Diligence On Details

Putting Grace Into Grease: Greasy Space Monkeys

One of my favorite webcomics is Greasy Space Monkeys, by Reine Brand, with the help of her mysterious editor Mark Kestler (who may be a robot or AI program, but who I hope is a human).

The premise – our Big Damn Heroes, Nathan and Caspar, are actually under-appreciated maintenance workers on a run-down space station – looks like it will make for some nice low-maintenance throw-away humour, but not for sophistication, satire, emotion, eloquence, or superb storytelling. Guess what?

It is true that there are many one-off jokes that are not the most graceful, and often even outright gross.

But many jokes are on the theme of robots vs. humans, and those are connected, and even quite deep, sometimes.

There’s also something for the aficionados of fighting in space, and it’s done with wonderful visuals, which is all the more astonishing given the strip style format of the comic.

And there’s also some romantic tension to be found, which is, IMHO, done so well that I’m dead serious in calling Greasy Space Monkeys my favorite romantic comedy.

But the most awesome thing about this comic is that there are several storylines, of different length, often intertwined, and typically also with tie-ins from the trow-away jokes.

But before I discuss these storylines, I admonish you to check out and read Greasy Space Monkeys first, because there will be spoilers.

Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss (that’s what the comments are for, duh).

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Framing: Fancy, Focused, Fast, And Furious

[Note to language buffs / grammar boffins: The use of adjectives in the title is questionable, except for fast, a legit flat adverb. Chalk it up to Confusingly Corrupted Headline Grammar.]

Comics are a visual medium for storytelling like movies or TV shows, but they differ from those in some important aspects. For one thing, they are even more visual, because there is neither sound nor music, which are often used to great effect on the screen.

But there is also a purely visual difference that comes from what I call the self-adjusted reading speed effect. When scanning the comic page for page, panel for panel, the reader goes ahead at his/her own speed, unconsciously adjusting for the time needed to comprehend the full information presented, which will differ depending of the size, complexity, and richness of detail of each panel.

This effect makes it impossible to use time in the same way as movies and TV shows do it:

  • Showing the approach of an enemy as fast, indicating imminent threat, or slow, indicating looming danger.
  • Forcing the viewer to watch, for a predetermined time, a scene where little happens, where there is no or only regular movement, e.g. a person walking down an empty street.

This does not happen in a comic the same way; if the creator e.g. uses many identical panels to indicate passage of time, the reader may get the meaning, but won’t experience the time, because the eye scans quickly over multiple identical panels. Panel size and page layout (e.g. overlays) are used instead to convey both timing and the associated meaning.

Note: My description of the self-adjusted reading speed effect is in disagreement with expert opinion: “Time will slow down with more panels because the reader’s eye will typically linger over the panels at the same rate.” I think this disagreement is in degree rather than in absolutes, though.

The self-adjusted reading speed effect is quite important, in my opinion: The decoupling of visual complexity and perceived speed of action allow comic creators wonderful freedom to use great visual effects without constraining other variables of storytelling.

Now this last sentence is probably impossible to understand without some examples.

These examples will come from the webcomics Next Town Over, Trekker, Space Mullet, Lady Sabre & The Ineffable Aether, Deep Dive Daredevils, and Opportunities In Space.

You can read up these webcomics now if you want to avoid SPOILERS; there will be few major ones anyway, because I don’t refer to the plot much in this post.

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Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time

” … brought me in to fine-tune the plan. I’m a details man – figuring angles, covering bases – that’s what I do. [… ] I’m pretty damn good at it.”

That’s how McCrae, called Digger, protagonist of Gravedigger, one of my favorite webcomics, describes himself. It’s an accurate description of the two creators as well: They are details men, and pretty damn good at it.

Me, I’m a details man at the receiving end. Movie, novel, TV show, or webcomic: Gimme the small but significant details!

Digger also asserts he is “one stylish son-of-a-bitch”, and again this can be said of each of the two creators as well.

Here ends the similarity: Digger wants his plans to go straight, smooth and steady; the creators want the plot as twisted as it gets, very tense, and fast-paced. Guess who wins!

This post will focus on what impresses me the most with Gravedigger, the diligence on details.

As I told you in Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure, that’s the same thing I like the most in the novel The Silence Of The Lambs, so I’ll include examples from it as well.

