Monday, December 24, 2012

Michel Fiffe Talks COPRA!

It seems like COPRA is heavily inspired by John Ostrander's classic run on Suicide you feel like COPRA diverges from Suicide Squad in major ways, such as the way that it seems Man-Head and Marty are family men doing a job rather than imprisoned supervillains?

Sure, I'm only using the Ostrander set up and a starting point, as a way to go off in different directions within a solid framework.

Something I find highly interesting about COPRA is the way that you're writing, illustrating, and producing it, all yourself. How do you feel about being the singular creator of COPRA? 

I honestly don't know any other way to do it. Stuffing envelopes, that may be the one thing I may have to get help on.

What was the decision making process like for embarking on this ambitious project of singlehandedly producing a continuing, monthly series? 

It seemed like the next natural step, despite the intimidating nature of the schedule. Now that it's at the point of no return, I'm too busy to freak out.

Do you envision COPRA continuing beyond it's first year of 12 issues?

 Maybe, it really depends on how the first 12 are received.

Do you have any other projects in the works that you want to talk about? 

Zegas is my other comic series with a cast that's less hyperbolically brutal but still very close to my heart. I ultimately want to work on both comics back to back.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

COPRA #1: Raging Wrath

I went into reading COPRA #1 not knowing what to expect. I knew that Michel Fiffe had created a Suicide Squad fan comic called Death Zone, and I was aware from the preview pages that COPRA was an original creation that was in the same vein as Suicide Squad. Beyond that, I really didn't know what I was getting into when I read my copy of COPRA #1, a monthly comic written, illustrated, produced, and distributed by Michel Fiffe. What I found is one of the most enjoyable first issues that I've read in a long time. COPRA is a sci-fi psychedelic mind bender of a superhero action's got intense, expertly orchestrated fight scenes and reality warping craziness, but it's also got characters that are interesting and I legitimately cared about them when Fiffe made it clear that everyone in COPRA is expendable.  

COPRA #1 opens on the titular team being deployed on just another of what we assume are countless missions that they've dealt with before. From the first panel, I was struck by Fiffe's ability to use sequential storytelling to convey ideas efficiently. We see in the first panel a silent establishing shot that makes heavy use of negative space, and your eye is drawn to the right of the image where we see a smoking and destroyed building that pulls you into the story immediately with the question of what happened there. We learn in the following panels that the leader, "Man-Head", is the cousin of someone who lives in this unnamed, presumably foreign city, and that he has been sent here with a team to deal with whatever strange phenomena blew up that building.

Fiffe then introduces us to COPRA, and the premise of the series. The idea of the comic is similar to Suicide Squad, and the so far unseen narrator describes COPRA as a collection of, "the dangerous and the hostile" who go on "black ops outings". Right off the bat, the narrator makes it clear that the team as we see it now is not a permanent fixture, and "some died, some stuck around"...none of these characters are guaranteed to survive this mission, and this makes the stakes of the narrative a bit higher. Fiffe does a great job here of succinctly describing COPRA with great tag lines like, "The throwaways had dirty work to do," and "They've humbly described themselves as the wrath of god by way of loser assassins." 

Fiffe then gets into introducing us to each member of the team through an engaging conversation between the characters. One of the strongest points of this comic is that the members of COPRA are not only appealingly weird (they look like they could be straight out of the Doom Patrol reserves), but they talk like real people. They're also pretty much all original characters except for Lite who is an obvious parody of Dr. Light. In one page, Fiffe concisely acquaints the reader with almost the entire team in just four panels through the narrator's descriptions and their pre-battle bickering with each other. 

Lite is the only character who doesn't feel comfortable with some small talk before the mission...the captions describe him as a "neurotic crybaby despite a power suit", and he's the only character who is paranoid about the weird skull with a strange, lightning bolt shaped object sticking out of it. This skull, also on the striking cover of the comic, is just sitting in the back of the van with the team, and Lite points out that they could all be getting radiation poisoning from the crazy thing. We see in the above page that Fiffe has a tight shot on the skull that parallels the following tight shot on Man-Head, which foreshadows the thing's importance and instills a sense of dread in the reader. We also learn in this page that this is an "unauthorized mission", a piece of information that Fiffe drops at exactly the right moment, right before everything goes to hell.

COPRA is confronted by another elite, superpowered team who want the skull-bolt, and "Marty", who was just talking to Man-Head seconds earlier about how his kids have stopped laughing at his jokes, is impaled. Fiffe then gets into 7 solid pages of some of the most amazing superhuman action I've seen in comics in a while. Fiffe's style is extremely kinetic and he conveys a sense of movement that just leaps at you through the page. This sequence is also hyper violent and in the first few panels the neurotic Lite is killed with a machete, following through on the Fiffe's implied promise in the beginning of the book that none of the members of COPRA are safe from death. Almost no words at all are used in this sequence as utter chaos erupts and superhuman soldiers spring into action. 

Fiffe has a dynamic style, and his splatters of paint and scratchy black inks are perfect for this kind of relentless action. His panel lay outs also greatly serve to enhance this action scene, and he ends the sequence of mostly wide panels with a two pages of a 12 panel grid. This is where this brutal action scene moved into the next level for me...we see that two members of COPRA, "a couple: sniper & brawler", are confronted by the leader of the enemy team "Vitas", who used to be with COPRA.

It's not really necessary to totally spoil what happens here, but use your imagination...there's a genuinely heart breaking set of panels where the hyper violence of the scene is halted for a brief moment to focus on this couple and what happens to them. Here, Fiffe takes this 7 page sequence of kinetic, fast paced, gruesome action and turns something that could be gratuitous into something that connects with the reader on an emotional level. These aren't just action figures banging against each other...Fiffe gives you the sense that the stakes are real for these characters, and his hyper violence comes with hyper tragedy as well.

COPRA #1 is a stellar first issue that establishes the premise of the series, the main obstacle for these characters, and the new situation that the team has to handle. The art is a really beautiful mixture of a feeling of homemade, DIY aesthetic that seems like Fiffe did it all with colored pencils, and a refined, professional look. The presentation of the comic itself, such as the highly stylized cover and inside cover, the nice paper quality, the letter from the creator on the inside back cover, is extremely professional in the way that it's been produced. Fiffe has also created trailers for the first and second issue of the series that are very cool.

Of course, this is all icing on the cake of Fiffe's compelling, action packed story with weird and interesting characters, but it was a major selling point for me when I subscribed to the next 11 issues of this series. What I find so amazing about COPRA is that it's a comic completely written, illustrated, and produced by one person and there is a concrete goal of putting an issue of the series out once a month. That's an ambitious and difficult project for one person to manage, and I enjoyed the first issue so much that I'm on board to support it. You should be too...check out COPRA #1, and the second issue is out now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Yasmin Liang Talks About Her Web Comic Saint's Way

What was the inspiration for creating Saint's Way?

Saint’s Way went through a lot of transformation when I first started brainstorming. It was about video games at one point and based in the future – just a lot of different ideas I couldn’t seem to settle on. The majority of my inspiration comes from just reading comics. After that comes gaming, TV shows, movies, music … the list goes on. I devour most anything.

