Friday, August 29, 2014

Reviewing Art In Comics: What I Like To See/Aspire To Provide

Let's be honest: There are a dearth of websites, blogs, podcasts, etc. doing reviews of comics.  I'm on a podcast that reviews comics weekly, and have been known, on occasion, to provide a written review of a comic both at Captain Blue Hen's website and, in the early days, this blog.  On the podcast, we keep a loose format; consistency in review aspects isn't something we spend a whole lot of time on.  For myself, I at least try to critique both the art and the written content every time.

But we're always trying to improve, right?  I think we owe it to ourselves, our fans, and comics creators in general to include at least a minimum of planning in our approach to reviews.  I'm not saying every review needs to hit every check-box on the list, but what I AM saying is that taking those planning steps and, at the least, pre-loading a mental checklist prior to reading critically can elevate an otherwise lackluster critique to something the audience can benefit from and enjoy.

I focus on art because it's not uncommon to find reviews of comics that don't even mention it.  Bizarre, right? I mean, it accomplishes a significant portion of the storytelling in any good comic, so why wouldn't you at least talk about it in any review?

Many reviewers, I think, feel intimidated by the processes and techniques on display.  They feel more comfortable talking about plot and script because these are aspects common to comics, prose novels, plays, movies, etc...a familiarity with these is to be expected in any warm body approaching a comic review, as presumably literate reviewers have likely been exposed to these basic elements some order of magnitude more often than aspects such as pencil line work.

Comic art, where sequential, still images take a major role in story delivery, is a just little more niche, isn't it?

Below, I list some aspects of sequential art I like to explore in my reviews.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, and it doesn't come from some authority on the subject.   Like all my reviews, it is crafted from opinions and personal interest in the topic, so take/leave as you see fit. My hope is that it gets any prospective critic thinking about aspects of comic art in a constructive way prior to critical reading.  Perhaps it will cue readers to aspects they haven't thought of, or suggest further areas to explore the media.  Remember, even if you don't understand all the tricks of the trade, you are ALWAYS qualified to talk about whether the artist was successful communicating with YOU. Also, I'm not perfect. Keep in mind I don't always live up to these guidelines:

1. The Artists' Name(s): At a minimum, mention the artist's name.  A good review might also include the names of those involved in layouts, clean-up, coloring, etc. Coloring, especially, is an essential function, and any time the colorist is a separate body from the listed artist, then that colorist (and their work) deserves mention in your review. A good rule of thumb is, if you touch on any contribution to the work in more than a passing manner, you should be mentioning the contributor by name.  These are the men and women bringing your favorite media to you, and they deserve mention in any critical discussion.

2.  The Medium: You want to be aware of what you're looking at.  Comics art has expanded in available technique greatly over the past several years, especially where computer image production is concerned.  Are you reviewing traditional pencil work on paper, with inks overlaid and colors applied later in the process? Or is it even colored? Maybe it's painted, where color is approached in conjunction with laying out form, as opposed to creating monotone borders around everything. Was the art produced digitally, or with hand tools, or both? Although it's getting more difficult to tell them apart in some instances, you can usually spot digitally-produced line work.  If you're not sure, take to the internet and do some research; you should be able to glean something about the artist's usual approach.
Clayton Crain is one of the more prominent digital painters in comics.  Note the lack of black line borders around forms you would see in a traditional line drawing. See that highlighting at the edge of Frank's left leg? Line artists in comics tend to shy away from letting glare/highlights extend to the edges, even if the lighting calls for it, because it disrupts the line around the form. In this case, however, it results in a more consistent lighting environment.

3. The Style: Discuss your first impressions of the artist's style: Is it cartoony? Realistic? Cinematic? Does it fit with the narrative? Are proportions exaggerated?  If so, could these exaggerations be carried into 3 dimensions? What I mean by this is, if you imagine changing the 'camera' viewpoint, would the exaggerated proportions carry the same meaning or impact, and are they consistent with a depiction of a 3D environment?  Sometimes, the consistency that would suggest a 3D world is consciously sacrificed for the sake of impact or style. Many artists in comics (Jack Kirby comes to mind) use exaggerated proportions and skewed perspective to increase impact, illustrate emotion and power, etc. in a way that would fall apart if you were to rotate the view around the focus of the image. However, it remains something for you to consider, and possibly comment on.
An artist with a cartoony style who makes frequent use of exaggerated perspective and proportion, Joe Madureira nevertheless demonstrates an expert knowledge of the human physique.

