Making Comics: A Resource

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Do you want to make comics, or maybe just have a better understanding to be able to critically read and evaluate? These two desires drove me in high school not only to read and draw my own, but also to try and find resources on how to effectively tell stories in the comic book medium. A great tool that I found was the book Making Comics.

What NOT to expect

If you are looking for a step by step guide of any kind, or if you are looking for an anatomy introduction or beginners course in perspective look elsewhere (Figure Drawing for Dummies). Scott McCloud, the author, is interested in principles, not formulas. While this does not mean that the above are not present in abbreviated form, this book’s primary focus is on broader principles. McCloud is interested in presenting options and information, not teaching a color by numbers approach.

What to expect

Scott McCloud’s book is unique in that it is actually a comic book itself. This means that while he is teaching principles, the book itself is demonstrating the very things he is talking about. He discusses in depth the use of page layout and its interaction with pacing and intensity. He talks about art, and using it on its own and in conjunction with words to most effectively communicate ideas, emotions, and story. All the while, the pages of his book visually reinforce everything he is discussing.

Conclusion

Scott McCloud’s book Making Comics is by far the most valuable resource I have found for learning the principles surrounding effective comic making. It is easy to read, but eminently approachable and useful since it is in comic book form itself. Scott has studied this art form his whole life, and he is able to concisely communicate core ideas in a natural way. Whether you want to make comics, or simply be better equipped to read and evaluate the comic books in your personal collection, this is an excellent resource.

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Two Fun Family Comics

I recently discovered something about two of my favorite newspaper comics:  they are both written by Jerry Scott.  Although I have been reading Zits and Baby Blues for many years, I never paid much attention to the author’s name and somehow missed the connection.  My discovery that the comics shared their author piqued my curiosity, so I decided to round out my knowledge of both comics a little more and review a collection of each.

Random Zits

Exaggeration plays a big role in Zits, a newspaper comic strip about a teenager named Jeremy Duncan, his crazy friends Pierce and Hector, girlfriend Sara, and frustrated parents Connie and Walt.  From Jeremy’s trademark oversized shoes to some of the craziest contortions comics have ever seen, artist Jim Borgman uses visual exaggeration liberally.  zits-cavemanThese over-the-top illustrations fit well with the only slightly less far-fetched storylines in which Jeremy struggles with his old van, hangs out with his friends, torments his parents, eats inordinate amounts of food, and sleeps all the time.  As one common saying goes, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke,” and this seems quite true in Jerry Scott’s comic strip Zits.

Unlike some comics, Zits is almost entirely episodic, and its few linear stories last for only a few installments.  Perhaps this is why I like reading Zits.  It provides instant laughs, with little or no need to check what happened the day before—although I usually do go back to previous comics because I want more laughs.

Random Zits is a humorous collection of Zits comics that makes for some light entertainment.  This book is especially good when one doesn’t have long stretches of time to read.

No Yelling!

As much as I enjoy the comic strip Zits, I prefer Baby Blues because it is less sarcastic, has a more family-centered story, and is more relatable.  The characters are both funny and endearing, and like Peanuts, Baby Blues occasionally has sweet episodes where characters display kindness instead of constantly pulling pranks, speaking unkindly, or complaining.

baby-blues-hugDarryl, Wanda, Zoe, Hammie, and Wren MacPherson may appear to be the stereotypical family at first glance.  After all, Darryl is the working father who doesn’t always understand his wife or children.  Wanda is the overworked mother who struggles to keep her children out of trouble.  Zoe is the fashion-conscious little girl who tattletales on her brother.  Hammie is the younger brother who constantly picks on his sister and gives her reasons to tattletale.  Wren is the baby who fascinates her family and follows Zoe’s (and sometimes Hammie’s) lead, whether she should or not.  These characters may sound predictable.  Look again, though, and one will discover that beneath the expected character traits are unique personalities and moments when the characters almost seem real.

No Yelling! is a collection of Baby Blues comics.  An interesting aspect of this collection is that it contains commentary by the writer Jerry Scott and artist Rick Kirkman.  Other aspects of this collection that I enjoyed were the colorful, creative title panels that the newspapers I read omit.

no-yellingAs I learned from the authors’ comments in No Yelling!, Scott and Kirkman draw a lot of their ideas from their own families and everyday life.  For example, Kirkman bases the appearances of random characters in the comics on strangers he has met in real life.  The discovery that Baby Blues draws on real anecdotes and encounters makes a lot of sense and explains why the comic is so good.  Personal experience is one of the best foundations for stories, and the strength personal experience gives to comics in particular is that the audience is more likely to understand the humor of a comic strip when they can relate to what is happening.