Eventually though, what seemed to come up over and over again was that I wanted to read and make comics that reflected the diversity of people in my own life. I couldn't seem to find enough of this in mainstream comics or in any of my other interests.

Oh, and superheroes! I really wanted to write about superheroes.

At 55 pages, Saint's Way has one major mystery (Vivian Saint, her mother, and her somewhat anonymous father) as well as a few other mysteries that have sprung up in the background.  Do you meticulously plot out Saint's Way, or do you write it more organically and let these various mystery threads unravel without a strict outline?

A little of column A and a little of column B.

Saint’s Way has been plotted out from beginning to end but the script doesn’t go from beginning to end just yet. That mystery and more will be solved eventually! I write a few pages ahead of myself drawing them (which means, I have months to rewrite if I want to).

I have gone so far as to draw out timelines of each character’s story on transparent paper, so I can lay them on top of each other and see where they intersect. It helped me figure out a lot of the story and things that didn’t work for whatever reason. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture of it and it got thrown away accidentally!

How long do you ultimately think Saint's Way will be?  Do you have a pretty good idea of what the endgame for the series will be?

I have resigned myself to the idea that I will be drawing Saint’s Way for years to come. If my track record of hiatuses and updates are any indication, anyway. There’s still so much story I want to tell and I refuse to rush it for the sake of getting through the story quicker and finishing it. I see the page count numbering in the hundreds eventually.

Do you conceive Saint's Way as one long form  graphic novel, published one page at a time, or do you think it could theoretically be published in single issues?

Originally, Saint’s Way was going to be published and printed to be sold at conventions or online but the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. It’s online, it’s free and people are reading it so why bother? This is essentially why there’s a part of the comic that ends a bit like a chapter – since that was going to be the first issue of the series. It’s not like a comic book series with characters tackling different storylines though every couple of months. There’s only one big storyline to follow here, so I suppose a graphic novel would be the best way to describe it.

Something that I particularly liked about Saint's Way was the designs of the characters, their clothes, and the backgrounds, such as the United Heroes headquarters which is this Olympus-like place.  How do you feel about design in relation to building the world of Saint's Way, and comics in general?

I won’t lie, I struggled with the United Heroes headquarters because I wanted to convey a certain atmosphere but also did had some pretty unfortunate time constraints at the time that didn’t let me draw everything I wanted. It’s pretty plain at the moment!

The most time I’ve spent on design has been with the characters themselves. Function and reasoning concerning costume design and appearance is extremely important to me. Vivian’s little hat and the Citizen III’s gold decorations have their own back-stories  A lot of my design choices probably aren't even that important or obvious to anyone else, but it helps me and reminds me what kind of person I’m writing. I think design is as important as anything else that goes into the production of a comic. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it won’t make sense to my readers.

Do you have any other projects you want to talk about?

It’s been a year of firsts concerning projects for me. I drew a short comic written by Joy Osmanski for Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology which you can buy online now. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever been published in print. At the same time, I wrote and drew another short comic for Before, After and In Between, another anthology which just got fully funded and more on Kickstarter.

The one project I’m really excited to work on right now is Saint’s Way – I’ve been away from it for too long and have started work on it again. Hopefully, it’ll be back some time before the end of this year!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Saint's Way: A Superhero Mystery Thriller

"Saint’s Way, a webcomic in the style of a graphic novel, is about family, superheroes, magic and SCIENCE! Set on an Earth not quite unlike our own save for a few special individuals, the adventure begins with the escape of Vivian, a very angry, very strong little girl who sets her sights on New York – a recently evacuated city due to the threat of alien invasion."
I don't remember exactly how I stumbled upon Yasmin Liang's webcomic Saint's Way, but I was hooked from the first few pages. Saint's Way is an engrossing superhero mystery thriller that involves the escape of a young superpowered girl named Vivian Saint from the Saint Organization, a military standoff between Earth and aliens, and the superheroes of United Heroes who react to this odd superhuman girl and the mystery of her parentage.

I read every page of the weekly webcomic, from April 2011 to July 2012, in one sitting, and it was fascinating to witness Liang's already great art evolve over the course of 55 pages and more than a year's time. You can really see her sequential storytelling skills building exponentially as she gets further into writing and illustrating Saint's Way. Her panel layouts become more experimental, playing with the shapes and arrangement of panels, and she uses interesting color and design choices to amplify the impact of the narrative. Her writing in Saint's Way is also very effective at ensnaring you into the mysteries of the story...Saint's Way is structured in a way that pulls you into a strange story puzzle of clandestine organizations and superheroes, it's a superhero mystery thriller that leaves you on the edge of your seat for the next week's page.

Saint's Way begins with the surprising image of Vivian Saint, a young superpowered girl, tearing a driver out of his truck. Vivian is in the middle of an empty desert with rising smoke on the horizon, suggesting some sort of violent escape, and the truck stops to help this apparently lost girl. Of course, not everything is as it seems on multiple levels, and Vivian just rips this guy out of the truck and drives off in the vehicle. Liang's full page illustration here conveys the violence and speed of this moment very well; the way that the driver's hat pops off, the crumpling of the metal car door, the look on the driver's face and the painful angle of his arm, and especially the subtle blurring of the door all suggest motion in such a convincing and dynamic way.  

The story then cuts from this scene to Solomon Wynn, a bounty hunter who is making himself a sandwich while watching a news broadcast that gives us some exposition on the alien invasion of New York City. Wynn's enjoyment of his sandwich is rudely interrupted by someone at his door, "Phyllis", a slightly purple skinned representative of the Saint Organization. Phyllis wants Wynn to find and retrieve Vivian, and we learn in this scene that Wynn is an empath capable of sensing other people's emotional states. Liang also develops the mystery the extra step necessary to reel you into the story even more...Phyllis went to Wynn because of his penchant for bringing back his targets alive "even when it doesn't matter", and this time, the implication seems to be that it definitely does matter.

Meanwhile, Vivian has made her way to the mostly evacuated New York City. Not much happens in the way of story in this page, but I felt compelled to say something about it for a few reasons.  The first panel is a beautiful establishing shot of NYC. Liang uses a fish eye lens effect here that warps and distorts the wide panel, and it really gives you a sense that you're on the street with Vivian. More than that, there's an amazing amount of detail in this panel. Beyond the first panel, Liang really lets the story breath here in the rest of the page. She conveys the feeling of an empty, evacuated NYC, and her use of negative space in the fourth panel and the close up on the pigeon feather in the fifth is just beautiful, simple sequential storytelling.  

Vivian is surprised by a superhero dramatically crashing into the pavement in front of her, and we meet Citizen III. One of the most stunning elements of Saint's Way is Liang's design sense. Citizen's III's superhero outfit is beautifully designed. It's simple and somewhat minimalist, and the incorporation of a golden Civic Crown gives the outfit a bit of an ancient and classical look. The three golden stripes also represent the "III" in Citizen III, and of course, her father Citizen I and brother Citizen II each have the corresponding amount of stripes on their respective costumes.

