Deconstructing Comics #2 – Squirrel Girl + The Spire Edition (November 2015)

The Remember When Parade continues with our second deconstruction! Enjoy 🙂

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Hello friends and family! Welcome back to Comic Boulevard Monthly where we deconstruct the inner, hidden mechanisms of a comic. Last issue I was not entirely sure how I would put together these articles but I’ve since decided that each category will get one or two best examples from a comic. This will save us time and space and allow for you to still be surprised by a comic when you go to enjoy them. More importantly, I don’t want to bore your eyes with text (or brittle my knuckles with typing), so these will be crisp and focused deconstructions.

Over the past month I had the opportunity to seek out and explore a variety of new comics to put through the fine comb of my eye. For the November Edition I found two great comics that best exemplify the categories I look for in a work. They are Squirrel Girl: Volume 1 by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, and The Spire #1 by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely. For this Edition, Squirrel Girl will cover the categories Visual and Craftwork and The Spire will take Narrative.

Again, Deconstructing Comics is not a review so please do not assume I will deem a value to the comics positive or negative. Deconstructing comics is about taking apart the pieces of the whole and appreciating them.

Visual

Squirrel Girl Volume 1: North & Henderson, Marvel Comics 08-2015
Squirrel Girl Volume 1: North & Henderson, Marvel Comics 08-2015

Let’s conduct a thought exercise.

So you’re new to comic books and you’re exploring the genres and characters of the medium. Let’s say your mood is light and you are looking for something humourous and personable rather than the serious tones of a show like Game of Thrones (which you binged on the weekend). You find yourself in the comic shop holding the graphic novel Squirrel Girl: Vol. 1. She appeals to you and you are aware that Marvel puts out quality material. You buy it. Now, being new to comics, you feel a bit nervous entering into the multiverse. You are intimidated by the lore and background required to enter in to the medium which is partly why you want to start with vol.1 and partly why you want to start with Squirrel Girl (she does not have a massive library behind her character). To facilitate your journey into the Marvel Comic Universe, North and Henderson devised a brilliant way to introduce you to Marvel villains:

Technically, this method can be considered craftwork in the medium because of its function for the new audience, but I am going to assign it to visual narrative because of its form. Remember, comics are a collaborative effort – all of the categories will blend together to strengthen the product.

There are many ways to go about introducing a villain to the audience. The flash cards are an internal mechanism to brief and summarize the villain’s attributes and personality for Squirrel Girl and the audience. At some point in Squirrel Girl’s career Deadpool gave her a stack of cards detailing the baddies of the world. She references these to gain insight and knowledge of her foes. The cards are a visual aid to help her journey into the Marvel Universe, doubling as a guide to the neophyte comic reader. In one quick panel, they’ve established who and what Kraven the Hunter is (in this example). Later in the issue, information gained here provides a way for Squirrel Girl to defeat Kraven: a way that the new audience can understand based on the cliff notes found in the flash cards. The audience does not need to know Kraven’s past or all of his weaknesses because the bio was summarized in one defining visual.

Craftwork

One of the craftiest things I’ve ever seen in a comic book is found right at the bottom of most pages in Squirrel Girl. I cannot say for sure that this is the first comic book to use footnotes, but the way it is used by Ryan North in this book is tremendous. Here’s an example of what it looks like on the page:

These footnotes are used in a variety of ways throughout the comic. They can be from the point of view of the main character, a side character, the villain, or even the author. You can learn the point of view of the footnote via reference to the page it denotes, which in itself is a fun exercise! They can highlight the action of a panel or they can be used as an aside to the audience. Sometimes it is a leap over the fourth wall not unlike the character Deadpool, other times it is used to add flavour to a scene or to embellish the emotion of a character by adding another voice or another dimension to their thoughts.

I wonder if in the future of this book the footnote will become a character all its own? Like a narrator, but a commentator (if this idea intrigues you then I encourage you to enjoy Comic Boulevard’s webcomic Kid with a Cape).

The use of footnotes to add a voice to a page is an ingenious example of the craft of comic books.

Narrative

The Spire #1, Spurrier & Stokely Boom Studios 07-2015
The Spire #1, Spurrier & Stokely Boom Studios 07-2015

If you haven’t already, take some time to read Boom Studio’s The Spire. I’ll stick to issue one for this deconstruction so that nothing additional is revealed or spoiled.

