Mountainhead is a disturbing story about a young boy whose life is thrown into turmoil when he finds out his life has been a lie. He returns to his real parents only to become embroiled in mysterious and unsettling incidents plaguing a small mountainside town.
Ryan Lee has an expressive art style and he uses heavy black lines that create caricatures and grotesque people and places. There is an element of early Frank Quitely about the work, especially with the over saturation of detail within each panel. The characters are a part of the scenery with each creating drama and narrative on the page.
One of the artistic techniques that Lee employs in the pages of Mountainhead is the use of cutaway panels. Sometimes the link to the narrative is fairly obvious but at other times the connection is abstract. This creates a mysterious element to the comic and heightens the threat level, constantly keeping the reader on their toes.
There are some great scene setting panels such as a single falling leaf in the first issue (see above). It helps to establish setting, the tree in which the character is climbing, but it is also an abstract analogy for the events taking place. Abraham is a young boy, breaking into a house with his father but his life is about to unravel, he is about to be separated from his father and forced to leave.
A single leaf, falling from the tree.
Later in the same issue, Lee uses a stack of small panels to depict a place where Abraham and his father are staying. The three panels give the reader all of the information they need to establish location without directly relating to a particular moment within the narrative or the characters themselves. There is a full ashtray, rubbish on the floor, and a Do Not Disturb sign on the door handle. The three simple images signify the cheap motel that the scene is set in. The uncleanliness is obvious, so is the careless attitude of the occupants and the secrecy surrounding them.
Like the leaf, these panels tell a larger story than the images that they represent.
One of the best examples of Lee’s abstract panels comes in issue 2 of Mountainhead. A series of events have led some reporters to discuss the mountains that overlook the town of Braeriach. Something untoward and potentially violent is happening out beyond the boundaries of the town. As the two reporters leave a hospital they stare into the distance commenting on a distant storm.
This transitions into the following panel:
Lee produces an image that at first glance looks as though it has been inverted, with a red sky behind black mountains. As you adjust to the image, however, you realise that the blackness is the storm, filling the sky and blacking out the light. The mountains are soaked in a red, the colour of blood, a reflection of the violence that has been hinted at but also a warning of what is to come.
The panel is a combination of the two examples I’ve mentioned above. It both sets the scene with the storm and the mountainous landscape but also is a premonition of things to come. It acts as both scene setter and metaphorical storytelling. The style of the image creates an uncomfortable end to the page which leaves the reader full of apprehension for the page turn.
This single panel does so much. It stands out on the page and within the narrative but also reinforces elements of both. Combined with the other cutaway panels, Ryan Lee demonstrates the importance of abstract images within storytelling. Not everything needs to be linear and instantly recognisable in context. Occasionally it is worth throwing in a curve ball or indulging in a moment of abstract visuals. Not only does it give the page a fresh, exciting look but it also enhances mood and tone within a narrative,and engages the reader on a different level.
Ryan Lee pushes his visual style and design in an attempt to engage and enhance this storytelling and Mountainhead is more interesting because of it.
Mountainhead #2 is released this week from IDW Publishing
Some comics have a large amount of text. Whether this takes the form of speech, internal character dialogue, or narration, the job of the letter is still the same: they have to include all of the text without diminishing the art or disrupting the narrative flow.
There are ‘rules’ about the amount of words that a comic book page should include, Alan Moore famously was obsessed by his own word count and he stated in an interview with the Zarjaz fanzine:
“it you’ve got six panels on a page, then the maximum number of words you should have in each panel is 35. No more. That’s the maximum. 35 words per panel. Also, if a balloon has more than 20 or 25 words in it, it’s going to look too big.”
This was based on advice given to him when he worked for DC Comics and it formed the basis for his own work. Anyone who has read Alan Moore’s comics will come to expect heavy word counts and layer upon layer of information per panel; it is the way he works after all.
But not everyone is used to that intensity and coming across a comic that has a lot of text can be daunting, which is why it is important that the lettering gets it right.This year I have seen examples of comics getting it right and, some, getting it very wrong. Earlier in the year I compared the recent Go-Bots comic with an old Tales From The Crypt to illustrate a point about heavy text based stories (Fig 1 below).
