Recent Reads – February 2018

Here are a few quick thoughts on some comics I’ve recently read:

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and  Jacen Burrows

If you read this blog and/or follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a big fan of the recent series Providence by this same team. Providence is the last of three works by them that focus on things H.P. Lovecraft-related, with Neonomicon being the second and The Courtyard (also included in this collection, but inexplicably not really noted as such anywhere in the trade dress) the first. Given how much I enjoyed Providence, I was really looking forward to Neonomicon. Unfortunately, though, Neonomicon (and The Courtyard for that matter) are far lesser works than Providence. They’re both slight works that function mostly as gross-out cop stories layered over some Lovecraft pastiche. If anything, reading these has further cemented my belief that one major flaw of Providence is that it’s not a stand-alone work–the characters from these early stories appear toward the end of Providence and are a bit baffling if you’ve not read the earlier stuff. Also: Neonomicon is hard to get through because of Moore’s (by now expected) inclusion of rape. While I’d argue that the one instance of sexual violence in Providence ties in with the narrative and character in a way that serves some overall purpose, the rape element here is portrayed gratuitously and is just kinda gross. 


Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a lot of reasons: a) Scholastic was seriously hyping it at the most recent school book fair, b) LeUyen Pham is one of the absolute best cartoonist/illustrators working in kids lit today, c) ditto Shannon Hale but for writing, and d) my daughter read it and said it was good. Well, it is good–really good. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was for it to be so gut-wrenchingly, trenchantly brutal in its depiction of how cruel children can be to one another. If I had to compare it to another book, it reminds me a bit of the prose novel Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Well, it’s for sure not that bleak, but it pulls surprisingly few punches–and it’s apparently autobiographical. Pham’s cartooning, as usual, is spectacular, particularly her ability to draw children–their expressions, gestures, even clothes. 


The Little Red Wolf by Amélie Fléchais

This is isn’t a comic–although Amélie Fléchais does comics as well–but, rather, a picture book. I noticed this book last year when I saw a review of it on an Italian-language comics review site and had intended to eventually buy a French edition.  I never did and luckily there’s now an English translation. When I initially started reading, though, and realized that the story was a riff on Little Red Riding Hood but with a wolf as the main character I immediately became dubious. I truly loathe most of those swapped protagonist-type premises. (“It’s Moby Dick, but from the whale’s point of view!” Ugh.) Thankfully, that’s not what’s going on here at all. Without giving any plot away, I’ll just say that–somewhat like True Friends–this (children’s) book addresses some pretty heavy emotional topics in a surprisingly engaging way that doesn’t shy away from the darker/scarier side of things. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that of the three books on this list so far, the two that are ostensibly for children are the ones exploring difficult emotions and scary situations in a way that’s not shallow or gratuitous.  

Oh, I should also probably mention that the artwork here is just gobsmackingly gorgeous


Diana’s Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak

This book–which won an Ignatz award last year–packs a ton of thematic punch for its size–meaning both its relatively small trim size and its modest page count. Diana’s Electric Tongue employs SF for what it’s best at: taking a futuristic concept (in this case, companion and/or lover androids as high-end consumer goods) and using it to explore a down-to-earth topic (loss, separation, failed relationships). This makes the story sound heavier than it is, though. In other hands this could have been a depressing slog, but Nowak’s often hilariously true-to-life dialog and her beautiful cartooning (check out the colors as well as several great isometric cut-away panels of house interiors) keep things chipper enough that when there is an emotional punch (that ending!) it hits hard, as it needs to.  


Gus Tome 4: Happy Clem by Christophe Blain

Admittedly, I’m coming at this one having missed the previous volume (I read the collected, translated volumes one and two from First Second, but got a hold of volume four, not volume three, next) but Happy Clem seems quite different tone-wise than the first two volumes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different. Happy Clem is less madcap and less goofy than the first two volumes–and, as hinted at by the title, it focuses almost entirely on Clem, not Gus. Clem’s settled down into domesticity in San Francisco running a hardware store… but as you can guess, this state of calm doesn’t last long. I wasn’t sure what to make of the numerous “guest appearances” by figures from American Western films–people like DeForest Kelley, Sam Huston, Gene Wilder, etc.–that were rendered expertly but also somewhat distracting. (Total respect, though, for including the distinctive Star Trek site from Arena where Kirk fights The Gorn!) Speaking of expert rendering, this book is 100% worth buying just to look at the art. Every panel is a miniature masterpiece. If there was ever any doubt that Christophe Blain is the greatest living cartoonist working today, this book should settle it. A word of caution though: the French in this book was way beyond my meager skill level and you’ll likely struggle unless you’re a much more accomplished French reader. There’s tons of text in nearly every panel and the language is peppered with odd colloquial expressions (not to mention a lot of cussing) that took some digging for me to translate.  



My Faves of 2017

Here are some of my favorite things from the past year. As with all my previous year-end lists: (1) these are my personal favorite things, not “the best,” and (2) they’re things I enjoyed in 2017, not necessarily things that were new in 2017.

The Junji Ito episode of Manben [Japanese TV show, fansubbed – link]

Fansubs of seasons three and four of the Japanese TV manga documentary Manben have been slow in coming, but thankfully this season four episode which follows horror master Junji Ito jumped the gun and showed up in 2017. In addition to seeing Ito work on the as of yet untranslated story Layers of Fear, we also get to witness his elaborate and giant cat tree.


The Hergé Exposition at the Musées de la civilisation, Québec City [museum exhibit]

I’ve written a big post about this show, but in a nutshell: this was an amazing exhibition and getting to see it (especially given that I’m guessing this will be its only North American stop) was absolutely one of the highlights of my 2017.


Wacom MobileStudio Pro [drawing tablet/computer – link

I received one of these in 2017 on “extended loan” from a friend and was of course delighted to get to try out such a high-end piece of gear. I didn’t really get a chance to put it to the test, though, until year’s-end when we were doing holiday travelling and I took it along for work purposes. It can get hot with heavy use and the battery’s nothing to write home about, but the screen/stylus combo is amazing–far better than my studio Yiynovia–and having a machine with a full OS that runs “real” Clip Studio is a must-have for me. 


Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez [All-ages GN – link]

This all-ages GN from Nobrow is gobsmackingly gorgeous and has a great story as well: definitely kid-focused but not cloying–and even a little bit dark and scary in places. I loved it and so did my nine year-old daughter. 


The MNT [Patreon-based monthly comics newsletter – link]

The MNT is a new magazine of comics reviews/criticism that’s using Patreon as a publishing platform. The minimum pledge is a dollar a month and for that modest amount you get a really well put-together magazine featuring a ton of great writers. They cover a wide range of topics, including: mainstream Marvel/DC stuff, indie releases and indie cartoonists, industry/sales news, personal essays, even obituaries of prominent comics figures.  


Tristan & Yseult by Agnès Maupré and Singeon [French language GN – link]

I wrote an extensive review of this book just recently, so you can read more about it there if you’re interested. But, in short, this is a wonderful adaptation of the traditional tale of Tristan and Isolde, beautifully-drawn, and featuring some of the most interesting comics coloring I’ve seen of late. 


