One thing I notice a lot of in comics is the visual isolation of a central character. When a narrative requires the reader to understand that said character is becoming ostracised from their peers for one reason or another a number of different visual techniques can be employed. It happens a lot in comics: see Hi Fi Fight Club issue 2 as an example where the entire issue is about segregating the central character in various ways and for various reasons. There are some fine examples in Postal where the locals of Eden are set apart from interlopers. However, in issue 3 of Sisters Of Sorrow, the artist, Hyeonjin Kim, uses three different techniques on a single page to isolate one.
Sisters Of Sorrow is a revenge driven, violent vigilante story written by Kurt Sutter and Courtney Alameda. The four central women of the story bond together when they start killing those they believe have crossed the line but not all of them have the same motivation for ‘the mission’. Misha soon decides she doesn’t want to be a party to it; the consequences of their actions play on her mind but the others refuse to listen to her.
On the opening page of issue 3, Misha is on her way to meet the other women at their apartment. The vigilante actions have just made the prime time and Misha has realised that she hasn’t got the same view of the ‘mission’ as the others. Her moral sense is forcing her to become an outsider from the group.
The first panel of the page immediately illustrates the gulf between the women despite the fact that Misha is on her own; in fact, the very nature of her isolation requires her to be on her own in this scene. In this panel she stands, by herself, at the far right of the panel talking to herself. The speech indicates that she is going to visit the other three so that the reader can surmise that at the end of the corridor, in the other room, the three women are waiting for Misha. There is an empty gulf between Misha and that room. The panel contains a large expanse of wall, an alcove and a door to another room. Misha has a long walk to get from her current position to that slightly open door. Without even showing her interactions with the others, the image portrays the distance that has formed between them.
That slightly open door is the basis for the second instance of isolation on this page. In panel three the reader is behind Misha as she approaches the door. Despite taking up nearly half of the panel, Misha is dominated by the door. It sits central to the panel and it’s black colouring gives it a heavy presence in the scene. The thin strip of light coming from beyond is a sickly green colour and is therefore not at all inviting. Nothing about the doorway is welcoming. It is smaller, thanks to perspective, than Misha and reflects how difficult it is going to be for her to go through it. The reader also has no desire to venture any further. The partially open door has exactly the same effect as the gulf of a corridor in panel one. Misha is on the outside looking in and appears to be in no rush to close that gap.
Whereas these two panels help to distance Misha from the situation, the next panel isolates her directly from her friends. Firstly; the angle of the image is slightly off, tilted to the right, which causes the reader to instantly recognise that there is something not right about the scene. The characters are then separated psychically by a table in the foreground and a pile of shadowy clothes in the mid ground. Misha is stood defiantly in the background framed by the blackness behind her. It’s as if she is not part of the room or welcomed by its occupants.
Each panel on the page has the deliberate purpose of creating a distance between Misha and the others, a physical and moral gulf that the reader can identify immediately. Sutter and Alameda want to create an uncomfortable tension between the characters and Kim does this brilliantly in these few panels.
Sisters of Sorrow is published by Boom! Studios. It was written by Kurt Sutter and Courtney Alameda, illustrated by Hyeonjin Kim and Coloured by Jean-Paul Csuka
Pagan rituals, late night slaughters, and journeys of bloody self-discovery are the name of the game in Image Comics 4 part horror title Winnebago Graveyard. It’s a case of something new paying homage to something old and treating the readers to an eyeful of terror.
A grotesquely familiar narrative
It starts with a sacrifice and a demonic spawning, an opening that’s as Hammer Horror as you can get. It sets the scene perfectly in two ways; firstly, in a visual sense and secondly by laying out the tone. After the first few pages you know exactly what you are in for and know that you can’t take anything for granted.
When the Winnebago family are introduced, with bickering step father/child combo, the shift in narrative also contains a shift in genre reference. It has instantly moved away from the staged traditional horror framework and into the schlock horrors of the 1970’s. You have all of the ingredients necessary for a Wes Craven cook off.
This thematic style then changes again when the family are separated from their vehicle and lost in an empty town.
Each sequence takes the family and the reader on a tour of the horror genre with passing nods to a number of the great movies and comics that graced the 20th century. On the surface it’s ‘just another horror comic’ but it’s a fanfic for lovers of the genre and, like the movie Scream, it tells the clichéd story with such brilliance and beauty that it makes the old new again.
One of the beauty of horror stories are the twists and turns that lead people into the most unbelievable of situations. From the opening to the inevitable blood filled final, the writers of horror stories have to manipulate their settings and characters so that the reader believes what is happening is plausible. It’s not an easy task and many fall at the first hurdle, allowing their tense scare fest to become nothing but a laugh out loud joke. Steve Niles knows the pitfalls and from the beginning he stakes out his intentions which in turn contains his tribute to these groan worthy introductions.