I found The Spire to be an excellent example of Narrative storytelling in the way its dialogue reveals aspects of the world the characters inhabit and the world that the plot must take place in. Comic books have the advantage of using visuals as world building but visuals lose out on some of the finer details of a world; such as its level of social stratification and community cohesion. You can see that The Spire takes place in a post-apocalyptic environment but you cannot see how the humans and the non-humans regard one another (unless there is violence or oppression etc. but I’m talking about the subtleties of society). That’s where narrative comes in.

Shå’s dialogue with the various characters, whether with the guards or even the Baroness, reveals a great deal about how the different caste’s view each other. More so, it reveals Shå’s position on the topic of the treatment of the non-humans. In The Spire, there are two categories of people, the humans and what’s called “the Sculpted,” or pejoratively, the “Skews.” The use of this language reveals a separation between the two people. I was going to use the word race but I’m not sure what exactly the Sculpted are (maybe they’re aliens, maybe they’re mutants, maybe they’re something else?) Though the genre is sci-fi mystery, there are undertones of racism and prejudice. These things are revealed through the narrative language. The upper hierarchy of humans enforces and suppresses the Sculpted by keeping them in the lower tiers of the spire. We can assume that there is resentment from the lower tiers toward the upper despite one character’s benign attitude (Mr. Wud). We can also assume that there are clashes between the two people, whether violent or petty. The racism and separation may not be the sole focal point of the work, but expressing it in the way of language adds to the world of The Spire.

Shå’s position in this hierarchy is also revealed by how she sticks up for the Sculpted – even by correcting the Baroness herself. This reveals two things. The first thing is about her character, that she is conscious of the racism and takes an active role in defending the Sculpted people (her own people, because she belongs to that category as well). Second, that although there is tension between the humans and non-humans, it has not developed to the point of persecution. If Shå can correct the language of the Baronness it shows that there is no hatred or antipathy toward the non-humans. Either Shå would have ignored the racial slur (to hide her true feelings on the racism against Sculpted), or, the Baroness would have arrested Shå for being a sympathizer (even for being a Sculpted). This exchange may also reveal the relationship between Shå and the Baroness. Maybe they are close enough as friends or colleagues for Shå to correct her language?

Language is a major part of expressing a story. Using language as narrative storytelling can contribute a great deal to the audience’s immersion in a work and comprehension of its faculties. In the case of The Spire, it reveals subtle aspects of the world that these characters live and must work in.



Deconstructing Comics #1 – Dr. Strange Edition (October 2015)

Ha! Just when you thought the next float in the Remember When Parade was going to be Mech-Eng #1 you were wrong!! Haha!! Instead, considering the recent movie release, I figured it would be timely to rerelease the first article in the Deconstructing Comics series. So, without further misdirection, from way back in October 20th, 2015, here it is, folks!

#RememberWhenParade
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Dr. Strange #1, Aaron & Bachalo, Marvel Comics 10-2015
Dr. Strange #1, Aaron & Bachalo, Marvel Comics 10-2015

There are two reasons why I feel that it is fitting to use Dr. Strange as the premiere comic for deconstruction. Reason one, Dr. Strange is one of my favourite characters and so doing a deconstructive read allowed me to spend a lot of time with this book. Reason two, just as this article is the launch of my new project, so is Dr. Strange #1 the launch of his new series! We march forth into the weird together.

Before we continue, I assume that you have read Dr. Strange #1. It is likely that through the deconstruction process much of the story will be spoiled.
If you read the article preceding this one (the Preface Edition) then you will be familiar with the categories of visual, narrative and craftwork that I will be sifting out of Dr. Strange #1.
I was going to move through the book in sequence with you but I think that that might be troublesome so I am going to instead do it categorically. Also, I will try to be brief rather than thorough (as I originally intended) because it would both ruin the experience of discovery for you and also turn this article into a novel. I haven’t decided one-hundred percent how far in depth I’ll go yet, though, so let’s start with this amount and see if we like it.
Let’s start with a reader’s first pull to comics, the visuals!

Visual

The best aspect of visuals to start with is exposition. This means the way in which the visuals tell a story. I will present two of the book’s best uses of visual exposition before moving on to the next aspect.

The first you will encounter is throughout the prologue. Dr. Strange is in the thick of combat against the Free Rovers and we note the heavy presence of teddy bears and sunflowers in the mix. At first glance these images are background, incidental and maybe even scenic clutter. It isn’t until we see the establishing shot of the boy’s room that we make the connection. Looking back at the action scenes we see how they detail that a) the teddy bears and sunflowers indicate the location of the astral battle, that of within the boy’s soul and b) that the teddy bears and sunflowers are fighting with Dr. Strange against the ghouls, indicating that the boy is as much a participant in the fight as Dr. Strange is. Without using a single piece of text, these visuals express a great deal of the action. They are a second story amidst the prologue’s narrative.

