Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Star Wars Comics from Dark Horse

On January 1st, 2015, the license to release comics based on Star Wars is leaving Dark Horse Comics after 20 years and returning to Marvel. With Disney's acquisition of both Marvel and Star Wars in the last couple of years, this was in no way a surprising move. For many, it even brings the license home, as Marvel produced the first Star Wars comics after the initial movie's release in 1977. But for myself, and I expect many others, this is more of a sad reality. Not that I expect Marvel to make bad Star Wars comics! Instead, it's simply the fact that Dark Horse IS the home of Star Wars for many of us of a certain age. I am absolutely of that age and I need to write about this, so here we are.

So first off. Dark Horse has a HUGE bundle of their library of Star Wars comics that you can't get digitally for only $300 until January 1st. As of my writing this, you have 48 hours to get all of their wonderful comics produced over the last 20 years. I know that's not a lot of time, and it's very possible that many of these comics will never see reprints, but I've wanted to sit on writing this and now I'd rather at least try to point people to the comics before they're potentially gone forever.

My first comic very well
might have been this one.
Like a lot of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, there's good and bad. It's normal. I just want to talk a little bit about what I remember and the comics that I've loved through the years here, pretty much all of which are part of that big sale. So from here on out, I'm just going to ramble about the different comic series I loved and why and try not to be too wordy. Hah.

As I said, Dark Horse is Star Wars comics to me. They produce a ton of other great stuff, but if I have a Star Wars comic, it has the Dark Horse logo on it. That's just how it is. I've only done a few interviews about making comics, and usually the question of what you're first comic was comes up. Until recently, I shrugged off the question with an "I honestly don't remember, but probably some X-Men book." But having thought on it, I realize it was a Dark Horse Star Wars comic. Specifically, one of the early Tales of the Jedi books in the mid 90s. I can't tell you which one for sure, but I loved those books. Long before Bioware made Knights of the Old Republic, the Tales of the Jedi comics tackled a setting 4,000 years before the movies and was like nothing Star Wars had ever been. It was Star Wars through and through but it felt entirely unique at the same time. I was in completely. Sadly, those books don't quite hold up like they used to, but I still love them greatly.

This cover was all I needed as a kid.
While the actual Tales of the Jedi comics don't hold up too well outside of my nostalgia, 1996 brought Shadows of the Empire. There was a video game, a novel, and the comic and I had them all, but the comic stuck with me the most. My copy is practically falling apart I've read it so much. This is the Star Wars comic that LOOKED like Star Wars to me. Not just because it was set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and starred the cast of the movies, but because of Kilian Plunkett's art. Looking back at the interiors, I can see exactly where my own art style began to grow out of. I wanted to draw like that because I wanted to draw Star Wars.

The next big Star wars comic that hit me was from 1997 and it was Crimson Empire. I haven't read it in years so I couldn't tell you how it held up, but I loved it and it's sequel comics for pretty much all the reasons everyone else did. It was all about the Emperor's Royal Guards doing crazy stuff and I loved Paul Gulacy's art. Just loved it. Look at that cover. That's a hell of a cover and screams at you to buy that book. Plus, it was a Star Wars story that focused on something different than the standard story one comes to expect.

The long-running Knights of the Old Republic comic was one of the best, and absolutely helped pull me back into both comics and Star Wars comics after a few years away. It had the connection to the recently released video game of the same name, but rather than act like slave to being a prequel, told it's own great story with really fun characters that had minor connections to the game you could enjoy if you knew them...but didn't harm the story one bit if you didn't.

Star Wars Legacy, a book set 100 years after the movies and with an absolutely fascinating political structure for the galaxy and also the writer John Ostrander and primary artist Jan Duursema who have since once again defined what Star Wars should look like in comics. There's an Empire and Jedi and Sith and yet it's all fresh and different. I love traditional Star Wars stories, but it's even better to see creators do something interesting and fun with the foundation of it all rather than just tell the same story over and over and over. Legacy absolutely did that well.

The second Star Wars Legacy series from Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko was very much it's own thing rather than a direct sequel to the previous series of the same name, and was another great take on Star Wars that sadly recently ended due to the license shifting. It took the world Legacy had built and stuck to the outskirts of it to do it's own thing. The art, the writing, the storytelling...all of that was so much fun. It will especially be missed.

And then there was the recent series simply called Star Wars launched by Brian Wood and Carlos D'Anda. It was a great book on all fronts, but I specifically have to highlight it because of a character that appeared in the final issues. Her name was Seren, she had blue(ish) hair, was a spy, and the friend of a Princess. Now, this is in every single way a massive coincidence with how much the name and look of the character was close to our Seren from Of Stars and Swords. Seeing a similar character with the same name in Star Wars made me extremely happy. I loved it and I'm smart enough to know when coincidence is what it is (no one's stealing from us because no one knows us!).

There's so much more, but I have to shut up eventually...

So yes...I love Star Wars. I have loved Star Wars comics for pretty much as long as I've loved the movies. The various comics they produced through the years gave me exactly what I wanted from Star Wars but the movies could never show. Star Wars has always been an ideal setting for creators to play in, and many of the absolute highlights of the EU for me were from Dark Horse's comics. There was a wide subject matter and wildly different styles of art and storytelling in all of them. It wasn't all just trying to be another story mimicking the original movies. The comics felt unique and added to the larger universe.