Niles adopts a Hammer inspired opening for Winnebago Graveyard which he quickly follows up with a barrel of horror movie clichés, layering the first issue with red herrings. A long and empty dusty road, check. Freaky side show, check. Mysterious pickup truck, check. There is even an old wooden panelled house just screaming ‘Haunted’ out of the page at the reader. Niles weaves his disjointed family through the hazards like a trickster waiting to pounce. In some respects, it’s like the sequence in Cabin in The Woods where each member of the cast interacts with some supernatural object ready to unleash hell. Here, Niles pushes the family through a selection of eerie, horror story set ups. Eventually they end up in an unwelcoming town; a scenario that’s familiar to Steve Niles who has history of producing wonderful work based on people trapped in a horrific town.
Niles slowly builds up the narrative tension by moving the family around the deserted town and making sure that the people they meet are sufficiently creepy. Not villains outright but obstructive in their indifference. The Sheriff and the Motel owner are written like figments, there to serve a purpose in guiding Christine and her family but they have no tangibility, no substance. Like crafted impressions of characters they are hollow apart from their function in the immediate story. In other stories this would be a flaw, a problem with the narrative but here they add another dimension to the suspense that Niles’ is building.
The shroud bearing, identity lacking, torch burners who turn up work on mass as a single character who streams throughout the Motel and town like an unstoppable river of hate. The black cloaks and hints of white flesh below allow the reader to identify them as human but that is all, for the most part they are indistinguishable from the long shadows they cast. This is an exquisite piece of narrative to keep the ever impending sense of destruction central to a chase sequence that eats up nearly a whole issue of the mini-series. There seems to be little hope for the family, especially when the shadows turn to bloodletting and demon raising.
After three issues of raining terror upon the central characters there is a moment of change, one familiar in most horror stories, where the character’s stop being victims and become survivors. From this point on Steve Niles places his characters, and by extension the reader, firmly into the town and allows the violence to unfold. It is a revenge fuelled tour de force. As the fires burn and the blood starts to flow, Niles shows the reader how lost in the moment the three central characters have become; they revel in the madness as if they too are lost. But there is a moment when they are pulled back down to Earth and the horror of the situation once more rules their lives. This is an important moment in the comic because it reminds the reader, as well as Christie, that people have died and are continuing to die. The adrenaline has been pumping and the destruction has been entertaining but it all has a very high price. Niles reminds us of this in two different scenes. The first time when someone dies (Who dies? I can’t tell you) and the second time when the survivors of the cast pass by refuges from the town. The human cost is brought home and the final two panels of the series displays many levels of horror; emotional and physical. As with all good stories in the genre, the central characters have grown up and become scarred by what they have seen.
Creating a sense of doom
Steve Niles knows when to use speech and when to keep the panels silent. This allows the art work to create a twilight hour which is both endless and immediate. Pretty much everything in this story happens in one short night but the eerie calm across the town has an eternal feel to it. This is a great horror tropes; so much happens in the space of one night and when the dawn comes, all will be well. It can last as long as it needs to without the constraints of a ticking clock. The silence adds a layer of tension to the proceedings, especially when you would expect there to be a lot of noise, sound effects etc. Exploding caravan’s and burning cult members suffer in silence and it’s telling that the only time sound effects are added are when panels also include one of the central cast. It’s as if what happens to anyone or anything else is less important, less real.
Aside from how horrifying the narrative is, the art work by Alison Sampson and colour by Stephane Paitreau is wonderfully suited to this story, and the horror gene in general, that it makes the reading experience complete. Visually it has a feel of the old Tales from the Crypt comics from the 1930’s but on a much grander scale. There is a graininess to it, a roughness to the lines and shapes that make even the mundane seem out of the ordinary. As with the story, nothing that Sampson illustrates makes the reader comfortable. There is danger everywhere something that is reflected even in the shapes of the clouds: one double page spread has a scene overlooked by a hippo, a snake and a crocodile, all rendered in cloud formations.
The characters themselves are drawn with emotional precision, for example the fear of the first, helpless couple radiates from their faces as they are dragged towards the sacrificial alter and then, the cold dead eyes of the woman stare absentmindedly off the page when she is finally released from the horror.
Sampson scratches the horror onto the pages and then Paitreau soaks it in violent colours, sometimes hot blooded and sometimes cold and empty. Into the centre of all of this Sampson gives the victims, I mean family, a down to Earth, normal look. The boy is a bit awkward, the step-dad is a touch sly, and the mother is feeling the weight of the world. All of this comes out through the art work. The reader barely needs the script to tell us who these people are, it’s all there in the way they look, in the way they interact. This creates empathy towards them as they enter the horrific world. Within a few pages of their introduction you are routing for them and fear for what is to come.