Besides just having a really cool look, Citizen III is a relatable character with an interesting back story. Her dad is Citizen I, and he comes across as an overbearing, helicopter parent superhero, and her brother is Citizen II who is the beloved, overachiever child. Citizen III is grounded by her father for impulsively attacking the alien invaders, who are seemingly just parked above NYC, and she's desperately trying to live up to the expectations of her superhero father. It's a family dynamic that resonates on an emotional level, and makes these characters interesting.    

The debut of Citizen III on that page marks the beginning of Liang's experimentation with panel shape and lay out. You can see in the above page that as the series progresses, Liang begins to arrange her panels in new and strange ways that play with the medium. 

I should mention here that Saint's Way is 55 pages long, and I think it would do a disservice to the comic to painstakingly detail the plot in this review. My plot summary can only dilute the mystery and intrigue of the story, so you should probably just read it yourself. Instead, I'm going to focus on a few key pages that illustrate the awesomeness of Saint's Way.

Here, we see Citizen III in action, and again, Liang uses a subtle blurring effect on her first to communicate a sense of motion. I really like this effect and the way that Liang uses it to emphasize the speed and force of the attack. It gives the image an almost animated look, as if this is a still image from a cartoon rather than a panel in a comic book.

This page is really striking. Liang transitions from Citizen III flying through the city to Vivian talking in an apartment in an amazing way, using negative space and color to bleed from one panel to the other. Again, Liang's design sense is what makes this page so good...the neon blue, negative space bridge and city horizon combined with the purple night sky, and the way that it seamlessly stretches into the below panel is a really cool experimentation with the medium of sequential storytelling.  

You can see here how Liang's design sense enhances the narrative in a really interesting way. Citizen III is shot in the back, and Liang illustrates this with variations in shape and color in a way that can only be achieved in comics. The red, lightning bolt of pain that illuminates Citizen III's back in normal colors, and the faded yellow and black outline of the rest of the image is a stellar use of color palette and shape to convey the shock of this moment.

The appeal of Saint's Way lies in Yasmin Liang's abilities, both as a writer and an artist, to draw you into the puzzle of the story. Her pacing over 55 pages manages to keep you interested in the unraveling of the mystery by slowly revealing answers that only create even more intriguing questions. Over the course of more than a year, you can watch as her experiments with panel lay outs, colors, shapes, and design evolve into something pretty remarkable. Saint's Way is a compelling superhero mystery thriller, and you should check it out.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Curt Pires on LP and Rock and Roll Comics

Curt Pires answered my questions about his one shot comic LP, his thoughts on his creative process, and the melding of comics and rock music.

How did you come up with the concept for LP?

To be honest, I can't really remember when I specifically came up with the idea for LP, but I had been fooling around with some different music/comic ideas because I was really into it.  I  had written a couple of different scripts, kind of a bit in a similar vein about the idea of what would happen if people tried to steal records, sort of playing very literally with the idea of the value of music.  That didn't end up going anywhere, and then I was in this phase of listening to a lot of this band called Thee Hypnotics, it's this band Paul Pope's super into, and I was reading a lot of Paul Pope's stuff and just listening to this music, and not really reading a lot of other comics.  I don't really pull from comics in particular because I'm not a shut in or anything...I get out, and I'm super into music and stuff, so I sort of had all these different ideas and I decided to sit down and try and write a one shot about this story.  My initial concept was to explore the idea of a heist , but they're trying to steal a record. What if a record was the most valuable thing in the world?

LP has a couple of places in the book where there are direct quotes from classic songs, such as "withinuwithoutu", "shiver and say the words of ever lie you've ever heard", "be here now".  How do you feel about music as an inspiration for your comic book writing, and how do you try to meld those two different mediums?

I don't really know how to answer that question...I don't really know how one does it properly.  I think we sort of did it on LP, I think they did it on Phonogram, but I don't know if there's really a particular science behind it.  It's still a weird sort of thing, because it could just as easily fall flat on its face and make no sense, but I think in both pieces it sort of works.  I won't assess LP in relationship to Phonogram...I think in Phonogram they did it amazing.  I just think if you really like music and you really like comic books they just sort of bleed together.  There's a very thin membrane in my head between the two mediums.  I think they're pretty intertwined.

Do you feel like Phonogram is kind of a big influence on LP?

Not like a huge influence.  Like I said, the Paul Pope stuff was a bigger influence on it than Phonogram.  There's this Paul Pope story printed in the THB book one shots that Ad House put out, which is like this six year old kid listening to a David Bowie record.  That was the biggest music comic influence, that five page story, but just sort of the energy of Paul Pope stuff.  It's not getting bogged down in a comic book is a comic book, music is music, I'll take the energy of rock and roll and fuse it to a comic book which is why the whole comic book is basically just this F guy being a huge douchebag and just doing drugs and getting into these crazy situations.  I just want to make rock and roll comic books.

On the LP website, you describe LP as "in the style of Our Love Is Real".  I'm wondering how you feel about producing one shot comics as a way of breaking into the comic book industry in a similar way that Sam Humphries did?  How do you feel about one shot comics in general as a specific way of telling a story versus long form, six or seven issue story arcs?

When you're wanting to break in, it's probably the smartest thing to do.  So many guys who try to do these six or seven issue miniseries to break in, it's honestly really stupid.  They don't have the means to distribute it, they don't have the means to really publish it, and they go broke making them.  A lot of the time they're not even really good, so the Our Love Is Real thing, the comparison on the site, is a very calculated thing because basically if you make an off beat one shot book, that you can manage to infuse your creative ethos into it, and you manage to make it unique, professional market it in a professional way to people, it's a valuable avenue for sort of introducing yourself as a creator, so I think it's the smart thing to do, which is why I took the gamble doing it, right?  And comparatively, it's a lot less of a risk doing six or seven issues is such a pipe dream.  When I see someone online talking about doing that, an extended superhero thing for their indie debut or whatever, it seems real stupid to me, taking into account the business side of distributing and publishing your own work before you pull the trigger on any one format.

In LP, you put text in the gutters a couple of times.  For example, that thing I mentioned earlier, "withinuwithoutu".  Unless I'm mistaken, I think you do it at least one or two more times, so I'm wondering how you feel about that...that's something I saw in Matt Fraction's run on The Defenders.

That's where I pulled it out of, The Defenders.

Oh, interesting!

That book was one of my favorite comics being published for like the longest time, and they did all that cool stuff.  They'd have the narrative running in the book, and then you'd have the gutter captions which are almost like their own narrative.  I thought it was cool, the idea of a counter narrative.  So me doing that in LP was a direct result of how I saw it worked in The Defenders.

Are there any other projects you have in the works that you want to talk about?

I'm doing a book with Dalton Rose that I can't really talk about too much.  I don't want to do that thing where creators talk about their stuff so much in interviews so by the time it comes out, you already know everything about the book.  We've been talking to a publisher a lot today.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ryan Ferrier Talks Tiger Lawyer and Challenger Comics

Ryan Ferrier was kind enough to answer my questions about his comic Tiger Lawyer and his new self publishing imprint Challenger Comics.  After you read the interview, I'd recommend you check out Tiger Lawyer or some of the free comics available over at Challenger Comics.