Without Dark Horse's Star Wars comics, I may not be making comics today. At the very least, I don't think my sensibilities would be the same. It was always a dream to maybe one day get far enough with this comics thing to get to do a Star Wars comic for Dark Horse (In addition, the recent appearance of Star Wars Seren made me REALLY want to write her because I'm weird that way). Maybe one day I'll still be able to work on a Star Wars book, and that would still be absolutely wonderful and still be very much a dream come true...but it won't be quite the same. I would never turn down such a possibility just because of a logo, but at the same time, it would be on my mind at least for a moment.

So to everyone that has worked on a Star Wars comic for Dark Horse in any capacity, from editing to writing to drawing to just running the damn thing out the door so it gets out on time: THANK YOU. You all helped to build a characters and a world I loved. I've discovered great creators over the years through your comics. You're a huge part of why I make comics.

I'm going to miss the great work you all did, but one last time: Thank you so much for twenty years of great Star Wars comics.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Let's Talk About the First Of Stars and Swords Story

Last week, the comic that Caroline and I work on, Of Stars and Swords, ended its first story arc. It's been a long time coming and we're both very proud of it all, but we're not done! Not only is there more Of Stars and Swords to come, but I wanted to talk about the story and all of that.

So first off: There will be spoilers for Of Stars and Swords beyond this point. I want to talk about tone and choices and there's just no avoiding it. Consider yourself warned!

Second. Last year, I made a post about Seren and this is likely to touch on some of the same things. If you'd like to read that, here's a link.

Now. Let's get into this.

From the very beginning, Of Stars and Swords has been about one thing: revenge. It's a fairly typical story, really. Seren's family is killed and she grows up consumed by the desire for vengeance, gets her chance, and takes it. Generally, that's the end of the story. The hero succeeds and avenges the deaths of their loved ones, we get a nice scene of them finally able to move on, and that's that. It's not even necessarily a bad story concept, but it isn't where we were ever going.

Because Of Stars and Swords is also about the nature of revenge. In our very first issue, Seren's uncle, the man directly responsible for killing her family, dies. He loses his head right in front of her and she doesn't get to do it. And that's not good enough for her. So she sets her sights on the man that ordered it. And eventually, she gets that, too. She even gets to do the deed herself. But there's no dramatic speech or climactic fight. She just kills him.

And nothing changes.

In fact, Seren's single-minded focus arguably makes things worse. Now, her insistence that everything is her fault is probably a bit overblown, but if she'd taken a moment to look at the larger picture and stopped distracting everyone around her by running off to kill a man, maybe these weird evil creatures could have been stopped. There was definitely time and more than a few chances. There were even clues to them being around doing things for a while, but they were missed or ignored by Seren. Since the comic is (mostly) told through her point of view, it's easy for the reader to miss most of them, too.

And, really, that's the point of it all. Seren didn't see because she didn't want to.

Basically, I've found myself disliking revenge stories more and more as time goes on. There are quite a few good ones, but the vast majority of action movies and not a small number of comics are tales of revenge that end in a glorious moment of the evil character's death at the hero's hands. We cheer and consider it satisfying. But that bothers me. What good does it really do? And what would that kind of single minded focus really do to the hero? Not to say that's an unexplored area, either, but it is an area that's far more interesting to me.

That's the real story we wanted to tell. Seren and her series of bad decisions that lead to worse things. She kills people without a second thought and by the end three people sacrifice themselves to protect her. And two of those deaths she is pretty directly responsible for. As I've said before, she's not even all that likable. And that's okay. She's not really a bad person, but she does do quite a lot of bad things. She tries her best, but is misguided quite a lot. I like to think that she fails in ways that are understandable.

So where do we go from here? We already know, of course, and that's not something I want to talk about yet. But I will say this much: Seren started out at a very low point already. She was alone and very angry. Through the course of our first story, she was forced to work with other people, and even tried for a bit, but fell into old habits quickly. And at the end of it all, Seren has somehow managed to end up in an even worse place than where she started, which is definitely something she couldn't have believed previously. She hasn't exactly coped with similar situations well in the past, so we'll have to see how she handles this new one.

But hey, maybe she'll learn something. Anything's possible, right?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Comics and Criticism

This is a long time coming, but recent events have finally forced me to sit down and write it. This is likely going to jump around because I'm somewhat angry, but it should be readable enough.

Comics has a criticism problem.

Well, comics has a couple of criticism problems. I talk a lot about reviews needing to be better (i.e. actually address the art intelligently and not just recap the story), and while that is still very much an issue, that's not the one I want to talk about here. Because comics has an entirely different, possibly more sinister criticism problem.

A not small number of comic creators simply have no idea how to handle, process, or react to criticism. At all.

So what made me finally decide to write something about this? Recently, artist Randy Queen took issue with the Escher Girls Tumblr and how they treated his work on the comic Darkchylde. This isn't specifically about that, so if you'd like a good summary of the events (which included his apology), check out this post on Robot 6. But the short short version is that he sent DMCA takedown notices to Tumblr which then removed the critical posts (not just the images) and then followed up this by threatening to sue. This isn't really what I want to talk about, but it helps frame things.