The second piece of visual exposition is after the prologue where Dr. Strange activates his third eye. The panels become black and white except for new characters only seen by him. Two stories are being told here. First, the change in colour reveals to us a glimpse of the other world. It is not a major change in environment, but it does not need to be because the combination of the third eye on his forehead and the black and white background tells us that we are no longer looking at our ordinary plane of life. The colour and third eye are visual signals that we’ve changed locations. Second, the manner of the new creatures also expresses this new world. Narratively they speak of microbes and bacteria while visually they resemble ocean life. Resembling fish and coral is a way to say that we do not notice the other world just in the same way that fish do not notice they live underwater. It is a visual analogy using comparable organisms – the spirits as fish.
Style can mean many things and stylistic choices can be used for different reasons. Without writing eight-hundred words on style alone, I’m going to quickly point to an easy example of this aspect and then get to further things. Although I used colour palette earlier as a visual exposition, it also counts for style. Additional to black and white as the means to express another world, the colours used in the Bar with No Doors evokes an eerie supernatural environment. It is a stylistic choice to use purple and green and tawny to describe this location. Colour is a language of style. It breeds atmosphere and mood (which are visual and narrative elements).

Narrative

The second major draw to comics (maybe third), next to art, is the characters. Characterization is a major form of comic storytelling, if not the central drive (depending on the publisher?). Visually we are told that this is a modern Dr. Strange by his fashion (soul patch moustache combo, Cloak of Levitation turns into a scarf) but more importantly we can learn who he is through his internal monologue and through dialogue.

Characteristically, we learn he has traits such as confidence, courage and sincerity (he saves the child from possession without accepting any payment or compensation, he accepts the challenge to help Zelma) but also undertones of self-doubt (trembling hands comment, his hard-boiled egg speech to Monako) and vulnerability (socializing with wizards “who will still talk to him”). There is also a tinge of sexuality to this version of Dr. Strange in the way he flirts with the Lady Soul Eater. As the first issue of this new launch we cannot know how the traits will inhibit or propel Dr. Strange forward, but we can begin to count their threads and follow along.

If we were to grab a spoon and stir this soup around, we would see some bits of tone spinning about. There are many exhibits of tone in Dr. Strange #1, primarily humour and pathos, with a bit of impending conflict. The character of Dr. Strange quips and plays with the other characters (his foes, his friends and Zelma). We are supposed to find emotional sympathy with the child in the prologue, the old man in Act One and Zelma in Act Three who are all innocent and defenseless characters (another reveal of Dr. Strange’s courageousness) and also with Dr. Strange himself, who is the sole stalwart against the forces of the other worlds. I say impending conflict because they dropped ever so subtle lines and hooks, but really gave nothing else until the final five pages. If it was not for the epilogue we would only have caught a whiff of the conflict to come in the series. But the hints of conflict shape the tone of the work. We know there is some kind of doom coming (repeat: “the coming slaughter”) and so we cannot take this book to be all laughs and tears.

Craftwork

Let’s split the book apart to find key craftwork examples. The plot is carried visually, narratively and mechanically. The mechanical aspect is craftwork. Each portion of the structure contains action and questions that lead to the next part until the book’s end. One way craft is operating is how the phrase “the coming slaughter” is used as a thread throughout the book. It is quoted in the prologue by Lady Soul Eater, it is teased in the activities of Dr. Strange and it is the final hook of the series opener in the epilogue called “The Coming Slaughter.” It is used like a crumb trail from the forest to the lodge. It sets up the next story in addition to being the initial lure for this one.

Two more aspects of craftwork we see employed are pace and layout. I put them together to save time and because they work together to service the story. Pace simply means the speed at which the story is told. Contrasting the pages of the prologue with the remainder of the book, the prologue moves fast and exciting with visual elements such as a spread and the full and half page panels, also using slanted frames (or no frames at all) to remark frantic movement. Visually, the action and the layout denote the pace. Having some images larger than others, some characters in certain positions and using the layout (frame and panels) to show pace are craftwork choices. The motion of the plot is felt by the use of craft.

My favourite craft piece in this book occurs in the first two pages. Page one triples as the origin story of Dr. Strange, a harkening back to the heritage of the character (the background), as well as a spring board to launch the character into a modern tale of his own (the following spread page). Being the first issue of a new series, this single moment lands a very strong concrete block for all issues to come. The craftwork here uses visuals (the background) and narrative (captions) to evoke the feeling of the new launch of Dr. Strange. The audience is clearly aware of it because of these pages. That’s some pure craftwork going on right there!