One of the ways that Sampson creates the terrifying environment is by using twisted perspective and flat foreground/background blends which make the entire comic feel uncomfortable and unwelcoming. In the same way that the townsfolk are there to distance the characters from their situation, the artwork creates a difficult landscape for the reader to digest. At one moment Christine opens the curtains on the Motel room and the angle of the panel makes it look like the window is on the floor, with Christine staring down into the horror below, as if she is staring into the pits of hell. This panel not only disorientates the reader but also helps create the feeling of descending into a world of horror.
The images have a brilliant lyrical appearance with swirling flames and bending trees. A number of silent panels lead the reader from the top of the page to the bottom via a collection of flicks and curls; a streak of colour which can be followed allowing you to read the page without the need for narration. Stephane Paitreau’s colours complement Sampson’s illustrative style and together they create a horrific landscape for Niles to throw his vacationing family into.
At one point the change in colour palettes from deep, natural blues to harsh electronic oranges marks the emphasis between natural and unnatural within this world. The family, the valley and the clear night sky are all natural things but inside the camper vans and the violent attack by the demon are unnatural and have a different set of colours. The battle between the two is at the heart of the story and brought to the forefront by a clever artistic design.
The transitions from panel to panel, page to page, flow like blood and the occasional breaks in the gutters make the characters’ leap from the page. In the same way that the colour changes, the compositions become more challenging when the family are in danger. Complex, perspective altering view-points create an uncomfortable atmosphere for the reader. And when the violence comes it’s not hidden in darkness but played out in full Technicolor. Sampson appears to be taking some delight in shocking the reader, just like the Crypt Keeper in EC’s Tales from the Crypt stories. She fills the pages and panels with gore, making sure the focal points are at the centre of the horrific scenes. There’s no escaping them unless you look away or turn the page. Like Glen’s death in The Walking Dead, the reader is forced to watch helplessly as the story unfolds in the gleeful, controlling hands of Niles and Sampson.
A grisly end.
Like the EC horror comics of old, Winnebago Graveyard only works because the atmosphere created by the art allows the readers suspension of disbelief. The demon introduced at the end is ridiculous, a man in a rubber suit, however by the time that scene comes the reader is already deeply invested in the terror of the situation and our hearts are in our mouths, ready to be horrified by whatever the creators throw at us next.
Winnebago Graveyard has been an impressive work of sequential art from start to finish. Some people might not see passed the horror tropes that litter the narrative but they are used in a number of ways; they produce a feeling of nostalgia; they are used to set scene and mislead the reader; they are occasionally used to produce a moment of comedy. But most importantly, in the hands of genre creators like Niles, Sampson and Paitreau, they are used because they work so well. The scripting across the board has been measured and steadily paced leading to a crescendo of equal delight and disturbance. The art work has challenged the confines of the traditional comic book format and used the genre to twist the way that the images work on the page. This isn’t realism but draws on a heightened sense of gothic beauty that can be traced through the horror genre back to Frankenstein, Dracula, and beyond.
Shifting focus, uncomfortable points of view and some ingenious compositions make this comic a joy to read. A reflection of modern horror clichés told in a beautiful way makes Winnebago Graveyard an outstanding work of art.
Winnebago Graveyard is published by Image Comics and the collected edition is out now.
Boom! Studios started publishing sports comic titles last year with the Roller Derby related comic Slam!, followed up earlier this year by the WWE tie in titles. This week sees the release of another sports title, although in a somewhat different vain. Fence by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad is a coming of age, fight against circumstance, story set in the competitive world of junior fencing.
What's it about?
Entering his first competition, Nicholas Cox doesn’t let the changing room banter phase him. His is young and a little bit cocky but he knows that he can fence so isn’t intimidated by the spoilt rich boys.
Unfortunately for Nicholas his first elimination round is against Seiji Katayama, an experienced fencer who is only in the early rounds because of a tournament formality. The day doesn’t look good for Nicholas.
As the day unfolds Nicholas dwells on his past with flashes of his childhood and his introduction to the sport. With all to play for, will Nicholas be able to overcome his working class anxieties and prove his worth on the piste?
Fence is a teenage sporting melodrama. The central character has struggled through life, mixing work and school but at the same time finding time to train. Nothing is handed to him on a plate, unlike some of the other fencers featured in this first issue. Nicholas has to work for every single moment of fencing time. Even entering the competition forces him to sacrifice his savings.