So let's start this simply: It is never, ever, ever okay to threaten to sue someone over this kind of criticism. It doesn't matter how bad a place you're in or how angry it makes you. It doesn't matter if you apologize after. This is ridiculous and childish. And yes, this is the kind of overreaction that doesn't happen often, but there are people out there cheering this kind of attitude on so it has to be specifically called out. If you do this or if you think this kind of action is okay, then you need to walk away from art forever because you cannot handle it.

But this kind of thing isn't the norm. There are, however, constant things said in response to criticism that do need to be talked about.

First, style is never, ever, ever a valid defense against criticism. "It's just my style" is, quite simply, the cry of a bad artist. Style is not some stalwart defense against critique. Style is just how your work looks. "I just draw that way" doesn't alter the validity of any criticism. It's a deflection. Style doesn't mean that you get a pass on proportions being bad, perspective being off, or just generally drawing in a way that doesn't communicate well. Which is not to say one cannot draw in a stylized way and realism is the One True Path. There's a reason "draw from life" is a constant piece of advice given to all artists, regardless of style.
This is also not to say that everyone must like a certain style or dislike another. Tastes are different. That's fine and normal. But the point of criticism is for the critic to express how they feel about a work and, if done well, WHY. Because of this, "That's just how I draw" is not a valid response to a criticism that says, for example, "The human body cannot bend that way."

Now for a (hopefully) quick tangent. Comics is FULL of that last bit and this entire discussion is largely sparked by that. It is a simple fact that women in comics have been drawn in ridiculous poses wearing moronic outfits for years, all of which primarily exist for male readers to enjoy looking at. "Male heroes are drawn crazy too!" is not a valid response, either. Male heroes are drawn as a male power fantasy. Female heroes are drawn as a male sexual fantasy. Those are NOT equivalent. In the past, I've struggled with this myself. Now, though, I'm tired of it. The good news is that the majority of comics is moving away from this, but a very loud group of both fans and creators continue to pretend it isn't there and they are both WRONG and LOSING THAT FIGHT.

One last comment on this before the next point: It is okay to like drawings of sexy women. You are not a bad person for that. At the same time, liking something doesn't make it less problematic. Liking something doesn't make it GOOD. Similarly, that things are normal and have always been a certain way does not mean they should continue to be or that it's okay. And to tie it all back to this section, SEXY WOMEN IS NOT A STYLE.


Second. Putting a lot of time into something does not make it good. Working hard on something does not make it good. Neither of those reasons are valid defenses against criticism. People work long and hard on many things that end up terrible. Not everything succeeds. Things fail. We don't set out to make something and fail, but it happens. It's a normal part of creating. In fact, it's pretty much required. You will fail. You will screw up. You will make bad things. You will make things that people hate.

They might even tell you how much they hated it. Telling them how hard you worked on it and how many hours you stayed up not sleeping to do so won't change that. And it shouldn't. Because that's not the comic. YOU are not being critiqued. The comic is. So stay away from this mindset.

Third. Seniority does not make you immune to criticism. Where the previous two points are more commonly associated with newer comic creators (and also two of the biggest pieces of advice to new creators about things to never say), this one certainly isn't. It does tie into a point that's already been made. Specifically, the creator is not the work. How long a person has worked in comics, how much work they've produced over the years, and how many people they've influenced is irrelevant to the work being critiqued. This is for the same reason that saying you worked on something for a long time doesn't matter: it says NOTHING about the actual comic.

There's a theme here, that I think it's time to touch on. Mainly that most of the common defenses against criticism involve completely changing the subject. We immediately look to, instead, find fault with the critic. It's one thing for fans to do this. It's an entirely different thing to see creators do it. Why is that?
Well, try to look at it this way. You, a comic creator, are sitting behind a table at a convention and someone you've never met brings you a their portfolio of work. For every critique you give them, they use responses like the ones mentioned above. "This is just how I draw" or "I worked on this forever" or "I've been doing this for years!" or any number of others that we've all heard or even said are not acceptable. In fact, creators tend to MOCK people that use these excuses in such a scenario.

And to bring things back around, it's not as if what the people at Escher Girls do is any different than what many creators do at conventions when critiquing portfolios. Draw-overs, detailed explanations of where perspective isn't working, showing why the form doesn't work in certain panels, etc. There is no difference here.

Criticism is a vital part of making any art. Analyzing and internalizing work is important, as is understanding why things work or don't work. And if you want to be a creator of anything, criticism is a part of life. To think that all criticism is wrong is childish. To think that critics only do what they do because they're jealous or want to take people down a notch is also childish.

Being paid to make comics doesn't change any of this. Doing it for years doesn't change it. Being popular doesn't change it. Because none of those stop people from making mistakes. In fact, many of them cause the opposite.

Finally, and maybe more important of all, someone critiquing a work is not deserving of scorn because you don't agree with them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Critical Look at: Hawkeye #1

First things first. This is an experiment. There has been much said in the comic world lately about reviews and the general failing of most of them to address art or storytelling or even be more than a quick summary of the book. I'm not going to get into that whole debate. Instead, the discussion fired up an old desire I've had: Reviewing comics from a critical eye. So here's the first attempt.

And it is going to be a long read.