Pope Hats #5 by Ethan Rilly [comic book – link]

The fifth issue of Ethan Rilly’s (AKA Hartley Lin) Pope Hats wraps up the series’s one continuing story–the Frances/law firm bit–and wraps it up in a pretty satisfying way. Just as much a selling point, though, is Lin’s amazing artwork. Pretty much nobody in the indie crowd these days has the sheer drawing prowess–and in particular the brush inking chops–that this guy does. There’s a collection of the Frances storyline coming out in 2018, but I recommend getting the individual issues as there’s a ton of great non-Frances stuff in the earlier issues. 


Under the Hood [comics podcast – link]

Under the Hood is a new “minutiae podcast” about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. The hosts, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and Kieran Shiach, are going through Watchmen and discussing one page per episode. There are few comics that have been as thoroughly planned and thought-through as Watchmen has and that could bear this kind of small-scale analysis. I’ve read Watchmen half a dozen times and there’re still things brought up in this podcast that I’ve not noticed before. 


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [film – link]

Yeah, I know: everyone hated this movie. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan of the source material to evaluate it objectively, but I really enjoyed it. Yeah, the lead guy is kind of jerky and it’s over-long, but it’s also visually absolutely amazing. Just from a design standpoint it’s got more interesting stuff going on in the first ten minutes than any of those Marvel movies do in their entire run-times. Despite its flaws, Valerian is a rare big-budget genre movie that very obviously was made not via some corporate mandate, but because someone was actually passionate about making it–and you can tell. 


Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows – [comic book series – link]

Alan Moore and  Jacen Burrows’s Providence wrapped up this past year. Why this wasn’t a bigger deal is a mystery to me. In addition to likely being Moore’s comics industry swan song, Providence seems to me to be a good candidate for status as Moore’s late-era masterpiece.  Do yourself a favor and go read Craig Fischer’s excellent essay over at TCJ on the ending of Providence


Critical Chips 2 [magazine of comics criticism – link]

If anything, this second volume of Critical Chips is even better than the first volume, which I had on my 2016 faves list. I’m only about half-way through it, but I’d put it on my list solely for things like  Douglas Wolk’s essay on romance comics set at Woodstock and J.A. Micheline’s writing on Ghost in the Shell


David Mazzucchelli originals [photoset – link]

I’m not sure why this Flickr set of Mazzucchelli originals from a 2009 exhibition suddenly surfaced and started making the rounds in ’17, but I’m sure glad it did. I could stare at this stuff for hours. And it’s all high-res! Do yourself a favor and use Flickr’s handy “download the entire set” feature to get yourself a copy of this absolutely amazing stuff. 

Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand [prose biography – link]

Comics has long-needed a thorough biography of one of its most important figures, George Herriman, and now we’ve finally got one. Michael Tisserand’s biography of the Krazy Kat artist is well-researched but never gets bogged down in minutiae–and, most important, it’s a blast to read. Now, when are we gonna get a Gooseberry Sprig collection?  


Review: Tristan & Yseult by Agnès Maupré and Singeon

I don’t usually review books–mainly because for any given comic there’re probably several reviews out there by actual comics critics, who have far more of an idea what they’re doing than I do. In this case, though, I’m making an exception because the book I want to discuss, Tristan & Yseult by Agnès Maupré and Singeon, is a French-language comic that I’m guessing probably hasn’t been reviewed in English. 

I purchased this book when I was on a recent visit to Québec City, at an amazing bookstore called Librairie Pantoute. I’d not heard of the book itself nor either of the creative team; I grabbed it off the shelf because of its cover, which as you can see is quite striking:

What sold me on the book (figuratively and literally) was the coloring. If you know me via this blog or on twitter, you know I’m a sucker for coloring that’s (1) flat, with little to no rendering, and (b) non-literal. And that’s exactly the way this book is colored. Here’re a few examples:

As you can see, this coloring is exactly up my alley: nary a gradient to be found and the artist’s color choices are as much to convey mood (and maybe just for pure aesthetic interest) as to describe the objects represented on the page. Not atypical of French comics, it’s actually pretty difficult to figure out who colored the book. French comics often don’t specifically credit the colorist, so if one’s not listed it could be that the artist colored the book themselves or that an (uncredited) outside colorist was used. In this case, it seems that the artist, Singeon, (what’s with the single-name thing, French cartoonists?) did the coloring here. 

While I eventually warmed to the cartooning itself, I have to admit that at first glance I found it a bit looser than the type of cartooning that I usually gravitate towards. As I read the book, however, I began to really appreciate Singeon’s cartooning. He’s, for example, really great with conveying subtle facial expressions–something I personally struggle with and always appreciate when I see real masters pull off well (see: Raina Telgemeier, Lynn Johnson). You can see this in the last image above, for example. Even without the dialog there you can get an excellent read on what’s going on in the minds of the two characters. Here’re a few more:

He’s also great at drawing vegetation. The second panel in those color examples is a perfect illustration of this, as are these:

His page layouts tend to largely stick to a basic grid–something I also tend to like in comics. Full-page spreads are used sparingly but when they are, the results are pretty stunning:

I absolutely love how the fish in the top example flow from the bottom panel on the left-facing page into the right-facing splash page.

Beyond any of the particulars of Singeon’s cartooning, though, here’s an interesting thing about Tristan & Yseult aesthetically: it’s one of the very few examples I’ve ever seen of a French comic that appears to be highly influenced by American indie comics, rather than the other way around.  You can see the influence generally in the format of the book: it’s smaller than the traditional European album at just 10.5 x 7.5-ish inches. That smaller trim size necessitates a three tier grid, as usually seen in American comics, rather than the four tier grid that’s common in European albums.

Beyond that, though, the actual drawing in the book isn’t typical of what we in North America generally associate with the European cartooning tradition. Singeon’s thin-ish linework and avoidance of spot black for high contrast shading jibes with the ligne claire tradition in Franco-Belgian cartooning, but that style of linework has also been pervasive in modern American indie comics as well for years via influences like Moebius (and via manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo for that matter). Curiously, what Singeon’s cartooning most reminds me of influence-wise is David Mazzucchelli.

And that’s odd because I’m hard pressed to think of many artists–even here in the U.S.–who are overtly influenced by Mazzucchelli. There’s maybe Dash Shaw in the indie corner and David Aja on the more superheroish end of things? Yet, Mazzucchelli is a rare figure who’s respected across a broad array of cartoonists–among superhero folks for his amazing work on things like Year One and Daredevil, but also among indie folks for stuff like Rubber Blanket and Asterios Polyp. I may be completely off-base in my Mazzucchelli comparison–god knows I’ve been pegged as being  influenced by people I’ve literally never heard of–but, in Tristan & Yseult we seem to have a rare example of just such an overt Mazzucchelli influence–and, in this case, an influence coming from his lesser known post-superhero work. 

In particular, the drawing style reminds me of some of Mazzucchelli’s all ages comics, such as this one from the Little Lit series:

I see some of his unique color sense throughout Tristan & Yseult as well:

Whether or not I’m correct with the Mazzucchelli influence in particular, there definitely seems to be an aesthetic influence here coming from North American indie comics. As a North American indie cartoonist interested in–and influenced by–the Franco-Belgian tradition it’s fascinating to see the results of these same influences flowing in the opposite direction.