In Conclusion

Jerry Scott has created two distinctive comic strips that ring true to his audiences and leave them laughing.  Zits and Baby Blues may share the same author and the same focus on family relationships; nevertheless, they are independently excellent comics that each contain their own unique characters, wit, and artistic and narrative style.  For those seeking a fun comic strip, the yelling, randomness, relationships, ironic humor, and endearing characters of the MacPherson and Duncan families will not disappoint.

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Snow White in Gray

snow-white-coverThe sky is gray, and the day is drab.  Only brief spots of colorful red vary the gloomy grayness and the washed out blue sky that occasionally peeks through the fog and clouds.  While this description could easily be of the late autumn days I experienced this week, it actually depicts the scenes of Matt Phelan’s most recent book Snow White: A Graphic Novel.

Although the book begins in 1918, it is set primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s in New York City.  Phelan uses loose watercolor illustrations, primarily grayscale hues, to tell his modernized version of the fairy tale Snow White.  As with Phelan’s other stories, the art is beautiful, and I enjoy his style and portrayal of characters and facial expression.  This graphic novel’s creative combination of Phelan’s art, early 20th century America, the big city, and the timeworn fairy tale of Snow White produce an interesting result.

Snow White is a familiar tale to most people, and Phelan seems to rely on this familiarity, for his story contains few words and no narration besides chapter titles.  To someone unfamiliar with the classic tale of an evil stepmother trying to kill her beautiful stepdaughter and the seven dwarves who help the daughter, Phelan’s story may be quite confusing.  Even though I have read and watched several versions of Snow White, parts of Phelan’s book were unclear, such as Phelan’s version of the magic mirror that the stepmother consults.  The parts that I did not understand were minor, however, and the story still made sense as a whole.

snow-white-illustrationIn his retelling of a fairy tale in which color plays a significant role, particularly in the protagonist’s name, Matt Phelan cleverly integrates his color into the illustrations so that it complements the story.  Phelan’s illustrations are predominately shades of white, gray, and sepia.  However, occasional accents of red emphasize important parts or characters in the story, such as Snow White, the apple, and the evil stepmother.  Then, during the denouement, Phelan introduces subtle, colorful pastels to mark how the mood of the story changes.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel is a creative concept, and Matt Phelan’s illustrations are excellent.  Yet, in spite of how artistically impressive the book is, it has little else to offer.  Besides the unique setting, the story does not introduce enough new twists to the original story to be exceptional or exciting.  For those seeking a clever fairy tale retelling that displays something novel, Phelan’s book is not the answer.  Nevertheless, for a jaunt through a familiar story in a new guise along pages full of Phelan’s beautiful and quirky artwork, Snow White will most likely prove enjoyable.

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Say Hello to Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth

hilo-coverMeet Daniel Jackson Lim, or D.J. as everyone calls him.  As a middle child of middling capabilities in a family of extremely smart, athletic, and successful brothers, sisters, and parents, D.J. thinks there’s only one thing he’s good at:  being friends with Gina, his next-door-neighbor.  Since Gina moved away, though, D.J. has been alone and has lost the one part of life in which he felt successful.  Now, life is just average.  One day, though, a little boy hurtles from the sky and craters into a field behind D.J.’s house, and Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick begins.

D.J. soon discovers that the newcomer in the backyard is just as unusual as his method of arrival.  Ecstatic, curious, and talkative, the boy introduces himself as “Hilo,” and D.J. quickly learns that a name, shiny underpants, and a bad case of amnesia are Hilo’s only apparent worldly possessions.  After smuggling Hilo into his house, D.J. feeds, clothes, and befriends him.  Before long, though, Hilo’s past begins catching up with him, and D.J. finds himself caught up in life-threatening adventures with his new friend.  D.J. realizes that, in addition to being a good friend, he’s good at something else:  running for his life from alien robots.

hilo-comic-pageJudd Winick and artist Guy Major have designed a colorful, quirky book which has illustrations that match the exuberance of its characters.  Hilo is both fun and easy to read due to well-planned panels.  Even though the panels are irregular in size, varying from full page spreads to five sections on a page, the transitions between pictures are simple and smooth.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick is a hilarious story peopled by funny characters with personalities that remain believable, even in a fictional story.  This book will entertain and delight audiences of many ages with its characters, setting, and new twist on science fiction and alien stories.