C.S. Pacat’s sole purpose in this initial issue is to lay bare Nicholas' life struggles so that the reader instantly sides with him. This is a sporting narrative trope that can be seen in almost all famous sporting tales; support for the underdog. From early on in the comic Pacat starts to draw comparisons between Nicholas and those around him. The second page introduces the character with not one, but three awkward moments in quick succession; firstly, the registration lady can’t find his name on the entry list; secondly, his coach is not with him; thirdly, he does not know who his opponent is, despite the fact that Seiji Katayama turns out to be one of the most famous fencers in his age group. The registration lady’s shock is emphasised in visual terms but also in the script with a sarcastic comment: “You like short tournament’s?”
Pacat tells you everything you need to know about the central character within this opening encounter which then helps the story unfold in a more dramatic way. The underdog has been highlighted early so that every passing comment or flippant remark that is thrown towards him reinforces that Cox is an outsider. The artwork helps to relay this idea using a contrasting colour for his clothes. Cox is all in black pre-match whereas every other fencer is already in their whites.
Once the contest gets underway, Pacat uses Cox’s reaction to his opponent as a way of telling the young fencers history. For the reader the story covers a long period of time however for Cox himself it is like a flash of imagery before his eyes, over in a brief moment. Each memory seems to relate to a point lost in the match. Every important event leading Cox down the fencing path is laid out for the reader, again reinforcing the idea that Cox is an outcast.
By the end of this first issue the reader is completely behind Cox and routing for him all the way which makes what happens in this issue quite a gut punch, as inevitable as it might seem. But this is where Pacat’s character building really pays off because in essence what she has done with this first issue is re-tell the first Rocky film but with a fencing slant. All of the elements are there.
The style of the story telling and the art in particular are inspired heavily by Manga comics and even some of the panel transitions have an Eastern feel to them. There a number of cuts that require the reader to piece together what has happened and leap with Cox’s memory jumps. The narrative is a success because it is fairly simple and focuses mainly on one central character. The modern day action, the fencing match itself, is an extension of Cox’s life: the struggle against the upper classes and the feeling that he is out there, on his own, comes across in both parallel story lines.
Johanna The Mad has a wonderfully lyrical art style which draws on Manga inspirations. So much of the story is told simply through the straight forward figure composition in the panels, it’s almost as if the setting becomes irrelevant. This in turn makes it more noticeable when there is a detailed background, for example the quick cut away panel to Joe, the Epee Coach. Suddenly the background becomes more important and frames Joe in a setting reflective of his character. That single panel tells the reader everything you need to know about Joe.
The colours in the background by Joana Lafuente evoke the mood of each scene almost negating the need for details. The cold blues of the locker room help to set up the confrontation between Cox and the other fencers. It makes the scene uncomfortable for the reader who in turn relates it to the atmosphere between the rivals in the room. In contrast, the later training sessions where Cox learns how to fence, are drawn over lilac and purple backdrops which are more nurturing and welcoming. The training centre is a safe place.
Occasionally, some of the panels standout, designed to highlight a part of the narrative, or in the case already mentioned with Joe, to emphasis a particular character trait. For the most part this works well however there are moments where it becomes too obvious and the narrative is almost forcing a point down the reader’s throat. In the long run though this helps Pacat to move the story on at the pace required to get to this issues end point. It is an introduction to the main event and some awkward groundwork has to be laid beforehand and we can forgive the writer a little.
Over all Fence is an enjoyable read, if a somewhat simple and familiar narrative. This first issue has a very solid focus on the central character which allows the reader to get emotionally involved very quickly. The art is also simple, clean lines with large blocks of flat colour but this works in its favour, helping to build barriers between rivals. This is a strong opening issue.
Fence #1 is published by Boom! Studios. It is written by C S Pacat, illustrated by Johanna the Man and coloured by Joana Lafuente.
Aside form organising my own Art and Illustration convention (Robot Con) I am also a art of the Sheffield Comics network. The Network was set up by Bambos Georgiou (Inker on Titan comics Anno Dracula and one of the creators behind Aces Weekly). It's intention is to bring fans and creators of comics and illustration together on a monthly basis to talk shop, socialise and work on projects together.
Currently in the works is a newspaper sized comic anthology utilising the talent in the group and the connections we have made.
There is also the first ever Sheffield Micro Comic Con. A small group of us will be taking over a local pub to sell, swap, and chat to anyone who wishes to come along. There are a number of great guests involved and I will even have some 'Zines' to sell. My Zines, based on my reviews, will be a printed version of the two blogs on the Comic Cut Down site. The Zines came first as an idea and I created a number of mock ups with a collection of prints to follow. But as I was producing the printed copies, the idea for Comic Cut Down, as a web site, was born.
Therefore I have a number of of actual, physical, Zines to sell which include some of the reviews I have already posted but also a hint at future reviews that may appear, especially in the Pointless Review section.
If you are in or around Sheffield on 2nd December, please pop down to the Gardeners Rest and say "Hi," maybe even buy some wonderful artwork, or the odd Zine.
