SILENT STORYTELLING, DEPTH OF FIELD, AND "WALL-E"
When someone complains that a silent comic is too quick a read, it's a sign of one of two possible problems. Either the creators didn't do their job properly, or the reader wasn't paying attention, merely trying to turn pages as quickly as possible to "get through" a story they're not all that interested in.
We last saw this a few years back during Marvel's "'Nuff Said" month, when every title went silent to varying results. Doing a silent comic is no easy trick. It relies a lot on visual storytelling from both the artist and the writer. The writer's story has to have sufficiently visual interest to grab the reader and to present the drama of the story without words. The artist then has to tell a story without the crutch of words, often relying on exaggeration and additional panels to convey everything that's going on. Sergio Aragones is a master of this. Will Eisner could do it. Mike Zeck and Larry Hama, perhaps most famously, did in in "G.I. Joe."
If any additional comics creators want to add their name to that list, the first thing they should do is turn to the world of movies. Obviously, they should watch the classics, from Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton to Harold Lloyd. So much of the visual vocabulary of movies comes from that era of storytelling. Many of the visual gags you might best remember from Looney Tunes shorts originated with that era.
After they're done with that, they should watch "Wall-E" for a more contemporary take on the concept. PIXAR's latest effort is coming out on DVD next Tuesday, November 18th, and it's a keeper. The first half hour of the movie, in particular, is the best storytelling of any PIXAR movie to date. It's the story of a small trash compacting robot left alone on earth to do his job. He has a cockroach pal, a mechanized home, and a city full of trash to collect and pile up. Then, one day, a spaceship lands and a sleek white robot, Eve, enters his life and Wall-E falls in love.
That's the broad strokes of it all. Remember what I said about needing to pay attention? That attention is rewarded by the movie. Wall-E's anthropomorphic features aren't fully human. You'll need to fill in some gaps for yourself, but the storytellers do such a great job in making him come alive that you believe in the little guy. The slightest twitch of his eyes or hunch in his "shoulders" will cause an emotional response. You can't take your eyes off the screen for a minute. If you do, you'll miss the emotion behind the story. This isn't illustrated radio, like so much of animation is these days. Each choreographed move by Wall-E represents thought in his head. He's not going to speak that thought; he acts on it. If your eyes aren't glued to the screen, you're going to miss it.
Thankfully, PIXAR makes every frame a visual feast. You won't want to look away, but that's largely because the entire first act on earth looks different from every other PIXAR film. This isn't about clean lines, bright colors, impossible-to-physically-achieve new camera angles, and digital perfection. The opening of "Wall-E" is a throwback of movie making. It revels in its ability to control depth of field. That's the photographic term for how much of an image is in focus. A shallow depth of field produces those blurred out backgrounds (the "bokeh") while the person in front is in perfect focus. Or, perhaps the foreground is blurred out while an object behind it is in focus. It's an invaluable storytelling tool, and one the gang at PIXAR use expertly to push your attention to the necessary parts of each scene. There's even some shakiness to some shots and briefly out-of-focus shots to give the impression of a handheld camera that isn't locked perfectly down. It's beautiful. It's atmospheric. It feels like a live action movie that just happens to be animated that isn't trying to fool you. I could watch the first half hour of this movie again and again, just for that technical achievement.
Then, the movie leaves the planet and finds humanity lost on a ship in deep space, 700 years removed from the Earth and, honestly, being a pack of pampered lazy layabouts. This is where the message of the movie comes in, the action starts to happen, and things get to be a little more classically PIXAR. It's not bad, but after that impressive first half hour, it's like watching a whole new movie. Depth of field is still kept narrow in most places, but the shiny smooth spaceship and robot characters lend the movie a more "cartoony" feel. It's really like two short films have been slammed together with "Wall-E," though they do merge back together in the end about as well as they could.
This depth of field issue is not unheard of in comics. The most prominent example I can think of off the top of my head was the early Mark Waid/Ron Garney run on "Captain America," where backgrounds were often blurred out to help the foreground characters pop out towards the reader. With Photoshop, this is an easy effect to achieve. I think there's a natural tendency in the world of comics, lately, to eschew anything that's an obvious Photoshop filter, so it's a technique that hasn't been terribly well-used. Colorists that once gave us a million lens flares, for example, have learned better. Letterers that threw gradients behind text in caption boxes have stopped. But the blur technique? Sparingly used to this day.