What was the genesis of the Tiger Lawyer concept?

I'm not exactly sure what planted the seed for Tiger Lawyer, but it started as a tweet last December. I tweeted something silly, as I do, about my next comic being 'Tiger Lawyer' with no intentions on actually doing it. After some boisterous encouragement from several friends, I actually put pen to paper and wrote the first segment from issue #1, Attorney at Rawr, over one weekend. I then put the script online, and long story short, artist Matt McCray and I crossed paths and decided to give it the ol' try. From there it turned into actually putting this book together, and getting artist Vic Malhotra involved was a wonderful thing.

Something I find interesting about Tiger Lawyer is that the first issue has stories of wildly different is cartoony and fun, and the other is distinctly noir.  Both types of stories worked for Tiger do you feel about this elasticity that the character has?

Honestly, I feel like that's the only thing that can keep the comic going. There's only so much you can do with the character himself, as endearing as he may be. I think for me as a creator, it's less the character that appeals to me, and more the different sandboxes he lets me play in, or want to play in. The plan is to go in some seriously crazy directions; at some point I even plan on doing a Tiger Lawyer manga.

Do you have long term plans for Tiger Lawyer's story arc?  Have  you plotted out far into the character's future, or do you prefer to write the series  more organically and let the narrative develop without elaborately constructed plot?

With the more comedic stories, Matt's stories, they're all self-contained shorts, so I can start from scratch every issue. With Vic's stories, the noir ones, there has been a story arc. Vic's stories in issues #1, 2, and 3 are three parts to a whole. With future issues, I can see that continuing; I like the thought of having both self-contained stories, and bigger narratives to work with. I should mention that Vic's story in Tiger #3, which is the conclusion to the current noir arc, is one of the most fun things I've ever written, and probably Vic's best work, which is frightening, as he's always been awesome. Matt too, he's an incredible visual storyteller.

You launched your Challenger Comics self publishing imprint, coincidentally, the same day that I published my review of Tiger Lawyer #1.  The imprint seems like an exciting move...what inspired you to create it?

Thanks! It is exciting. I also don't want to play it up as if it's this big publishing endeavour. I'm a fairly hungry young creator, and I've been working on pitches for the last couple of years. They're all kind of going out there now and I feel like taking a tiny step back and focusing on short-form work, one-shots, comics I can actually produce and show, and not just send to editors and have it live or die there. I want to write and create and get better, and I want to have work to show for the time I'm putting into it. So basically I've set up Challenger as a self-publishing imprint, one centralized place for me to put out that kind of work, be it online for free, or selling books through the store. And I've been fortunate enough to get to know lots of inspiring, talented creators who are doing the same, and have extended that to them. So Challenger is a home for that, for people to create and display in one single spot. Hopefully we can all build off each other and benefit each other and just have a positive resource for creators that want to produce passion projects.

Challenger Comics has a few free, short comics available.  How do you feel about releasing free comics as a way to get people excited about buying your comics? 

And there's many more on their way! I think it's pretty important not only as a creator, to help you get better, but for exposure. At this point in my comic life, I just want to produce work and get better, and have people read it, be it other creators, editors, or fans. I want as many people to see my work as possible. I've got mini-series and pitches that I'm working on, and I'm going to need to make money and turn this into an actual career, but that's a ways away, and right now I'm focused on becoming a better writer, and I believe this is one way to do it. And I'm just having a lot of fun, and enjoying getting the chance to collaborate and work with other great creators.

Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

I'm mostly focused on a few shorts for Challenger that will be coming out over the next few months, and Tiger Lawyer #3 is going to be awesome, and out around Christmas. My mini-series The Brothers James (215Ink) is gearing up to return in a big way, with Brian Level on art, and Michael Walsh handling covers and some interiors. Issue #2 will be out early next year, with a total of #5 in the series. I've got a couple other projects in the works, that I can't really talk about right now. And as always, I've got the odd pitch I'm working on.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tiger Lawyer: Law of the Jungle

I first noticed Tiger Lawyer when it was featured in Hell Yeah as a back-up comic, and I was immediately struck by the strangeness of the concept.  Ryan Ferrier, writer and creator of Tiger Lawyer, has taken two completely disparate ideas and mashed them together in a way that shouldn't work.  You shouldn't be able to tell interesting stories about a practicing lawyer who is, without any explanation provided at all, also a humanoid bengal tiger.  However, I read Tiger Lawyer #1 and I think that Ferrier has done just that.  Tiger Lawyer is a comic that has something for everyone.  It can elbow the reader in the rib cage and defy you not to laugh along with it at itself, or it can be a surreal noir that takes itself seriously with only the occasional wink.

Tiger Lawyer #1 begins with an eight page story, "Attorney at Rawr" with writing by Ferrier and art by Matt McCray.  The story begins with the closing arguments at a murder trial, and Tiger Lawyer is the defense.  Attorney at Rawr is unabashedly fun and lighthearted in both its tone and artistic style.  Ferrier doesn't pretend that this is a realistic depiction of an actual murder trial, and he writes Tiger Lawyer as an impossibly smooth talking attorney ridiculing his client and the hilariously named prosecutor "Jilm Swamsert".  McCray's art matches Ferrier's writing with a cartoonish style, and his Tiger Lawyer looks just as suave and confident as Ferrier writes him.

After declaring that his client is a "fucking idiot", "a scumbag", and a "horrible human being", Tiger Lawyer shreds the prosecution's argument by revealing that the defendant's diabetic foot would prevent him from leaping a fence in the way that the murderer did.  Tiger Lawyer then proceeds to accuse the prosecutor of being the murderer, and the jury just loses their minds with happiness as if they're at a boxing match instead of a murder trial, and the losing fighter is making a miraculous come back.  Of course, with absolutely no evidence produced against him, the prosecutor doesn't deny his guilt, but rather he leaps onto a table and shouts, "Ya damned tiger bastard!  I'll kill ya!", at which point Tiger Lawyer fights him in the middle of the court room.

The story is topped off with a page of Tiger Lawyer in a hot tub with two beautiful women celebrating his legal victory.  There's the obligatory Tony the Tiger joke, and then an awesome page that reads like the intro sequence to a nonexistent Tiger Lawyer TV show, complete with amazing theme song lyrics such as, "He cleans the streets/and he eats raw meats/with the finest snakeskin/on his cat feets".  Attorney at Rawr dares you not to chuckle at a comic that isn't afraid to laugh at itself and bask in the silliness of its premise.

The second story in Tiger Lawyer #1 is "Dead Cat Walking" with writing by Ferrier and art by Vic Malhotra.  You can tell that Dead Cat Walking is going to be the polar opposite of Attorney at Rawr from the image of Tiger Lawyer shrouded in inky shadows on the title page.  The story details the first case that Tiger Lawyer ever lost, and like Attorney at Rawr, it's also a murder trial, but it ends with a man sentenced to death rather than a slapstick fight between attorneys.  Malhotra's art in this story is beautiful.  His heavy blacks and smokey darkness gives the narrative a distinctly noir atmosphere like you would find in an old black and white, private detective movie.