Kong On The Planet Of The Apes #1
There’s a new Apes comic out and that’s a reason to be excited. It seems like forever since a new Apes comic was out (Last month, War for the Planet of the Apes issue 4) but I’m a lover of the Apes so I get excited every single time.
However, this is another in Boom! Studios crossover lines which have been a bit hit and miss in recent years. There was the Star Trek/Apes story which was quite good, fun and unapologetically nostalgic. Then the more recent Green Lantern/Apes mix which was less successful, narratively speaking. Although I only read the first few issues and am not really a DC fan so it may prove to be more popular with a different audience. And that is one of the problems I have with these; instead of been all inclusive, they tend to skew towards one of the crossover franchises at the expense of the other. This in turn can turn a large part of the readership off.
However Kong on the Planet of the Apes is very Apes centric. It’s almost like a retelling of the King Kong story but with Apes instead of Humans. This works in the comics’ favour for most of the first issue as it is a sequel to the original (Apes) movie with occasional nods to a movie that most people should know (even if not actually seen). The narrative is designed for fans of the Apes franchise and Ryan Ferrier (writer) appears to know the characters inside and out. Each of the movie favourites have a part to play and they are indistinguishable from their cinematic counterparts.
As I have stated, the story follows on from the end of the original movie, with Doctor Zaius instructing the Gorillas to destroy the remains of the Statue of Liberty. It has become a symbol of the destructive past of Mankind and must be eradicated to protect Ape society. But into this setting a newer, bigger problem washes up: The carcass of a giant Ape.
The franchise regulars are called in to, at first, investigate the body and then embark on a journey of discovery. If you’ve seen King Kong you can guess how this first issue plays out. Despite this obviousness to the narrative, Ferrier still has fun with the script and manages to use the familiarity in his favour.
The rendering of the characters is wonderful, accurate and intricate in every way. Each panel and page is highly detailed by Carlos Magno whose style captures the 70’s feel of the movie series. Add to this the immaculately referenced colour palette by Alex Guimares and you have a comic that fits perfectly into the Apes franchise.
One of the artistic achievements of this comic is the sense of scale that Magno gets into the panels. His depiction of the beasts, especially the giant Ape corpse, in comparison to the regular characters is immense. The bloated, bloody body barely manages to fit into any of the panel frames and when a part of the body is featured it manages to draw the reader’s attention to it. Whether in the foreground or background, the overwhelming size of the body dominates the illustrations, just as the enormity of the discovery dominates the life of the Apes.
I may not be a big fan of the crossover titles but when they are produced with this level of skill I can be converted. Kong on the Planet of the Apes issue 1 is a fine addition to my Ape collection and it is exciting that there are still 5 more issues of this title to come.
Kong on the Planet of the Apes is published by Boom! Studios, written by Ryan Ferrier, illustrated by Carlos Magno and coloured by Alex Guimares.
Check out some preview pages below....
Dan Panosian's Slots issue 2 is out today.
It's a wonderful read and my full review can be found on Comiconverse.com but here's a few highlights:
"Panosian takes some time to open up the history of his characters. He lays down the foundation for which the remaining story will be built and it goes some way to explain Stanley’s past life. However, there is still the feeling that not all is as it seems and Stanley’s portrayed track record of lying and conning people makes the reader wonder just how much is to be believed."
"The changing art style between the modern day story and Stanley’s flashback tale of woe is different enough to be noticeable but not enough to disrupt the flow of the story. The bleached coloring effect gives it an impression of age while at the same time reminding the reader that it is a watered down, potentially whitewashed, version of events; this is all told from Stanley’s point of view after all."
Slots has proven to be an enjoyable read and no matter how much time you give it, you will feel as though Panosian is pulling a fast one. It's a confidence trick which will only make sense when the cover is lifted at the end, just like the movie The Sting. If the first two issues are anything to go by it is definitely worth sticking around to see what happens.
Slots is published by Image and Skybound comics.
It was created/written/illustrated by Dan Panosian
At least that's what they are telling us......
Slots is a miniseries from Image comics set in the dusty, backstreets of Las Vegas. The central character is an old confidence trickster, Stanley, who has returned to town on a promise he can’t break. From the very beginning Dan Panosian has laid out just how untrustworthy Stanley is.
Panosian spends the second issue digging down into the characteristics of his two leads: Stanley and his son, Luce. Most importantly he illustrates how their relationship works and the affect that one has on the other. On the first page of issue 2 Panosian sets up the current state of the father/son relationship by focusing on their only encounter in the entire issue. Luce rides his motorbike down the empty desert road and passes by Stanley who is out for a run; this is a ruse to lead the reader into believing that Stanley is in training for his up-coming fight. However, Stanley’s narration would seem to suggest something else, something more conniving. Panosian continues the trend he set out in the first issue of giving Stanley a greater insight into the actions portrayed on the page. Stanley has a very clever plan and only he knows what it is but small hints are given away through everything he says.