And what about the story? I’ve somehow managed to graduate from a respectable liberal arts college without reading any permutation of Tristan and Iseult, so I can’t say with a ton of authority what elements of the story are traditional and what are coming from Agnès Maupré. The only notable element of the comic’s narrative that I couldn’t find mention of in the Wikipedia entry on Tristan and Iseult nor the Wagner opera adaptation of it was some interesting thematic elements about vegetarianism. In the comic, King Mark is a staunch vegetarian who nonetheless has to lead his court on hunting parties. At the climax of the book, Tristan is mortally wounded during a hunt–again, not something I could find mention of online. 

One thing I really liked about the story was that it didn’t feel the need–as so many stories do–to explain every. single. thing. Yseult’s mother and Yseult herself seem to have some sort of magic powers. Her mother is the one who creates the love potion. And later we seen Yseult compulsively licking blood off her hands. But these elements are simply put there and not explained. Similarly, King Mark has donkey ears that he keeps hidden beneath his hat. You can google to find an explanation for that one, but again, there’s no need to go into it in this story and thankfully Maupré doesn’t.

Tristan & Yseult is a beautifully-drawn (and colored!) adaptation of a classic tale from literature so you’d think it’d stand a good chance of being translated into English and sold domestically. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. Because of our peculiar American attitudes about sex, nudity, etc. this book is probably off-limits for most U.S. publishers who otherwise might give it a shot–I’m thinking of entities like First Second here. (If it “only” had a lot of graphic violence, that of course would be no problem at all here in the good ol’ USA.) So, I’m glad that I took the effort to struggle through in French.

And speaking of French, a few notes on language for anyone considering reading this: My French, such as it is, is pretty bad (a generous assessment). I have to have a French dictionary at hand and Google Translate open on my phone to get through much of anything. That said, the French in Tristan & Yseult isn’t too complex. As you can see in the sample panels I posted, the volume of text  per panel is reasonable (aside from one big splash page toward the end that’s all text). There are also relatively few weird idomatic expressions in the book–and the ones that were there I was able to figure out relatively easy via Google or by asking about it on Twitter. There are a few instances of wordplay–such as when some courtesans are making cow/animal allusions about Yseult–that I struggled with a bit, but generally most of the French can be popped into Translate as a last resort and will yield something vaguely coherent. Oh, and also: for some reason they talk a lot about butts in the book, so you’ll learn two or three different French words for butts, butt cheeks, etc. Bonus!


Hergé Exposition at the Musées de la civilisation, Québec City


I recently had the good fortune to visit Québec City to see the massive retrospective on Hergé (Georges Remi), the cartoonist known for creating the iconic character Tintin and crafting the twenty-three volumes of his adventures. This exhibition began in Paris in 2016, then traveled to Geneva and London. Guessing that this stop at at the Musées de la civilisation would be its only North American appearance, I jumped at the chance to see it in a location at least relatively nearby. My verdict: despite a few misgivings I had with the way the exhibit is set up, if you’re at all a fan of Hergé’s work, you should absolutely make the trip to see the show while it’s making what I’m guessing will be its only North American appearance.

IMG_20170908_170125~3(My Uber driver in Québec City had a Snowy/Milou key-chain because of course he did.)

The Hergé exhibit was at the Musées de la civilisation, which is a short walk from the Old Town/historic district. It’s hard to miss, as you can see:


The entryway to the museum was done up with the spines of various Tintin books.


The exhibit itself begins in two small anterooms that unfortunately showcase both of the things that I found a bit problematic about the way this exhibit was set up. The rooms contain, oddly, a combination of Hergé’s late-era attempts at modern art, a few other pieces of modern art (some or all are from Hergé’s collection I think), and framed thumbnails from his unfinished final Tintin book, Tintin and Alph-Art.



The larger of the two issues in evidence here is that the exhibit seems be be trying desperately to find some sort of tie-in to connect Hergé to “real art” rather than simply acknowledging that Hergé’s cartooning work is what he’s recognized and celebrated for and focusing on that right from the get-go. Among the non-Hergé works on display was a Roy Lichtenstein piece. There’s no lazier and more tired choice for a “bridge” between comics and fine art than Roy fuckin’ Lichtenstein.

The second issue is one that’s less of a concern to people well-versed in Tintin, but worth mentioning: chronology. As you can probably surmise from the fact that the exhibit opens with work from his unfinished final book, there’s no real consideration of chronology here. A page from Black Island might appear next to a page from Land of the Soviets…which in turn might abut a Destination Moon page. If you know the order of the books, you can see how his work evolves, but if you’re not familiar with the order I imagine it would be difficult to get much of a sense of how Hergé and Tintin grew and developed over time.

Now, for the good stuff: pretty much everything else about the exhibit is great–and especially: all the original art. Via some Twitter-sleuthing I got word that there were ten originals at the exhibit, which seemed a bit slight. More concerning was that the London exhibit apparently just had facsimiles of original art. Thankfully the show in Québec City had actual originals–and a heck of a lot more than ten of them!

Early Tintin works have a complex publication history. The were usually serialized first in a newspaper supplement, then reformatted into books, and then sometimes reformatted yet again for color. And at any stage of this process Hergé (or, in the case of later printings, his assistants) would redraw things, add panels, remove panels, etc. The exhibit does a great job of showing you how these changes played out in the various publications. Here, for example, is a display focusing on one sequence from The Black Island:


Check out how different the original is from the modern published version of even this one corner of a page:


Tintin is of course now wearing his standard outfit, but also his face has been redrawn, eliminating the old-style close-spaced eyes. The backgrounds have been entirely redrawn–and in the case of the second panel, a new background has been added where there was none before. Note also that Hergé has become much more confident in his use of large areas of black. The hatched “ghost outlines” on the Thompsons’ suits are mostly eliminated.

In this detail from another Black Island page you can see that Hergé’s “building” a book-format page by cutting up panels (presumably from the original art for the newspaper version of the story), gluing them to the new board, and then expanding the panels by extending the pre-existing artwork.


Hergé–and the Ligne claire style he originated–is known for an almost “dead” line, but that’s not a wholly accurate notion, especially not when you’re able to see the linework close up. Check the beautiful linework in this panel of Snowy (and note the trademark Hergé “motion squiggle” with the spider):


The room that held these originals got super-crowded later in the day. I was glad I got to the museum right when it opened so I was able to get up close and snap some high-res images of these originals. The back wall of this room was a huge display of Tintin book covers in various languages. Interestingly one language not represented was English. I kind of wondered if this was a bit of subtle shade-throwing by the museum in (French-speaking) Québec City. If so, well played!


Back to the originals, though! It was truly stunning to see pages like this up close:


They had one of my all-time Tintin pages on display–this one from Destination Moon:


Here’s something that really struck me though when seeing this page: The exhibit had virtually no mention at all of Bob de Moor. De Moor was one of Hergé’s assistants at Studios Hergé and he was in charge of drawing things like machinery, backgrounds, landscapes, etc. So in this image, for example, a pretty big chunk of it was presumably drawn not by Hergé himself but by de Moor. Yet, the only mention of de Moor I recall was something about him being dispatched to take some photo-reference images for a book at some point. This is a pretty egregious oversight–if it is indeed just an oversight.

