söndag 29 april 2012

Back from the comics cons, 2012 edition

First, there was Uppsala Comix on April 1st, where I met comics aficionados and did some shopping – a bunch of American stuff plus a very nice little piece of nostalgia by versatile artist Per Demervall. (Actually, he gave it to me. How sweet is that?) I also got a box full of comics collections from Ekholm & Tegebjer, but it was just too much work to pick it all up and take pictures of it, so you'll have to check out their stuff at their site instead. (I also did a little talk about comics storytelling, parts of which is resurfacing on the blog at intermittent intervals now.)

Then, yesterday, there was Serieteket's (The Comics Library) comics con in Stockholm, where I met a whole bunch more comics aficionados and artists, had some very nice chats with a bunch of them, and bought a lot of comics. Like, by Johan WanlooMalin Biller, artist and gentleman Jonas Darnell and my favorite Swedish comics creator, Li Österberg.

Seriously, if don't read her stuff, you ought to. Really.

fredag 27 april 2012

Back from the comics store, April edition

I will now swear in church and confess that I'm not a huge Krazy Kat fan. But, it is a classic, so of course I'm getting the first volume of this collected edition. I am, however, a huge Bone fan and am very happy to be getting the collected color edition. Happy to see three more classics in the Showcase series, and not only does the All-Star Squadron one feature great Jerry Ordway inking (even though I'm not a huge fan of Roy Thomas' writing) and the Spectre one feature quite a bit of absolutely gorgeous Neal Adams artwork, but the Avengers Essential volume has Jim Shooter's legendary story arc about The Enemy, in which in the end the Avengers call up everybody who's ever been anywhere near an Avenger and pack them into a bus, and then go to the suburbs to slug it out with the most powerful villain they've ever encountered. (I'm actually a bit reluctant to re-read that story, as I have such great nostalgic memories about it and don't want to risk ruining them.)

Plus, any comic book that has the Masked Marvel in it just has to be great.

(I also bought a ton of comics storage boxes. Space-saving, here I come. Once I can set aside the time to take my comic books off the shelf and index them, and sort them into the boxes, that is.)

lördag 21 april 2012

Comics storytelling 19: Speech characteristics

Well, more on sound – speech, to be precise – and its characteristics. Here, we have an example of incessant talking, with Charlie Brown making the mistake of asking Lucy for some chatter. He gets more than he bargained for, as denoted by a) the lack of space between the words in Lucy's speech balloons, indicating that she not only speaks very fast, but doesn't even seem to need to breathe in occasionally; b) the size of her speech balloons, completely dominating her panels. In fact, by having the second Lucy panel's balloon being larger than the first, almost crowding out even Lucy herself, Charles Schulz gives the reader the impression that far from tiring, Lucy is even stepping up her speed-talking effort. (This is of course reinforced by her not looking the least bit winded in either of the panels.)

Like I said previously; a master at his craft.

fredag 20 april 2012

Comics storytelling 18: Sound, volume

OK, we've been looking at time and space. Let's now move over to sound and its characteristics.

First, the basics: bigger and bolder letters = louder sounds. It's really that simple. But, again: you need to be a skilled enough artist to make your figures look consonant with the content of their speech balloons. First panel, the angry look on the prefect's face. Third panel, the enthusiasm on the old soldier's face and his rapid hand-waving when he suddenly remembers the name of the wine dealer he gave Vercingetorix's invaluable shield to. Final panel, everybody being angry and shouting -- except Obelix, who's just shouting because everybody else is shouting; his calm expression amid the anger of the others creating humor that wouldn't be there if Uderzo weren't such a skilled artist.

Now, I was going to talk about cartoon-style comics first and then move on to superheroes, but since we looked at how big, bold letters denote louder sounds, I thought we might do just a little bit more exploration of that theme before moving on to other characteristics of sounds, like for example tone of voice.

So, let's think about this for a while... How loud can a comics sound be? What are the limits to it? I'll give a first answer here; it's actually not the correct answer, because there are actually at least two more levels of loudness, but I don't have pictures illustrating them, so I'll leave them aside for the time being. 

Anyway, the panel is sort of a limit to the size of your sound effect, isn't it? So if you want to tell the reader that the sound he's "hearing" -- actually watching -- is really, really loud, in fact as loud as can be, then you can let it fill up the entire panel. But how do you do that without obscuring everything else in the panel?

Why, by letting the sound effect be the panel, of course. This example is from Frank Miller's brilliant Batman -- The Dark Knight Returns, which is warmly recommended if you haven't already read it.

lördag 14 april 2012

Comics storytelling 17: Panels and time

Some more on panels and how to use them. In this Peanuts strip, the full length of the panel is also utilized, but not to emphasize a distance. Instead, it is used in its temporal capacity. As we read from left to right, we perceive events in the left part of a panel to transpire before those in its right part. Going from left to right, we perceive a natural temporal progression, and this is used by Schulz in this strip to build up a tension, or perhaps an expectation, that falls flat in the last – that is, rightmost – part of the panel.

First, Charlie Brown makes the point that they have to concentrate on the game. Then, Schroeder reinforces that point by saying that they are concentrating, and Lucy reinforces it even further by a) saying that they're all concentrating, b) saying it with a scowl that indicates both her concentration and that she's taking it all very seriously indeed.

And then, finally, we come to Snoopy, who's fallen asleep and is falling off the bench.

