“What is a party if it doesn’t really rock?” [Thief of Thieves]

April 9th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I liked this post by my bud Dylan Todd about Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, Felix Serrano, and Shawn Martinbrough’s Thief of Thieves. I’ve been making fun of that ridiculous “How does a thief stop being a thief?” line for ages now, millions of years in internet time, but Dylan pointed out something even more egregious. I don’t want to repeat what Dylan said, so be sure to read his post. The short version, though, is that this sort of construction makes for storyboard comics, “Please make this into a movie” comics, instead of good old adventure comics.

If you want to read the full sequence, CBR has a preview. It opens with this intensely boring page, trips to another conversation that’s just as stiff though not as static, and then onto an awkwardly depicted gunfight (what is with the jumping dude?). This page, though, is the sort of thing that makes bad comics worse.

“Talking heads comics” is a pejorative, and rightly so, I think. At this late stage in the comics making game, this sort of construction is enormously weak. There’s nothing to this page, no excitement, no drama, no nothing. The woman is stuck in a shocked pose, as if to say “WHOA, what?” (My twitter follower @ardaniel tweeted at me to say “I keep making that woman’s panel 1-3 pose and it just makes me go ‘DON’T LOOK AT MY NIPPLES.'” and I’ve been laughing ever since). The guy is holding his cup in the air while delivering life-changing information. And then… frame two.

I’ve got two reasons why this is so weak. For the first, let’s assume that you absolutely have to have a scene where two characters conversate in one room, never leaving their seats. A meeting, essentially. Now, have you ever had a conversation? Think back to the last one you had. Even if you’re theoretically sitting still, you’re moving around. You’re cocking your head, coughing, making hand gestures, or stretching. The only time you sit and stare directly into someone’s eyes for minutes at a time is… I don’t know, actually, maybe never, or if someone is in a coma but you think they might be faking. We emote when we talk, and we all emote in idiosyncratic ways. We pick up gestures (jerk-off motion, a pshaw hand-flip, a “stop right there” hand, a half grimace to show disappointment) from somewhere and employ them to our own ends. We make unconscious motions. We blink real hard. Our eyes wander. We move, basically, and we move often. Even when you’re having a conversation with someone when you’re half asleep, you still wave them away.

We all do these things. It’s what makes people-watching so interesting. Not including such a basic part of our lives in a scene that should have several different touchstones for us to latch onto takes whatever verisimilitude the comic has and beats it in an alley. I don’t believe in this scene at all. It’s stiff and awkward. Let’s assume that panel one is fine. She’s surprised and she doesn’t want the guy to look at her nipples, so her hands are up. Cool. Panel two — she’s just heard some serious news. What’s her next position when she’s trying to find out more information? A shrug would work here, or a cocked head. Something inquisitive, not surprised. She’s still surprised, but at this point, she’s moving on to the next step, which is “What the heck is this guy talking about?” In panel three, she’s starting to get angry and caustic. “What is with this guy?” That’s an entirely different motion than “You quit?!” Panel 4: she’s angry and he’s smug. Fine. Sure.

Reason two. I’ve been reading a lot of Leiji Matsumoto manga recently, specifically his Galaxy Express 999. A lot of his stuff doesn’t have any action at all, in fact, and is composed of long conversations. Bald exposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and boy does Matsumoto indulge himself sometimes. I was particularly struck by a scene from Galaxy Express 999, volume 1, when Maetel and Tetsuro land on a planet and have a quick conversation.

Instead of it being rendered like this scene from Thief of Thieves, the conversation takes place over a series of different scenes. They walk around, they check into a hotel, Maetel takes a shower… it was a fairly exciting way to show both time passing and to still give the reader all the exposition in the world. The conversation is impossible as depicted — they cover too much ground and do too many things for it to truly be one conversation — but it works to both introduce you to the land and the characters.

I know the pedants are getting ready to chime in with cries of “Manga is different!” (it’s still comics, shut your face) and “You’re comparing one page to ten!” (I am, but it’s not a 1:1 comparison, obviously). The thing is, Galaxy Express 999 is a great example. You can pick any one page, barring the splashes, and you’ll see a visually interesting conversation. Matsumoto shows that you can do more on one page than just show people talking, and that if you are going to show people talking, you can at least make it interesting to look at. People move and react and look around. It doesn’t get the blood pumping, but it lets you build up your world and characters. It’s characterization and world-building all in one. Tetsuro laying on the bed face down is meaningful in a way that three straight panels of “Seriously, you cannot look at these nipples right now” isn’t.