Tiger Lawyer reassures his imprisoned client that he's going to "fix this", and that the case was rigged in some way.  From there, all the classic elements of the noir detective story come into play.  You have the attempted assassination of Tiger Lawyer because he's digging too deep, you've got the corrupt District Attorney, you've got political intrigue and conspiracy, you've got an innocent man condemned for a crime he didn't commit, and of course, Malhotra provides the moody and monochrome atmosphere.  The only thing out of place is our hardboiled protagonist who is inexplicably a talking tiger.  This element, and the occasional reference to his animal nature ("Boss said this guy was a real animal."), lends this surprisingly serious and straight faced noir story a surreal dimension.

The thing about Tiger Lawyer that interests me is that he's a character that is extremely elastic.  He can be a goofy, fun joke of a character.  Tiger Lawyer can embrace his own ridiculousness.  The idea of a jungle cat acting as legal counsel is absurd, and it's fun to read a story that capitalizes on that absurdity.  On the other hand, Tiger Lawyer can also be a surreal noir.  Tiger Lawyer can be a dark narrative in the vein of private detective stories about a lawyer dealing with crime and corruption, but with the surrealist wink of a humanoid tiger (tigernoid?) protagonist.

There is an adaptability to Tiger Lawyer that is fascinating to me.  The 11 pin ups at the end of this issue illustrate that fact in the diverse variation of their styles and the way that they depict Tiger Lawyer.  This adaptability reminds me of a series that is similarly created with ideas that are totally unrelated to each other: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  TMNT can have a dark tone when it parodies Frank Miller's Daredevil, but it can also be light and fun.  Tiger Lawyer feels like it has a similar ability to stretch itself to fit comfortably with tones ranging from dark noir to bright, cartoonish fun.

Beyond the flexibility of the two ideas, there's something to be said about the fusion of concepts you would never associate with each other; like ninjas and turtles, you would never associate tigers and lawyers with each other, and bringing them together produces a jarring but also weirdly enjoyable feeling.  It's like the conceptual synthesis of jungle predator with refined legal practitioner produces cognitive dissonance.  This feeling of cognitive dissonance immediately surprises you and engages your psyche on a subconscious level.  Of course, this is just my own pseudo science theory, but I think that cognitive dissonance plays a part in making Tiger Lawyer a catchy concept.

At first glance, it might seem like Tiger Lawyer shouldn't work, but it's an idea that is surprisingly pliable.  Tiger Lawyer can be as silly as you want him to be, or he can be a noir action hero and be as darkly surreal as you want him to be.  You can get the first two issues of Tiger Lawyer here, and it seems like Ferrier is getting ready to have issue three available soon as well.  Tiger Lawyer is a strange beast of a comic, and I'd definitely recommend that you check it out.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Matt Heistand of The ThreeOneFive Talks Deep Dive Daredevils

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Matt Heistand about his awesome web comic Deep Dive Daredevils, and the creative process of The ThreeOneFive, the three person writer's collective behind Deep Dive Daredevils and Baby Girl.  Check out my review of Deep Dive Daredevils to find out some of my thoughts on the comic.

How did you come up with the concept of Deep Dive Daredevils?

Well, we (The ThreeOneFive) were asked to pitch a story for an iPad anthology - something similar to the format of Marvel Comics Presents. The only instructions were that they wanted something akin to Heavy Metal, but appropriate for all-ages. So Evin, Dan and I percolated a while and we decided that we wanted to take a shot at combining a Star Trek-esque sci-fi story with some Goonies zaniness, and the germ of the Deep Dive Daredevils concept was born.

At the same time, we thought it would be interesting to utilize Golden Age/pulp stylings in a story that would be consumed digitally. Old school meets new. Eventually, we decided that the adventures would take place underwater, in a submarine, and once the idea of a Captain who was one with the boat was floated (heh) it all started to come together.

We pitched Deep Dive Daredevils to the anthology and it was accepted. Unfortunately, the anthology was scrapped altogether not too long after, but we were having so much fun working on the Daredevils that we decided to publish it online ourselves…and here we are!

How did you find Danilo Guida to illustrate the comic (beautifully, I might add)?

We got really, REALLY lucky.

We placed a want ad, looking for an artist, at Digital Webbing and all the other usual places and Danilo responded. We all really liked his previous samples and thought he would be a perfect fit for the book, so we offered him the job.

From the start Danilo was super-professional and enthusiastic about the project. And best of all, he just got it! Every character that you see in the book, Danilo nailed their design on the FIRST try. We never had to ask for changes - we were on the same page from the start - and in many instances he added elements that made the characters better. Danilo is the reason the Captain doesn’t have legs - he showed us his version of the Captain and we were floored!

Over the time we’ve been working on the Daredevils we’ve become friends, and it is unbelievably freeing to know that anything you write will be executed so skillfully and beautifully. He is a great illustrator and storyteller, and makes Deep Dive Daredevils better than the sum of its parts.

Do you think that Deep Dive Daredevils will ever be available as a print comic?

Absolutely. It's just a matter of the right time and the right format. As soon as Secret of the Beaufort Sea (the first story arc) is finished we'll begin seriously looking into options for a print edition. Whether we go through a traditional publisher or something like Kickstarter is all up in the air at the moment. Time will tell.

Was there any consideration of putting ads on Deep Dive Daredevils?

Yes, and eventually you will probably see some ads on the page. However, one of the things we are most proud of is that the site's design really serves and enhances the visual aesthetic of the comic. So, before we introduce advertising we'll probably have to do a re-design of the site, and figure out how to integrate the advertising without sacrificing the feeling that you are sitting at a musty, old desk reading a comic from the Golden Age/pulp era.

Something I find very interesting about Deep Dive Daredevils is that it's a comic that's written by three writers.  What is the ThreeOneFive's writing process like on Deep Dive Daredevils?

I imagine it’s a lot like a television show’s writer’s room. Either in person or through IM we spitball ideas, hammer out plots, and discuss themes until we’ve broken a story. After that, Evin will usually go off and write a bible/synopsis. Once he’s finished it will go through the grinder again, and then I will take it and script a first draft. From there, we have another revising session, usually over-seen by Dan, and then if we’re lucky we have a script ready for Danilo.

Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s maddening. But, when the script is finally finished it’s always better than what anyone of us could have produced on our own.

Deep Dive Daredevils has been running at an impressive rate of a page per week since long do you plan on continuing this comic?  Do you have an endpoint in mind for the series, or is this something that could continue indefinitely?

We've kicked around some ideas for an ending to the adventures of the Custer and it's crew. However, before we ever get to that point we have A LOT of Deep Dive Daredevils stories to tell. At this point, we have a good three to four years worth of stories roughly plotted, with more ideas popping up all the time. Starting in 2013, we begin the slow build-up to an EPIC story that will rock the Daredevils to their core - especially the Captain and Doc!