With one odd exception (I’ll get to that next) the exhibit did a good job of explaining the process behind the production of a Tintin book. Here’s a wall-long display showing a page from thumbnails through to colored, printed book:


The one exception? I’m not sure how obvious this is to lay people, but I was really surprised there was no explanation offered within the exhibit for displays like this, which show both the penciled and inked versions of a given page:


In most comics production the inks are of course applied over the pencils. You’d wind up with just one page: the inked page with the pencils now erased from underneath. The exhibit, in fact, had an entire room showing just Hergé’s penciled pages–without any explanation for why they still exist un-inked. Maybe this isn’t something that occurs to non-comics making people? Whatever the case, the explanation is that Hergé would pencil each page, then trace it onto a fresh sheet of paper (presumably with a light box) and then that page would be inked–hence, you wind up with two pages: one of the original pencils, one of the finished inks.

Hergé would sometimes make changes between the pencils and inks. As you can see above, for example, where the final panel of the penciled page is Haddock pratfalling off the airplane gangway–a panel that’s not in the finished page. Below that panel, though, in the lower margin of the page Hergé has drawn the panel that would replace it: Haddock in the plane being attended to by a stewardess.

Another one. Notice how much of this page has been changed.


(Arrows and numbers added by me.) At (1) the bottom panel here is left at pretty much thumbnail state. I’m guessing that’s because it’s essentially a closer view of the top panel and could be achieved mainly via enlarging it and then lightboxing. (2) This panel has been completely eliminated. The panel below has been moved up into its place. In the place of that panel we get the (3) Bom! Bom! Bom! panel. The panel at (4) has also been eliminated and replaced by the one below. With the last panel on the penciled page gone as well, there’s now enough room for those two new panels–including that pretty spectacular ocean scene. There’s very little in the way of backgrounds in most of the penciled pages, presumably because de Moor or one of Hergé’s other assistants would add those.

The Pencils room also contained a big replica of Marlinspike Hall that if nothing else was kind of fun. Various characters were silhouetted in the windows. Here’s Madame Castafiore.



Interestingly the exhibit featured an entire room devoted to Hergé’s/Tintin’s ties to Asia. Several of the Tintin books take place in Asia and one of Hergé’s closest friends was the Chinese artist Zhang Chongren. In addition to some beautiful original pages from The Blue Lotus,  this room also had a wall showing the translations of some of the text from The Blue Lotus. The events of the book take place around the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and Zhang, who supplied the Chinese writing for the book, used the opportunity to sneak in some anti-Japanese slogans. These didn’t go wholly unnoticed, as Japan made a formal complaint to the Belgian government after the book was published.


The final room of the exhibit was devoted to Hergé’s influences and while there were some interesting items here, it seemed more like a catch-all room for odd and ends owned by the Hergé Museum. I enjoyed seeing stuff like an original Bringing up Father page, but I’d have hands-down preferred to see more original Hergé art.

There were plenty of other things that I’ve glossed over here–a wall of beautiful Petit Vingtième covers, various video interviews with Hergé, originals of some of his non-Tintin comics work, etc. But the main attraction for me was just a chance to ruminate on the many amazing original Hergé pages on display.  I visited the exhibit in the morning, left and had lunch, then returned again for really soak in the art. The exhibit runs through October. If you’re anywhere near Québec City–or if, like me, you can score a good deal on a flight–I highly recommend catching this exhibit. Id’ be delighted if it appeared at another venue in North America… but I wouldn’t bet on it!

Note: I visited a pretty great bookstore in Québec City and bought a handful of French comics there. I’ll do a separate post on that soon.


HeroesCon 2017 Mega-Panel!

heroes 2017 flyer_HR

Here’s the skinny on the 2017 HeroesCon Mega-Panel. It’s Saturday at 2:30 in room 209. Full HeroesCon programming is available on their website.


Which centenary to celebrate, Will Eisner’s or Jack Kirby’s? Ben Towle, Jennie Law, and Craig Fischer—the hosts of this year’s mega-panel—have foolishly decided to tackle both birthdays.

First is Eisner: Ben will interview Hogan’s Alley publisher Tom Heintjes, who worked closely with Will at Kitchen Sink Press during the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly on a monthly column that appeared in Kitchen Sink’s comic-book-sized Spirit reprints. Expect insights into both Eisner the artist and Eisner the man. Craig will follow by inviting two razor-sharp comics scholars, Drs. Daniel Yezbick and Andrew Kunka (himself one-half of the Comics Alternative podcast team), to collaborate with the audience on a close reading of an offbeat-yet-representative Spirit story.

Then Kirby: Jennie will guide a panel of super-fans—cartoonists Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, and Erik Larsen, and Titan Books editor Steve Saffel—through a free-wheeling discussion about King Kirby’s groundbreaking career, multiple reinventions, and lasting influence. Finally, Ben will discuss the sheer oddness of Kirby’s mid-‘70s riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey—a fitting place to end, since Eisner and Kirby were monoliths that pushed comics to higher evolutionary achievements.


London: 40 Years of 2000 AD Exhibit/Paris: Les Super Héros

Over the past spring break, my family and I took a trip to London and then to Paris. Since it was our family vacation I mostly managed to kept my comics-centric interests in check during the trip, but I couldn’t help but make a couple of detours to check out comics-related things. So, here are a few thoughts:


Our visit to London overlapped with the tail end of the Future Shock: 40 Years of 2000 AD exhibit at the Cartoon Museum. I would never have known about London’s Cartoon Museum if I’d not been specifically searching for comics exhibitions pre-London visit. And that’s too bad, because the museum itself is great and this particular exhibit was truly amazing.

The museum is, though, definitely off the beaten path. You really have to be aware of the place’s existence and be actively seeking it out in order to find it. It’s at 35 Little Russell St, Bloomsbury, London, which is a narrow street that tees into a pedestrians-only throughway, so it’s not somewhere you’d likely just happen upon.


The exhibit itself was great, though. As an American growing up in the ’80s, my exposure to 2000 AD was mostly through the Eagle Comics reprints of Judge Dredd and other 2000 AD stories. The USA-specific Brian Bolland covers of those Eagle reprints made me a fan for life of his work and it was a real treat to see some Bolland originals at the exhibit. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Carlos Ezquerra, who remains to this day my favorite Dredd artist, and there was plenty of Ezquerra on display as well.