This month IDW Publishing released issue one of Pandemica, written by Jonathan Maberry. It is obvious from reading the comic that Maberry is an accomplished novelist and this is reflected in his dense script. Despite a number of action sequences, Maberry packs the page with conversation and narration, with some pages running up words counts over 220 across five panels. These pages stand out in the comic, instantly noticeable for their word count on the turn of the page. , However, letterer Shawn Lee handles the heavy workload superbly. He turns a difficult word count into a wonderful storytelling experience.
There are two examples of placement I am going to look at from Pandemica #1 that illustrate Lee’s technique, both of which are about leading the reader across a page.
In example one (Fig 2), a conversation is happening off panel about the spread of an unknown infection through certain area’s of America. The text is in caption boxes laid over images showing the effects of the infection. One element of the page, the text, is about the cause and the other element, the images, are about the effect. Together they combine to give the reader a fuller picture of the situation.
This page is about the horrific nature of the infection with the text hinting at a greater conspiracy. To portray this through the text Lee has decided to make the images the focal point with the narration almost in the background, like a voice being drowned out by the horror and death. Lee accomplishes this by keeping the caption boxes to the top and side of the panels.
There is a clear line for the reader to follow through the visuals, down the centre of the panels, taking in the worst of the infection. Lee then places the text in a way to facilitate this reading. The reader follows the text across the top of the page and down the right hand side mirroring the natural flow of the images.
The text does not interfere with the images but instead draws attention to them allowing the reader to digest both the visual and social outcomes of the unknown infection.
The second example follows directly from the first. On the next page Dr Katz, one of the central characters of the comic, is being interviewed for a television news programme. The very nature of the scene makes it speech heavy as the question and answers flow back and forth.
On this page, artist Alex Sanchez is trying to relay as much information about the character of Dr Katz as possible through the use of body language. The confidence and potential arrogance of the man is illustrated using facial expressions and the positioning of his limbs.
To assist this reading and emphasis the subtle visuals, Lee positions the speech balloons in a diagonal reading line across the page from the top left to the bottom right (Fig 3). The reading line brings the reader into contact with Dr Katz in each panel helping to focus on the man’s body language. As you read his answers to the questions posed, you can’t help but notice the smirk upon his face and his slouched position within his chair.
Letterers sometimes have the hardest jobs. They have to work with a script already written, art already drawn, and often have little say in either. It is their job to place all of the required text on the page to make it easy for the reader to follow while at the same time not infringing on the narrative. A good letterer can make the speech appear invisible on the page, serving its purpose in telling the story, however a great letterer incorporates the text into the storytelling process, enhancing the reading experience.
In Pandemica Shawn Lee does just that; he uses the large amount of text to lead the reader around the page, highlighting specific elements of the panels, and contrasting the speech with the visuals.
He enhances the reading experience and turns a potential textual quagmire into a visual treat.
Another week, another stack of comics from the shop.
Although smaller than some weeks, it's quality not quantity that counts, and there have been some superb comics this week.
My first recommendation is Postal Deliverance from Top Cow. I've been following this series from issue 1 and it has been getting better month after month. The short break between the original Postal series and this follow up has given Bryan Hill and Raffaele Ienco a chance to work on their ideas. And it shows, especially in this issue, as this is some of their best work. My review can be found via this here link.
Coffin Bound #2 from Image Comics is outstanding. There's not much I can add to my review (here) so I'm not going to try. But if I was you, I'd be out there, hunting down a copy before they've all been snatched up.
My third review is for Pandemica #1 from IDW Publishing. I found this a much more intriguing comic than I was expecting. Not perfect, and in places over written, but a good start with a fresh approach to an end-of-the-world story. Review link....here.
My final review link is for Trees: Three Fates. I love Warren Ellis' work and the Trees series has been magnificent so I'm really looking forward to it's return. Hopefully my local comic shop remembered to order it for me ...
They didn't. So I will have to wait until I can source a copy but here's a review from one of my colleagues over at MonkeysFightingRobots
I made few change to my Pull List today. I've ordered a number, but not all, of the new X-Men comics that are coming out. There's no way I can afford to buy them all but there are a few I really want to read. The X-Men title itself, because Hickman!, but also Marauders because one of the lead characters is Kitty Pryde who also happens to be one of my favourite X-Men characters. Plus pirates and the Hellfire Club! What's not to love.