Lately, the trend has been towards knocking out the colors -- turning those black lines into lines matching the color of the item they represent. Some have used that to push backgrounds back, while others just use it the way animators use it -- everywhere they can. Some colorists work monochromatically to push the backgrounds back. This is the way it was always done in the pre-Photoshop era. Backgrounds would be painted with the same blue or purple brush. It was a great time-saver and production simplifier, but it also helped separate planes in a panel. Today, the colorists can do something similar, but are more careful to differentiate between all the things in the background by coloring them in greater detail. Still, it's all shades of the same color.
Back to "Wall-E:" If there's anything negative I'd have to say about the movie, it's that it does feel so much like two science fiction short stories slammed together. The tones of the two halves are so radically different that the transition back and forth isn't so easily digested. In the director's (Andrew Stanton) commentary, we learn that the movie started out as the first 30 minutes, followed by everything else being tacked on in order to create a full length motion picture. Major parts of the last two-thirds -- such as the species of the characters on the spaceship -- were radically rewritten along the way. The story and whole scenes were being rewritten in the "eleventh hour," as they're so fond of saying on the DVD. In the past, PIXAR has been careful about taking their time to break a story thoroughly before animating it. It's a hallmark of their consistency and quality. "Wall-E" feels a little bit like it was slapped together at times, though the end result is one large narrative.
In the end, however, I loved it. It's a brisk 90 minutes, with a heart of gold and a lead character who is as adorable as anything ever animated on a computer. The technical achievements of this movie are great, but all in the service of the story. My quibbles about the two halves of the movie aside, I don't have anything bad to say. The story is well-constructed, with every plot point carefully set up and paid off. There's a race against time, a greater message to be conveyed about humanity's addiction to technology, and a love story like no other. It doesn't have an excess of characters, cute cuddly mouthy sidekicks, sentimental songs, or multiple reversals. It's as straightforward a movie as PIXAR has made.
I knew from reading about this movie earlier in the year that they employed some live action Hollywood folks with experience in creating the specific shallow depth of field look that the movie employs. Thankfully, there is a 15 minute featurette on the second disc that goes into this deeper. As a photography nut, I enjoyed seeing the experiment with lighting that the PIXAR staff got to experience, as well as some of the reasoning behind the technical decisions with the animation. There are a lot of subtle tricks being played on you with the virtual camera work, and a bit of it gets exposed (pun intended) here.
The "Wall-E" DVD box comes with three DVDs. The first has the movie, director's commentary, a couple of long deleted scenes, and an 18 minute featurette on sound design that's well worth your time. There's also the new short made for this DVD release, which fills in the story of a once-seen character and the adventures he has over the course of the events of the movie. It's funny in a slow burn kind of way. You also get to hit the "Next Chapter" button a half dozen times to skip past all the movie trailers when you pop the movie into the DVD player. Gee, thanks, Disney DVD.
The second DVD has more deleted scenes, more "Making Of" featurettes, and a history of PIXAR that I've yet to sit down to watch.
The third DVD is a digital download version of the movie that you can load into iTunes or your home media server.
The box it comes in is pretty nice, too. It slides open from the left and right just enough to give you access to the DVDs, with a little flap opening up with content listings and more art.
The movie looked and sounded great in my relatively low-end audio/video system. I've always said that the best demo discs for any home theater system are PIXAR movies. This one passes that test. If I ever get a Blu-Ray player, this is the first movie I want to buy. I'd love to see it in high definition.
"Wall-E" is due out next week. And, of course, there are plans for a "Wall-E" comic from Boom! some day.
At long last and more than a year in the soliciting, the "Youngblood Volume 1" hardcover is in shops this week! Let's see if we can recap this book's history, for those of you coming in late:
Once upon a time (1992) in a Southern California town, a young creator named Rob Liefeld had a team comic he dropped upon an unsuspecting populace. "Youngblood" was its name and, as I recall, it was late, as were most of its first five issues. It sold a couple million copies of its first issue, and began the Image Revolution.
