Monday, 8 December 2014

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #2.2: Vogue, Letters, Baal

Slightly belatedly, we return, stretching the 'every ninety(ish) days' part of the T+AGTWATD format to its absolute limit.

As usual, here are three essays from myself and Tim, this time focused on the 'Faust Act' as a whole.



Grand Designs
Looking back over the first arc of The Wicked + The Divine, it's hard to deny that the story beats are unevenly distributed. There are a glut of events in the first and final issues and – at least if you view this as the story of Luci and Laura – not much of real consequence in between.

And yet, each new issue has genuinely felt like an event. A lot of that, I think, lies in the slow teasing of the gods. The book's set-up tells us that there are twelve of them, but we don't meet them all immediately. When the story starts, the world doesn't even know about a quarter of them, and five issues in we still haven't pinned down who Tara is. (Fucking Tara.)

Given Kieron Gillen's tendency towards full disclosure, he and the rest of Team WicDiv have been impressively quiet about the thinking behind the characters. That leaves it to the comic to deliver the compact package of ideas that is each god.

They're not just characters but archetypes, references, lines drawn across the twin histories of mythology and pop. They're vessels for cultural criticism, representatives of a diversity that's more unusual in comics than it should be. All of this is doled out a couple of panels at a time – and the only god we've spent a truly significant amount of time talking to so far has had her head blown off. So, what makes this tease seductive, rather than frustrating?
Faces
I don't mean to sound shallow, but I suspect it's all down to looks.

Jamie McKelvie was already one of the great designers in comics. His Captain Marvel redesign is a huge part of that character's recent success. In Young Avengers, each new costume change was a cause of great joy and much Tumblr fanart. In preparation for The Wicked + The Divine, however, it seems he ingested centuries of mythological imagery, catwalk fashion and popstar aesthetics. (Just look at the official WicDiv Style Blog.)

Amaterasu's psychedelic explosion of eye make-up. The sleek androgynous cut of Lucifer's suits, versus the broad block colours of Baal's. The Morrigan, three complementary designs that condense the gothy glory of Sandman's Endless into a single character. The Jazz Age glamour of the '20s Recurrence's gods. Ananke's wardrobe of elaborate veils.

All of those ideas I mentioned earlier, McKelvie manages to pack into the first glimpse of each god, remixing the broad influences into something we've never quite seen before. Which makes turning the page to something like this totally thrilling:
Meet the
Gang
“Oh shit,” indeed. This double page spread, from issue #4, is possibly the series' greatest moment thus far.

This is a spread to linger on, the way I used to with Where's Wally? and, after that, with the cameo-packed battle scenes in Marvel crossover comics: Oh. Tim was totally right about Woden. Ooh. Loving Ammy's new look. Hm. What's Minerva riffing on?

Arguably, it's completely separate to the story. The page is packed with descriptive information, but not much actually happens. That's pretty much the definition of world building, a term I normally deploy like someone handling a used nappy. So why do I like it so much here?

Maybe because the world of The Wicked + The Divine is unusually distinctive. This isn't world building in the 'give the seasons silly names, and make our orcs a different colour' sense, and each new piece of design does actually shine more light on the ideas that the story itself is communicating.

Maybe because it fits neatly with the subject matter so well. Most of us have loved at least one popstar so much that we covet each new glimpse of album art, each magazine cover shoot, each mid-show costume change. Maybe there's something mimetic about those covers, where McKelvie simply renders his designs as sharply as possible and lets Matt Wilson's colours, pushed reliably into overdrive, communicate the rest.

Or maybe I am just that shallow, and it's just because everything is so damn pretty. I'd be okay with that, frankly.

                 
Illuminated Gospels
If we use the common analogy comparing a comic’s creative team to a film crew, then a comic's letterer would be something along the lines of sound design – one of those categories that Oscar coverage tends to talk over, and people tend to ignore when considering how the final product is assembled.