I've also cancelled a few comics. Firstly Deaths Head. I know it's only a limited series but I haven't finished reading issue 2 so I don't see the point in buying 2 more comics I'm not going to read. I do enjoy the character but I think that this new version is trying just a little be too hard to be 'cool'. It's appeal probably lies with a younger audience and I hope it proves popular so that the character can feature more in future comics. This current series is just not for me.
I've also cancelled Supergirl. Again. I try so hard to keep up with Supergirl, she is a character I really enjoy, one of the few from DC, but they seem to have trouble maintaining a high quality of story for her ongoing title. The last issue, number 33, was dreadful. It was like the ending of several other comics thrown together with very little attempt to link it all together. No care was taken with the narrative and the artwork was very inconsistent. Following on from the lacklustre crossover story from the last few months, it just seemed to be the right time to cancel it. Again.
I'll give it a few months or wait for a new creative team and then give it another go.
Welcome to my first, weekly (hopefully) comic book round up.
This will mostly consist of links to reviews I have written, with the occasional link to other comic book news I have found interesting. I may even comment on the links. Let you know what I think about what's at the other end.
This week has been a fairly quite week from a personal review point of view.
The last issue of the first arc of Descendent came out from AfterShock comics. I have enjoyed this comic overall. Some of the artwork was a little underwhelming at first but Evgeniy Bornyakov had found his stride by this last issue. And Stephanie Phillips has written an intriguing story. Anyway, check out my review for issue five here I promise no spoilers!
This week also saw the return of the mega-team of creators, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles, with the start of the this Pretty Deadly volume. Issue one of The Rat is an exceptionally beautiful comic. I say a lot more on my review (here) but to sum it up: it's awesome. I can't recommend it enough.
I also recommend House of X issue 4. The whole House of X/Powers of X story has been amazing (if a little costly but they are definitely worth the money) and I can't get enough Jonathan Hickman in my reading. The world that Hickman is building with the X-Men is outstanding and the most recent issue is jaw droppingly shocking, which is difficult to do in mainstream superhero comics. It is a testament to Hickman and Larraz's talent's that they can make such an all encompassing comic feel very personal: the stakes are high for every single character. Issue four of House of X is reviewed here (but not by me so I can't be held responsible for any spoilers).
If you've not got a copy yet, try to pick up Tommy Gun Wizards. It's not the best comic out this year but it's damned near close.
Finally for this week, a none review related link. A small group of comic critics/editors have launched a new publishing house called Fieldmouse press. Their intention is to focus on comics, critique, community, and collaboration and their first venture will be a web site, due to be launched early next year.
The Secretary and Treasurer Alex Hoffman had this to say (from the official press release):
“Our goal is to provide a space for readers, artists, and the general public to explore the comic arts in the many forms they come in. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our goal is to serve this community that we love and do something we think hasn’t been possible before now. And as a nonprofit organization, we can take chances that other publishers haven’t.”
It definitely sounds interesting and I am going to be keeping my eye on it.
The full press release can be found on their website here .
I will finish this week with the stunning cover to Pretty Deadly The Rat issue 1. Be sure to pick it up. This is what it looks like:
The key to a good drama is great characters. Without the later you can’t really have the former. To demonstrate this in the simplest of terms compare the Bumblebee movie to the previous Transformers movies.
One has engaging, rounded personalities who grow as characters from the first act to the last. Their many facets shape the narrative and move the plot forward. Without their distinct reactions and individual takes on the situations presented to them the movie would have plodded, emotionless from scene to scene.
The other has explosions and two dimensional characters inhabiting a plot that moves emotionless from scene to scene.
The point is that for an audience to care about the drama, whatever form that it may take, they have to be invested in the lives of the characters. The Walking Dead comic became the success it is not by rehashing endless violent zombie attacks but by making the reader fall in love with, or incessantly hate, the characters struggling to survive the harsh world Robert Kirkman had created.
In much the same way, Ted Anderson and Nuno Plati have concentrated the focus of their creation, Orphan Age published by AfterShock Comics, around the characters and not the world they inhabit. Over the first five issues the creators have slowly introduced the readers to the central three characters and built up a rapport between reader and cast.
One of the ways that they have managed this is to use isolating character panels to highlight reactions or illustrate thought processes. In issue five the story revolves around a siege of Albany, a peaceful township which the protagonists have been heading for since issue 1. As soon as the siege begins all eyes turn to Lindy, as Mayor of the town, to offer guidance and leadership. Issue 5 is about Lindy’s character; who she is and her purpose in the new world.