This is a perfectly adequate joke in itself, well told, but it gets better thanks to Schulz having developed Snoopy's character for 40 years or so in the strip. It is perfectly logical for the egocentric Snoopy, who tends to live in a world of his own much of the time, to have been entirely unaffected by the pathos and dedication of Charlie Brown and the others -- and, as long-time readers of the strip, we're of course expected to know that. So the joke is, again, enhanced by the artistic skills of the creator, but this time those skills aren't primarily drawing skills but characterization skills and building up an internally consistent "universe" his characters live and interact in.

Schulz could have had Lucy and Snoopy swap places for this joke, of course -- Lucy is no less self-centered than Snoopy, and has a long history of not taking baseball as seriously as Charlie Brown (though, in fairness, nobody -- except Peppermint Patty -- takes baseball as seriously as Charlie Brown). Snoopy is a more physical character than Lucy, though, and thus more suitable to the falling-off-the-bench-with-a-KLUNK! part than she is, and more instantly recognizable when all we see of him is his rear and legs.

Schulz was a master of his craft. I miss him.

onsdag 11 april 2012

Comics storytelling 16: Panels & distance, 2

More on distances. In this "Zits" strip, Jeremy looks to make a reaaaallllly long shot, and the distance from him to the hoop is emphasized in the same manner as in the "Mutts" Sunday page, by letting the distance stretch out all across the width of the strip.

By making the figures of Jeremy and Hector relatively small, perspective is used to further emphasize how far away from the hoop Jeremy is.

But – and to draw this back to the point I've been making repeatedly in this series – that's clever, but not even half the joke. The rest is supplied by Hector's nonchalant attitude.

Hector's relaxed body posture, bored facial expression, and the fact that he can't even be bothered to look when Jeremy makes his attempt – plus his dismissive comment, "If you make this shot, I'll have a heart attack" – all signal the impossible distance in a manner that's consonant with what the clever trick with the panel's length is telling us. The clever storytelling enhances the point, but without Borgman's & Scott's excellent artistic skills, the joke, resting just upon the panel-width trick, wouldn't be near as strong as it is.

tisdag 10 april 2012

Comics storytelling 15: Panels & distance

Moving on with the basics, here's a look at how the comics artist can use the medium's very limits as a storytelling device. Hemmed in by the size and shape of the Sunday page he has at his disposal, Mutts artist Patrick McDonnell slices it into three oblong panels, which emphasizes their lateral dimension, allowing him to use that to in turn emphasize the – physical – distance between Earl the dog and his beloved master Ozzie.

Btw, note the little detail of Earl's tail wagging as he looks back at Ozzie; this reinforces the love expressed in the words Earl is "speaking", "Our hearts are connected", which is in fact the point of the strip. A beautiful touch to a beautiful little story, told in merely three panels.

Granted, three very loooong panels, but still.

söndag 8 april 2012

Storytelling 14: Closure

Here is an example of that comics storytelling speciality – indeed, necessity – that Scott McCloud has dubbed "closure". The term refers to how we as readers fill in what happens between panels – in this case, Jeremy's father picking him up and throwing him into his room and telling him he's grounded. 

Here, the technique of skipping over this action-filled event is utilized to enhance the humor of it -- it's funnier if the reader gets to imagine it because the reader can embellish the scene in his/her mind's eye in a way that even a great artist like Jim Borgman can't, especially in the small space available to him in a comic strip. 

Also, the speed with which Jeremy is whisked into his room is emphasized by not even spending one single panel on it -- that's how fast it is, too fast to even capture in a picture! This speed is also emphasized by Jeremy's comment in that last panel ("I'm not sure… I all happened pretty fast" – in other words, too fast for him to really understand what was happening). 

Another factor enhancing the humor is how, in the third panel, Walter sort of freezes in mid-gesture when Jeremy makes his snarky comment. This not only gives the reader a forewarning that something's about to happen, it also emphasizes the swiftness of his response -- he goes from frozen to having thrown Jeremy into his room in the space of, well, less than one panel. 

…And as comics speeds go, that is pretty impressive!

lördag 7 april 2012

Storytelling 13: The symbol language of comics 2

Another example of how the comics language of symbols needs to work together with the drawings. 

In this picture, we're supposed to learn that Beetle hurts his back carrying a heavy load. That means it's imperative to show
a) that he's carrying something heavy, which is accomplished by showing how big the load is, and how heavy it actually is through his body language -- look at how he's leaning backwards to compensate for the weight of the trashcan;
b) that he feels pain, which is accomplished by his facial expression of pain and the "pain stars" emanating from his lower back, thus identifying the source of the pain. (This is reinforced by his words in the speech balloon, but that isn't really necessary. We've already been told this in the picture.)

You can't tell that story with just the pain symbols; you need to be able to do the drawing part as well, or you're just not a comics craftsman.

fredag 6 april 2012

Storytelling 12: The symbol language of comics

Comics use a lot of established symbols to convey emotions, attitudes, etc. For example, the heart is a universal symbol of love, but unlike what some creative people working in other fields who suddenly discover the language of comics seem to believe, you can't eschew the storytelling basics just because you get to use those symbols. You have to convey the emotions in your drawings as well, in the body language and facial expressions of the characters. It must all work together as a whole.

In this picture, the little hearts emanating from Sarge indicate his love for his barracks, but he also has closed his eyes and is smiling, and he is leaning into the barracks he's hugging. So, body language, facial expression and symbols working together as a whole. Or, as I like to call it, good comics storytelling.