The opening of issue 2 suggests that Stanley is setting something up and the interaction with Luce on the first page indicates it has something to do with him.
But this first page does something more than hint at Stanley’s great plan, it also illustrates the relationship between Luce and his father. The first page introduces the characters in the desert setting, each long panel has the character on the far right, in the same position. The reader looks towards Luce on his motorbike than directly down to Stanley out for a run. The two panels and the character’s position within them creates a familiarity between the characters. It is a clever grouping of figures to produce the idea of closeness; a relationship between the two. The two panels give the impression that the characters have something in common and infers a relationship.
This idea doesn’t last though as panel 3 and, the reader, is shown the actual vast gulf between the two of them. The never ending road and mountain range in the background come between father and son. One is on the left side of the panel, the other far to the right. Their expressions couldn’t be any different and their mode of transport are also contrasting. Whereas the first two panels may lead the reader to believe there is a similarity between these two, the third panel marks the many differences.
And the animosity between them is further reflected in panels 4 and 5. Panel 4 is a reflection of Stanley, waving with a smile on his face but this is in total contrast to Luce who is snarling and utters his disgust at this father. The fact that Stanley is shown in reflection at this point is also important because Panosian is saying to the reader that what Luce is seeing is not a true image of Stanley. The narrative has already hinted that not everything is as it seems, that this meeting has been orchestrated in some way, and Panosian is emphasising his point. The reader is shown the angry face of the son but only a cheery reflection of the father.
This first page of issue 2 clearer spells out the relationship between father and son. On the one side is anger and hatred, on the other is false affection. Panosian wants the reader to know exactly how they relate to each other from the beginning because the rest of the issue revolves around their history and present situations. From the get go you know how these to relate to each other thanks to five panels and some very simple composition.
Slots is published by Image Comics and created/written/drawn by Dan Panosian, lettered by Pat Brosseau. Issue 2 is out this week and my full review of the issue will be on Comiconverse.com very soon.
This week saw the release of issue 3 of Lazaretto from Boom! Studios. This is a comic steeped in uncomfortable images and even more uncomfortable story threads. The basic premise is that a new and deadly virus has spread throughout a university and for their own good, the students have been quarantined.
For their own good!!
Into this already precarious situation the writer, Clay McLeod Chapman, throws in an abundance of privileged characters and creepy story lines in order to highlight the current 'real world' climate.
My full review for issue 3 is over on Comiconverse.com, but here are a few highlights, and even better, a few pages from the comic itself.
"College on lock down, seniors running rampant and a virus that brings out the worst, and grossest, in people. Lazaretto continues to prove that it is the ickiest thing on the shelves while laying out some even more disturbing truths about societies views. You can come for the zombie-esq entertainment but you will have to face some uncomfortable truths as a consequence. Lazaretto from Boom! Studios opens up the American College hierarchy and shines a light on some of its more disturbing aspects."
"There are two themes battling for dominance in this issue: claustrophobia and obstruction. As the story has progressed, the world has shrunk for the heroes of the piece. Attending University should be the first step into the great wide world, the world should be their oyster but instead their environment has shrunk. The environmental covering that surrounds the dormitory traps the characters within the building but also traps them with their secrets and personal fears"
"the most overpowering theme in this issue of Lazaretto is claustrophobia. As the central characters begin to see their options diminish, the walls start to close in. The panels start to get cramped and overcrowded. Whenever there is a crowd scene there doesn’t appear to be enough room to fit the characters in, they are either squashed together in the centre of the panel, huddled together like frightened animals, or pushed to the very edge of the panel to be cut off by the gutters. The backgrounds in the panels are for the most part sparse, devoid of substance. There is nothing welcoming in this building anymore and Levang doesn’t want the reader to feel at home at all. Everything is stripped away and closed in to heighten that locked in feeling."
The narration in Clay McLeod Chapman’s Lazaretto is designed to lead the reader through the first day of university for the central characters of the story as they embark on a new adventure.
Jay Levang’s artwork assists this by effortlessly manoeuvring the reader through the panels and pages. Each page and each panel is designed to allow the story to grow organically and be as simple to read as possible.
A prime example of this is on page 4 of the first issue. Levang uses a number of techniques to manipulate the readers eye, drawing them where he wants them to look even when it goes against the usual flow of a comic page. All of this is successfully accomplished without the reader realising the amount of manipulation that is going on.
Firstly, Levang uses the shape of the panels to move the action from the top left of the page across to the right. The three panels are larger on their left than on their right so that the bottom of the panels create a diagonal line running across, and slightly up, the page.