It is easier to find strong examples of each of these categories in a premiere issue because the book is responsible for initiating a series as well as captivating the audience for the contained story. We find both long term arcs operating interwoven with the small arcs. It is exciting to determine which are which and where the story can progress from here!
If you have any recommendations for a book to deconstruct by all means share it with me. I look forward to doing this again next month!

Until then,


The Magnificent Marauders – Advertisements

Continuing the Remember When Parade, this week we relaunch Comic Boulevard’s earliest production ever! The Magnificent Marauders (ran from 2009-2010). The show ended without ever being finished, but!, it lives on here on Comic Boulevard.

Before Comic Boulevard was comicblvd, I was a fresh young student of McMaster University. Like all students, I had aspirations. These were more than the usual “get good grades,” “lead a profitable, stable life,” etc. Oh no, I dreamed big! I pursued the creative road; considerably the most arduous pitfall rearing path since the one to Mordor. So, after about a year and a half of leg work and interviews with student run newspapers and more dreaming, I met another school talent named Jordan Collver (@JodanCollver). We met through a mutual friend and on our first introduction he showed me his sketchbook. Behold, I thought, this man is an illustrator of magnitude! Together we launched McMaster University’s premiere comic strip in the largest student run newspaper, The Silhouette.

The concept for the comic was simple. A small group of students, super powered of course, teamed together to defend campus from students of ill intent and any local banditry or villainy. We had a small amount of space each week on page nine of the newspaper (at least I remember it as being page nine…) to tell our ongoing epic saga called The Magnificent Marauders! (‘The Marauders’ is the name for all of McMaster’s sports teams. I figured it was only right that the super hero team don the same moniker, only more spectacular, more – magnificent – teehee).

We had two extra weeks to fill in before the show premiered in November of 2009. So we decided to print these adverts to tease for the imminent release of our first serial story, “Mech-Eng Online!” Even then we were showmen.

Behold, from the depths of our talent seven years ago, our primitive work:

Next post you’ll get to read strip 1, so don’t blink for an instant!

#RemeberWhenParade


Deconstructing Comics #0 – Preface Edition (October 2015)

In our first act of the Remember When Parade, I’d like to re-release our “Preface Edition” of Deconstructing Comics. While Comic Boulevard is primarily a means to entertain (and to exhibit my work and portfolio), I also thoroughly enjoy exploring and adventuring into the mechanisms that fuel and compose the medium to which this fine site is bequeathed. I want to catch up to all the articles of Deconstruction that we lost during Hackergate 2016 so that I can start producing new ones in the proper order. It would be too messy to do otherwise.

Next float in the parade will be our first genuine original comic (from way back in twenty-odd-nine)!

Enjoy:

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Hello friends, family, enemies, non-existents,

I am both a comic book creator and reader. I don’t have much to my profile yet in terms of publications but that is slowly (ever so slowly) growing. It takes time to build entire comic books. It takes agendas and resources and budgets and schedules and collaborations. I have some stuff released in my past and have some stuff incoming in my future. While those projects are still cooking I’ve developed a new project that I’d like to share with you. I call it “Deconstructing Comics!”

The premise behind deconstructing a comic book is to take a work and disassemble it. Much like how a mechanic will take apart an engine, or a master chef will use their fine-tuned-tongue to taste the ingredients of a dish, I like to take apart comics to see what they are made of. I want to see behind the curtain of a product, to reverse engineer its schematics, to find the strings operating the work I hold in my hand. Normally this is a private internal process, but as I mentioned earlier, it takes a long time to make a comic book, so in the meantime I would like to share this with you, the audience. Why bother, you ask? Because it is a fun activity and maybe we can strike up a conversation doing it. Maybe we can learn something along the way, maybe we can gain new insights to the comic craft that we did not have prior to.

I am certain others have done this very activity countless times in public before. I am also certain that I am not a “qualified professional” and should not be held to that esteemed role in any way. I do however possess some skill and talent and can hopefully recognize the mechanisms behind a comic book and bring forth things easily missed during the casual read. This is for entertainment as much as it is for appreciation of the craft.

Deconstruction is not a comic book review. I will not pass judgement positive or negative to the works I will deconstruct. I will make no attempt to situate it in a greater cultural context. I may do all of those things unintentionally, however, through casual conversation.

Now that we’ve established my intent let’s define what deconstruction actually means. There is a literary definition to the term, but I am going to intend only a part of that definition while adding a splash of my own peculiarity to it. Here is my definition:

Deconstruction: The act of reading a work to sort out its components.