So, all the Daredevilers out there can rest assured, there's a lot more of our signature nautical adventure coming their way.

Are there are other current or upcoming ThreeOneFive projects that you'd like to talk about?

At the moment, we are really concentrating on Deep Dive Daredevils, but we are always shepherding other ideas through various stages of development. So, stay tuned!

Also, our print debut, Baby Girl, just finished it’s run as a back up in Joe Keatinge’s Hell Yeah, issues 3-5. So, if you like naughty adventure (i.e. for mature readers), dig through the back issue bins and check it out!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

LP: A Sequential Single

F has it all . Fame, Fortune , Women, and enough chemicals to make his head spin, but when he picks up a strange record his life changes forever.
Pulled into a world of mysticism, shamanic electric guitar feedback and mega yakuza , F gets way more than he bargained for.
One record can change the world.
(Full disclosure: I'm currently collaborating with Ramon on a comic project.)

LP is a one shot comic written by Curt Pires and illustrated by Ramon Villalobos.  The plot involves a rock star who possesses an LP record with mystical properties, only to have it stolen by "mega yakuza" on one hand, and sought after by gangsters in bunny masks on the other.  However, that's not what the comic is about.  LP is about music. It's about that strange alchemical power that music has over ourselves and the world as a whole.  LP is an explosion of psychedelia, it's a weird, genre defying mixture of magic, gangsters, and rock music, and it will remind you that a record can possess your soul and change the world.

Pires begins LP in media res at the climactic point of carnage.  The reader knows from the captions that at some point, something we can assume is the titular LP was taken from the protagonist, and that, "There was only one way this was ever going to end".  This line can be read as a bit of metatextual commentary, given that the comic has begun with a snippet of the ending; there is literally only one way for this story to end because we are actually looking at that ending on the first page.  LP begins by dropping the reader into the middle of a massacre, and we are immediately hit with a shot of gory destruction and ultra-violence that leaves us wondering what exactly has happened here.  

The next page transitions from the previous scene of bloody havoc to a tight shot of the rock star protagonist "F" backstage before a show.  The first three wide panels of this page are wordless, and Pires lets the images breath a little after the dense first page of bloodshed.  They pull out slowly from F, and this gradual zoom out shows us his ennui and general numbness to his surroundings.  The transition from a red tinted vision of death to a very tight shot on F's green tinted mouth is jarring.  The juxtaposition would give the reader the sense that the preceding scene was a fantasy, if only the captions hadn't explicitly stated that it is in fact the end.  One of the major strength's of LP is Villalobos' coloring;  the neon glow of the colors is bold and distinctive, and more importantly, they serve to enhance the narrative flow of the comic.  

F is called to the stage, and the narrative momentum begins to build.  We learn from his internal monologue that F doesn't just look dissatisfied, he has begun to hate his fans and "The managers, the agents, the reporters. This entire generation of MTV fed future psychiatric patients".  F laments a generation of "self-described artists" only to realize that he is contributing to this culture and is just as culpable as anyone else.  Villalobos' last panel here depicts F on stage with his band in front of a crowd of adoring fans, and he uses a very interesting panel shape.  This hexagonal panel uses the negative space of the gutters to focus your eye from the crowded foreground to the stage where all the attention of the audience is concentrated.  It's like the shape of the panel is funneling your vision towards the stage, and you feel like you are actually in the audience.

I'm sure you've figured this out already based on the images you've seen, but I should mention that Villalobos is really good at drawing these crowd scenes.  The faces in the crowds are distinctive and not repetitive, the hair and clothing varies, and you get that appropriate feeling of density and chaos that a huge group of people provides.  While I'm sure they were a chore to draw, the crowds feel alive.  We learn here that F is a drug addict who is finding it hard to really enjoy "anything but his chemicals", and we see a little kid stealing a record out of a guitar case.  

Everything goes to hell from here.  

F stop by his local record store slash drug dealer to pick up a fix, and he's beat up by a gang of thugs because of his surmounting debt to them.  The mob wants his mystical record that may or may not be inhabited by an entity with Brian Wilson's face in return for his drug debts.  Of course, the LP was stolen by the mega yakuza, and F must get it back from them.  However, as I said earlier, the plot isn't important.  It's the execution of LP that makes it such an interesting and idiosyncratic comic.  

Pires peppers the narrative with lines from classic songs ("shiver and say the words of every lie you've ever heard") in a way that reflects on the themes and plot of the comic, sometimes in the gutters, and sometimes in the panels themselves as text floating outside of caption boxes.  It's like the playlist for the comic is enmeshed into and in between the panels.  It's a technique that accentuates the sequential current of the comic which Pires structures like a fast paced, rhythmic rock song that cruises along to a crashing crescendo of psychedelic insanity.

Villalobos' art in LP is, in a word, transcendent.  A cursory glance reveals a striking similarity to Quitely's work, which Villalobos admits to attempting to emulate, but there's something more there.  There's a frantic reality to his depictions of groups of people as if they are living, breathing creatures rather than pieces to move around on a page.  

The above page shows a scene in which F locates his stolen LP by meditating, and Villalobos' construction of the page is inspired.  The image of F's head divided, like an anatomy book cross section, revealing his brain and the skeletal structure of his hand is amazing.  The red balls of psychic energy orbiting his head and flowing through him, the apparition of the LP on his forehead like an opening third eye, the dotted line shooting from his mind and into the billowing panel below, it's all an extraordinary illustration and panel lay out.  There are several pages in LP that reach this level of awesomeness, and I could have spent a few more paragraphs dissecting them, but it would be better if you just read the comic yourself and I spare you a few hundred words of my pretension.

LP is a comic that, "grabs you and it doesn't let you go" in the way that a good song can.  It's about that odd alchemical energy of music.  The magic of the titular LP is a metaphor for the magic of music itself, and the way that it can "shake you to your core", possess you, and transform your consciousness.  It's a comic that is not easily categorized according to genres and is aggressively its own thing, a sequential single release.  Pires and Villalobos have created a comic that is unique and interesting, and you should check it out.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Digital Pulp: Deep Dive Daredevils

"Some call them pirates, some call them heroes, but none dare call them cowards! In all of nautical legend, never before have such strange and courageous figures come together to unravel the incredible mysteries lurking in the inky ocean depths. If the heading be danger, make way for the DEEP DIVE DAREDEVILS!"
There's a contradiction at the heart of Deep Dive Daredevils.  It's a tribute to pulp adventure comics, a genre named after the cheap pulp paper it was printed on, yet it's published online and is unavailable in print.  Deep Dive Daredevils is digital pulp, a new kind of pulp that has transcended the limitations of paper publication and made the jump to purely online distribution while celebrating the core elements of the genre.  Deep Dive Daredevils is a strange concoction of time travel, cyborg submarine captains, and shamanistic magic, and it's released on the web, one page at a time, on a weekly basis.  

