REVIEW: Secrets & Shadows #1

I’ve become a bit of a fan of writer Jon Parrish lately.  I’ve read and enjoyed some of his script submissions on ComixTribe’s Proving Grounds column, and now – after some delay and miscommunication, which I must apologise for – I’m finally getting round to reviewing his new comic series, Secrets & Shadows, which is off to a very promising start.

Our story quickly introduces us to Haven City, a metropolis basking in the reflected glory of its beloved resident Black Sun and his superheroic dynasty, and our grudging protagonist, Black Sun’s estranged son, Joseph.  From there, one of the biggest strengths of Parrish’s narrative is that, as the title might suggest, we are bombarded with questions that make us want to keep on reading and immersing ourselves further in this murky world.  What horrible thing happened to Joseph to end his burgeoning superhero career and make him turn on his family?  What terrible secret about the day of the Haven City Massacre is being shared by Black Sun – now retired, and a broken man – and his other son, superhero prodigy Dark Star?  What sinister conspiracy are the city’s superheroes tangled up in that would require them to murder potential witnesses?  And who is the formidable, shadowy figure killing off these superheroes (or “false idols”, as he calls them) in order to “save the city from itself”?  Parrish crafts an exquisite, tantalising mystery throughout this first issue, continually grabbing our inerest and demanding we read more.

One thing I liked about the comic, and I don’t know if it’s patronising to even need to mention this in 2013, is the high ratio of prominent black characters in the book: not just the Shaw family – Joseph, Black Sun and Dark Star – but also master supervillain Marcus Kane.  And nothing about them feels like it’s foregrounding their colour or making it part of their character, it’s just “colour-blind casting” in the book.  And when a comic doing this so naturally is still noteworthy enough that it merits mention, I think it highlights just how much of a disparity there still is in mainstream superhero comics.

The plotting isn’t entirely without fault.  There is the odd instance of dialogue that feels to overtly like speaking to the reader to catch them up on the exposition it’s important for them to know.  It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I’ve fallen into myself, but perhaps something for Parrish to watch out for in future, particularly as his conspiracy story gets more labyrinthine.  And there are quite a few Starman parallels in the “fictional city protected by a revered superhero who retires after a traumatic incident, and has two grown-up sons, one who followed in his footsteps and another who’s more of a black sheep off stubbornly doing their own thing” narrative.  But that’s forgivable.  Heck, The Standard has a few Starman parallels, and superhero comics these days are always going to ultimately be variations on a theme.  The hallmark of quality is not doing something new, but doing something well, and Parrish seems to have that covered.

More problematic is Marco Roblin’s art.  There are times when it’s very good, evocatively capturing a believable location or a nuanced facial expression.  But at other points the details are quite muddy, hurting the clarity of what’s going on.  At one pivotal moment in the plot, I was unsure of what exact fate had befallen a character because the visuals didn’t make it clear, and I had to rely on the script specifying what had happened to the character afterwards in order to know for sure.  There’s also some awkward scene transitions that made it unclear that we’d switched from present day to flashback and, due to the way some faces were drawn quite similarly, made me confused about what characters were being featured in particular sequences.  There are some odd choices of layout too, where without letterer extraordinare Kel Nuttall carrying the burden of using caption trails to guide my eye along the page in the correct order, I’d have been totally adrift.

One thing worth mentioning is that the comic boasts an ace cover from Dexter Wee.  Apparently, he’ll be taking over interior art from issue #2 onwards, so it’ll be interesting how that reflects in the visuals going forward.

Something else that was noteworthy about Secrets & Shadows was that it has a couple of alumni from The Standard involved.  And before any accusations of nepotism are flung my way, I didn’t even know they were on the creative team until I started the review!  There’s the aforementioned Kel Nuttall on letters, doing as slick and professional a job as ever.  There’s also editor Steven Forbes.  Now, it’s hard to really assess the imput of an editor in any review, as a good editor will render themselves utterly invisible, guiding the creative team to bring out the best in themselves rather than overtly contributing much.  As such, it’s difficult to do more than speculate.  But knowing Steven Forbes’ excellent editorial work first-hand, I would guess that he has some part to play in the ruthless directness of purpose that permeates this script, how everything is functional and serves to push the narrative forward, with work being done to hook us in right from the first page, and every interaction serving a purpose.

Overall, a very promising first chapter.  Visually, it’s solid if not spectacular, but narratively this shows real promise.  Something tells me I’m going to become a bigger fan of Jon Parrish in the future.

SecretsandShadows1

Secrets and Shadows #1 (as well as the next two issues) can be bought online at the official store, or are available digitally for free at Graphicly.

 

 

The Standard #2: On Sale Now!

The Standard #2 is now on sale!

Once, Gilbert Graham was The Standard, the world’s first and greatest superhero. Now an old man and long retired from crime-fighting, he lives a quiet life as a high school chemistry teacher. But when Alex Thomas – his former sidekick and successor to the Standard mantle – is murdered, Gilbert is haunted by old memories… and faced with a serious decision.

