Combining Forms

Bibli Reviews

Review - Unflattening

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My encounter with Unflattening by Nick Sousanis was a stroke of luck. My friend and fellow Bibli reviewer, Steph, pointed it out to me at the opening of a new bookstore in Portland. She told me I might like it, and that it seemed “weird” enough for me. It was touted as a “philosophical treatise in comics form” on the back matter, which sounded amazing, and I bought it on the spot.

It was a stunning read. Sousanis has done a marvelous job in creating a philosophical essay using comics, and I consider it a must-read for any fan of the form. Not only is the artwork beautiful and skillfully rendered, but the actual essay itself changed the way I look at the world. Unflattening is a must-read graphic essay (that’s what I’m going to call it) about the nature of perception, how society forces us into a one-dimensional way of seeing, and how to “unflatten” our own.

Unflattening’s artwork is rendered entirely in black and white, which is an excellent choice for the book. It’s the contrast of the black of the ink and the white of the page, the difference between them, that allows our mind to construct and understand his images. This plays into a major point of Sousanis’ essay, that the distance between two different points of view, parallax, helps us understand the whole.

Sousanis’s careful page layouts are another source of joy. They change constantly, sometimes offering traditional comic book panels and other times borderless full page spreads. The spreads are where Sousanis’ layouts are most impressive, the artwork designed to guide your eye on a unique path through the page—up and down, sideways and backwards—from one text box to the next. It forces the audience to read the book in a different way, parallel to the argument Sousanis is trying to make about perception.

The design and placement of image in this book is married so well to the content of Sousanis’ words. They leverage each other to provide the reader with multiple points of reference to grasp his meaning. Difficult concepts are made easier to grasp when we have two ways of “seeing” his meaning through image and text. Sousanis adds a third dimension with metaphors drawn from literature, science, and history, to assist the reader’s comprehension from three angles. Not only is it very meta, but it also makes his essay very accessible to the average reader, which is not always easy to do when it comes to philosophy.

Unflattening is a compelling argument for the comic form. Sousanis asserts that we should stop elevating the importance of words above images and pictures; together they are stronger, and provide us with multiple angles to interpret meaning. The book is a sterling example of the form, and I give it a 7 out of 7 for its depth and brilliance. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the form or looking for an essay to engage in a dialogue with. Unflattening is a fantastic example of what comics are capable of, and I hope to see more “Graphic Essays” emerge in the future.

7 out of 7 lightning scars:

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Review - I.D.

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I.D. by Emma Rios is a short, self-contained graphic novel published by Image comics. Originally Published as part of Island, a magazine devoted to the form, it stands strong on its own, at times feeling more like a short story than a comic. I.D. follows three characters in a slightly dystopian future filled with political unrest. Humans have begun to colonize and terraform other planets to suit their needs, but the setting is just background noise to Rios’ real focus. Charlotte, Noa, and Mike have all volunteered to undergo a body transplant—that is, removing the brain from one body, and placing into a new one—for different reasons, drawn together as a kind of support group. I.D. is about their reasoning, and more importantly, is an examination of the conflict between perception and identity.

The cover design is what initially drew my interest to the book, and ultimately why I noticed it in the first place. It’s simple—white cardstock shot through with red linework. With delightful ambiguity, they detail what might be tree branches twisted and overlapping, or neurons crossing in the brain, perhaps both twined together. Inside, the artwork follows the same visual theme of the cover, a monochromatic palette of reds over white pages. The red is an interesting choice over the traditional black-and-white printing of non-color comics, softening the artwork, adding warmth and color, and reminding the reader of blood and tissue. Rios’s illustrations in this book have a distinct Japanese influence that reminds me of old manga, and her layouts reflect a non-western approach with many aspect-to-aspect transitions and panel-in-panel shots that heighten our perception of each moment. You won’t find many traditional layouts here, and many of the panels and images overlap, blend, and bleed into each other. Altogether, Rios’ choices create a very distinct and unique experience that oozes style and serves her narrative purposes perfectly.

I.D. relies heavily on its illustrations to convey its narrative, and expects the reader to focus on visual details and color the work with their own interpretations. It’s a great way to use the medium of comics, and is a great way to explore Rios’ theme of perception versus identity. The entire first chapter plays out without us even learning the names of the three characters, relying instead on visual characterization to bias the audience’s perception, before subverting it with dialogue and the characters’ means of identifying themselves. It’s a delightful dance that I appreciated even more after my second and third readings.