Backing up, though… here’s what the general layout of the exhibit looked like:

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In addition to the copious amounts of original art on the walls, there were a few odds and ends like this case full of 2000 AD issues:


BUT, back to that copious original art! I took a handful of pictures of the artwork before I saw a sign admonishing people not to take pictures of anything other than the general layout of exhibits. But, at that point I’d already snapped a bunch of pictures–and, hey, I figure I’m safe from Comics Museum Interpol now that I’m back in the People’s Republic of Trumpistan. So, here’re a few pics I took. First, a bunch of amazing art by Massimo Belardinelli, Gary Leach, and Dave Gibbons:

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Check out this fantastic McMahon Scorched Earth spread… and to the right of it some original Carlos Ezquerra Stainless Steel Rat pages:


Second only to Ezquerra in my book is Brian Bolland, He would eventually pretty much retire from doing interior pages at all, so it was especially great to see a bunch of his Dredd pages on display here–alas, though, not the one featuring the most iconic Dredd image of all, Bolland’s “Gaze into the fist of Dredd” panel.

Seeing Bolland inking up close is pretty stunning. It’s not surprising that he’d eventually focus solely on covers, given the amount of time it must take to crank out pages like this.


It was interesting that pretty much all the artwork had balloons/lettering added on vellum, as you can see in that top close-up. The artwork beneath shows through, but I guess that’s something that wouldn’t pick up in a photostat? There were tons and tons more 2000 AD art on display–all sectioned by character–but I stopped taking pictures when I realized it wasn’t allowed.

The Cartoon Museum also has an upstairs gallery that houses what I’m assuming are pieces from its permanent collection. I visited literally just an hour or so before I had to catch the train to Paris, so I only did a quick walk-around, but here’s the general layout:

IMG_20170411_110936Among the pieces up there was the original cover painting for the V for Vendetta collection. You can also spot here a Miracleman cover and a Kevin O’Neill LOEG page. Bonus points for the Rupert in the stairwell!


The exhibit overall was really, really amazing and I feel really lucky to have been (completely coincidentally) in London when it was going on. Bonus: I bought some Moomin greeting cards at the museum gift shop:


One final London note. While touring the city via bus, I noted this storefront with some sort of Beano display. I have no idea what this is, but wish I’d had time to investigate.



I was a little surprised that there wasn’t much going on in Paris as far a comics exhibitions go while we were there. Before leaving, I did though turn up this Joann Sfar show at the Dalí museum. Here’s a big ad for the same show I spotted at several Paris Metro stations:

IMG_20170411_195027If we’d had an extra day, I’d probably have gone to it, but from what I read in advance it didn’t seem like there would be much actual original comics art there, so I didn’t prioritize it. Before I move on to the one comics thing I did get to, I’ve got to throw out this one generally art-related anecdote:

While in Marais we decided to wander into a department store, Le BHV, just for fun. We mostly looked at clothes and toys, but out of the corner of my eye I spotted an arts and crafts section. My jaw literally dropped when I saw the art supplies they had on-hand. BHV seemed like a higher-end department store–maybe equivalent to something like Bloomingdale’s here–but the arts and crafts section (do U.S. department stores even carry art supplies?) was better than 90% of the dedicated art supply stores I’ve been into in the U.S. This is maybe a third of the section:

IMG_20170412_122719 IMG_20170412_122726 IMG_20170412_122741 IMG_20170412_122818On to comics, though! I’d gotten some great recommendations from a Parisian friend for comics shops to visit. The one he recommended near Notre Dame, Un Regard Moderne, had odd hours and didn’t open until the afternoon, so sadly we missed it. He also, though, highly recommended Les Super Héros, which was near the Pompidou Center, which we were visiting anyway. And it is an amazing store. Here’re a few pictures that say more about the place than I could:

I wish I’d had had room for more books in my luggage (Delta lost our luggage at Heathrow, we bought more clothes, luggage found/returned, had to haul new & old clothes back, etc.) but sadly I bought just three books: a recent Winshluss book, a limited edition black and white edition of the new Christophe Blain Gus book, and a Toppi reissue.

Winshluss’s Pinocchio from a few years was one of my favorite books of that year (2011?). The art in Smart Monkey is quite different from that in Pinocchio, however. Most noticeably, it’s all black and white (which is unusual for French comics in general). The first three quarters or so of the story is wordless, with dialog only in the epilogue. It comes with a small minicomic which reprints a short story featuring the same monkey character which appeared in a Top Shelf collection a while back.

The Blain book is a limited black and white edition of the newest Gus book, Happy Clem, the fourth in the series. The Toppi book is Momotaro, an adventure set in medieval Japan. Boom has been publishing some English translations of Sergio Toppi books here in the U.S., but I don’t think this is one of them. I can’t read Italian at all (Toppi’s native tongue) but I can kinda muddle through French, so this is better than nothing!

A week is hardly enough time to take in amazing cities like London and Paris, so I hope to return soon to one or both of them–and when I do, I’ll surely be able to spend more time exploring each city’s comics culture. Maybe I’ll even make it to Angoulême eventually…



Chuck Berry RIP – Some Chuck Berry Songs You May Not Know

Years ago I decided to focus my blog writing exclusively on comics-centric subjects. With the recent death of Chuck Berry, though, I’m making an exception.

If you knew me in my pre-comics days, you know that I spent some time as a musician–and more to the point: I’ve always been passionate about music. Like everyone interested in music I’ve had fluctuating musical interests. My tastes have grown and matured over the years. When I look (or, more accurately, listen) back on things I liked when I was younger, I often cringe. There are, though, a few musicians I have loved unequivocally my whole life. One of them is Chuck Berry.

I was first introduced to Chuck Berry’s music by my mother–albeit in a sideways fashion. My mom’s a huge Beatles fan and so we had Beatles records around the house when I was growing up.  My favorite songs on these records were tracks like “Rock and Roll Music,” Honey Don’t,” “Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby,” “Matchbox,” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” Only years later did I realize these weren’t Beatles tunes at all, but covers.

Digging into the sources of these recordings, I wound up purchasing The Great Twenty-Eight, a best of Chuck Berry record. It’s (as best as I can recall) the first record I bought with my own money and (for sure) one I still own and listen to today some thirty years later.

My appreciation of Chuck Berry only deepened as I delved more intensely into music in my 20s while playing in bands in the 1990s. I’m fairly certain my old band, Come on Thunderchild, played more than one Chuck Berry cover, but the only one I can specifically remember now is “Round and Round.” I got this tattoo around this time:

chuckChuck Berry died a few weeks ago on March 18th, and Sound Opinions–the great public radio music review/criticism show out of Chicago–did a fantastic appreciation of Chuck Berry’s life and legacy, along with a top ten list of his best songs. Their list is hard to argue with, but it’s definitely skewed toward his best-known and most recognizable tunes: Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, You Never Can Tell, etc. I’d like to, though, post my own quick list here–as kind of an addendum to that list–of a few great Chuck Berry songs that aren’t necessarily the ones you may be most familiar with:


The Things I Used to Do

Chuck Berry didn’t do a ton of straight blues songs, but when he did–as here with his version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do”–the results could be pretty great. The studio version of this song appeared on his 1964 LP St. Louis to Liverpool (my personal pick for best single Chuck Berry LP) and it’s a great recording. This version, filmed for Belgian TV in 1965, is maybe even better. Check out both of the jaw-dropping guitar solos here. (Check also “The Love I Lost,” another great Chuck Berry straight blues performance.)