A few years later, Rob Liefeld and Image Comics had a public break-up.
Mark Millar then attempted to bring it all back, with Liefeld drawing a mini-series of Millar's creation. Its second issue is so late that it's yet to be published. Wait, wasn't it due out in September? Did I miss it?
After that, Liefeld went back to the start, self-publishing a remake of the original issue or two of the "Youngblood" series. He sold it at comic conventions as both an oversized hardcover and softcover. He implemented a nifty trick with it, though: It had a new script, from Joe Casey. The pages were reordered. They were recolored and relettered. The plan was to recreate the entire original mini-series in this manner.
Maximum Press announced the collection back in 2004.
Image Comics announced the hardcover in August 2007.
And so I waited for it. And waited. And waited.
In the meantime, Joe Casey began writing a new regular "Youngblood" series at Image, of which one trade paperback compilation is already in stores.
Finally, the "Youngblood Volume 1" hardcover is in comic shops this week. It features the original five issues of the "Youngblood" series with a new script. Rus Wooton steps in to handle the relettering, while Matt Yackey recolors the whole shebang, using the original Brian Murray/Steve Oliff colors as a guide. We are, after all, a few generations ahead of the Photoshop they had back when "Youngblood" #1 originally saw print. Yackey's colors do a great job in updating that color scheme.
So, the question is: Is this new version of "Youngblood" painting lipstick on a pig? My answer is a long and winding one. Sit back.
I haven't seriously gone back to the original series to read it in a decade, I'd have to guess, so I can't give you a page by page account of the changes. Let's skip over that for the moment.
I'm a part of the comics reading generation that "came of age" in the earliest days of Image Comics. We followed Liefeld and Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, et. al., from their Marvel titles to their Image titles. We loved the new creations, the bright and shiny comics, the chance for our favorite creators to do what they wanted to do.
And, yes, that included Rob Liefeld and "Youngblood," a series which was ahead of its time. It suffered mostly from a lack of execution that kept it from living up to its full potential, leaving room for books like "Powers" to come in years later and take the crown for "Media Awareness in Comics."
"Youngblood" promised to be an exploration of celebrity culture and how such a thing might influence superheroics. Not enough of that made it through to the final comic, which more resembled a scattered sequence of events that sometimes made sense, and other times looked like excuses for splash pages (sometimes sideways!) and big fight scenes.
But it was cool anyway! There's an energy to Liefeld's art that sometimes gets lost in its finer points. There's an imagination and a "coolness" factor that can't be easily explained to those who "don't get it." Yes, there are pouches and big guns and things that can only work for an imaginative reader looking at a comic instead of a live action film. For those at the right age at the right time, these early issues of "Youngblood" are golden. Yes, as a more experienced comics reader, I recognize the laughable shortcomings. I can even chuckle over the occasional expose in the blogosphere over some of the lost details in the anatomy and storytelling. But, sometimes, you don't want filet mignon. You're fine with a hamburger. You just want that thrill ride, not the meditative thoughtfulness. You want "the kewl."
Though it's been a while since I pulled out those original issues, many of the images and sequences are burnt forever into my comics memory. It's fun to relive them again through "Youngblood Volume 1." What I get from this reading experience is that Casey has done a lot of work to pull the disparate items from Liefeld's original comics into one cohesive narrative. Sure, it's choppy at times. Things happen out of left field. Basic rules of storytelling are completely ignored. It all serves to undercut the story, but Casey steps in to smooth those things out, often in ways that are hilarious if you think about them for a second. There's a meta track to his script in this book that serves to poke fun at Liefeld's worst excesses at the time. Characters are quick to point out to each other how silly the whole thing is, and caption boxes and seemingly redundant dialogue is used to cover up the flaws in the storytelling.