That’s what this really comes down to. Characterization. Every single thing we do as humans reveals something about us. A sneer hints at arrogance. A tentative smile suggests shyness. A sleazy smile and low eyes puts us in mind of naughty times in the bedroom. This sort of acting is characterization, even if it’s just two characters walking around a city or sitting in a room. Comics are an amazing information delivery system, and this Thief of Thieves page is lacking in info. It’s boring. It’s a speed bump.

I’m not saying that all comics need to have intricate conversations conducted by people who wiggle their arms like muppets while traveling across a bunch of diverse locations. Not by any means. I’m not saying that statted panels are evil, either. They have their place, just like anything else, and can be used to great effect. But here? No. Here, they betray a lack of imagination, or oncoming deadlines, or something. What I’m saying is that there’s none of the drama that this conversation deserves or that would keep the reader glued to their seats. There’s not even enough drama to justify checking in every once and a while. This is anti-drama, something to make you remember that you’re reading a comic, and hey, guess what, you paid three or four dollars for this thing.

The entire point of verisimilitude is to trick you into believing something that isn’t true, but appears true. This doesn’t appear true. Instead, this is boring, and that is one of the worst things comics can be. Bad comics have their high points — discussing bad X-Men will never get old, like that time they left Gambit in Antartica like “Yeah, find your own way home, murderer” — but boring comics just feel like a waste of time. They fade from memory. They don’t leave an impression. They’re vapor, instead of being something more solid. Boring.

Further reading.

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“People call me Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!”

November 21st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Y’all remember Apollo Smile?

1998, man. For some reason, I thought this was earlier, like ’92 or ’94, but my memory of childhood is mush.

Anyway, this week in 1998 was when I was introduced to Leiji Matsumoto by way of Galaxy Express 999. I remember being sort of frustrated by Galaxy Express 999 at first. It probably didn’t come out of the gate swinging like Ninja Scroll or 8-Man, and I mean, I was like fourteen. Introspection? Slow burns? Trains in space? How about we leave that talky-talk garbage in books where it belongs, buddy?

I think my uncle must’ve been into it, though, because I remember watching it all the way through. I haven’t seen it in years, so the details are fuzzy. There’s this itch to create a narrative where there probably wasn’t one–“I saw GE999 and hated it until I fell in love with Leiji Matsumoto’s work!”–but I do remember eventually coming around to the film. It’s not a movie I would put on just to listen to, like I would with Ninja Scroll or Akira. I don’t remember ever dubbing it from a Blockbuster tape or anything like I did everything else. But it was Captain Harlock and some of the weirder imagery that really hooked me. Space trains are whatever, but space pirates? That’s the business. Harlock was the man, and I fell in love with his logo, too.

Maetel is another really strong part of GE999. Her design is really simple, with basically three strong colors: a little skin, a lot of blonde, and a mass of black. She’s got enormous eyes, too. There’s this whole femme fatale thing in her design. The black completely covers her body and maintains a certain level of mystery, but also danger, I think. You don’t know what’s under there. She has a kind face, and her long, flowing hair is clearly meant to be beautiful. But then there’s all that black sitting there like an unasked question you don’t want to know the answer to.

I remember specific aspects of Galaxy Express 999 better than I do the actual film. Harlock’s skull, Maetel’s creepily quiet beauty, and the train arcing through space most of all. It’s a weird place to be in, because it makes every conversation I have about the series suspect. What happened at the end? Who knows? I assume Harlock shoots someone with his sword and then they all get on a train and leave. But I think there’s still value in having memories that are bits and pieces of things I like. I don’t think I can actually overstate how much I like Harlock’s emblem and Maetel’s design, you know? It’s one of those things that’s fundamental for me.

Hulu put up a lot of Matsumoto-related stuff at some point. They’ve got nine episodes of the Galaxy Express 999 TV series, The Galaxy Railways, Gun Frontier, and most importantly, Captain Harlock. I’ve been watching it over the past couple weeks. Not a lot–an episode before bed, another on a Saturday after breakfast but before a nap. I’m a handful of episodes in, and it’s nice to do something other than binging on a series or waiting desperately for the next episode.