But first, here’s another example (Minor Spoiler ahead) from Opportunities In Space:

  • On this page, we see a couple of ladies standing by a pool discussing where to have a party.
  • The most prominent feature of the page is the open panel in the middle right with a closer look on Sara Emmett saying:
    • “I know for a fact that Ben will not mind.”
    • This line is a subtle reminder that Ben has already met his fate, ahem, I mean there was a family emergency, and that Sara is only posing as his secretary, but really belongs to some group of (alleged?) terrorists.
  • Visual details support and enhance this line of dialog with wonderful effect:
    • That she breaks out of frame into the other panels emphasizes that she is the most important person on the whole page.
    • The washed-out red background alludes to her being an accomplice to murder.
    • In contrast, the positioning of her body in the frame draws attention to the fact that she’s wearing, well, let’s say, pool attire, proudly presenting her fine figure.
    • In one sentence, we see a dangerous evil that is well hidden behind a desirable body, a pretty face, and a friendly smile.
  • What’s more to wish for?

More to come, talking about Opportunities In Space, in futures posts.

Before I continue, I encourage you to check out the archive from Gravedigger. It contains two stories, The Scavengers and The Predators, of 28 respectively 48 pages.

Also, you may want to brush up on The Silence Of The Lambs.

Now, if you are back, or don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss.

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Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure

Asked whether he had predicted that Breaking Bad would become such a huge success, creator Vince Gilligan answered: “I didn’t expect that. The show had all the ingredients of failure.”

His answer raises three questions:

1) Was the answer more than a throwaway comment?

2) If there is any weight behind this claim, how come the show broke through with such impact?

3) If the phenomenon is real, does it affect other storytellers as well?

When I got the DVD set this summer and started to catch up, I noticed many details that all of YouTube, and the wonderful Honest Trailer video, didn’t convey. This got me thinking, and lead me to the following conclusions:

1) “Ingredients Of Failure” does not only describe the premise of Breaking Bad, and in large part the character arc of Walter White, but also many plot lines, scenes, characters, and stylistic decision on the show.

2)  Breaking Bad achieved success because the creators brought to play a unique combination of Courage, Conscience, Creativity, and Care (Did I miss out on any more words with C’s?)

3) Many storytelling successes depended on the four C’s to cook with the ingredients of failure

One of the all-time most interesting examples of “Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure” is the making of the movie The Silence Of The Lambs.

  • After several false starts the movie rights ended up with a company that assigned it a fairly small budget.
  • After some favorite actors declined, the director, who had only done comedies up to that point, wanted to cast Antony Hopkins as Lecter, whom the producers didn’t want, and the producers wanted to cast Jodie Foster as Starlin, whom the director didn’t want. So they made an artistic compromise and cast both of them.
  • The male lead actor, Hopkins, is slightly more than fifteen minutes on screen in a ninety minutes movie.
  • When the movie was finally ready, the distributor cancelled its 1990 slot, so it got shifted to February 14th, 1991. What was considered a horror movie back then – today, it’s just a quite dark thriller – became, to all intents and purposes, that years “date movie”.
  • While the movie focused strongly on the psychological drama aspect of the novel, to the extent that it became even better in this aspect than the novel, it totally mismanages the details-focused manhunt thriller part. Seriously, don’t you think that the entire part between the cage scene and the doorbell scene is utterly ridiculous? I will discuss this, before the year is over, in a post on Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.

So how did they do it? Wonderful acting of the main cast, great directing, excellent camera work, cool editing (“and what is he?” – “oh, he is a monster” / “ring, ring” “we’re going in” – “ring, ring, riiiiiiing” “Hi, I’m Clarice Starling, I’m with the FBI”) and inventive production design, all focused on the core psychological drama and its dire implications. Did I miss anything?

And for my personal taste, even the fantastic novel that movie is based on contains elements of failure: I don’t want to read about serial killers, cannibals, or people getting flayed, and still, The Silence Of The Lambs is my very favorite novel. I will tell you why, among other things, in next week’s post Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time.

I also don’t like stories with superheroes, godlike villains, and world-fate-deciding McGuffins. But I really love the movie Guardians Of The Galaxy.

I dislike funny ears on humans, except, of course, those of Quantum Vibe‘s main protagonist Nicole Oresme (they are NSFW, mind you), so I’m not especially fond of alien designs based on them, on tails, or any other funny additions to the human body, but I think the webcomic Opportunities In Space is awesome. Look at this page.

And if I’m not a fan of talking cacti, I enjoy Girls With Slingshots anyway, because I am a fan of secret weapons, and those of protagonists Hazel “The Lush” and Jamie “The Rack” are listed as Disdain and Tank Tops, respectively. What’s not to like about these?

Note: I will discuss GotG , QV, OiS, and maybe even GwS, in future posts.

Neither do I have any interest in stories about ghosts or genetically modified smart-ass animals, except, of course, Rocket Racoon, but one of my favorite Webcomics is A Girl And Her Fed, which features one of the latter and literally millions of the former.

Before I discuss more specific examples, please be aware that there will be spoilers for Breaking Bad and A Girl And Her Fed, and act accordingly.

Now, if you are well prepared, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss. (more…)