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Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

legends-of-zita-the-spacegirlZita is still far from home, but after saving Scriptorius from an asteroid in the first book Zita the Spacegirl, she is now a galactic hero.  Being famous, though, is not all she might have expected.  For instance, there are the crowds of jostling alien and robot fans which Zita would rather avoid.  Matters only grow worse when an “imprint-o-tron” robot shows up, becomes fixated on Zita, and imitates her identity.  Zita meets the look-alike robot and switches places with it so she can enjoy a day of fun with Mouse while her look-alike handles the mob of fans.  One hitch in this plan is that the robot wants to become Zita, not just copy her.  Consequently, a seemingly innocent deception and excursion leave Zita and Mouse stranded on Scriptorius, and the imposter robot heads off on Zita’s ship with Piper, One, and Strong-Strong to save another planet.  In Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, Zita is off through space on another dangerous adventure.

Though Zita continues to show good character qualities such as courage and devotion to her friends, her weaknesses outweigh her strengths more in Legends than they did in the first book.  Zita’s most common failing is acting on impulse.  Her intergalactic adventures began after she thoughtlessly pushed a red button, and her adventures continue after she impetuously decides to swap with a look-alike and then steal a spaceship to chase down her friends.  In this way, seemingly innocuous rashness leads Zita into deception and theft.  Now, thanks to her thoughtless actions, the public is questioning whether Zita is a hero or a villain, and she is on the run with only Mouse to help her.

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl continues Zita’s story well, with fun characters, exotic settings, and dangers that call for quick thinking and fast acting.  The story lacks some of the momentum that the first book had, and Hatke spends less time developing his characters’ personalities, but all in all Legends of Zita the Spacegirl is a good sequel and suggests that the final book will be worth reading as well.

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A Closer Look at Captain America: Civil War

Introductory note:  I reviewed Captain America: Civil War last month.  This following article is a more detailed analysis of Captain America: Civil War and as such does give away some important parts of the plot.

Captain America Civil War poster

The latest movie in the Captain America series Captain America: Civil War is aptly named.  Beyond the visible division between members of the Avengers team as peace, alliances, and friendships crack, divisions in goals and ideals also emerge.  Even as I think about the problems the movie presents, addresses, and leaves unfinished, I find myself divided in my opinions about the story, characters, and message.  The story is more realistic (for a superhero movie), yet less satisfying, for the questions the movie poses are not simple ones to answer.

As usual, Tony Stark is the spark of trouble, but Steve Rogers (Captain America), instead of being a peacemaker, is uncharacteristically at the other end of the conflict.  Stark feels responsible for the civilian casualties he and the Avengers have left behind, and he argues that the Avengers team needs oversight and restrictions.  In Stark’s opinion, the Hero Registration Act which the United Nations proposes is the best answer to the problems the Avengers are facing.  The plan places the Avengers under an international authority, giving the Avengers the accountability they need, and Stark thinks the Avengers should take advantage of this compromise before nations begin taking more forceful actions against the Avengers.  According to many nations, the superhero team has become unpredictable and dangerous, even towards those they seek to protect, and Stark thinks the criticism is accurate.

Wanda Maximoff

Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch)

On the other end of the dispute, Steve Rogers has some valid arguments.  Rogers doesn’t discount Stark’s concern about civilian casualties; in fact, Rogers has a discussion with Wanda (Scarlet Witch) early in the movie, reminding her, “This job…we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody.  But if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time…maybe nobody gets saved” (“Quotes”).  Rogers understands that civilian casualties are an almost inevitable part of conflict, but he accepts that risk.  Recalling S.H.I.E.L.D.’s corruption, Rogers also does not trust any organization to oversee the Avengers, for Rogers fears that such oversight will cause the Avengers to help the wrong agendas and will hinder the team from saving people.  Interestingly, in The Winter Soldier, Rogers initially wanted to be a soldier and just obey orders.  Now, in the aftermath of S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers seems to have swung to the opposite extreme, not wanting to obey any authority but his own conscience.

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Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier) and Steve Rogers (Captain America)

In addition to the interesting questions the movie poses about oversight and limitations of power, there are several other problems and themes that the story covers.  During one of the credit scenes, Black Panther claims Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) is a “victim.”  While this is partly true, it does not acquit Barnes of the crimes he committed while under others’ control.  Barnes deserves to be tried for his crimes for the sake of those whom he killed.  In a just trial, the judge and jury would account for Barnes’s lack of control over his actions and would reduce his charges and sentencing.  Hiding Barnes only delays the problem of facing what he has done, the consequences of his actions, and his own guilt.