Secondly is the use of a prop. In this case a loose leaflet blowing in the wind. It moves from panel three back across the page, from right to left in defiance of the usual reading order.
The final three panels of the page actually merge into one as the gutters are obscured by the crowds flocking around Tamara. The scene becomes chaotic, bleeding to the edge of the page. However, there is nothing chaotic in Levang’s artwork. A simple collection of well-placed arms and fluttering leaflets direct the reader smoothly down the left side of the page and finally across to the bottom right where the page ends with Tamara recoiling in disgust.
This is simple but extremely effective use of comic book design to subconsciously manipulate the readers experience and allow them to focus unhindered on the entertaining script.
Lazaretto is published monthly by Boom! Studios
Starting University can be difficult at the best of times but when a violent virus starts taking down students and the building goes on lock down, the new students are pushed beyond their limits. This comic series from Boom! Studios has been described as Lord of the Flies on a College campus and is violent, bloody and disturbingly horrific.
The basic premise of the miniseries is that at the start of a brand new year at Yersin University, two central students become entangled in a campus lock down brought about by the outbreak of a deadly virus.
In the outside would the virus, nicknamed The Canine Flu, is spreading wildly and starting to claim victims. Therefore, when an apparent outbreak is recognised in the University every attempt is made to control the virus’ spread. And so the dorms become and make shift isolation unit and the students become locked in.
With a premise that sounds like the start of most zombie movies, Lazaretto decides takes a quieter, slow building path in it’s opening issue. Drawing on different genre’s, the narrative could almost be a College Campus Comedy, the young adult rom-com or social drama. However, the virus is visually a heavy focus of the storytelling throughout, so much so that the reader might feel as though just touching the comic might lead to infection. Microscopic germs are drawn large, crossing gutters and framing transitions from page to page. The intention of this comic is to allow the reader to follow the spread of the virus as it enters the University and illustrate how it affects the lives of the two central characters.
The tone of the story has more in common with The Survivors, a 1970’s British TV show, than it does Image Comics’ The Walking Dead or Spread. This is clearly seen through the soap opera style narrative which introduces the cast of characters slowly, easing the reader into this world. It has relatable characters in a relatable situation. The awkwardness of starting University is played out over the first half of issue 1 but then the irrational fears Charles and Tamara have are swept away by the horror of a reality neither of them could have ever predicted.
The pacing of the narration by Clay McLeod Chapman builds momentum page after page; it allows the readers to get to know the two main characters while showing the outbreak in the background and on the fringes. And then, sooner than expected, the fringes come crashing centre stage instantly creating dramatic tension. So little is revealed about the virus and its symptoms that from the beginning it is unclear who has become infected; even Charles and Tamara are not clear and free at this point.
Charles and Tamara are both fully rounded characters with backgrounds and varied personality traits. This may seem like an obvious thing to say but in todays’ comic book world, establishing good characters in a first issue is difficult, especially when Chapman is setting up so much more. There is something identifiable in each of the main cast and most can relate to those nervous first days of starting somewhere new, whether it’s University, School or just a new job. The first issue is firstly social drama, a comment on the college hierarchy, and secondly a tale of infection and disease.
Jey Levang follows through on the contrasting themes by producing art work that is cartoony but also not for the faint hearted. The setting and characters are so normal but the layouts and transitions are creepy and unnerving. The whole thing seems devious: Levang has lulled us into a false sense of security.
He favours a thin pencil line and relies on only a few marks to create definition; a lot of the substance of the panels comes from the use of colour, which is bountiful. The chaos of being somewhere new is illustrated perfectly on a number of pages as the panels bleed together, losing the gutters and therefore expressing that timelessness that accompanies being out of your depth. Each one of these moments is punctuated by a virus related panel to hammer home the point that the virus is everywhere.
And the first and last contrasting splash pages of issue 1 are a wonderful way to express how much has happened in such a short time. The relaxation of the first page compared to the chaotic fear of the last sums the reading experience of the first issue up perfectly.
Like The Mist by Stephen King, this comic doesn’t appear to be a story about the virus, what it is or where it came from but about the people who become trapped in the University dorms, the ‘lazaretto’ of the title.
After the introduction of the characters and the setting in issue 1, Chapman takes the reader into a dark, unpleasant place as he picks away at modern society.
It is in the second issue that the two contrasting genres really come into play: the teenage college comedy married uncomfortably with an apocalyptical, ‘mankind turns on itself’ dystopia. There isn’t much comedy in these pages but the underlying themes from each genre are there and that is what makes Lazaretto an interesting read.
