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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
It all comes down to one final chase scene for Tracy Lawless. But if he's in town to avenge his brother's murder, why would he help the killer escape?

Light, and sound, and Christmas.


In the concluding chapter of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ Lawless, the heist is finally on. But who are you rooting for?


There is seemingly no end to the supply of bad guys.


The stickup gang is filled with types you wouldn’t want over for Christmas dinner. Gray the stickup man, Nelson the muscle and Mallory femme fatale passing herself off as the shill. They work as a gang, or as Brubaker eloquently puts it, ‘As uncomfortable together as any other dysfunctional family… Dependent on each other for survival and security whether they liked it or not’.


Working his way into the gang’s trust is the tough guy and lead of the story Tracy Lawless. He’s ‘a guy who can drive’ when the gang need someone to drive. He’s also man responsible for killing Davey the group’s former driver. But for Tracy, an Army specialist deployed to Iraq now on Unauthorized Absence, infiltrating the gang is a matter of revenge. His brother Ricky, erstwhile leader of the gang was betrayed and eventually murdered by one of his own. Tracy is in town to settle the score. And supporting cast are making moves of their own. Sebastian Hyde the crime-boss looking to appear legit, Chester his muscle intimidating even Gnarly the tough-guy bartender, and Jacob the cartoonist turned counterfeiter.


Far from a single, simple panel in a chase sequence, Phillips provides readers with a map of the machinations and manipulations going on. The panel itself provides two separate layers of interference; the driving snow and the flashing lights of the squad car. It’s easy to lose track of the 70s muscle car, the Dodge Charger, as it careens through the panel. As with the light and the snow, readers of Lawless don’t always understand what they’re seeing. Tracy’s third-person observations made in caption boxes act as the layers of light and snow do, misdirecting readers’ attentions. And just as the sound FX project beyond the panel, there are times when even Tracy moves beyond readers’ view.


By the time of the chase depicted in this panel, Tracy has already discovered the identity of his brother’s killer. They’re in the car with him, he’s helping them escape. But why would he do that?


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Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009
Artist Paul Ryan elegantly articulates various Flash-genre with the visual metaphor of layers.

A long, cold dark.


In a moment spent with his recuperating girlfriend, Flash Wally West is reminded of his own limitations. In a panel interrupted by falling snow and the blue sheen of a hospital window, Wally and Linda are afforded a degree of privacy as readers are kept at a distance. Artist Paul Ryan offers an elegant counterpoint to paparazzi-invaded private lives lived in public view.


But as romantic as this panel appears, the dark and the snow form the central conflict of ‘Pray for the Dawn’. This is not a cherished moment of affection shared with a loved one. What Wally and Linda face in this panel is a moment of consequence, a moment of indecision before action is taken.


This panel’s elegance lies in Ryan’s skilful melding of a number of Flash- and comics-genre with the visual metaphor of layers apparent with the use of snow and glass. In the first sense, Ryan offers an inversion of the classic Editor’s Notes. Editor Paul Kupperberg’s footnote appears, visually distinct from other word-art in the panel. Yet nothing of the dialogue in the panel is actually linked to this footnote. In this way the act of reading itself becomes part of the story being told. Textually, the Editor’s Note functions in the same way as the snow and glass that interfere with the panel’s central image.


As the Note suggests, the threat of a new Ice Age is something that has already been confronted in earlier issues. Ryan not only references previous issues’ stories, but a specific storyarc that involves the classic Flash-genre of time-travel. Hurtling through the future and unable to return home, Wally learns of an impending global climate disaster (already history in the future). Armed with this knowledge Wally races back in time to confront Abra Kadabra, a 64th century stage magician who hopes to profit from this catastrophe. Again the visual layers of snow and glass elegantly remind the reader of the complexity of Wally and Linda’s story.


What remains at the heart of the panel though, is the romantic private life, kept at a safe distance from public view.


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Monday, Jul 13, 2009
In the penultimate installment of ...Freezes Over , Hellblazer John Constantine escapes the paranoia of a snowed-in diner only to find the claustrophobia is nothing more than a construction of his own mind.

It was good to get out be out in the cold again.


The confines of a snowed-in diner somewhere in the Midwest were getting just a little too claustrophobic. Nerves were being frayed, tensions were mounting and tempers were just about to flare. Thrown into the mix, a stickup gang narrowly escaped from a bad robbery, one of them shot in the stomach, and a dead man found in the parking lot, his chest impaled by an icicle.