4. The Lines: For non-painted material, how does the line work grab you? Artists can bring a truckload of technique to laying out even the simplest lines on the page. Line thicknesses can change gradually or sharply across a given segment, and the line itself can denote shape, lighting, consistency of materials, reflectivity of the surface being rendered, and a laundry list of other things. Any line drawn on the human face can carry a host of information besides the outline of the form. Note how line weighting is used or discarded, and how much detail is brought forth by varying line thickness. You might find, for example, that an artist's inattention to line weighting sucks the contour and dimension out of a figure or face, or how subtle variations can produce a more effective, impactful portrait of a character.
Steve Dillon is an artist that, in my opinion, could loosen up and vary some of the line work around the mouth and other facial features.  A solid, unbroken line around the lips, for example, is something you don't see often on people who don't wear lip-liner. For me, this results in a fishy, plastic look that I don't enjoy.

5. The Anatomy:  Everyone's favorite! How well are the characters rendered? Do you feel the artist is comfortable depicting characters across the broad range of musculature and posing available to the human figure? Or is(are) the artist(s) relying on a limited range of 'pre-fab' poses? Do the characters articulate convincingly? Do the various muscle groups and shapes respond to and limit character actions convincingly, or do they move like plastic figures? Is anatomy exaggerated? Are characters overtly sexualized? Is there a variety of body shapes, faces, heights, etc. available, or is there 'same-face/ re-tread' happening?
Frank Cho, in my opinion, has mastered human anatomy and musculature. And look at the rich detail in those backgrounds!

6.  The Poses:  Note how the artist conveys action in the scene.  Can you envision the scene a split-second prior to the panel you're looking at, and a split-second beyond? Do the figures carry weight and motion in their stance? Are the poses chosen for characters believable? In the case of some of the more fantastic characters and environments, do they need to be? Do the characters interact with their environments in a believable way? Are the character stances consistent with the plane of the floor, the chairs they sit on, the steps they climb, etc? Or do the characters appear to float about in their surroundings like Sandra Bullock in a space capsule? Are the attitudes of characters conveyed in their body language?
Note the infinite variety of poses available to an artist like Amy Reeder, especially in the crowd scene..and how the poses in the crowd impart motion and impact to the fly-by. Note also the attention to panel layout and composition that imparts action in a very cinematic way.

7.  The Blocking:  Are scenes set up in a cohesive way?  Are the best camera view-points chosen? Is the action up front and big, or is it distant? Are the panels muddied by too many superfluous characters or objects? Keep in mind, there may be scenes where such confusion is essential, as the Times Square example featuring Rocket Girl, above, will attest. Note how the scope and gravity of a given piece is altered as these aspects are changed.

8.  The Backgrounds:  One of the first things to suffer where deadlines loom and artists fatigue is the amount of detail in the background.  Obscuring the background with a monotone plane of color is something you see frequently. This can also, however, be a stylistic choice that centers the readers' focus around a character or bit of action, where the minutiae of the scene becomes unimportant.  Take note of the techniques used and when and where the backgrounds are allowed to add visual detail.
While Jock's stylistic approach to characters is unparalleled, I thought this issue suffered, in general, from a lack of detail in the backgrounds. Others may, on the other hand, enjoy this aspect, as it shifts the focus to some very well-rendered characters.

9.  The Lighting: Lighting of a given scene is almost always important, and it's an aspect that has really taken center stage in recent years. The number of colors and effects available to comics have increased by an order of magnitude at least twice in the past 15 years or so. Who is conveying the lion's share of the lighting in the work under review, the line artist, the colorist, or everyone involved? Some line artists are quick to add significant areas of shadow and shading to their work to convey as much as possible about lighting and form, while others leave these elements almost entirely to the colorists and inkers. Note which artists, and their respective techniques, convey detail in the lighting and shadow.  Is the lighting consistent with a source either inside or outside a given scene, or is it simply placed wherever works to convey mood?  Does the light source remain in place as the 'camera' moves around in the scene? Is shading done (in your opinion) in the correct amounts? Does it vary with the type and nature of the lighting, or is it too uniform? Does it muddy the forms too much with cross-hatching and sketchy contouring? Does the lighting add realism, emotional impact, irony, etc. to the scene?  These are all things to consider.
Note the attention to detail in the lighting: Every panel, every character is rendered with deference to a light source that remains anchored in 3-dimensional space, even as the viewing angle changes from panel to panel. This type of continuity can work, even on a sub-conscious level, to increase the level of immersion.