Second. I feel the need to at least point out who I am and where I'm coming from with this before I go into the details of this. No, I'm not doing this because I think other reviewers are bad horrible people. In fact, I don't think this is a review. This isn't being done to tell you to buy or not buy something. The goal isn't even to tell you whether a book is good or bad. Rather, I want to talk about storytelling and the comic medium. So who am I to do this? For one, I make comics. I've only been at it for a few years, but I write, pencil, letter, and study the medium intensely. There are smarter people than me and better people than me, but that combined with a degree in fine art and art history and I feel like I at least have the language to talk about the things I want to talk about. So yes: I'm nobody.

The first comic I'm going to talk about here is Hawkeye #1, from Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, and Chris Eliopoulos. It isn't new, but it IS something I feel like I can talk about. As this goes on, some old and new comics will come in, but this is where we'll start. If you want to read along and don't have the book, it's available on Comixology if you click this link. No, I don't get anything if you do that. But it might help to follow along.

One last important thing before I get this going: I am going to do my best to talk about the book as a whole. Writing, art, color work, and lettering as one thing. That means I will do my best to not call out who did what or where, just what is right on the page and what it does. Why? Because a comic is collaborative. Without seeing the script and every communication between the various creative people, who did what is impossible to determine. So I'm not going to do that. This is also not about the story within the comic, but HOW the story is told and where and how that works or doesn't. I am also NOT referencing anything the creators of the book have talked about. This is me and just me here.

Now. I'm going to talk one page at a time, move through the story like that, and post a few images to go with it. This will likely read best if you have the book, or a digital version, in front of you, but hopefully it will read well anyway. I also apologize in advance for the quality of the images. There is some review of 'what happens' here, but hopefully only to help talk about the storytelling rather than a summary.

These are scans of the physical book, not digital versions, so I've done my best to clean up the scans a bit so they're more representative of what it looks like on the page, though you'll likely want to click on them to get a better look.

So here we go. Page 1. Panel 1.

Page 1

Splash page. Big, dramatic, and immediately eye catching. Hawkeye's falling backwards. There are no motion lines, but a great sense of motion created by the grapple arrow in the foreground. It's flying up and to the left, against the flow of reading, while Hawkeye falls down and to the right, the direction you read the page. It's a great way to show tension and motion because if you look in the center, you can see how the line extends in BOTH directions...but also, we're only shown the ground below, so the threat of falling is far more prominent. A nice thing that's easy to miss are the arrows behind Clint, falling ahead of him. The way they're all falling randomly is a nice touch to add to the chaos of the page.

Line quality is something worth mentioning right off the bat, as well. Foreground elements like the glass are thicker and the lines in the ground are thin, which is standard for showing depth, but the eye catching thing here is the lines themselves. Everything is quick and gestural. The lines aren't even. They all have energy of their own. This gives every object a bit of energy and nothing really feels static, even the buildings.

The use of color is also immediately important to bring up. Hawkeye is in his uniform: Black and a bit of purple and his blonde hair. You've got the faintly blue tinted shards of glass and then the rest of the page is a huge amount of orange. It pulls Clint (I'm just going to use his name from now on rather than Hawkeye) forward. Again, this is pretty basic stuff, but it is also extremely effective. The other thing worth mentioning about the color is that it's flat. Flat isn't bad. It gives the book a very graphic quality, strongly complimenting the gestural lines, and also prevents a common problem of many comics: over-rendered coloring that distracts the reader. Here, you see what you need to see: the colors take your eyes directly to Clint in the center.

The next page is something that probably isn't expected, but I want to at least give it a nod: The credits page. There's some very nice and simply graphic design work here, and also a short few lines about what this book IS: This is about Clint when he's not being an Avenger. And on the immediate next page, we see Clint's fall go very bad, with some narration about his background in some fun narration. He tells the reader what he isn't all the while having a very bad fall, which is a very nice use of images and words working together.

Page 3 (not counting ads or the credits page here...) we get a single page that tells us pretty much everything about Clint as a character. This page is all character. Clint's narration is fairly obvious, but the strong yellows and oranges that dominate the page add to it and are a huge visual cue to the reader for things to come.

Page 4 is the other half of the visual cue. Everything is blue now. Clint's bleeding and the dog that we haven't yet seen looks to be in bad shape. Color is key to this issue. Yellows and oranges and we're in the past. Blues are 'now'. There are a couple of pages that are different, but overall that's the flow of things. And outside of the visually more beat-up Clint and the color shift, there is NOT indication of this time change. It's left to the reader to work out where things fit in.

Page 5 is back in the yellow and continuing the scene from Page 3, but it also has another visual element that ties the jumbled storytelling (timeline wise) together. Clint in Page 5 Panel 1 is in the same pose as Page 4 Panel 4, except now we've got a smile and no blood. The transition is also helped by the dialogue, both of which are quick mirrors of one another and keep the scenes connected.

