have chosen to use my powers for good and create a site to allow indie creators (like myself) to quickly and easily sell their comics digitally. I’m going to try not to talk too much about it on this blog in the future, but for now allow me to say: check it out!

Will be back next week with more critical stuff – thanks for the patience.

An Open Letter to TV from Comics

Hey Television,

Look, I know I’m not that much older than you, so don’t think I’m being condescending, but I’ve been through what you’re going through, and I thought you could use some advice.

I remember when I did “serialization” and “decompression” or whatever you kids are calling it these days. The idea’s the same: instead of treating an installment as its own piece of story, each installment becomes part of a bigger story. Hell, the idea is older than either of us, but it’s taking off for you, just like it did for me.

I remember those first few series that did it for me, just like you had your first few. Those were the days. People talk about how you’ve finally grown up, you’re telling stories that are complex, rich, and rewarding. People even compare you to those books with no pictures (it’s a complement, I’m told).

And then it’s everywhere. Everybody has to get on board with serialization. What’s the point otherwise? It’s old fashioned to tell those “one-and-done” stories. The bosses start telling everyone to serialize. We all get a big laugh at those old-timers who resist.

Sound about right? Well here’s what’s about to happen.

You’re checking out the latest installment of your favorite series, and you ask yourself: what just happened? You know you watched something, and it took your time, but can’t really recall any plot points. It just seemed like a lot of nothing.

And now you realize: maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. We all really dug the serialization thing, but was there another reason? Did the big guys like it because it kept us involved even when there was no story, no character. Because they figured out we’d always come back for the next installment, as long as they never gave us a jumping off point.

But now it seems that in getting rid of jumping off points, they also got rid of jumping on points. Everyone checks out the first installment, but they trickle off and never return. I wasn’t around at the first installment, why start now?

But wait, you were being innovative, right? The cool kids liked it – but now it seems like the only ones still around are the same old folks who’ve been around for a while. Where did all those cool kids go?

They already noticed, and they’re gone.

So what do you do? Well its never really up to us, is it?

Its up to the content producers, to make a drive to put out really good content. To know that serialization is a tool, and good content will always be good and bad content will always be bad.

It’s up to the suits (well, we don’t really have those, but you get the idea), not to put in place policies about storytelling, because that’s not something they understand. They should understand that their job is to identify good work, facilitate good work, and get out the word about it.

But at the end of the day, its really up to the fans. They have to demand from all of the above that they don’t want ploys — they want good stories, serial or otherwise.

I talk like I’m some old man, about to give up the ghost. But when I look in the mirror, sometimes I feel really freaking young. Like we’re just getting started, and this whole decompression thing is a little blip. And at the end of the day, isn’t it nice to know that people are talking about you?

Anyway, don’t be a stranger. I’ve got some property to sell you.


The Open Panel

While Umberto Eco might not be a common name among comic readers, but his writing about the Open Work has a strong relation to comics.

Allow me to butcher Eco’s words and years of semiotics theory for you. There is a theory of The Open Work, in which the viewer of a piece of art becomes a participant by interpreting it. The viewer of a painting becomes a performer of the painting by interpreting their own meaning from the piece. The reader of a book is a participant by creating their own unique understanding.

Eco goes on to say that the most rewarding texts are the “Open Texts.”  These are the works that allow the reader to decipher from them many meanings.  The opposite would be the Closed Text, a work that a reader can only draw one meaning from.

Boooooring (Eco’s words, not mine).

So with all the heady stuff out of the way, how does it apply to comics?

Comics, at every moment, ask the reader to contribute meaning and interpretation. I’ve talked about it before: in that white gutter between panels, the comic reader switches from passive viewer to active participant in the construction of meaning in the comic.

It is up to the reader to fill in everything that happens in between those two panels. This is what makes comics so inherently open. It is not possible for a comic to exist that does not engage the reader’s imagination of some level (this also explains why some folks have such a hard time understanding comics).

But there is a question of degree.  Some panels are inherently more open than others. While still necessitating interpretation from the reader, this is essentially a series of Closed Panels:

There is really only one interpretation of the above page, unless you want to imagine Invincible running and grabbing a sandwich somewhere. And unlike Eco, I’m not knocking Closed Panels – they are the bread and butter of the medium, and are essential in almost all storytelling.  But it’s not the only option.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Open Panel – the gutter that asks the reader to do the heavy lifting. I’ve posted this here before, because it’s one of the best uses of the Open Panel that I’ve ever seen:

While these four panels give us an indication of the plot, the bulk of the traditional narrative–the entire interaction between the two characters–is placed outside the physical page. It exists only in the imagination of the reader. The reader is asked to become the performer of the strip.

And the difference between a closed and open panel is not absolute – it’s a matter of degree.  Every panel transition will exhibit its own level of openess – and this is one of the tools available to comic creators that other mediums do not have the benefit of.