Oh Louisana

If you gave credence to most of the appreciations of Chuck Berry that appeared after his death, you’d get the impression he stopped writing original music in 1964. His original output post 60s was for sure pretty hit-or-miss, but there are absolutely some amazing Chuck Berry songs from the 70s if you’re willing to dig for them. By far my favorite post-60s Chuck Berry tune is this one, “Oh Louisiana,” from his 1971 record, San Francisco Dues. It’s part blues, kinda funky, and has a great vocal from Berry.


Reelin’ and Rockin’ (American Hot Wax version)

So, “Reelin’ and Rockin'” is of course one of Chuck Berry’s biggest hits and you’ve probably heard it a million times. This version, though, is from the 1978 Alan Freed biopic, American Hot Wax. In addition to featuring more explicitly lurid lyrics than the recorded version, it’s a pretty great live performance by Berry who at this point is in his early 50s.


I Love Her, I Love Her

This great track is from the hard-to-find 1968 LP From St. Louie to Frisco. It’s got a fantastic, grinding groove and big Stax-style horns. Check out those piano riffs at the end, courtesy of August “Augie” Meyers of the Sir Douglas Quintet.


Brown Eyed Handsome Man (Mercury version)

Here’s another Chuck Berry song you’ve heard a million times before… but not this particular version. Berry left Chess Records and recorded for Mercury between ’66 and ’69. One of the oddest moves during this period was the ’67 Mercury release Chuck Berry’s Golden Hits, which consisted mostly of newly-recorded versions of the original Chess hits. These recordings are contentious among Chuck Berry fans, but I think there’re some interesting nuggets here. My favorite is this re-recorded version of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Unlike most of the other Mercury versions which are sped up, this one’s maybe even slowed down a bit? I loses a bit of its “chugga chugga” rhythm in favor of a mellower grove. I love all the great Johnnie Johnson organ and electric piano.


Drifting Heart

“Drifting Heart” is an early Chuck Berry (1956) oddity. It was the flip side of “Roll Over Beethoven” and later was the last track on the LP After School Session. Here Berry’s squarely in ballad mode with perennial secret weapon Johnnie Johnson supplying a simple pentatonic piano figure that–along with a snakey tenor sax–gives the track a vaguely mid-eastern vibe. This is Chuck Berry at his most Nat Cole.


Fish and Chips

“Fish and Chips” appeared on the 1970 LP Back Home, Chuck Berry’s first record after he left Mercury and returned to Chess. This great little tune has an almost country-ish vibe (not surprising from the guy who wrote “Maybelline”) that’s accentuated by an accompanying harmonica part from “Boogie Bob” Baldori.


Comics: Parallel Stories on Separate Horizontal Tiers

That’s the most awkward blog post title I’ve probably ever come up with, but I don’t really know what else to call it. Scott McCloud or Neil Cohn may have some term for it, but what I’m referring to is basically this–which I encountered most recently in the Valerian and Laureline volume, Heroes of the Equinox:


What’s going on here is we’re following four different characters’ story-lines and the artist, Jean-Claude Mézières, is showing us each of their stories on an isolated horizontal tier that we follow for a while until the converge back together later in the story. (And note the great Moebius Arzach reference via the winged creature on the third row.)

The thing that stood out to me here was how much this technique is “of the medium.” Comics is often presented as a “nested system” in which each panel is read in a specific, isolated, sequential order without regard to the page as a whole. This sort of arrangement, though, makes use of the readers’ apprehension of the page as a whole. We see the parallel tracks and understand the formal conceit before reading the content of the panels themselves.

I wondered, though, how often this technique was used in comics. I had a few thoughts myself, but also got some good suggestions via twitter. Here’s a French comic, L’Espace D’un Soir, which is an entire BD that has four stories of characters in a building, each on a different tier, all happening concurrently. I really like how each story arc (I’m struggling for terminology here again) seems also to be color-coded with a unique palette.


Another instance that turned up via Twitter was this Multiple Man page by Jason Loo. As far as I can tell, this is a sample page rather than something actually published by Marvel–which is unfortunate, because it’s such a great concept. It’s not exactly an instance of parallel stories/tiers, but it’s similar in nature, combining that basic idea with a maze-like Chris Ware-esque layout you navigate via little “tabs” reminiscent of Jason Shiga’s “choose your own adventure” comic, Meanwhile.

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Speaking of Chris Ware… if there’s some formal comics hijinks going on, you can be pretty sure that Chris Ware is on the case. I don’t recall any instance of him using a straight parallel stories/tiers setup, but he often cordons off individual stories layout-wise, sometimes tying them into physical relationships/locations with balloon-tail-like connectors.


The most well-known instance of the parallel stories/tiers setup is Fantastic Four #277, in which John Byrne shows us a Thing/Johnny Storm/She-Hulk story on the top row and a Reed/Sue/Dr.Strange story on the bottom. The two rows are separated not just with a traditional gutter, but also with a horizontal black line, a device that encourages you to read the top row all the way across the spread then jump back to the bottom of left-facing page to start the bottom row.


Tezuka’s epic, Pheonix, apparently uses this technique. (Phoenix has been on my to-read list forever.) Here’s a page in which we see characters in individual escape pods, each shown in distinct horizontal sequences. This is from a sequence in the third volume, but the fourth volume, Universe, is supposedly done entirely using parallel stories/tiers. (I’ll update this post if/when I get around to reading Phoenix.)


If you’re thinking that the potential side-scrolling nature of webcomics yields fertile ground for this kind of layout, you’re correct. Here’s one example of what I assume are many: Decrypting Rita by Margaret Trauth. It’s another instance where there’s a distinct color palette setting off each of the parallel stories.


An impressive use of this side-scrolling technique in a physical book is Tymothi Godeck’s 35-foot-long leporello comic, !. While it doesn’t adhere strictly to a parallel stories/tiers layout, it for sure incorporates elements of it in places throughout. Here’s my After-School Comics Club kids holding the unfolded comic aloft:


And here’s a bit of parallel stories/tiers going on:



I saved the most impressive use of parallel stories/tiers, though, for last. Rebecca Dart’s Rabbit Head is a work that shows off what this type of storytelling can do if you really dig into its formal possibilities. It’s difficult to describe how Rabbit Head works without just reading the thing, but basically it starts with a single story/tier in the center of the page. Then, elements from an individual panels “fork off” into their own tiers, above or below the previous. As the story progresses, more and more of these narrative tiers branch off, until there are seven stories/tiers going concurrently. Then, at about mid-point, exactly the reverse begins happening: elements from the outer tiers get re-incorporated into the inner tiers, until finally we’re back down to the one initial tier/character. It’s stunning.





I just started really contemplating this layout technique a few days ago when I read that Valerian story, but I’ve apparently been at least unconsciously interested in it for a while. It only occurred to me while writing this post, that I’ve used this technique myself–albeit in just one instance–in my 2008 book Midnight Sun. In this sequence I have the stranded airship crew’s narrative going on in the upper 2/3 of the page, while the lower 1/3 follows the main character as he simultaneously travels to investigate the story of the crashed airship.


Do you have other examples of comics that use the parallel stories/tiers layout (or a less awkward term for this layout)? If so, feel free to comment or email them to me!