After 160 issues though, readers know that Constantine, the titular Hellblazer never walks into a place he can’t walk back out of. Writer Brian Azzarello, with artist Marcelo Frusin, capably provide the panoramic vistas of the Great Outdoors. Here are the open spaces readers have been longing for. Here is that sense of freedom from the dangers awaiting Constantine back in the diner. It wouldn’t be hard for Constantine to just walk away, leaving the diner behind him. In his hitherto 13 years of publication, Constantine has simply walked away on numerous occasions, usually leaving a trail of dead friends.


Constantine’s story is often about taking the gap and finding the better part of valor. But equally his story is often about conning the smug and the powerful. The stickup men in the diner ultimately prove too seductive a target. Before Constantine heads back for the final confrontation, he convinces a supporting character of the existence of an urban legend.


In doing so, Frusin offers a pithy rendering of Constantine’s psychology. Constantine does nothing but speak. Like a stage magician, Constantine’s charm and self-assuredness soon allow the luckless Pete to convince himself of the existence of the serial killer known as the Ice-Man. In doing so, Constantine’s inner world comes to life in the Great Outdoors. The confined, paranoid spaces of diner are shown to be nothing other than Constantine’s mind at play. In talking to Pete, that same confined comics reappears. And at the very moment readers begin to sympathize with Pete, Frusin switches view. Looking at Pete’s frown of uncertainty, readers share a metaphorical wink with Constantine.


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Saturday, Jul 11, 2009

In early 1995, Craig Newmark, a newcomer to San Francisco began sending out a weekly newsletter of mostly techie events and opportunities (jobs, apartments, lectures, etc.) to friends of his. Now some 14 years later, because of Craig Newmark, many cities now have a one-stop spot where you can find an apartment, find a jogging partner, sell your old furniture, or even find someone to have a ‘casual encounter’ with. And all this you can do ad-free and free of charge.  For many of us, especially city dwellers and young people, Craigslist has become an everyday reality and an indispensible tool for carrying out our daily lives.


What, might you ask, does Craigslist have to do with comics and sequential art? Had you asked me this question last year, I honestly would have been hard pressed to come up with a connection. I Saw You, a collection of comics inspired by Missed Connections on Craigslist (as well as some from newspapers), now provides an answer to the previously posed question. 


I Saw You seems like a particularly interesting addition to the comics canon as it’s one of the first to utilize the internet as a subject rather than a medium. While web comics like xkcd, Achewood, and The Perry Bible Fellowship (all recommended)  have all eventually decided to offer hard copy paper collections, I Saw You went the old-fashioned ink and paper route from its onset despite its use of the internet as inspiration. This choice elicits some interesting questions: what might a traditional, paper-based comic offer that web comics can’t? What about the space of the comic book store as a place of community for the comics reader that is generally absent from the consumption of web comics? How has the internet changed one’s sense of community in general and how has it specifically shaped and affected the community of fans and creators of comic art? These questions will be examined in more depth in an upcoming Iconographies post focusing on I Saw You as a lens through which to understand the complex ways the internet has shaped comics and community.


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Friday, Jul 10, 2009

When you watch a lot of people float away into the sky, and then wake up the next day to find magic is real and your neighbor has mutated, you might think to yourself, ‘I wonder if the rapture just happened, and I didn’t hear the trumpet,’ or ‘there has to be a scientific explanation for this.’  Either way, Jim Munroe banked on this confusion in his works Therefore Repent and his new series Sword of my Mouth.  Both stories follow people during the near-future dawning of a second dark age, in which magic is real but mostly impractical.  Medieval alchemy is out the window in this new age; gold is almost worthless, so who would bother trying. Instead the magic is just weird, like when a woman comes into a bar with a cat on her shoulders that is clearly alive but is made of dust balls and string. 


Sword of my Mouth continues the narrative of the first book, but moves the story to Detroit and begins with a new community of people.  It makes sense that following this rapture event, there would be a political and economic collapse.  Some people have kept going to their office jobs in hopes that they will make the cut for a second ascendance.  There is still a president who is a friend of a Jesus-type person, though he has lost most of his authority.  All the same, people continue make most decisions based upon the moral codes on which they were raised.  People have rebuilt their communities in ways that are pretty similar to the social structures in which they have lived their whole lives, but decision-making and trade has become more localized.


The city is still considered a dangerous place.  Though not much more dangerous than before, attackers have adopted a different mythology and might have a mutated animal head or come swooping in as a genocidal angel with a machine gun.  The beauty of these books is that most panels depict lives that don’t differ that greatly from our own, so when something about an interaction is a little off, it is all the more striking.  In these panels, Munroe and artist Shannon Gerard present a stabbing in the railroad yard, displacing the human shapes from the limits of the setting’s space, while making reference to the new metaphysical order.


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