Another thought-provoking theme is about compromise and principles.  Partway through the movie, a character quotes Steve Rogers’ friend Peggy Carter as having said, “Compromise where you can.  Where you can’t, don’t.  Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right.  Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No, you move.’”  This advice is quite solid.  Nevertheless, Rogers does not appear to have been listening to the first part of the speech; all he remembers is “No, you move,” and he fails to realize that he can compromise, if he and Tony Stark will only take the time to stop arguing and listen to each other.

Stark and Rogers

Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Rogers

Captain America: Civil War has some good themes, but also some twisted interpretations of them.  Peggy Carter’s speech appears to be a call to Captain America to stick to his uncompromising choices and seems to ennoble him in his decision.  Also, even though Tony Stark is on the right road in wanting oversight for the Avengers, his ballistic behavior turns the audience and Steve Rogers against him, making the Hero Registration Act and anything like it seem to be a bad idea.  Tony Stark aims for a good end, but uses the wrong means because he acts out of guilt, a desire to hand over responsibility for his actions to other people, and fear that the world will turn against the Avengers, and him.  Several times in Civil War, the story touches on Stark’s background and reveals he is a miserable, lonely person who is full of regret and guilt and whose most common answer to problems is to ignore them or get angry.  Sadly, Steve Rogers is too focused on saving one friend and defeating villains to realize he is losing other friends who need him too, like Tony Stark.  What disappoints me most, though, is that the entire Avengers team allows their division and anger to get out of hand so that friend is fighting friend.  Even the severe injury of one of the Avengers is not enough to bring the superheroes to their senses; it is only fuel for more anger and a sharp reminder of how dangerous and destructive their war is.

In spite of all the damage the Avengers team has suffered, though, some hope remains for reconciliation.  When Captain America explains why he did the many things for which Stark may never forgive him, Cap ends by promising that he and the rogue Avengers will come if Stark ever calls for them.  Stark most likely does not accept Rogers’ reasoning as right, and I would probably agree with him, but I still hope that Stark will eventually swallow his pride and be able to forgive those who have hurt him and acknowledge some of his own mistakes as well.  What Captain America, Tony Stark, and the entire Avengers team needs now is not superpowers, but a lot of humility and forgiveness.

Works Cited

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Quotes.”  IMDb.com.  2016.  Internet Movie Database.  20 Aug. 2016 <www.imdb.com/title/tt3498820/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu>.

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Captain America: Civil War

Politics, guilt, loyalty, fear, anger, and superheroes all play a part in Captain America: Civil War, leading to the longest—and perhaps most complicated—Marvel movie yet.

Tony Stark and Steve RogersAfter an Avengers’ mission in the fictional African nation of Wakanda leads to civilian deaths, the United Nations begins pushing for a law that will restrain superhero activities.  This most recent example of collateral damage, added to Sokovia, New York, and other disastrous scenes of Avengers’ battles, leads politicians, the public, and even the superheroes themselves to question how much good the Avengers are accomplishing.  Tony Stark agrees to the Hero Registration Act, and other Avengers follow suit out of loyalty, practicality, or agreement.  Steve Rogers feels he cannot agree to the act with a clear conscience and becomes the leader of the dissenting superheroes.

Both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers make valid points about the new law, but they never really listen to each other or have productive conversations.  The two characters stubbornly stick to “I’m right—you’re wrong,” when the best answer is somewhere in between their two ideas.  Sadly, personality and circumstances disrupt each possibility of compromise.  Meanwhile, as the Avengers team breaks down and superheroes take sides against each other, a sinister man named Zemo manipulates them all, and Captain America is swept up in saving his friend Bucky Barnes from everyone who is pursuing Barnes for a crime for which Barnes has been framed.

Avengers teamOne of my favorite parts of the movie is the characters, which is good because there are a lot of them.  Black Panther makes his debut, proving himself an impressive hero with some surprising character qualities.  The newest “incarnation” of Spider-Man appears several times, as well, bringing some energy and humor to the film.  Viewers also have another opportunity to enjoy Ant Man and his fun personality.  Although the story briefly develops the personalities of Scarlet Witch and Vision, most of the old characters change little, and the writers surprisingly focus, not on Cap, but on Iron Man.  Tony Stark becomes a more sympathetic, but also more frustrating, character whom anger, fear, and guilt drive more than love, courage, or compassion.

Although I appreciate that Civil War has a more interesting and complicated story than its predecessors, I miss the clarity of purpose and moral sense that Captain America displays in his two previous films.  Yet, divisive plot and themes notwithstanding, Captain America: Civil War is an enjoyable movie, with lots of punchlines and interplay between the different superheroes, old and new, and plenty of fodder for those who like to think.

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Note: I will be posting another article about Captain America: Civil War in the near future in which I will look more in-depth at the themes and messages of the movie.