Like sound design, bad lettering can cripple a comic, but good lettering is often invisible, because its whole purpose is to service the more 'showy' elements. With that in mind, let’s have a smattering of applause for Clayton Cowles, letterer for The Wicked + The Divine, and shine a light on his craft, and how it plays into the comic’s atmosphere.

The biggest lettering style element is the most easily skimmed over – the distinction between the all-caps word bubbles, in traditional comic style, and Laura’s narration, which is closer to handwriting. It doesn’t go to the lengths of Hazel, the infant narrator of Saga, whose asides are hand-written directly onto the art by artist Fiona Staples, but the lower-case lettering and rounded bubbles give it a vulnerability and naivety that the same words in all-caps would lack. It has the feeling of a diary or a confession, conveying personality and intimacy.

Some of the lettering effects have been more overt – Woden’s square-bubbled, neon green on black lettering, lit by a gentle glow at the centre, is autotune visualised, a voice stripped of any personality and irregularity, perfect in its anonymity. When Laura runs into Highbury & Islington Underground in the hopes of finding the Morrigan, her yelled plea first becomes a large, disjointed word that cannot be contained by the balloon. Then, as she leaps onto the tracks and a train approaches, the word begins to layer on top of itself, each echo slightly displaced and giving the word the appearance that it is cracking apart, much like Laura’s life is at that moment.
Lettering
However, to bring it back to a recurring piece of stylisation (and one I’ve written about before), let’s look at the snapping finger sound effect that signifies the gods using their miraculous abilities. That jagged “KLLK”, like a thunderbolt cutting through the page, so small but carrying so much weight, has been deployed by various gods throughout the first five issues. Throughout, the sound of the snap remains uniform, but the letters are always jostled against each other in a slightly different way.

It’s only Ananke, in Lucifer’s final moments, who draws the noise out into a longer “KLLLK”. That sound effect, gently swooping with momentum, large on the page, with the final “K” swollen to devastating effect, is no mere click, but the sound of a coffin door slamming shut.

These tweaks and effects are tiny, but each choice helps build the mood and theme of the comic, and goes to demonstrate just how much Team WicDiv are all working in sync when it comes to the decisions that will dictate what we as readers will take from the page.

So let’s hear it for Mr Cowles, and all the other unsung heroes of lettering out there, weaving their steady-handed magic into the books we love. They are our modern scriptorium monks, toiling for hours to transform simple words into complex art.

                 

Baal, Hackney Wick, 18 December 2013
He is a god. If you didn't know it from the interviews, you would tonight.

In the beginning, there was darkness, and a hushed silence. Then chanting, like beatboxing, like a looping sample, and suddenly – Baal. Appearing on stage in a flash of lighting, holding the perfect pose in the momentary spotlight.

Baal has been on the scene for a matter of weeks, but he's already the biggest star in the world. Since then, it seems like Baal has played a show every single night, every one packed well beyond capacity. After all, there's high demand – and if you believe the PR buzz, supply is deeply limited. We get maybe a dozen more of these and then it's all over.

Everyone here certainly parties like they know that. The crowd is a roiling sea of flesh, all their lust pointed in one direction. A quick Google of his mythological namesake suggests that Baal's absence caused spells of drought. There's certainly no danger of that tonight.
Baal
...The setlist? No idea. Who cares? It's a night of screams fed through synths, of bass rumbles like thunderclaps, and of that feeling. Baal is simultaneously everything you wish you were, and everything you wish you weren't. He takes those urges you're least proud of, unearths them, and makes them feel bulletproof. Makes you feel bulletproof, like he is.

That's all that matters tonight, until suddenly we're back on the streets of East London, and it's the early hours, and we have no way of getting home, and none of us care.

                  
We'll be back in February, after the release of issue #8, to talk about 'Fandemonium'. In the meantime, here's how to find our heroes online:

Alex's ramblings can be found here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk. If you'd like him a little more succinct, his 'Words in Pictures' Tumblr features mini-essays on chunks of prose and comics. Want even more brevity? Catch him on Twitter @AlexJaySpencer.

Find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.