Writers Matt Heistand, Dan Fifield, and Evin Dempsey, who make up the writers collective known as The ThreeOneFive, begin Deep Dive Daredevils with a pirate ship sailing the Arctic Ocean in 1851.  I was immediately struck by Danilo Guida's art style on this first page.  Guida portrays the Aurora Borealis beautifully with modern coloring techniques, but his penciling and inking has a rough, old school look to it.  The page itself has been modified to look aged and faded, as if Deep Dive Daredevils is an artifact salvaged from the pulp era of comics that has been scanned and uploaded to the internet.  

(UPDATE:  Danilo Guida contacted me to let me know that the aging of the pages was done by Fonografiks, the letterer of Deep Dive Daredevils.)

The Aurora Borealis mysteriously strikes at the pirate ship and sinks it, and we then cut to 1937.  The Custer, a submarine, is traversing the very same waters that the pirate ship sank below in 1851.  Joe, a young boy with an eyepatch, and Cup, his three legged dog who also wears an eye patch, spot a man out on the glaciers.  Joe rescues the man and brings him aboard The Custer where Dr. Eugene McCarver cares for him.  The man is Captain Ulysses Armstrong, and he doesn't seem to have any idea how he got here.  

The strength of Deep Dive Daredevil's narrative lies in its escalation of shocking reveals that make you reevaluate what's happening in the comic.  This is a smart way of structuring a comic that's published one page per week because the frequent, mind blowing reveals keep you on the edge of your seat for the next week's installment.  So, at this point, I'm just going to go ahead and suggest that you read the comic before continuing because we're about to enter pretty spoilery waters.

The plot explodes into madness from this starting point as the time displaced Armstrong is transformed by the odd Aurora Borealis energy (which may in fact not be related to the Aurora Borealis at all), and he begins to mutate into a sperm whale.  Guida's full page spread of Armstrong clawing at his face as beautifully colored energy streams into his eye sockets is stunning.  Armstrong is rapidly expanding into a massive sperm whale inside of the confined space of the submarine while Joe, McCarver, and the other crew members struggle to get him to the shuttle bay.  The mysterious Captain of The Custer is barking orders to them throughout this sequence over the intercoms in intervals of "bztk" noises.  

This scene is built on the pretty solid foundation of the visual weirdness of a man morphing into a whale, but the ThreeOneFive hivemind make it something more than mere spectacle.  The rapidly expanding Armstrong gives the scene a ticking clock, a narrative deadline that forces the crew of The Custer to eject the creature before it destroys their vessel and them along with it.  The ThreeOneFive also make the crew humorous and relatable characters rather than just chess pieces to move around Whale Armstrong (Whalestrong?), and they tell a dirty joke that flies over the head of the young, eyepatched Joe.  Joe rushes into danger to fix the jammed bay doors and is sucked into the ocean along with Whalestrong, and this elevates the stakes of the narrative while simultaneously resolving the problem of the expanding whale.

While Cup swims after his master Joe, McCarver runs to the bridge where the as of yet unseen Captain has been incapacitated by the traumatic damage to the ship.  The ThreeOneFive structure this scene in a brilliant way; this week's page ends with Joe lost under the Arctic waves and McCarver dramatically facing the door to the bridge where, "Captain Custer's terrible secret waits beyond this door".  They even make their intentions to leave you desperate for the next week's page explicit in the caption, "Hold thy breath, constant reader".  

Of course, beyond that door, the comic's next mind blowing and game changing reveal awaits.  A full page spread shows us that the captain of this vessel is a legless cyborg plugged into the systems of the submarine! Guida's art here is just amazing, and the ThreeOneFive's captions summarize the captain's condition in a concise and compelling way, "Long ago, after unspeakable tragedy, Doctor McCarver cobbled together  man and ship...once done, this strange symbiosis could never be undone, and neither could function without the other."  Once you get past the surface level of the sci-fi image assaulting your senses, you realize that the ThreeOneFive have crafted a mythic character here.  Captain Custer is one with his ship, and "neither could function without the other".  This is a literalization of the mythic idea of a captain's bond with his ship, and it's really quite a poetic concept in addition to being a nice heaping of sci-fi awesomeness.

McCarver manages to "reboot" Custer just in time for the cyborg captain to belay his order to abandon ship.  The ThreeOneFive deliver on the promise of a cyborg submarine captain by writing him full of fire and passion and humanity despite his mostly mechanical body, and he rallys the crew with a fiery speech.  Meanwhile, Whalestrong is assaulting the ship as it crackles with unearthly, purple lightning.  Guida shines again here with this illustration, and the color of the purple, mystical energy really pops in contrast with the faded colors that he uses to give the rest of the page an artificially aged look.  

This is only 21 pages into the 32 page comic...there's still deals with Shaman representatives of local Sea Goddesses, vengeful animal spirits, time travelling, and mystical trials to come in that eleven page gap.  Deep Dive Daredevils is a comic that is jam packed with sci-fi craziness.  It's a comic that embraces its weekly format by giving the reader enough thrills, excitement, and mind bending reveals to keep them coming back every seven days for the latest page.  

It's also an homage to a genre of pulp adventures from a bygone era, but Deep Dive Daredevils is published on the screen rather than the cheap, poor quality paper of the original pulps.  It retains the familiar aspects of pulp stories while it capitalizes on the advanced coloring and production techniques available to modern artists.  Still, despite it's online nature, the beauty of the comic is that it's created to appear aged in such a way that the reader is given a pulp experience, as if they've stumbled upon this forgotten gem in a dusty attic.  Deep Dive Daredevils is digital pulp, and I'm looking forward to where the ThreeOneFive steer this crazy ride of a comic in the future.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Into the Neon Abyss: The Question #9

I started reading the second volume of Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's run on The Question recently.  The trade paperback is titled, "Poisoned Ground", and it collects issues 7 through 12.  I was two issues deep into the book, and although I was enjoying what I read so far, it was issue 9 that blew me away and completely sold me on the series.  

The cover of The Question #9 is dated October 1987, and it immediately drew me in with an image of The Question's mentor Dr. Aristotle Rodor strapped to a tree in a decidedly Christ-like way.  Why would Aristotle "Tot" Rodor be tortured in this way?  What could the scientist confidante of The Question do to deserve this, and is this cover metaphorical and not literal?  These were thoughts that came to me while absorbing this image of The Question, blank faced and giving no cues to the reader to indicate how he feels about this, as he looks up at his friend Rodor strapped to a looming, almost mystical tree.

The story opens on a tight shot of The Question wringing his hands while overlooking a drug deal from a rooftop.  The title is at the top of the page in stark yellow letters, "Watchers", and it brings Watchmen to mind, which features an obscure and forgotten character Rorschach who was inspired by The Question.

The narration in this opening page skirts the edge of metafiction.  O'Neil says, "It's as though he's looking at himself play a scene that's been in at least a dozen movies he's watched, including some good ones".  This narration draws attention to the idea that The Question in this series is the prototypical grim and gritty vigilante, but it bucks the cliché by having the narration admit to this.  The narration is reacting to this stereotypical scene of the hard edged hero in the crime ridden "Hub City" watching a coke deal go down, and by doing so it creates a feeling of deja vu ("The plot is thickening, maybe even congealing--") rather than a sense that we've seen this all too many times before.