Update (3/15/17):

In addition to the comments to this post, I’ve gotten some good feedback via twitter, so I thought it’d be good to add them here. First, some terminology stuff from Neil Cohn:


And here’re a few suggestions of additional instances of the parallel stories/tiers technique:

Additionally, Pat McKeown did a great parallel stories/tiers piece in Weasel #1. The published version is NSFW, but here’s a blocked-out version:

mceownlayoutclean2Right/control click on that image, open it in a new tab, and zoom in in order to read it. You can find a great analysis of it here.


My Faves of 2016

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite comics–and comics-related–things from 2016. And, as always, keep in mind my usual caveat: these are just my personal favorites; I make no claims for the best!

Children of Captain Grant – (all ages graphic novel) by Alexis Nesme, based on work by Jules Verne


I was gobsmacked when I saw a few sample pages of this posted on an Italian comics website and I bookmarked the page, thinking I might shell out for a French language version just to have to look at. Months later, I was delightfully surprised to see that it was getting an English translation, courtesy of Super Genius Comics (which seems to be a new imprint of Papercutz). The story here is a solid, straight-ahead adaptation of the Jules Verne short story of the same name. It’s a classic nautical Adventure to Foreign Lands-type story–and one that’s largely clear of the colonialist insensitivity that can make stories from this era tricky to deal with for younger audiences.  The real star here, though, is the jaw-dropping painted artwork. Oh, also, did I mention that all the characters are done as animals? Hands-down my favorite comic of 2016.



Manben – (Japanese comics documentary TV show) hosted by Naoki Urasawa 


There are few things I love more than seeing other cartoonists’ studios and learning about their process. There’s a fair amount of information out there about this subject as far as it relates to Western artists, but the world of Manga has remained largely shrouded to outsiders. This year, though, I became aware of Manben, a Japanese TV show hosted by master manga artist, Naoki Urasawa. The premise of the show is simple: in each episode, they record a manga artist at work and then Urasawa discusses process with them. Obviously this is all conducted in Japanese, but some kind soul has fansubbed English subtitles for the episodes to-date. You can find most of the episodes streaming on DailyMotion.



Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist – (prose biography) by Michael Maslin


I’m a huge fan of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, so this one’s been on my radar since I first got wind of it. It’s a much needed start-to-finish look at this important figure in the history of comics–one who’s not had a comprehensive biography to this point. One of the most interesting sections of the book appears almost as an addendum: pull quotes from currently-working New Yorker cartoonists discussing the influence and impact Arno’s had (or not had, in several cases) on them.



Webcomics Coverage at The Beat – (online comics news) by Maggie Vicknair and Heidi MacDonald

captureIn terms of “eyeballs on the page,” webcomics are surely the most widely-read form of comics–and yet, like pretty much any form of comics that’s not distributed via the direct market, webcomics are rearely covered/reviewed/discussed in most comics circles. And that’s why it’s so great to see that The Beat has been covering them regularly this past year in two features: Webcomics in Review (reviews of ongoing webcomics) and Webcomics Alert (noting newly launched webcomics).



Space Battle Lunchtime – (comic book series) by Natalie Riess


I’m a sucker for comics about cooking and this is a great one. Here’s the setup: Peony is a baker from Earth who’s abducted by aliens so she can compete in an intergalactic cooking competition. The story is tons of fun, the cartooning is loose and expressive, and the coloring is fantastic. What’s not to love? The first story arc (the “partner challenge”) is collected in a trade paperback, or you can follow along with the individual issues as the come out.



Nod Away – (graphic novel) by Joshua Cotter


This came out way back in February, but it’s for sure one of the best GNs of 2016. It’s the first installment of what’s sure to be an epic SF story. Even at 250-ish pages, Nod Away just begins to set up the opening pieces of its Philip Dick-esque story. That the cartooning is beautiful will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Cotter’s previous series, Skyscrapers of the Midwest.



Palomino Blackwing Pencil Sharpener – (art supply)


I’d been searching forever for a good handheld sharpener and I’ve finally settled on the Blackwing. My requirements were: two stage sharpening (one stage exposes the lead, the other sharpens), must fit into a standard pencil case, must have replaceable blades. The Kum model that most people recommend had all of these but also had lead pointers (that I never use), the blades seemed to wear out quickly, and it tended to break colored pencils. The Blackwing has none of these issues. I’ve been using it for about a year and have yet to need to change blades.



We Told You So: Comics as Art – (non-fiction book) by Michael Dean and Tom Spurgeon


This one’s a late entry–it came out in December and I received it for Christmas–and I’m only 200 or so pages into it, but so far it’s definitely one of my top non-fiction books of 2016. We Told You So is an oral history of the the alt/indie publisher Fantagraphics. It’s a huge slab of a book and it’s beautifully designed. There’s a lot of “inside baseball” here and things are occasionally mentioned in passing that could probably use a bit of explanation/context… but it never really impedes the overall narrative. That it’s somewhat self-congratulatory shouldn’t surprise anyone given the title of the book, but hey, it’s Fantagraphics!



Providence – (comic book series) by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows


As literally every single write-up of Providence will tell you, this series is a “slow burn.” Well, the burn turned into an inferno right about the time issue 10 hit the stands in 2016. It’s taken me a while to come around to the art in this series (and I still don’t think it’s well-served by the kind of coloring that’s used here) but it’s become one of my favorites, and a potential late-era Alan Moore masterpiece. If you decide to dig in, I recommend reading each issue twice: once just for the main plot, and a second time referencing the extensive panel-by-panel notations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence.



Critical Chips – (comics criticism/writing) edited by Zainab Akhtar


This is another late entry that I’m not all the way through yet… but so far this Kickstarter-funded collection of comics writing has been largely great. The ten pieces herein–by an array of folks including David Brothers, Joe McCulloch, Annie Mok, and more–address a wide range of comics (Krazy Kat to Copra) in a way that’s insightful and smart, but immensely readable. My only complaint: it’s so nicely put-together that I regret getting the digital, rather than print, edition.





In the Weeds Thumbnailing and Naoki Urasawa’s Page Layouts

Having solidified the character designs and done a bit of last-minute story revising, I’m now beginning to do thumbnails for In the Weeds. This will be my first digitally-drawn full book (my semi-recent stories for Creepy and Cartozia Tales were drawn digitally, but were short pieces) and as such my process is somewhat different. With Oyster War, I was using a “two pass” system for thumbnailing: one pass to do page/panel layout, figure out what dialog goes in what panel, and make very basic stick figure staging/composition decisions; then, a second pass roughing in characters and basic backgrounds and laying in digital placeholder text. (Described in more detail here.) With In the Weeds, though,  I’m basically doing this all in one step–giving me “thumbnails” that are somewhere in between true thumbnails and roughs. Here’s an example:




A quick aside: I’m generally agnostic about traditional vs. digital drawing, but I’m pretty firmly convinced now that if you’re not at least thumbnailing digitally, you’re making things hard on yourself. The ability to quickly and easily move, resize, and edit things at the thumbnail stage is an incredible time-saver. (Also, since I’ll be drawing digitally as well, I can now just lower the opacity of my thumb/rough layer and start penciling directly over top.)