A comic is composed of images, words and form. To deconstruct a comic book is to scoop out and inspect its elements. The main categories I will be hunting for are Visual, Narrative and “Craftwork.” Here is my general allotment:

The visual pile is where we will sort elements like staging, visual exposition, style, colour palette etc.

The narrative pile is for elements like characterization, tone (humour, pathos, morals etc.), coherence, themes, dialogue, plot etc.

Craftwork is a catch all phrase for employing the visual storytelling and narrative as tools. It notes things such as structure, form, layout, pace, paneling, captions, SFX, consistency, internal context etc. Craftwork means the mechanical function of the comic book.

There are many layers to this medium that the audience tends not to see at first glance. Being that we are working with comic books, all of these things are supposed to be used in communion to tell the story. Sometimes, though, they are used independent of one another, which is why I separated them. In a comic you can say something visually while saying something else verbally. Additionally, you can use the format of comics itself to express something other than the visual or the narrative. Therefore, there will be a lot of overlap for these categories because you can spotlight the same thing with a different lens and you can use a different tool for the same device.

Here is a quick, generic, deconstruction example: the establishing shot. This panel is usually composed of a building or a landmark, a caption, and to either indicate time has passed, or as a way to situate the audience in a new location. If you distill it into my three categories here is how you tell the story of an establishing shot.

Visually, the panel would show a location (either internal or external). If external you would see time of day and season, also maybe elements of nature or civilization. If internal you could also show time of day and season, as well as contents of the location (whether it is a bedroom or a laboratory etc.). Without words or the panel’s position in the comic the audience knows that now the story is somewhere at some time.

Narratively, this panel marks the movement of the characters or plot in the next direction. Depending on the position of the panel in the comic, this shot is either that suspense is being held, or the release of an emotion, or the introduction of a whole new chapter or act to the plot. We may or may not see our characters but the building or landmark nevertheless acts as the focal character in this panel. The caption reinforces the visual story. Without a visual, you would see the character’s dialogue or a caption to show the audience that we are now somewhere different at some new time. If the panel was completely black visually there would be some narrative present to indicate that this panel is an establishing shot.

Craftwork-ly, establishing shots are a convention of the medium; they are a gentle way to show transition. Whether this shot it is to facilitate mobility or to express the plot the position of the shot is indicative of what it is used for: where it is and when it occurs is part of telling the story. It can be positioned at the top of a page or in the middle or at the end. If the audience were to skim through the book they could feel the story just by seeing it.

Here is an exercise for you. Deconstruct the following image:

Jurgens & Howell, DC Comics 09-2015
Jurgens & Howell, DC Comics 09-2015

Using comics to tell a story is not complicated, but it is sophisticated. You can argue that deconstructing comics my way is redundant because these categories are all one and the same, and they are, but because creators can say something in multiple different ways, when they use one instead of the other, I can parcel it and sort it as either visual, narrative or craft storytelling.

So let’s open the hood and see how this machine works!


Website Restoration Project

Comic Boulevard finds itself in a post-hack world with very little remaining after the web-disaster. I have been thinking about how best to launch forth from Hackergate 2016 and have come up with a new project that will both restore what was lost to the site and continue the site’s mission of entertaining and enlightening the internet.

So, in an effort to restore Comic Boulevard, I present to you a new project called the “Remember When Parade!”

The Remember When Parade

The objective of the Remember When Parade is twofold. First, it seeks to return all of our lost treasures back to the internet. Each month I will rerelease bits of content that was once present on the site, starting from way back in our origins all the way up to the most present material. Second, it will serve as a new introduction to those who are unfamiliar with Comic Boulevard’s portfolio. I bet three-quarters of the internet have no idea what The Magnificent Marauders was (more like four quarters of the internet…there’s probably six people on the entire planet who maybe read those comics). This will give me a chance to show you our content with hindsight, context and commentary rather than just plopping it on the website for swift consumption.

Additional to the Remember When Parade, I will continue producing the academic aspect of this site: Deconstructing Comics. I thoroughly enjoyed that series and was very sorry that it got stunted after February. I can say that the work halted because my attention turned back to work on our upcoming graphic novel release (which is pretty awesome, if I do say so myself), and I will commit to rejuvenating the series alongside the Remember When Parade. For the first little bit of the Remember When Parade I will be restoring the original Decon-Comics articles to comicblvd.com, but that will run out quick and then we are back to original content! I’ve been reading a ton of awesome comics and I can’t wait to get under the hood with you once again.

And so, barring another attack by the infamous Chinese Purse Peddlers, please celebrate and consume all that Comic Boulevard can offer you.