Throughout the issue Plati keeps the characters very isolated in their space, even in town meetings and crowd scenes. He achieves this by framing single characters in the panels for the majority of the page. There is an establishing shot of the crowd to open the scene and then, as the conversations start, each character inhabits their own panel, with the background removed and replaced with dark shades of blue/grey.
In some instances, Plati even breaks up the character close ups with an additional gutter. This creates an emphasis on the moment and gives the reader the impression that the character is in deep thought. The moment is unnaturally stretched indicating a longer period of time.
See, for example, the end of page two (Fig 1) where Lindy is informed that The Church must have been planning their attack “for a while.” She does not speak and Plati has chosen a close up of her face staring down. The image is split in half by a white gutter, extending the moment of contemplation as if the words that have just been spoken are sinking in. The reader is given the instant despondent reaction from Lindy, however the break line indicates that she is taking time to consider the implications of what she has heard. Plati has created a significant pause at the end of the page, left the concept lingering in Lindy and the reader’s minds.
As the issue progresses, Anderson and Plati focus their attention on Major Lindy. She becomes the central figure and a keystone for the themes playing out in the comic. Her acceptance of the situation is a reflection on the township as a whole and the choices she makes represent the nature of the people she leads.
In one scene Lindy discusses the difference between Albany and The Church with Daniel (Fig 2). The conversation happens so that Anderson can show the reader Lindy’s thought process and how she is working through the problem at hand. Plati helps to illustrate this fact by isolating her within the panels, as before, and this time zooming right into her face. The image in the final panel on page seven is split in half with Lindys facial features taking up half of the space. The word balloon hovers in the blank space beside her face. The speech itself is a thought process where Lindy seems to be talking herself into defeat. The image reflects the forced imprisonment of the Mayor and by extension the town of Albany.
This metaphor is continued later in the issue with Lindy again being a representation of the town. After speaking with Princess about what they expect out of life, Princess makes Lindy realise her role in the town. There is a single cut away panel, where Plati leaves the confines of the building and shows the reader an image of Lindy from the outside, looking through a window (Fig 3).
Firstly, this image reinforces the notion that the characters are trapped within the town. There are several frames around Lindy starting with the white gutters followed by a bleached plaster wall and finally on to window frame. Lindy, like Albany, is trapped in her present location and also, following on from the conversation in the previous panels, trapped within her destiny. She will stay and defend the town, it is all she can do.
There is also an element of hope in this single panel. Whereas all the other panels on the page, and across a large proportion of the comic, are shrouded in shadows and surrounded by dark backgrounds, this panel of Lindy has a strong light shining across the wall. The wooden slats and plaster wall are bright in comparison to the room beyond the window. The creators are emphasising Lindy’s moment of realisation, like a light bulb flashing above her head. But it also represents hope for her, and the town. They are currently in a dark place but it is possible to reach the light.
There are several more moments like this in this issue and even more spread across the series as a whole. In issue five, Anderson, Plati, colorist Joao Lemos and letterer Marshall Dillon are able to illustrate a situation involving a town of people using the experiences of just a few. By concentrating on building up the character of Lindy, the wider implications of the siege and the effects on the people around her are examined without the need for a large cast and sweeping scenes of panic, anger or fear. Lindy becomes a voice for the town both literally as the Mayor and figuratively as a representation of the people on mass.
By concentrating on the characters Anderson and Co hook the reader in, make them attached to the comic on an emotional level but are also able to tell a much larger story through personal experiences. In essence they give their story a ‘face’, a journalistic method of getting people interested in a news story. Without characters like Lindy, or Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead and Hazel in Saga, the comic would lose focus and as a result the readers interest. There are only so many explosions or mindless zombie attacks you can throw at people before they become disinterested in them.
Volume One of Orphan Age Published by AfterShock Comics is due for release early next year.
A new look with some new posts and even a new part of the blog.
All of this is on the way. In fact the new part of the Blog is already here.
Select Conceptual Comic from the top row and get an insight into the visual art that I have been working on, all comic book influenced of course.
I have some new posts lined up for the next few weeks and, of course, you can still read all of my reviews over on Monkeysfigthingrobots.co
Keep popping back if you're interested in anything that I'm doing.
Thanks for reading!!
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.