10.  The Color:  Color can be a bit harder to critique with any sort of objectivity. Many aspects of what color choices can do for a scene are covered in the other entries, above. I also like to think about the mood the colorist is going for, how well the coloring fits the material, whether it looks busy with a myriad of tones or goes instead with a few simple flats, whether colors match the detail level and compliment the line work, especially in high-detail environs, the dynamic range evident on the page, and the attention given to lighting.

Again, this is by no means a complete list. My hope, however, is that it will get the reader thinking along those lines (npi) in a way that enhances his or her enjoyment and appreciation of comics, and encourages a potential reviewer to deliver the detail the audience is looking for.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Jim's Movie Reviews: Godzilla (2014)

Lemme see...there are 29 feature films produced by Toho Studios through 2004, 30 if you count the US Raymond Burr re-hash of the first classic Japanese film, I think...and maybe if you count Godzilla vs. King Kong, with its 2 endings as 2 films, it's 31...then the 1998 abortion...meaning this Godzilla is the 30th (or so) film with the giant lizard headlining. As items of distinction, it features the direction of Gareth Edwards on a script by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham.  Contributing acting talent for this go-round are Aaron Taylor-Johnson, CJ Adams, Ken Watanabe, and Bryan Cranston.

The original Godzilla, who hit Japanese theaters in 1954, was a work of science fiction horror.  The monster was born out of the collective consciousness of a nation whose identity was forever changed on August 6th, 1945, and it shows:  He is portrayed as the incalculable response of nature to a humanity toying with destructive forces simply too large to be safely handled.  In subsequent features, he is most often portrayed as a (unwitting?) guardian and protector of humanity against other such nemeses, resulting in a more kid-friendly (and definitely less horrifying) set of movies.

This effort proves an attempt to do both:  Depict the horror and fascination of humanity with a creature beyond their ken AND get audiences rooting for the creature as a hero. It's quite the balancing act they've elected, as they could have had an easier time simply trying to re-capture the horror aspect of the original.

The Good:  This movie understands pacing.  We spend some time exploring the human drama, predictably, the exposition peppered with glimpses of the creature and its trail of destruction before the big reveal. Cranston was the stand-out performer here, bringing just enough skill to the job to carry us over.  The human element, after all, plays second-fiddle in a story destined to reveal their efforts as largely ineffectual. The payoff is huge for the investment in teasing:  The first time the creature is exposed in all his horrible glory, the audience I was with erupted into applause, and it wasn't for the last time during the feature. Godzilla in action is a breathtaking statement of the progress of CG art in the 21st century, giving audiences the creature most likely to stir up memories of what many felt as children, watching much older and less technologically adept efforts.  There are more cues to 'real' biology in the design of the monster than in the original rubber suit.  Nevertheless, the artists give us a creature that just drips the kind of 'King Of The Monsters' badassery that gets audiences motivated.  In 3D Imax, the reveal was awe-inspiring, and may be worth the price of admission, for some, all by itself.  The movie quickly ramps up in the third act, giving us periodic, crowd-pleasing...let's call them 'money shots' designed to tickle the fancy of both long-time fans and newcomers alike.  These moments are doled out with just the right amount of flair to maximize the visceral payoff, and although I could see a few critics jumping off due to obvious audience pandering, count me among those who got into the spirit of it.  A few of these moments are in homage to earlier work with the character, and longtime-fans will be happy to see that elements lost in the 1998 attempt are back in place.

The Bad:  The earlier parts of the film are necessary, to be sure, to give us some human connection to the story.  But the engineered nature of these scenes comes through at times, with questions such as, "How can this be all over the news and I just get a tease?" occurring just a little too often.  The end, so far as the human protagonist is concerned, featured some pretty disbelief-inducing plot elements (maybe another character death is called for?).  It's also a little dry at the beginning, where emotionally charged scenes seem to be filmed and edited in a very controlled manner, lending an almost clinical, "True Stories Of The ER" feel to what should be gut-wrenching fear or pain of loss.  The final act eschews almost all the periphery elements of human drama...once the action starts, the film delivers dose after dose of crowd-pleasing scenes of destruction visited by the monster, with very few cuts to the effects of the embattled Godzilla on the human populace.  Massive, crumbling skyscrapers, etc. are set-pieces in the final act, as opposed to places where people live and work.  There are plenty of scenes of fleeing people and reaction shots early on, but when things really start crumbling, it's all about the rock-em'-sock-em' action, for better or worse.  That, and the "he's our friend, really" element is laid on a little too thick.  It's tough to be critical with so many cheer-inducing moments coming out of the third act, but it might have been nicer to give the horror aspect its due a little more often.