To me,
I.D. represents everything I love about the comics medium—a brilliant blending of image and word that rely on each other to convey an experience that could not be told in any other medium. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed I.D., but I know some readers may be frustrated by its open ends, or will find it simply an interesting side-show.

5 out of 7 lightning scars:

and recommend it to any lover of the form, or someone who appreciates short stories (and trying something new). Those seeking a deep emotional story or a good bit of escapism, however, may find I.D. to be lacking.

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Review - Paper Girls, Volume # 1

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Paper Girls is a new comic book series published by Image Comics, and the sheer star power behind its creative team is staggering. From the brilliant mind of writer Brian K. Vaughn (Saga, Y the Last Man), with art by legendary Cliff Chiang (Wonder Woman), colors by Matt Wilson (The Wicked + The Divine), and letters by Jared K. Fletcher (The Wicked + The Divine), Paper Girls has incredible potential. A potential that it lives up to in this gorgeous initial volume.

It’s no surprise to anyone that knows me that Brian K. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic book writers. That might make me a little biased, but he deserves his reputation as one of the premier science fiction comics writers. I admire Vaughn for his ability to take subtle literary themes and exaggerate them to exciting new heights.

Volume one collects the first five issues of
Paper Girls, which takes place in 1988 in the fictional town of Stony Stream, just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. We follow paper delivery girl Erin as she meets neighborhood-famous newspaper girls Mac, KJ, and Tiffany in the early hours of All Saints Day. They are quickly caught up in strange events involving jerk teenagers, alien technology, bizarre disappearances, and time travelers (at least I think they’re time travelers) who speak a nightmarish crossbreed of Shakespearean English and ‘txt speak’. Vaughn’s trademark weirdness is on full display here, creating a compelling mystery that will keep you guessing from page one of Erin’s Nightmare to the final cliffhanger twist of issue five. Vaughn weaves together themes of nostalgia, the end of childhood, and the painful distance between the expectations and realities of the future.

Alongside Vaughn’s excellent storytelling, we’re treated to Chiang’s artwork. Chiang’s thick lines invite the eye and make the images easily readable. The backgrounds are detailed and interesting without being cluttered. His art infuses every panel with energy, bringing the characters to life through their poses and facial expressions. What really impressed me though is Matt Wilson’s incredible attention to color. His solid colors and soft, subdued palettes perfectly complement Chiang’s linework, and his attention to lighting really elevates the art. I also love Wilson’s choice to change the colors of some of the outlines from pure black to lighter tones. It softens the images and adds a lot of depth to the art, particularly on the faces and in background details (as you can see in the image to the left). When it comes to the lettering, Fletcher hits a home run. His borderless speech bubbles allow the eye to seamlessly transition between image and text, blending into the artwork. His use of lowercase lettering lends an inviting tone to the text. Altogether, the visual choices mesh like a well-orchestrated symphony, and it’s a treat to read.

The characters in
Paper Girls all feel unique, their dialogue and visual designs pleasantly contrasting with one another. The plot itself starts off at a slower pace than usual for Vaughn’s work, as he takes the time to build the mystery and suspense (and the 80’s references), before blasting open the gates to weird-town. The plot keeps us in the dark to the motivations behind the strange occurrences happening in Stony Stream, even while answering some immediate questions. The building mystery and unexpected twists kept me flipping through pages at a breakneck pace.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Paper Girls, so much so that I bought issues six and seven days after their releases, even though I prefer to wait for collected volumes of ongoing series. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the twist at the end of volume one marks a shift in the direction for Paper Girls, one that provides exciting new themes and directions for the story to explore. I’d love to discuss it here, but in the interest of preserving the mystery for you, I’ll just tell you to read it yourself!

6 out of 7 lightning scars:

It met and exceeded my expectations for a new comic series out of Brian K. Vaughn and his stable of incredibly talented artists. I highly recommend the series to anyone who’s a fan of mystery, science fiction, the 80’s, or just beautiful artwork. If you do end up picking up a copy, I’d love to hear what you think!

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