The true masters of the medium know how to use closed and open panels in conjunction to engage the reader in an active and unique way.  I’ll leave you with a strip by one of the masters of this combination, Chris Ware:

Splash Pages & Akira

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is one of the crowning achievements of graphic fiction.  It’s a 2000+ page epic that never lets up for a minute.  Page after page, Otomo demonstrates that he is a master of his medium, choosing layouts and panel structures convey so much information without ever sacrificing readability.

To try and cover every innovation and perfection that Otomo made to the medium would take much more space than I have here.  Instead I’ll focus on the technique that most struck me on my recent reading: the splash page.

Comics are no stranger to splash pages – those single panel pages that so often bookend mainstream comics.  While they are casually thrown about in superhero comics, Otomo uses them to a much different effect than what Western readers are familiar with.

Every splash in the first 350 pages of Akira

Start with frequency: in the first volume of the book, there are 11 splash pages, many of which are double splashes. The book is 350 pages long, so Otomo averages 1 splash every 32 pages.

For comparison, look at the recent Justice Leauge #1. It’s 25 pages long, and has 4 splash pages. That’s 1 every 6.5 pages. A whole lot more than Akira.

But it’s not just quantity. The whole approach is different. In modern comics, the splash has been reduced for really two purposes. One is the glamour shot: the superhero arcing through the air, a chance for the artist to dig his heels in and deliver a spandex-clad anatomy lesson.  Generally these pin-ups are fan-service-y tools of decompression and artistic overindulgence.

The other modern use is the reveal. We find out a terrible secret; a full page closeup ofcompromising evidence.  It forces our attention, and let’s us know that this is a Big Moment.  It’s heavy handed, sort of the comic equivilent of very obvious music cues, but it can be quite effective when used properly.

But Otomo’s use of splashes in Akira couldn’t be more different than either of these two techniques. The splashes in Akira are all about space.  Scale.  Scope.  They’re downright geographic.

And almost all of these splashes are in the first 30 or so pages.  The following 200 pages are filled with alleys and corridors - claustrophobic stuff.  So when at the end of an underground lab complex action scene we are treated to the two page splash of Akira’s chamber, it’s a moment to breath, a break in the action.

That’s why all of these splashes are long shots, a far cry from the medium and close ups in the Western Canon.  It serves to set the stage that these small actions have bigger ramifications.  The splashes mirror the overarching structure of Akira’s narrative, which begins as a conflict between people and grows into a battle of massive forces.

It’s not that Akira uses splashes right and everyone else does them wrong.  What Otomo does throughout his work is take familiar techniques and concepts and bends them in ways that suit his story.  He is always first a storyteller, as he transforms familiar comic idioms into original techniques.

That is why Akira is not only a landmark achievement in visual storytelling, but also a damn good read.

Guided View is Broken

As digital comics become more popular, it’s becoming more important to understand what ramifications they have on the evolution of the medium.  One of the first trends I want to address is the so-called Guided View, where the digital reader zooms in on each panel before moving to the next. This has a profound impact on the way we read and experience comics.

Last week, I talked a little bit about Montage and Collage in comics.  In short, we experience every moment of a comic book in two forms.  We read each moment as its own moment in a sequence of events, the Montage; and simultaneously as part of the whole construction of the page, or the Collage.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.  When reading a comic with Guided View or a similar technology, we’re losing a number of elements.  We don’t see the construction of the whole page, which would peripherally influence our understanding of the current panel.  We also lose the sense of relative size of each panel, which is the most basic way that creators imply pacing.  Reading the same comic on and offline would leave markedly different impressions.

This leaves a very different impression...

...than this.

I’m not suggesting we dismiss online comics entirely.  Tablets provide a great replication of reading full page comics.  Turning a laptop sideways can do the trick too.  So what purpose does this Guided View technology have?

Creators need to look at it as an opportunity.  Guided View and similar technologies offer great, unique storytelling potential beyond what is possible on the printed page.  The future of digital comics will be digital only – creators attuned to the peculiar needs of digital comics will push the bounds of the medium. But so long as creators are designing for the physical page and then tearing it up for Guided View, digital comics will be a compromised experience.

Two Functions of a Page – Montage and Collage

A comic is not simply a sequence of images. What makes the comic medium distinct is the concept of the page. When reading a comic, we are experiencing the comic page simultaneously both in whole and in part.

The first and more frequently discussed function of the page is what I call montage. This is that incremental experience, the “sequential” in sequential art. It engages our brain by comparing the previous panel to the current panel, and filling in the change that happens in the middle.

Yes, Charles Schulz Rules

But we don’t strictly experience comics like this.  There is also a constant awareness of our place in the page, as well as a peripheral sense of the page as a whole.  This is integral to the experience of reading comics, and I call it collage.