Anyway… My plan for In the Weeds is to launch it as a webcomic–maybe with an associated Patreon–early in 2017.  While Oyster War was technically a webcomic prior to becoming a printed book, in point of fact it was really always a print book format-wise–just one that was being posted online. Oyster War‘s pages were always “portrait” format, a format that doesn’t work well displayed on “landscape”-oriented monitors. I want In the Weeds, though, to be more organically a webcomic–but to be so in such a way that doesn’t preclude potential print publication in “portrait” format. The way most folks manage to do this is by setting up “pages” (for eventual printing) that are actually two landscape-format webcomic installments stacked on top of one another. A good example of this is the excellent webcomic, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo (Although, interestingly, that comic was picked up for publication and the publisher opted to preserve the landscape format in the print version).

So here, for example, is the top half of the above page as I’ll be posting it online:


Having “bleeds” as with the top panel here in a webcomic is a little odd, but I can live with it.

Urasawa & Formatting for Webcomics

But, backing up a little bit… I happened to be reading a volume of Naoki Urasawa’s manga, Pluto a while back (an incredible series; read it if you haven’t already) and noticed that most of Urasawa’s page layouts can be easily divided horizontally at the mid-point. Here, for example, is a typical Pluto page:


As you can see, it could easily be divided horizontally at the mid-point, making two landscape format “pages,” then put back together to make a for-print page. I decided–partly to give myself a leg up, and partly as a sort of formal challenge–to study Urasawa’s page layouts and use re-purpose them for In the Weeds. I began by going through Pluto and making quick sketches of as many of his horizontally-dividable page layouts as possible. Here’re a few:

ct8w5d2wgaqt2yyEven without anything in those panels, you can already glean some interesting information about Urasawa’s Pluto layouts. One obvious thing is that never bleeds (bleeds are indicated in blue here) toward the binding (shaded in red). All of his bleeds are on the outside edges of the page. You can see in my In the Weeds page above that I’ve mimicked this; that’s a right-facing page and I’ve used top, right, and bottom bleeds–but not a left bleed, as that would bleed into the binding.  I’ve rarely used bleeds at all prior to this (there are none in Oyster War, for example, and the few in Amelia Earhart are full-page bleeds, not the selective bleeding of individual panels that Urasawa–and a lot of other manga–utilizes).

You can also see that he does not avoid the supposedly ambiguous panel arrangement that comics linguist Neil Cohn refers to as “blockage.”


Note that in the Urasawa examples above, blockage layouts will be a left/right reverse of Cohn’s example since Pluto is “unflipped” manga and is therefore read read right-to-left. I highly recommend popping over to Cohn’s blog and reading his writing on blockage. In short: he doesn’t find an real evidence this type of panel arrangement creates the sort of confusion this it’s claimed to by comics-folk. My purely anecdotal experience with this type of panel arrangement is that (a) I have for sure read comics with this arrangement and read the panels in incorrect order as a result, but also (b) think that it’s pretty easy to use this panel arrangement without any such confusion if you pay attention to word balloon placement. (And for what it’s worth, manga also often uses different gutter widths to differentiate reading order–something Western comics usually don’t.)

Talking Heads

Unlike Oyster War with its nautical skirmishes, sea serpents, and fist fights, In the Weeds involves lots and lots of conversations and not a whole ton of outward-directed action. As a result, I’ve had to lay out a lot of pages of conversation–and in studying how Urasawa lays out his pages that are conversations, I stumbled on a fascinating and surprising aspect of Pluto: he almost never uses dialog from off-panel speakers. I’m taking about this kind of thing:


We “hear” a character say, “Used like so,” but that speaker is not in the panel. Presumably, it’s already been established who this person is and where they’re positioned relative to the character we do see. Off-panel dialog is also often used over a tight view of an object, as here:


Another very common use of off-panel dialog is to show the reaction of one character (shown in the panel) to dialog spoken by another character who’s off-panel, as you see here in panels one and three (well, three only kinda I guess, since we’re seeing a part of the speaker).


In all cases, off-panel dialog serves the general purpose of being able to visually juxtapose spoken dialog with something other than the speaker. This allows the cartoonist to draw our attention to an object that’s being discussed or–in conversations–show us a character’s reaction to a bit of dialog.

In Pluto, Urasawa almost never does this.

Here’s an example of a conversation in Pluto:


Note the conspicuous absence of off-panel dialog. When Urasawa wants to show a character’s reaction to a bit of dialog, he uses an entirely separate panel after the dialog panel. In fact, it’s extremely rare (I could’t find a single instance) for two different characters to speak in the same panel even if they’re both depicted in it. For example:


There are several panels here in which we see both speakers, but Urasawa never opts to have them both speak in the same panel. As a result of these choices, his conversations tend to feature long sequences of “talking heads.” He’ll even repeat images of the same speaker over multiple panels, making small changes to viewing angle or staging and varying the character’s facial expressions (facial expressions being one of the many things Urasawa is a real master at).

Urasawa doesn’t completely eschew off-panel dialog, though. I found, for example, four or five instances of it being used in Volume 2. (And do note that I’ve not exhaustively gone through every single panel of Pluto; these are just casual observations.) When he does employ off-panel dialog, though, it always seems to be either so he can have dialog over a close view of an object…


…or when we “hear” dialog being spoken by characters inside a building or other structure.

img_20161121_105359 (And if you want to get nit-pickey about it, the characters are technically IN the above panel, since they’re on that structure; they’re just not seen because of scale.)

I couldn’t find any examples of him using an off-panel voice balloon in a conversation.


As a challenge to myself, I’m trying with In the Weeds to follow Urasawa’s example and not utilize off-panel dialog. My chief take-away from this practice so far is that it is indeed quite a challenge. It’s made me realize how much I’ve been relying on off-panel dialog in my other comics. For example:


You can see just in this one page how often I’m using techniques Urasawa eschews: off-panel dialog in panels five and eight (I prefer caption boxes with dialog in quotes to the more usual device of balloons with tales that go off panel) and multiple speakers in panel seven. (I’m not sticking to the multiple speakers/panel prohibition with In the Weeds, though.)

So, why the heck does Urasawa avoid off-panel dialog? Answer: I have no idea. A quick flip-through of some other manga I have shows that it’s not endemic to Japanese comics in general. The only Urasawa volumes I have in the house are Pluto, so I don’t even know if it’s Pluto-specific, or a general practice of his across all his books.

I think one reason avoiding off-panel dialog appeals to me is that it seems like its most common use is a way of shoehorning film’s practice of using “reaction shots” into comics. In fact, I did a quick image search for Golden Age superhero pages and couldn’t find any instances of these “reaction shot”-type panels. I wonder if–like a lot of comics’ other formal language–the off-panel dialog “reaction shot” panel became part of comics’ vocabulary later in the game, via film-influenced comics like Terry and the Pirates.

Whatever the case, noticing this property of Urasawa’s work in Pluto and trying to apply it to my own work in In the Weeds has proved both challenging and rewarding. We’ll see if I can hold myself to it through the whole book! Stay tuned…

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