“The Jolly Roger That Flutters Through Space”–all of the episode titles are really good, incidentally, especially “The Castle of Evil in the Sea of Death”–is the first episode, and it pretty much sets the tone for the series. Harlock is wanted by the united government of Earth because he’s a pirate. His ship is the Arcadia. He sips red wine out of a goblet from a chair while gazing upon the vastness of space and thinking thoughts too big for us. Sometimes he stands at a window. Kei Yuki, the ship’s XO, keeps Arcadia running, because it’s staffed entirely by children and insane sitcom characters. Harlock has a warm heart inside his cold demeanor, and he’ll stick by his friends. He has a small orphan girl for a friend, Mayu, the daughter of a dead comrade. The government knows that Mayu has a connection to Harlock, but never do much more than send her to her room or bully her if she doesn’t summon him.

The first episode is pretty good, and has aged better than I expected (but still not all that well, it’s from the ’70s). The second episode, “A Message From The Unknown,” is where it really gets going, though. Harlock tries to prevent an enormous meteor from hitting the Earth. He fails, and his ship is almost wrecked because of it. He disengages and watches the sphere fall directly onto a city. Fire blasts through the streets, a few bodies flash to ash, and the majority of the city is destroyed. The narrator downplays it, and no one really talks about the people who clearly just died. It’s pretty wild.

“A Woman Who Burns Like Paper”, episode 3, tops even that. Dr. Daiba meets a member of the Mazone and gets lasered to death. She zaps him once, and we see the exit wound and his long, slow, horrible fall to the ground. I don’t know if they were trying to play for time or what, but he spends almost an entire minute dying. The entire sequence is pretty stunning, from a craft point of view. The way the Mazone’s hair falls over her eyes while she smiles her cruel smile. The way the palette flashes to white once the gun goes off. The way his scream turns into a haunting soundtrack and becomes a reverbed out wail by the time he hits the ground. His red eyes. The Mazone super-imposed over the scene, above Daiba’s body. The way his whole body shreds as he falls. 10:30, when the camera splits up like a comic book and shows us slightly different angles of his fall. It’s like he’s falling through time.

(Actually, come to think of it, if the split-screen dividers are viewed as comics panels, then he is literally falling through time. We just can’t see the gutters. He’s falling right to left, too, which is how you read Japanese comics. He’d probably fall left to right if this were an American production.)

It’s like someone on the staff saw “Dr. Daiba gets shot with a laser, dies” in the script and had a bunch of free time to storyboard it up real special. He’s got an art–or maybe film, both apply–degree, by gum, and he’s gonna use it, right? And the results are pretty good, I’d say. It really livens up the scene, and this scene, including the bit where the Mazone burns blue, is really the centerpiece of the episode.

Every couple episodes, something like this happens. There’s either some really well-animated sequence, some really solid visual comedy, or really strong imagery to tie it all together and elevate the series. It’s a slow series, as you might have guessed from the fact that the bad guys show up three episodes in and aren’t explained for one or two more, but it’s a comfortable kind of slow. It’s a confident kind of slow. There’s a point, and they have some room to breathe before it becomes a driving concern.

An episode here and an episode there is really the best way to watch this show. It prevents it from blurring into a pleasant mush (like Party Down did when I watched it in a few fat bursts last week) and gives the really good bits time to digest.

(Another good bit: Mayu running alongside the Arcadia during the end credits.)

I only have the vaguest memories of his MO, but nothing in this show has been an unpleasant surprise. He makes the moody space pirate thing work. It’s interesting that he’s portrayed as a brooding, older man. He gives off the feeling of being older, or at least world-weary. He puts me in mind of Robert Mitchum maybe, especially as he was in Out of the Past, or maybe Tatsuya Nakadai could do it. The current mode for brooding heroes runs much younger and prettier. Sasuke from Naruto, or I dunno, one of them Gundam Wing dudes or InuYasha. You know the type I mean. Harlock can’t be a young actor. He’s got to be seasoned. The other guys, you would cast them young.

It’s nice to see that the Harlock material is still so strong. I never got a chance to properly get into it, barring an abiding love for its iconography, and this trip through his origins has been a good one.

Bonus round: Kanji Tatsumi from Persona 4, a true-blue Son of Harlock, a Leiji Matsumoto tumblr with some nice art, and a bootleg of the trailer for the CG movie that theoretically hits in 2012:

How weird is it to see a sexed up Kei Yuki? I mean, I assume that that’s what she would have looked like in real life, but Matsumoto’s original version was nicer. According to wiki, these guys worked on it:

Mobile Suit Gundam UC author Harutoshi Fukui, Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki, Appleseed mechanical designer Atsushi Takeuchi, and Ninja Scroll character designer Yutaka Minowa worked on the new Space Pirate Captain Harlock pilot with Marza Animation Planet (formerly known as Sega Sammy Visual Entertainment).

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