What Chapman has managed to do is portray the ‘teenage college comedy’ without the humour to highlight just how disturbing it can be. The treatment of one group of people by another based on their college year group is explored in depth as the RAs abuse their given position. The RAs purpose is to protect the fresher’s in their care but as soon as the connection to the University is cut off they seize power and put themselves on top. By forcing the younger students onto the lower floors a visual hierarchy is produced with those in charge, with the space and the safety, at the top of the tower and the sick, underclass, crowded together at the bottom. There is even a full page spread at the end of the issue 2 which represents this division perfectly. One simple image of the building tells you everything you need to know about the people inside. The isolation that the young students find themselves in is akin to the small indie film Right at your Door (2006). The building tension and mounting fear that swamped that movie is also present here in this comic.
This idea of separating the different classes of people in this way is nothing new, see Si Spurrier’s The Spire for a fantasy based version of this, but what Chapman does is use this to illustrate the College system in a simple way. There are the Jocks and the popular kids, those with money and the illusion of power, all partying at the top of the building as if nothing is wrong, oblivious to the dangers and the struggles of the others. In the middle of the final image, highlighted by a well-lit room, surrounded by dorms in darkness, is one of the popular kids who is too sick to attend the party. She has been abandoned and forgotten with no-one to care for her. At least those at the bottom have each other but Mary has no-one. She has been cast out by the high society for being ill and has ostracised herself from the others by her previous actions. Chapman draws your attention to her because he wants you to see how fickle those at the top can be; they only think of themselves and what you can do for them. In this instance the girls need to be attractive and healthy or their place in the group is lost.
A disturbing undercurrent runs throughout the narrative and this is best seen through Tamara’s story. It starts when the girls room is raided by a group of lads who force their way in and assault them with spray foam. To the boys it’s just a game, some light hearted fun but what it represents is the awful, disrespectful treatment of female students. When given the opportunity to run free, do what they want, these male students terrorise the women; they disrespect the woman’s personal space by invading it and damaging the walls. They then physically assault the women in their dorm room, a place that should be safe for them. But laugh it off, that’s what the boys do. This represents an attitude that exists not only in isolated fantasy situations like Lazaretto, but is an attitude that so many still have around the world. Especially when it comes to teenage boys just having a laugh.
Chapman uses his forced pocket of society to highlight such real world issues. The most disturbing of which is the scene with Tamara at the party. One of the RAs has set himself up as some kind of Philosophical leader, spouting well-rehearsed (but poorly researched) quotes to make himself seem very clever. A bunch of girls all paw at him in awe, wanting desperately to be accepted by him. Tamara however points out the error in what he is saying; she dares to question his superiority. In the panel where she does this she is hunched into one corner, arms wrapped around her knees in a defensive position while the rest of the room turn to glare at her. The RA has an expression of shock while the girls all stare at Tamara with hate filled eyes. No-body questions the hierarchy.
As punishment the RA dismisses everyone except Tamara. He then proceeds to force himself upon her while trying to convince her that she wants the same thing as her. It is attempted rape, pure and simple. A man in a position of power forcing himself upon someone who is deemed to be insignificant in the social group. This is not a pleasant read but it speaks volumes about how the world treats people of privilege.
While the narrative is packed with psychological horrors the Art work continues to be a visual onslaught. Levang creates backgrounds that have a watercolor effect which gives the interior scenes a sense of dampness. The colors themselves are sickly on every page not allowing for the reader to get comfortable in the surroundings.
The characters are practically all drawn with visual signs of the illness. A technique employed to continually remind the reader that all is not well in the dorm rooms. At no point are you allowed to escape the fact that these characters are trapped inside the college building. The reader, just like the cast, have to face the sickness head on at every turn.
Even the seemingly most innocent of page’s harbours worrying undertones. Take for example the character introduction pages: they are laid out like pages from a high school year book. An image for each character with the name printed in capitals below. Over the top is a typed, sneaky insight into their character. It’s quirky and fun. It once again relates to the college comedies that so much of the narrative draws on. However, it is also reminiscent on the roll call pages from Battle Royale, or the Uncanny X-Men cover for the Days of Future Past story line. How long before the reader sees those same pages again with large red crosses through some of the characters?
At every turn Chapman and Levang remind the reader that the comic is not a safe environment. Very quickly the hyper-social group begins to degrade and each page takes you deeper into this decaying situation. Like all good horror stories, this starts as a different type of story and then devolves into something grotesque. But it works the other way too, the body mutilation is an initial disgust that goes hand in hand with the horror genre, it will make you reel but it is the psychological horrors that stick with you. After being repulsed by a character tearing the skin from his arm, it’s the manipulation and attempted rape that haunts you after you have closed the comic.
Lazaretto is an exceptional example of horror as social commentary. It uses one genre to comment on another and in turn shines a light on the way the real world looks at itself.
Lazaretto is published by Boom! Studios.