Page 6

Page 6 is still yellow. And here's a page where the color does a wonderful thing by isolating Clint. He's purple and blue and, especially in Panel 4, that pulls your eye directly to him. There's a lot going on in this page, but the color keeps you looking where you should. The framing helps as well. Again in Panel 4, there's a small area around Clint where the cars give him some visual space, as well as the word balloons surrounding him without crowding. All the elements in the panel take your eye to him. Panel 5 is good to bring up for what it does differently: Clint is walking right to left. Generally, characters should move left to right because that's how we read the books, but here it's different. Why? The transition from Panel 4 to 5 to 6 is key here. On Panel 4, you're at the far right of the page, and 5 he walks back to the left side, then in 6 he's coming out of an alley in the left corner, with arrows in the graffiti pointing to Panel 7 where his body is creation a shape that leads you to the next page.

Page 6 and 7 also are the first time we get a wonderful bit of dialogue. "(Some Spanish-Sounding Stuff!)" and "Back off, (Russian maybe?)..." This is dialogue adding to character. We've had Clint's internal monologue for a few pages now, so we're already getting a feel for his voice, and now we're truly in his head when he can't understand what's being said. It's a fun touch.

Page 8 is blue again, and Panel 1 is another repeat, this time from Page 7 Panel 8. Now the blacks are heavier and the mood of the page is darker. We even end on a silhouette. A good talky page with varied angles and actual movement in the body language.

Page 9 is red. We haven't had red before. Also note another scene change with Panel 1 mirroring the final panel of the previous scene. It's evening here and an introduction to some supporting cast. Quite a lot of character moments are packed into this one page. Panels 2, 3, and 4 create a unique looking visual effect. The bottom of Panel 2 is flanked by 3 and 4, which begin and end the action. But in the center is the target. It's nice and different and something unique to comics. Last panel has a caption that is new and another use of a color cue: Instead of white, the caption is blue. Which means...

Page 10 is blue again. We meet the dog here. Clint isn't beat up. Here's page one of the blue scenes. We've caught up so the yellow is gone from this point on. And it would be wrong of me to write all of this and not at least mention the name Pizza Dog once. More fun "bro"-filled dialogue here, as well.

Page 13

Page 11, 12, and 13 are green. It's still a direct continuation of Page 10, and you can even see the blue through the door behind Clint in Page 11. Page 11 and 12 are good, moody pages of dialogue with not-too-subtle threats that some very heavy blacks only add to. And then we get the fight in Page 13. Four panels give us the card throw that starts the fight, and this time instead of the target in the center (he's last), we get Clint's full throwing motion. So you see both at once here, the step by step action, the full arc, and then the impact. And it all happens on the page at once.

Page 14 is blue and we're in the pet clinic from Page 3 again, but now we're after that point. Again, we've got transition from the previous page to the current with a similar pose: Clint being hit by the bottle, and Clint sleeping with the injury in the same pose. When the tracksuit-wearing bros enter here, we see them completely differently that before: heavy silhouettes, heads turned down, and a threatening low angle in Panel 5. We're after the fight on Page 13, but we still don't have the connective tissue between the scenes.

Page 15, 16, and 17 are that. The fight from Page 13 continues outside into blue again, and here's where something interesting happens. Panels begin to shift up and down with the lettering above or below rather than within. Instead of words within actions, here they happen separately. Page 15 Panel 2, the thought hits and then the visual along with the second thought. Page 15 Panel 4 is the opposite: Clint looks back and THEN thinks, and in the next panel continues that thought and THEN runs. This continues somewhat erratically into Page 16, but immediately stops when Clint turns around to help Pizza Dog. Now it's all in the moment again. Page 17 keeps that going, the coin trick comes back, this time traveling left to right (Usually actions like that are good to go against the flow, as it feels more sudden, but this also follows the direction Clint's hand is aiming in Panel 5. Last thing on Page 17 is that we have a scene transition happen within the page in the last three panels. Looking down, can't watch, light on the silhouette dog, and then the next panel is lit up and we're back in the clinic again.

From here on, the rest of the story is linear. Page 18 has more great-looking sound effects, and a ton of motion from the punch in Panel 3 thanks to the extreme foreground flying glasses. In Panel 4, everything is aimed at the center point: Body language, cracks in the window, folds in the clothes, and even the tails subtly take your eye to where Clint's left arm is. Panel 5 should be pointed out for the use of silhouettes and the way the villain pops because of the white stripes. No more detail, but the body language tells us everything we need to know.

Page 19 ends the scene with more exposition and strong body language. The gestural lines really pulls the page together here, as it shows us heavy rain without actually drawing a lot of rain. It's all in the negative space, especially in the final panel.

And then Page 20. Pizza Dog is fine. A nice joke, some more very strong, subtle acting through body language, and that's it. If you pay attention to the last 'panel', which doubles as a sort of title page, you also get the dog's name as the story title, a payoff to the page's joke that isn't entirely confirmed until a few issues later. Big thing here, though? One and done. This is a complete story. Clearly, more can come, but everything that was set up had a payoff.

So there we go. I'm not sure how much of this format will be the same next time I do this, or even what book the next one will be, but I can assure you more are coming. I'm open to comments on how I'm handling this, but I'll say right now I doubt I can get much less wordy. I'm a wordy person and I feel like, to do justice to this kind of thing, this kind of length is going to be important. So I hope you liked it and I hope it helps and I hope it isn't completely incomprehensible.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Thoughts on Marriage in Superhero Comics

That's right, I'm back to rambling here. Going to try to make this more regular (again). A few things are in the works that will hopefully be regular and good.

