My silence the last couple of weeks has been a silence of stewing, of spiraling off into increasingly vague and ephemeral considerations of what exactly the hell I am doing right now, followed by crashes back down to terra firma, all of it pickled in whiskey and White Russians.
2011 was a disappointing year for American cinema, at least for me. I saw many films that I admired and that have stuck with me (13 Assassins, Bellflower, Drive, Meek’s Cutoff, and Take Shelter spring immediately to mind), but none that I loved. You’ll notice that none of those five films grossed more than $35.1 million (Drive), and that they averaged a box office take of $7.7 million. My tastes do not exactly dovetail with most audiences’.
Mainstream fare, meanwhile, with the exception of Captain America (better than it had any right to be) and X-Men: First Class (very good indeed) was…execrable? Last year’s slate of blockbusters was more egregious in its mediocrity (see: Green Lantern) and unoriginality (see: all the sequels and remakes) than any year in recent memory. As for the “prestige” films, I saw only one Best Picture nominee (The Descendants, which was…fine, I guess), but don’t feel the need to ever see the others, aside from The Tree Of Life.
But in return for enduring those twelve months, I get…this year.
Planetary is the story of the titular organization, a wealthy private agency dedicated to uncovering the hidden history of the 20th century — the mad science, the alien encounters, and other brushes with the paranormal — “mystery archaeology”, as one character puts it. The protagonists are Planetary’s field team, a squad of three superhuman operatives who get out and delve into the esoteric events uncovered by the agency’s support staff. The title also refers to the global scope of both the organization and the series, as they seek some kind of understanding of the strange world in which we live.
Comics writer and novelist Warren Ellis often advises prospective comics writers that the best way to learn how to write comics is to read them — not as a consumer, but as a detective. Combing through work you admire, page by page, and breaking down how the writer and artists accomplish certain things equips you with tools you can then use in your own work.
My attempts to write comics have been of middling success, and I believe that may be at least in part because I have not done this kind of close reading. I’ve read plenty of comics, of course. I’ve read plenty of comics scripts. I’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, perhaps the best available work on the visual craft of the form. None of these, however, are quite the same as taking the finished product, smashing it apart into its constituent elements, and pawing through the wreckage.
So I’m going to do that, and I’m going to share. Inspired by The A.V. Club’s new Back Issues feature, I’ll be re-reading some of my favorite comics in an attempt to discover what makes them tick. I’ll be looking at issues of structure, characterization, theme, and particularly the comic as visual product — how panel layouts, point of view, and other visual elements contribute to the narrative.
First up will be Ellis’ Planetary, art by John Cassaday and Laura Martin. Planetary ran for 27 issues, released sporadically from 1999 to 2009. The series’ relative brevity and self-contained, straightforward narrative should make it a good first subject for this experiment.
If you’re interested in reading along, the series is available in four collections. Check back here early next week for my entry on Volume 1, All Over The World And Other Stories, covering issues 1-6. (paperback, Kindle, Nook, ComiXology)
Greg Stolze’s Progenitor (Arc Dream Publishing, 2010) originated with a thought experiment conducted by the author on the RPG.net forums in late 2008, growing from there into a 380-page alternate history of the last third of the 20th Century. The book provides a setting for Wild Talents, a tabletop roleplaying game where players portray characters with superhuman abilities, dice are rolled, and foes are vanquished (or not.)
What sets Progenitor apart from other gaming material, however, is Stolze’s commitment to examining the consequences of his premise, resulting in one of the best recent examples of world-building. Any writer assembling their own speculative-fiction setting has something to gain from examining Stolze’s work.
Miriam Black knows when and how you’re going to die, but she doesn’t care.
We meet the protagonist of Chuck Wendig’s novel Blackbirds (Angry Robot, 2012) in the act of stringing a man along in a motel room while she waits for the aneurysm that she already knows is coming to take him out. She then robs his corpse and goes on with her night. Not the most sympathetic introduction.
At first blush, Miriam seems to descend from a long line of cooler-than-morality urban fantasy heroines, flipping a firm middle finger to the world while drinking and fucking her way through the seediest of truck stops and roadside bars. It’s only when a chance encounter causes her to question the truths she believed about her strange ability that she reveals the pain that comes with knowing the exact manner of death of anyone you touch.