The collage gives context to the montage.  Collage is, quite literally, the bigger picture. Every comic page has a collage element, and the most sophisticated creators use it to further our experience of the story. Collage is one of those elements that the reader may not be aware of, but is strongly coloring their perception of the story.

Examples are going to be the easiest way to see this:

Detective Comics by J.H. Williams III

J.H. Williams III is a great person to start this discussion with – his awareness of collage is very evident in his work. His entire catalogue is a master class in pushing the boundaries of collage. On just about every page he infuses meaning beyond the contents of the panels.

Instead of trying to describe everything going on here, I invite you to try a little thought experiment. Imagine if the panels were laid out in functional, traditional way, and read them that way. The context of the scene would be totally different – it’s the collage element that brings in this idea of duality and yin and yang to an otherwise straightforward scene.

Fell #1 by Warren Ellis & Ben Templesmith

There’s a tendency to think that collage/montage discussion is only relevant to really flashy comics with crazy page layouts, but that’s not the case at all.

Fell by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith is a supreme work of mood and tone. The stories are told mostly in 9-panel grids with monochromatic color schemes.

So while the layout may appear to be fairly standard, there’s a lot going on here collage-wise. Almost every page is practically monochromatic, preventing the eye from drifting across the page to splashes of color. The linework is subdued and direct, again, preventing eye drift. The thick gutters hem in the action unnaturally; every panel feels like it could use a little more room. The grid becomes a prison, trapping our eye inside each panel, if only for a moment.

Oh, and the story is about Fell being trapped in Snowtown. Coincidence?

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben

I’ve avoided using any examples from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, mostly because it’s just a bottomless can of worms when it comes to theory discussions. But it’s hard to ignore Moore’s grasp on both montage and collage. This page, the first of Moore’s seminal Swamp Thing story, is downright playful with the two concepts.

It almost makes your brain do a little backflip. We start with 3 standard panels, and from that perspective, the page appears to open up. But when your eye reaches the following panel, you realize that the montage and the collage have been fused into one. The panels of glass become the panels of the comic, lending the narrator an almost omniscient presence over the proceedings.

There’s plenty more that could be said on the topic. Every comic page has montage and collage – but just like the other techniques we’ve discussed, some creators are working this to their advantage and others are not.

So what examples do you have?

You Keep Copying Watchmen (but you keep doing it wrong)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is the towering giant against which all subsequent comic works have been judged.  In its time, it changed the direction and scope of comics and today, 25 years later, its influence can still be felt. While copying might be a strong word, let’s say its been a little more than inspirational to a bevy of creators.

And almost all of them missed the point.

What the industry at large saw was a chance to “grow up”.  To be dark, violent, “mature” and gritty.  Superheroes aren’t just for kids, man. A lot of this happened because the other best comic of the decade was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another tale of gritty superheroes (an awful coincidence). The imitators missed the mark there too.

These books weren’t primarily a revolution in content. They were a revolution in form.

Both books were calculated, mathematical, deliberate attacks on the stagnant storytelling of the medium. Watchmen took the classic 9-panel grid and transformed it into something fresh and dynamic. Dark Knight changed the page into a dense, frenetic, pissed-off assault of images.

So what happened?

Readers flocked to both books. The industry sees this and says “they love dark superheroes! Let’s just do that!”

But what did readers really want? Well-told stories. Stories that expand the potential of the medium, that challenge the way we read and how we think about comics. But what we got instead was lots of monochrome superheroes muttering the mildest cusses – and all told in the same old static ways of the pre-Watchmen era.

Let’s look at the first page of Watchmen. This page is the “Call me Ishmael” of comic literature. It’s been seared into the mind of almost everyone who has read the book, and it was one of my first tastes of what is possible in this medium.

Have you taken that in?

So what makes this page so important? It’s not the talk of burst stomachs and blood and scabs. It’s not the implied violence in the images. It’s not even the challenging political implications. It’s the evisceration of the medium that happens across 7 panels.

Take a look. The first thing we notice, form-wise, is a rather traditional layout. But the innards of that layout are anything but.

Notice the physicality of the “camera.” Instead of being passive observers, as is traditional in comics, the most striking motion on the page is the upward movement of our perspective. We’re asked to be participants in the story, active observers; the heft of the camera impacts a Brechtian awareness to the proceedings.

Then there’s another, subtler layer – pacing. Traditional comic theory dictates that panel size indicates pacing. Sure, but that’s just one of a bevy of methods. But across those 6 panels, there’s a very tangible acceleration, yet all the panels are the same size. So how’s it done?

First, look at the speed of action happening in each panel. Let’s use as our measuring stick the steps of the sign-bearer. Between panel 1 and 2, he appears. Between 2 and 3, he takes a single step. Between 3 and 4, he takes 3 steps. Between 4 and 5, 4 steps. And by panel 6 he’s gone quite a distance.