For now, though, I want to talk about one of the current hot-button topics for superhero comics: marriage.

It's been brought to the forefront of discussion a few times, but this time it's come up because of the DC comic Batwoman. I'm not going to recount everything, so here's what's important for the purposes of this post: The creative team on Batwoman announced they were leaving the book due to creative differences with editorial. One of their specific reasons cited was DC stating that Batwoman and her fiance, Maggie Sawyer, would not be allowed to be married...ever. This turned into a "DC won't allow gay marriage!" as headlines everywhere and the truth turned out to be "DC does not want their characters to be married." This extended to the point of stating that, essentially, NONE of the major characters in the DC Universe are married since their reboot a few years ago.

This isn't the first case of marriages in superhero comics having trouble and being dealt with in somewhat strange ways. A prime example is Marvel's breaking up of Peter Parker and Mary Jane via a deal with the devil a few years ago. Not to mention the various other cases of marriages ending in strange and/or horrible ways throughout the years.

Okay. So. Why?

A common stated reason from companies in breaking up marriages is that characters being married ages them more than they'd like. Peter Parker being married to Mary Jane Watson took Spider-Man from being the younger loser to, in some eyes at least, a middle-aged guy living a more normal life. Marriage also tends to lead to the idea of children, and heroes having kids is another thing entirely. There's at least some truth to that perception, especially when you want to get more kids reading comics and are having trouble pulling that off for various reasons that would require at least ten more blog posts all on its own.

Another reason given is that marriage limits storytelling. Marriage is seen as stability, when it comes to most superhero stories. There is a sense of marriage tying down a character and limiting what future creative teams can do. Now, this isn't a completely wrong thought. Generally, a main character that's married won't be able to juggle multiple dates and saving a city while trying to keep a normal job, and that kind of thing is a staple of superhero comics.

A very accurate statement about superhero comics is that they are constantly second act stories. Essentially, this just means that your origin and basis for the character are well and done with and the nature of these corporate characters is that they won't actually have direct endings, so you never get a true resolution for them. Instead, smaller story arcs will get endings of varying levels, but always with a forward momentum to the next adventure.

I'll keep using Spider-Man as an example here. Peter Parker is a character driven by guilt. Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar that Peter let go, reasoning it wasn't his job to catch criminals. Afterwards, guilt drives him to actual superheroing and there's the Spider-Man we all know. Probably worth adding in guilt over the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy, as well, but the key point is that Peter Parker's key trait as a character is struggling with his failures. So there's your second act. But the moment he gets over this guilt, by finding a way to deal with or just through the passing of time, the story ends. That's it. Your act three for this story is Peter coming to terms with all of this, and the nature of superhero comics demands that this NEVER HAPPENS.

What does this have to do with marriage?

Well, for a vast majority of stories, the character getting married and settling down is the end. Act three is the hero getting the girl, to put it in overly simplistic terms. It's the idea of ending your story with "happily ever after" with marriage essentially representing that. The hero settles down, fade-out, and all is well and done. So, for many that look at superheroes, getting married is the END of the story. Structurally, it does make quite a bit of sense.

So here's the part where I really get to ramble: My thoughts on all of this.

On a purely structural level, I don't disagree with this and I actually completely understand the vast number of comic writers that feel they can tell better stories with unmarried characters. Everyone has different ways of doing things and it's not actually right or wrong.

However! The larger sweeping justifications that are generally brought out are, on the whole, kind of bad.

Here's the thing. I was 24 when I got married. That's still pretty young. Now, I know people in their 40s that have been single all their lives. My perception is skewed. To me, marriage isn't really tied to age. But I CAN understand the corporations not wanting characters that are meant to appeal to younger audiences being perceived as aging up too far. At least on this point, I'm more or less willing to concede or call it a draw.

The larger issue, I feel like, is the idea of marriage as the end. All of the struggles of life don't just stop when a person gets married. If anything, a strong argument can be made that they're all heightened. This isn't to say that it doesn't get terribly cliche when stories go to the well of "The hero's significant other has been kidnapped!" but...well, that's still the same if the characters are dating. In fact, many of the perceived problems with marriage still exist with characters that aren't married! Married characters still have the worry of marriages ending, family in danger, or anything else that a single character does if they've got a significant other of some kind, which most superheroes do.

On the one hand, when it comes to corporate characters, blanket declarations like "Our characters will not be married" are going to happen. They own the characters, they can do what they like with them. But I feel like the problem comes in with the very idea that married characters cannot be interesting in stories. Good writers can make anything work, and while some would argue against it, there ARE a ton of great writers working in superhero comics today doing fantastic work.

So this thing is going to keep happening. There are legitimate reasons for blanket decisions like this. But, for the record, married characters aren't boring. Marriage doesn't age a character too far. If that were true, there wouldn't be a huge number of Spider-Man fans that are my age, who only ever knew a Peter Parker that was married to Mary Jane Watson.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some Thoughts on Seren

So begins my effort to actually use this blog. If all goes well, expect more updates here that are generally less formal and likely more rambly than previously. We shall see how it goes!

I don't do a lot of talking about any of the thought process that does the ground work for the webcomic my wife and I work on, Of Stars and Swords. Mostly, I like to let the work speak for itself. That's the idea, at least. But after talking with people at Megacon this year and seeing some things other creators have been saying about their own work, I've been rethinking my silence.

