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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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Establishing Sense (Of Scale) And Sensibility

Many of my favorite webcomics are science fiction stories, and especially stories set in space.

Some of those you would call Space Opera. Others are of the type X IN SPACE, where X can be just about everything imaginable: Crime, drug trafficking, law enforcement, scientific research, pest removal, system maintenance, romance (with varying degree of explicitness), politics, and of course many different styles of military operations.

Comics that are set in space need to convey a sense of space, of being in space, of having left Earth-That-Was, in addition to everything else that a comic needs to convey: The experience of dynamics, of motion and emotion, that transcends the comparatively static nature of the medium.

This sense of space is to a large degree a sense of scale: The hugeness of moons, planets and stars, the endless void between those, the small or big (or gargantuan) spacecraft traveling. And the emotion instilled by all this has to fit in with the tone and style of the story: Cheerful, adventurous, mysterious, or dark and dangerous.

In theory, establishing a proper sense of scale for science fiction comics set in space should be impossible. The TV Tropes article called SciFi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale explains why. However, I find that there are many webcomics that excel at Etablishing Sense & Sensibility. My examples in today’s post are Space Pest Removal, Drive, Greasy Space Monkeys, and Space Mullet.

Since today the focus is on visual effects and not on plotting, there will only be minor spoilers, but I still want to give you the opportunity to get up-to-date with them.

Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the MINOR 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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