The Bottom Line:  Godzilla is a fine effort, and worth seeing (especially in 3D Imax) for those who aren't there to critique it on plot structure and human dramatic elements alone.  Although not a perfect movie, fans of the monster as well as casual fans of visceral summer popcorn entertainment will want to check it out.  8 out of 10, if for nothing other than the "HOLY SHIT"s frequently uttered in theaters everywhere.

Fun fact:  In 1984, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung decided he wanted North Korea to make a Godzilla movie.  In true batshit-crazy fashion, the North Koreans kidnapped South Korean film-maker Shin Sang-Ok, then forced him to make Pulgasari, no doubt the strangest Godzilla rip-off, ever.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Jim's Movie Reviews: Amazing Spider-Man 2

 Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the latest super-hero sequel for 2014 release.  Most of the cast, including Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, Sally Field as Aunt May, and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, have returned from 2012's Amazing Spider-Man, also directed by Marc Webb.  However, we have new writers for this installment in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who you might recognize from the 2009 Star Trek and its sequel.  Also new to the franchise are Jamie Foxx as the villain Electro, Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne/The Green Goblin, and Paul Giamatti as The Rhino.  In the film, our hero battles the trio while uncovering the mystery surrounding his parent's death and attempting to keep it together with Gwen.

The worry for many fans with the sequel was that it would repeat the mistake of 2007's Spider-Man 3, where including three antagonists diluted the narrative.  Previews made it clear that this installment would also include three, count them, three super-villains, a move sure to spark controversy.

So, how does it rate?  We've had this year's opening salvo from Marvel Studios in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another financial success from what has become the de facto model for productions of its ilk.  Does Sony's latest effort deserve a seat at the table, or has the "more is better" bug bitten once again?  Sadly, it's more like the latter...but not exactly.

The Good:  Garfield and Stone, in their respective roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, are perfect.  Much ado has been made of their off-screen romance, but their on-screen familiarity is palpable, especially in the out-of-costume moments between them.  Foxx does a passable job, lending credence to a set of not-so-convincing character motivations.  DeHaan, as Harry, is a welcome addition as well.  Given only scant screen time to establish the Harry/Peter (hur hur) friendship, he manages a natural-feeling connection. Even Giamatti, with the least screen time of all, hams it up perfectly for the material he's given.

As far as over-crowding is concerned, I don't think it was the problem.  At least, not the main problem.  More on that later.  Distilled to its essence, the movie had a decent rhythm: The battle sequences were staggered throughout, and out-of-costume time was peppered in with enough opportunity to keep the plot moving and the character motivators in focus.  On balance, characters are given as much or as little screen time necessary to flesh out the plot.  Rather than share screen time equally, Goblin and Rhino are (correctly) regulated to the back burner for much of the film.  Editing was accomplished pretty well, too, especially in the action sequences. Special effects varied wildly in quality, but on balance, character animations were incredible, even for a movie awash in Sony dollars.  The way Spider-Man moves is a revelation that the Rami movies don't have the monopoly on animating or choreographing one of the toughest characters to get right.

The Bad:  Hmmm...where to start?  Tone.  At times, it's a love story, with Peter and Gwen hashing out a direction for their lives in the midst of some incredible opportunities for Gwen's career as a student.  Then, it's a quick gear-change to an over-the-top Electro origin story in an overtly funny-book style that might have worked well in another movie.  Then, another grinding of gears while Harry enters Peter's life once again, and the two wax nostalgic for off-screen times gone by.  Then, back to the Peter/Gwen thing for more tortured romance.  And so on.  Throw in Peter's parents, some tension between May and Peter, and the whole Goblin arc, and you've got a full plate.

The battle scenes, in particular, make several mistakes with dialogue and action for Spider-Man.  Audiences can expect an over-dose of ham from what should be weighty encounters, with pageantry normally reserved for character appearances at conventions and birthday parties.  I'm all for a s***-talking but kid-friendly Spider-Man, and I understand fully that he needs to connect with his city in a unique way.  But folks, you gotta pepper that stuff in.  At one point, Spidey dons a fire helmet and joins a hook-and-ladder crew to the delight of a cheering crowd, because, you know, they're the real heroes of 9/11 and whatnot.  This, during a scene that called for tension as the hero squared off with his nemesis for the first time.  Instead, Spidey plays to the Times Square crowd like he's guesting on Good Morning America, and it sucks the tension right out.