Of course, the deal goes sour, and the (former) corrupt cop who appeared to be accepting "Twenty kay in unmarked bills and a kilo of blow" is in fact busting these dealers.  The two criminals stall the cop while their third unnoticed friend creeps up behind him with a pistol.  The Question steps in and takes care of business, as he is wont to do, and saves the cop.  The scene ends with a masterful moment of sequential storytelling as The Question watches Izzy O'Toole, the cop who came alone to this deal just in case he actually did want to take the bribe, drive off into the night with the handcuffed criminals.

No words, blank face, silent night, and empty streets as O'Toole drives away.  Then, we have one of Cowan's transformation sequences where The Question reverts to Vic Sage using Rodor's patented "binary gas" which conveniently changes the color of his hair and clothes.  He uses these transformation sequences throughout the series, and they are, in a word, awesome.  This is isn't even one of Cowan's more spectacular transformation sequences where the panel lay out will often be fractured into triangles, like the panel gutters are radiating outward from a single point on the page.  The sequence is punctuated with the narration, "There's a part of Vic Sage that feels this melodramatic ritual, this changing of identity, is silly--and another part that loves it", and you can't help but sense a bit of commentary from O'Neil about their frequently used device of transformation in clouds of binary gas.

Vic Sage returns to his home where Rodor is toiling away at his microscope.  They have a nice little conversation about philosophy and science that revolves around whether or not the microbes that Rodor is observing are affected by his observation like quantum particles (spoiler alert: they're definitely not).  This sort of tone of mysticism and science merged together is typical of what I've read so far of O'Neil and Cowan's run on the series.  There's also something interesting in the partnership of these two characters; Rodor the Scientist, and The Question the Zen Warrior, the method of science and the aim of religion.  It's a partnership that's reflective of the themes of the series as a whole.

I could probably write another huge essay about that idea after I finish reading this series, but this moment of light conversation is interrupted by canisters of knockout gas that crash through the windows.  Cowan illustrates a kinetic, fast paced fight scene as Vic Sage fights a gas masked intrude while holding his breath.  

O'Neil couples this fight sequence with interesting narration that reveals that Sage is holding his breath throughout the fight scene ("It isn't lack of oxygen that tightens the chest...It's the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by physical exertion"), but ultimately, he can only fight without air for so long.  Sage passes out and progressively slides down the page, the panels decrease in thickness, and the colors fade into darkness until we have one final, wordless panel of black, and it all amounts to another amazing use of sequential storytelling by Cowan.  

Sage wakes up in his trashed home to find that he's been out for over three hours, Rodor has been kidnapped, and for some reason, he can't shake the overpowering smell of oranges, of all things.  Sage leverages his position as a television news anchor to run a story about Rodor, he follows up on a lead and hunts down information on Rodor's whereabouts, he even visits Izzy "I swear I'm not corrupt anymore" O'Toole to run the license plate of a suspicious van he spotted before the kidnapping, and it's all pretty much boiler plate investigation narrative...but throughout, Sage is haunted by the smell of oranges.  

Sage tracks the van and follows it to a compound on the outskirts of Hub City, and we are treated to another of Cowan's transformation sequences.  Again, these sequences are awesome, and they're like a refrain echoing throughout O'Neil and Cowan's run.

The Question breaks into the compound only to have the man who kidnapped Rodor attempt to run him down with the same van that he was tracking.  The huge smears of black ink express the violence and intensity of the scene like no words could.  They're like tire skids in the massive gutters of the page.  The arcing layout of the panels, almost like an arrow on the page, and the framing of each shot, particularly the extremely tight frame on The Question's legs barely evading the barreling van, is perfect.  O'Neil knows when to let the images breath, and he has just three panels of intensifying color, font size, and boldness, "Closer.  CLOSER.  CLOSER".  This page is stellar sequential storytelling.  

The fight begins to go badly for The Question, and suddenly and without explanation, the plot of the comic descends into complete incoherence.  His attacker disappears in a swirling haze of color, and The Question is confronted by the sight of Rodor strapped to a massive orange tree.  His scientist mentor asks him who he is, and The Question, for a moment, is vulnerable and human.  He says, "Who am I, Tot?  I mean, Who am I?  I'm not Vic Sage...that's a name I made up...and I'm not Charles Victor Szasz...that's a name they gave me at the orphanage."  The faceless facade of The Question has melted away, and we're left with just a man wracked with an identity crisis.

Finally, this nagging smell of oranges ("Must be a citrus grove nearby.  Smells like oranges") pays off.  

At this point, it's clear that The Question is experiencing a powerful hallucination, but it's unclear what has triggered it.  We learn in the next issue that the gas used during the kidnapping was an experimental drug that Rodor developed, and it has strong hallucinogenic properties.  The reader can easily assume that the gas was the source of the hallucination, but it's never explicitly stated in this issue.  This hallucinatory odyssey comes out of nowhere and without warning, shattering the linear narrative into a surreal dreamscape.  What seemed like your standard issue, grim and gritty investigation plot has metamorphosed into a psychedelic confrontation with the neon abyss.  Colorist Tatjana Wood's work adds a great deal to this issue, but it's her feverish, hot colors that make this particular sequence soar.

The Question attempts to traverse the neon abyss to save Rodor, but he slips into it.  He clings to a branch jutting out of the side of the cliff, and the narration flirts with the metafictional once again, "What we have here is a real cliffhanger--the damn movie motif again."  O'Neil references a famous zen parable here as The Question notices a single strawberry dangling from the branch.  

He plucks it, and the narration tells us, "Best strawberry he ever ate...tastes a little like an orange.." before he plummets into darkness.  We are left with an elongated black panel devoid of even a "The end..?" or "To be continued".  These five panels of The Question descending into the inky void conclude the issue.   As I said earlier, I read this issue in collected format, and I immediately read the next issue...but I imagine that if I had picked up this issue on the comic stands in 1987, this ending would have made my head explode with anticipation for the next month's installment.  It's both a masterful ending scripted by O'Neil, a cliffhanger that is actually a cliffhanger and explicitly references this trope, and a beautiful piece of sequential art from Cowan depicting the lost and helpless Question tumbling away, almost like he's weightlessly drifting off into outer space.

The Question #9 appears to be a run of the mill detective story for the first two thirds of the comic.  The narration addresses this directly in what would be a self-conscious way if the story didn't mutate into something else entirely in the climax.  O'Neil and Cowan lure the reader in and make them comfortable with investigation scenes that they've seen in, "at least a dozen movies... including some good ones".  Then, right when the reader thinks that they're going to get their resolution, O'Neil and Cowan turn everything upside down and let their narrative spiral into a gaping chasm of madness.  Their protagonist begins the story as a supremely confident and hard edged vigilante, and he devolves into a lost man consumed by existential questioning.  The Question #9 is an example of comic book storytelling at its best, and it's convinced me to read O'Neil and Cowan's run from start to finish.