There’s another factor here, and that’s the “speed” of the camera rise. If you observe the size of the grate, you’ll see that it doesn’t decrease in size the same amount in each panel: it’s shrinking at a exponential pace.

Think I’m reading into it too much? Look at Moore’s script. He describes panel 3 as 9 ft above the sidewalk, panel 4 as 20-25 feet above the sidewalk, panel 5 40-50 ft above, and panel 6 “hundreds of feet” above the sidewalk. That’s pacing.

I could go on. I could talk about how the final panel slams to a halt, yet takes the least diagetic amount of time. I could talk about the interplay between the images and words.

But I won’t. You will.  Next time you read Watchmen (you’ve already read it at least once, right?) look beyond the incredible characters, the tight plotting, the philosophical and political implications. Dig into what Moore and Gibbons do on each page, how they bend our perceptions to their liking.

And if you’re a creator, challenge yourself to advance the medium. Don’t look at panels as little boxes to fill with story, but as opportunities for pacing and composition. Chances to twist the reader’s mind and perception. A shot to give your creation a voice.

And write about anything besides gritty superheroes.

XIII – Belgians Do it Better

Japanese comics have always served as a source of inspiration and imitation for American and British comic creators. But America and Japan are hardly the only cultures with a history of innovative comics. I want to focus on a culture that has had a big influence on me, but doesn’t get its fair share of attention in America – the Belgians.

Perhaps my earliest introduction to comics came through the incredible Belgian series Tintin. Sadly, Tintin is about the only Belgian comic most comic shops carry. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a rich culture of storytelling that has developed its own lexicon and grammar without much apparent influence from either American or Japanese creators.

My reintroduction to Belgian comics came when I stumbled upon 3 volumes of a series called XIII. The series, by writer Jeanne Van Hamme and illustrator William Vance, borrows a lot from the Bourne franchise (amnesiac killer) but goes in its own crazy direction. It’s been popular, spawning both a video game and 2 TV series, yet it remains largely unknown in American comic circles.

There were a lot of things eye-opening about the book. It’s an action comic without supernatural elements, which is rarer than it should be in comics.  The characters are human and at the forefront – dialogue isn’t filler between action scenes.  And the format, those slim 48 page squarebound booklets, seem to be the perfect comic delivery method.

But what really makes these books stand out is the storytelling.  Take a look at the first action sequence in the series:

Each of these pages tell a full story.  This page introduces a villain, and he’s dead by the end of the page.  Due to the horizontal nature of Belgian storytelling, width has everything to do with time.  In the first row, our introduction to the villain is short.  Then we have a long beat as Alan prepares to make his move, and an equally long beat as he jumps up and throws the knife – we’re invited to take in this moment.

Then we have an entire staccato row.  The villain, Chuck, fires twice and gets hit with the knife.  Then things start happening faster – Chuck stumbles, drops the gun, stumbles further, and then goes over the edge.

This row is fascinating because the first panel is super compressed – Chuck is firing twice AND getting hit with the knife, all in one tine panel!  But then, his collapse is drawn out across 4 panels.  This emphasizes Alan’s speed, and draws out the significance of his killing for the first time.

Again, this page tells a complete story.  It also shows the power of the horizontal strip – a feature common in Belgian comics, but infrequent in American comics.  This has partly to do with the format – Belgian comics are wider and allow for more horizontal storytelling than their American and Japanese counterparts, which trend toward a more vertical storytelling.

And look at the mastery that Van Hamme has of the format – each row shifts our expectations, and each ends with a cliffhanger. In the first row, the villain is searching, and then spots Alan. In the second strip, the villain makes his move, firing at Alan – but we don’t see the results.  Row 3 is the big reveal, where the trap, set in the first row, plays out, and the page climaxes with Alan taking the upper hand.

Again, every row presents a mini story.  In the first row of this page, we see horizontal timing come into play.  The long shot, combined with the width of the panel, draws out their initial struggle.  In a quick beat, the villain reaches for the gun – but equally as quick, Alan stops him.  At the end of this row, Alan has the upper hand.

In the next strip, we have the reversal, where in a quick motion (narrow panel again!) the villain takes the upper hand.  And in the third strip, if the action wasn’t enough, we get a character moment, where Alan is unable to kill the villain.  The page, and sequence, goes out on a shot of the car that seems to have driven into another landscape, another color palette – entirely out of Alan’s reach.

If you’re a creator, there’s a ton to learn from Belgian storytelling, and if you’re a reader, there’s a plethora of material out there, especially if you’re looking to get away from the cape and cowl thing.  Cinebook has been doing a great job reprinting Belgian comics in English in the UK.

Sadly, it’s trickier to get them in the States. It’s usually worth a few extra bucks to import them, but purchasing digitally is also a great option.  But if you’ve got a minute, why not let these publishers know we’d like to see some of these books in our shops over here?