So here is the result, some thoughts about the comic's main character, Seren. There will be some mild spoilers here, mostly from the first twenty pages of the comic that detail some important background, but that should be about it. If you don't want those spoilers, go read the pages then come back here!

The best place to start is at the beginning, so here's how things came together. The basic idea of what would become Of Stars and Swords always had it's inception in a fairly common concept: There are two brothers from a noble family, one is a jerk and one isn't. The latter gives up money and power and all that goes with it for a happy life with a loving family, but the former isn't about to have that and murders the family because he's a jerk. The family was always a wife, a son, and a daughter in my mind. In the initial thinking, it was the son that survives and goes off to find his father and get revenge.

At some point, obviously, that changed. Why? I'm not too terribly sure. The best I can remember is lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about all of this when I wondered why not have it be the daughter that survives. Somehow, that thought made everything else click. Why not have it be the daughter that survives and wants revenge? Her being arrogant, stubborn, a teenager, and all the other things that make her insufferable and/or wonderful were pretty quick to follow. She became a very well realized character in a short amount of time, to the point that I knew exactly where she had to begin and where she'd end up once all was said and done.

Writing Seren comes easy for me. I have never been a teenage girl with a murdered family in a fantasy setting, but I was a teenager and I look back on that with one clear thought: I was a little shit. We all were, really. In my mind, we all went through pretty much the same crap at that age, and it's just a matter of tapping that to find where Seren's voice is. She's stubborn, she thinks everyone around her is an idiot, she doesn't listen to advice, she doesn't think about anything but the goal directly in front of her, and she's very easily put off when things don't go her way IMMEDIATELY. And the worst part? She's smart, capable, and able to back up a lot of her talk with actual skill and ability. Plus, she's pretty good with a sword and fairly quick to use it.

In a lot of ways, she's a pretty terrible person. In those first twenty pages, we see her kill a man because...well, just because. There's no real good reason. She just does it. And barely thinks twice about it. It's a moment that made sense to me writing it, but has been jarring for at least a few readers. And it should be, honestly. I'm actually surprised that people ever admit to liking her at all, as we've seen very little of Seren being anything but a borderline bad person. Even writing her, sometimes I just want to yell at Seren to take some deep breaths and go pet a turtle or something for just an hour, because if she keeps brooding and yelling at everyone her face is going to get stuck that way and then I'm just going to type in run on sentences out of rage at how infuriating she can be.

But sometimes she does make the right decision. Sometimes she takes those revenge blinders off and there's a moment of possibility that she COULD be better. She just...keeps going the other direction. Obviously, the reason to keep reading is to see if she ever does turn things around, so I won't say anything on that. She might, but she might not. There are some rough moments coming up in the story, and so far Seren hasn't proven to deal with those all too well.

Before I end this stream-of-conscious-like blog post, I want to babble about one more thing. Namely, Seren being a girl, and a fully clothed one at that. Comics, especially, have a big problem with how female characters are depicted, and things are definitely in the process of getting better...but fantasy is a genre that seems to have even more problems with that, especially the fully clothed part. But here's the thing: Seren isn't a girl OR fully clothed to buck any trends or show people 'how it's done'. Seren is a girl because...well, I mentioned it before. She just is. It fit. The story came together the second that thought hit. Why? I don't know. And why is she fully clothed? Well, because she is dammit. Her design is something I put together that Caroline has then tweaked since she's the one doing the penciling, but even that was never a 'I'll show them!' in how she's dressed. It just made sense. Fantasy worlds are full of sharp and stabby things and, besides, showing skin is cold and stupid and just asking for trouble. You're all just lucky she doesn't have a mask or hood, as well, because that would sure make all the sneaking around a lot easier.

And I've rambled enough. I don't know if any of this makes sense, but it at least can give you an idea of where Seren came from and where I come from in writing her. Or I just read like a crazy person, which isn't terribly inaccurate. Either way, if you guys find this kind of thing interesting, I'll gladly do more of this in the future. Probably do it anyway, maybe even more about Seren as Of Stars and Swords moves along.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Five Comic Picks of 2011

Okay. So, honesty first. I've not updated this blog enough. I've still got quite a lot to say, but the need to work has taken over most of my writing. If you don't also follow my art blog I share with my wife, I just put up a a good post explaining how much we're working on. 

In addition, as mentioned over there a ton but, it looks like, not really at all here, we launched our webcomic back in October! If you haven't seen it, please check it out. We're both working our butts off on it: Of Stars and Swords.

So that out of the way, here's a slightly different kind of post for this blog that fits in with the fact that it's the last day of the year. I don't like lists, and I don't like putting things in a ranked order, but I can at least mention some comics that were, for me, the best of the year. I'll keep it five, since any more than that and I'll just ramble on until another year has passed.

And in no particular order, here are my comic picks of the past year.

NOTE: Click the images to get a better look! (I feel terrible constantly saying that, but...)