"Youngblood" is a blank slate for Casey to work with. It's remarkable how generic the art is for the story. I'm not sure how much of this is Casey's work or how much of it is in the script, but there are transitions from scenes set in Iraq to Germany to America that you'd never know about unless you read it in a caption box or heard it in the dialogue. There aren't any establishing shots in these issues. The backgrounds are so nondescript that you couldn't tell the difference between Iraq and any other nation in a desert. Berlin, Germany looks the same as any other German city, and most American ones. I can almost see Casey chuckling to himself behind his keyboard over how easy this all is. There's nothing pinning him down in the art. He can go as broad as he likes.
He does a remarkable job in making this hardcover tell one complete story, even given the enormity of the cast size and the almost left field nature in which villains show up at times. I'm not sure, anymore, how much of this book is Casey's invention and how much is Liefeld's. While Liefeld paid lip service to the idea of superheroes aware of their own action figure lines, I think Casey does more to drive that home than all of the original ten issues of Liefeld's series. This book is a much more logical predecessor now to Casey's current "Youngblood" series than before.
He does face one production problem, though: The original lettering. I remember that the lettering in the first issue was insanely large, and Casey's script has to take into account who is talking and when. This isn't an exact translation, where dialogue balloons in English versus, say, Japanese are in the same order. Casey gets more freedom than that. With modern computer tools, it's easier than ever to remove old balloons or redirect them. Unfortunately, it's not seamless. No art has been redrawn for this book. Where a word balloon moves or resizes downward, mere color replaces the new dead space on the page. It's an easy game to play on art pages with so much crosshatching and speed lines to find the original word balloon placements. Look for perfectly circular areas of color but no black lines. Look for speed lines that end suddenly. (Liefeld used a lot back then, often for little reason.) It's occasionally distracting and could be relatively easily fixed. For $35, I'm a little disappointed that it wasn't handled more directly.
In the end, this is likely the most lucid version of the story events told in this book. It's a fascinating experience to watch Casey tap dance through Liefeld's original story and to add layers. It's also funny to feel moments in the script where you can almost hear Casey dialing up Liefeld to ask him what the heck is going on in a page. You're only going to enjoy this book for two reasons. You're either a fan of the original work and will enjoy seeing a more coherent story created out of it, enjoying the ability of a modern creator to remix another creator's work. Or you're a big detractor of the work and will take perverse joy in noting where Casey succeeds and fails in straightening it all out.
Note that the original "Youngblood" #5 was drawn by Chap Yaep. Without having the issue in front of me, I can't tell you how big the difference is, but I know Liefeld redrew pages as necessary, complete with a batch of new pages to give the book a more solid conclusion.
I don't think that this collection will win over any Liefeld detractors, even with the new script. There's still too much to criticize. The growth opportunity here is for Casey fans and Casey completists who are enjoying his current "Youngblood" series to follow him back to how it all (sorta) began.
The production values are top notch on the physical product. I'm growing to like hardcovers more and more that have their cover art printed directly on the hard covers, rather than an easily dinged dust jacket. The pages are oversized and glossy, holding Yackey's bright colors very well.
The amazing new item in the book is the original seven pages of pencils Liefeld did for the series to shop around for work at DC and Marvel in 1987. I never thought I'd see those embryonic versions of characters like Cougar and Sentinel and Riptide. The story, itself, starts as a recruitment drive for Youngblood a la the Legion's Try-Outs. More amazingly, the two pages before it reprint a wraparound cover Liefeld did for a prospective "Youngblood" series, featuring inks by Jerry Ordway. For the first time since he lifted a sequence from "Teen Titans" for "X-Force," you can see the heavy influence of George Perez's art style applied to Liefeld's.
That's followed by a dozen pages of recolored pin-ups and covers, some sketchbook pages, and preceded by an introduction from Mark Millar that's dated 02 February 2008. The only thing the book is curiously missing is credit for Danny Miki's inks on the fourth issue. Liefeld credited it at the time as being a big boost to his art and his interest in drawing. To see his name omitted in this reprint is an odd oversight.
"Youngblood Volume 1" is 134 pages of story in addition to all of that, but the $35 price tag might be a little much for many. If you're a serious old school "Youngblood" fan, though, this book is a must-have. The rest of you likely were never going to look at it, anyway.
Next week: Assuming nothing else timely comes up at the last minute, I'll get back to the promised "Tom Strong" review I had originally scheduled for this week.
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