Electro having the majority of screen time spent on villains, you'd think he'd be a cornerstone of tone for the film, but not so:  Although his origins are tied into the same Oscorp research projects as all the other hero/villain characters in the franchise, his motivations are right out of the Electric Company Super-Villain Origin Story Handbook, and the deep commitment brought by Foxx to the role only drives it home.  Design-wise, he's the star of the movie, with his every vein, nerve and muscle lit from within as his power over electricity asserts itself.  He LOOKS amazing, but his every line of dialogue is right out of Schumaker Batman.   Oh, and while we're at it, his theme in the score is full of 80's-sounding synth and wailing electric guitar (you know, because the villain Electro is all about electricity and...never mind). Although the score knows what it's about in terms of mood, it only tends to drive home how these scenes just aren't crafted like they should relate.  The movie wants you to take Electro seriously as a threat, but it's tough when he's set to a tune better suited for 80's action television, expressing all the depth available to a kid's show parody of the character, and combating a Spider-Man who's tap-dancing for the New York crowd.

Harry Osborne's character arc differs wildly in tone from Electro's.  His connection to Peter is handled in a reunion scene where the actors successfully play to each other's strengths, but there just aren't enough of these. Although the reasons for the Harry/Peter conflict are fairly valid, and their exchanges well-handled individually, the character gets short shrift in terms of screen time.  His arc completes in a forced manner better suited for exploration in a sequel.  It would have been just fine to leave it for next time, but instead, he swoops in (pun intended) at the end as a sort of reverse deus ex machina.

The toughest character arc to watch conclude, hands down, is Gwen Stacy's.  (SPOILERS AHEAD - skip this paragraph if you plan to see it)  For what it's worth, Stone smashes it out of the park for much of the film, giving us a convincing, lovable Stacy that's devoted to Peter, but hangs onto her own priorities.  Nevertheless, the final act is all about tying Stacy to the tracks so Spider-Man can agonize over her death.  The excuses to even have her in the same scenes as Spider-Man, at this point, sound bovine.  Something about "resetting The Grid" and being "the only one who knows how."  Nevertheless, Spider-Man begrudgingly drags her to the scene of her own demise at the hands of the Green Goblin, a character whose own 'arc' only exists to kill Gwen in time for end credits.  Both Goblin and Stacy are cheapened as a result of this ham-fisted rush to conclusion.  I'd have thought there was ample time for some Sony bobble-head to remark, "Hey, that Stone/Garfield thing is killing it on and off screen, why don't we keep her around for a while longer?", but apparently keeping a good thing going and fixing your movie are business practices lost somewhere in the giant movie-making structure. There's also an entirely unnecessary story line involving Spidey's web-shooters that provides, transparently, an opportunity for Gwen to chime in with a fractured science solution right out of the Insane Clown Posse School Of Physics.  Thus begins Gwen's completely contrived ride to vengeance-fueled heaven, all so we can provide the second of the film's three endings, and get her out the way for the third installment. 'Because next time, it's personal!' and all that.
Lurking behind the scenes, only to jump out and crap all over tone and gravitas when you least expect it, is the sound track, where the latest in pre-fab music announces itself like an over-loud 80's K-Tel commercial.  Now available on Sony records and tapes, folks!  I thought we got past musical montages as a movie-making culture (outside of Disney) somewhere around Rocky IV. I was almost certain Sony as an organism would be self-conscious about Peter Parker and musical montages after the fiasco witnessed in Spider-Man 3, but I digress.

The last of the film's transgressions I'll list is the poor CGI set design and opaque story mechanics. "The Grid" is as The Grid does, being an electrical fairy-land tied into one of the loosest excuses for a "threat to the city" in recent memory. It's very mention early in the film suggests that it will host the climactic battle sequence at the end, and it does. As a device, we're told it generates all the power for Manhattan, but it really exists to provide a fantastic setting for Spider-Man to battle in, and later, to endanger Gwen via her expertise in all this 'science'.  It's realized in cartoony, sterile CGI without the detail touches that anchor such things in the name of suspension of disbelief.  If the Times Square scenes come off like a musical or a talk-show appearance, then the CGI-laden Grid is most akin to a video-game cut sequence. One minute, we're on figurative Broadway, the next, we're stuck in Tron.

Conclusion:  This movie would have been relatively easy to fix early in the production.  Move the meat of the Goblin arc to the third installment, revamp some of the action sequences to strike a better balance between comics fun and tension-building, fire the committee that forced those god-awful musical montages into the mix, re-vamp the score (or don't, if you go for a more comical, lighter tone for the movie), and do something better with Gwen. Gwen's arc would have worked better across three installments, but here it's too close to Peter's origin story to keep from cheapening both.

It's a mess of a movie, but often highlights the skill of a cast that manages, at times, to rise above it all.  5 out of 10.