Daredevil: Mark Waid, Marcos Martin, and Paolo Rivera have put a new life to a hero I always enjoyed but tended to mostly ignore overall. This book is on quite a few 'top comics of 2011' lists and for damn good reason. Mark Waid is telling a story that is fun, enjoyable, and not at all the painfully depressing stories that poor Daredevil has been stuck in the last two decades. Now, those dark stories aren't bad. Some of the best things ever are right in those by amazing writers, but the current Daredevil book is just a fun read. Heavy things happen, but it doesn't weigh the reader down.

And the art. Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera have just killed on the art. It is one of the most beautiful books out there right now. I'm just going to pick one image for each artist to show off, but each issue is full of pages you can stare at for days. In a good way. How these two artists are finding ways to depict Daredevil's sonar vision constantly amazes me, as well as the strong uses of sound effects to highlight his hearing.

It's just all around good.

Journey into Mystery: Thor's evil half-brother Loki died a year or so back in the comics. He's been back as a kid lately, not so evil and trying to be good while still being the God of Tricks you'd expect. That basically sums up the main character, a kid trying not to be his former self. But there's so much more to this book and I have a hard time explaining why it's so good. It is another fun book, and that is always a plus to me. Loki as a kid is hilarious. He deals with technology in great ways (his early anger at being called an internet troll on forums and wondering how they could know that he's half-troll still makes me laugh).

But beyond just the fun of the character, the stories are good. This book actually has subplots, subtle character shifts and tons of moving parts that come together exactly when you wouldn't expect it in the perfect way. Nothing is left hanging, story wise. If something is left behind, you can bet there's still a story there and it'll be handled by Kieron Gillen very well when the time is right. Not to mention the one off-stories  being some of the best in comics: A literal "Devil walks into a bar..." story, an amazing Christmas story, and a great telling of the major Marvel even of the year, Fear Itself, through the eyes of the always-entertaining Volstagg.

And, again, the art is something else. This book has had a fairly large group of artists coming on and off the book in the past year, but there's been a consistent style held very well between all of them. Even when the artists change, the book feels very much the same. I'm partial to Mitch Breitweiser's art, so he's the example I'll show. That also has the plus of his wife, Elizabeth, doing the colors and she is one of the best out there right now.

The Flash: I'll admit it, I'm a Marvel guy. I always have been. That doesn't mean I don't have some DC characters I've always vaguely enjoyed without being too deep into the actual reading. Flash has always been a character I've loved the idea of, and DC's New 52 was the perfect jumping on point since everything is new again!

This book is only four issues in right now and it is absolute stunning. Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are telling a very good superhero story and using Flash's powers in very interesting, unique ways. Not only that, but putting the Fastest Man Alive in a situation where an entire city is experiencing a simultaneous disaster is just perfect and exciting to read.

But I'll admit to there being one real reason why this book is amazing. It's all about the art here. Manapul's art has always been great, but this book is something else entirely. Page layouts are absolutely insane at times, telling things about settings just by how the panels themselves are structured. Each issue has a title page that is put together in ways I've never dreamed comics could do. And the best part? They all read absolutely perfectly. Crazy, unique layouts and perfect readability is a the holy grail in comic art for me.

FF: Much earlier this year, Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four died. But this didn't become a dead weight on the Fantastic Four as one might expect. Instead, Johnathan Hickman turned things around. The book was relaunched as FF (standing for Future Foundation) with Spider-Man taking the fourth spot on the team and then the entire cast of characters building up over Hickman's run joining together in one huge super-science super-hero team.

This book, along with Hickman's lead up to it with Fantastic Four, brought me back to the First Family of Marvel. Hickman is able to write the super-science well and tell some insane stories with it all. There are wheels within wheels within wheels here. The plots can get complicated, but never overwhelming. It just creates a way to always want to turn the page and then the hard wait for the next issue at the end.

Of the five comics I'm talking about, this is the only one where the art is not a big reason for my enjoyment. Now, that is hard to type without sounding like I hate the art. And I don't. FF has had some great artists, with Steve Epting being a guy I've always loved as an artist. His work is a highlight, and all the other artists that have been on the book have done stellar work...but with FF, for me at least, this is about the story. I'm in this for Hickman's wild story.

The Red Wing: Which leads perfectly into another Hickman work. I feel bad that this is my only indie book listed here, but it's been a damn good year for more mainstream comics in my view. The Red Wing is something else, too. It's a story about time traveling fighter pilots.

Just let that sink in.

There is nothing in that sentence that doesn't appeal to me.

The best part? That barely scratches the surface. The Red Wing is a four issue series, so it's short and straight to the point. But there is an insane amount of content in just these four issues. The plot is a mostly basic idea, but Hickman takes the time travel concepts to insanely logical lengths. This book gives headaches when you read it, and the good kind. What happens when and why are always there to be asked, and even at the end of it all...I'm not 100% sure how it all came together. But somehow, I like that. I can read it again, and I have, and see things connect in different ways and put pieces together.

The Red Wing makes you think. Hard.

And it is gorgeous. Artist Nick Pitarra goes crazy with designs of everything and there is not an ounce of laziness here. Backgrounds are as detailed as anything, and he visually shows the acts of time travel in amazing, wonderful ways. Can you tell I loved this book?

So yeah...there you go. My five favorite comics of 2011. If you haven't read them, I highly recommend them all. And if you have read them...well...weren't they awesome?!

p.s. to add one more book to this list without going into detail: Amazing Spider-Man. Read it. Just read it.