The Standard is a 6-issue comic book miniseries, each chapter 28 pages long.  This second issue is written by me, John Lees, is pencilled and inked by Jonathan Rector, colored by Gulliver Vianei and Mike Gagnon, lettered by Kel Nuttall, and edited by Steven Forbes.  The comic is debuting digitally, published by ComixTribe, and is now available from these platforms, priced at $1.99:

Wowio

DriveThruComics

MyDigitalComics

In the coming days, The Standard #2 will also be available digitally from Graphicly.  Be sure to check thestandardcomic.com for the latest updates.

If you would rather have a print edition of The Standard #2 you can hold in your hands, we’ve got you covered.  Within the next few weeks, you’ll be able to order a copy from IndyPlanet, priced at $3.99.

And remember, readers in the Glasgow area should also be able to pick up the second issue for £3 at local comic shops from mid August.  You’ll be able to buy the comic in Forbidden Planet, A1 Comics and Plan B Books.  The first issue has sold well from these shops, and the local support has been much appreciated.  I hope that carries forward with the second issue.

Don’t forget, The Standard #1 is also still available from Indyplanet, Graphicly, Wowio, DriveThruComics and MyDigitalComics.  The series debut was nominated in two categories at the Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards: Best Comic/Graphic Novel and Best Writer.  Here’s what the critics have been saying about it:

A solid debut for Lees and Rector onto the comic book scene as well as for a new superhero story that may offer something a bit different than what Marvel or DC are doing right now… If you are someone who wants to support “indie” comics but isn’t into the supernatural or angst ridden gothic things, this is the title for you.

– Alex Widen, Brooklyn Comic Books Examiner

The art is fantastic bringing crisp, clean, and beautiful work on every panel. Just like the art, the writing is excellent and panel by panel I found myself feeling as if I was familiar with the characters and developing a bond with them.

– Stephen Jondrew, Project Fanboy

The Standard leaps the hurdle that many independent comics cannot. Some indie comics suffer from low-quality art and writing, and clichés both visually and in the narrative. The Standard carries itself quite well, providing an intriguing story and characters that are both engaging and easy on the eyes. I have to say that as far as creator-owned, independently-published superhero comics go, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.

– Dan Cole, Broken Frontier

In the age of reality television and absolute sensationalism, The Standard is deeply relevant.

– James Miller, Comics Bulletin

Comix Tribe is really publishing a slew or interesting titles these days and The Standard easily lives up to what I am quickly coming to expect from their titles.

– Tom Feazell, Omnicomic

This book reeks of professionalism, looking and acting like a Marvel or DC Comic. The Standard creative team have no fear in showing the world that they are just as smart and clever as the big boys.

– Luke Halsall, Geek Syndicate

If you’ve not read The Standard #1 yet, it’s not too late to catch up.  If you have read it, I hope you’ll also pick up The Standard #2, and let me know what you think!

Buy The Standard #1 Comic Book!

You’ve been asking, and now it’s here.  The Standard #1 is now available to buy in print from IndyPlanet!  The Standard is a 6-issue comic book miniseries published by ComixTribe, each chapter 28 pages long.  This first issue is written by me, John Lees, is pencilled and inked by Jonathan Rector, colored by Ray Dillon and Mo James, lettered by Kel Nuttall, and edited by Steven Forbes.  It’s been available digitally for a couple of weeks, but now, for $3.99, you can order a physical comic book you can hold in your hands.

Buy The Standard #1 from IndyPlanet.

Wherever you are in the world, the comic is now available for online order.  However, if, like me, you live in the Glasgow, Scotland area, and you are able to wait another couple of weeks, you might want to walk down to your local comic shop to pick up your copy!  From early June, Forbidden Planet, A1 Comics and Plan B Books will all be stocking The Standard #1.  More information on the exact release date as soon as I can get it.  I’ve heard that people have been going to these shops and asking about the comic, and I just want to thank all of you who have been interested enough in the comic to do this.  Keep asking – it’ll let them know there’s interest in this series!

Also, don’t forget, The Standard #1 is still available to buy as a digital comic to read on your desktop/phone for $1.99.  Here are the places you can buy it from:

Graphic.ly

Wowio

DriveThruComics

MyDigitalComics

Thanks again for all your support.  If you buy the comic, be sure to let me know what you think.  I hope you enjoy it!

The Standard #1: On Sale Now!

The Standard #1 is now on sale!

The Standard is a 6-issue comic book miniseries, each chapter 28 pages long.  This first issue is written by John Lees, pencilled and inked by Jonathan Rector, colored by Ray Dillon and Mo James, lettered by Kel Nuttall, and edited by Steven Forbes.  The comic is debuting digitally, published by ComixTribe, and is now available from these platforms, priced at $1.99:

Download PDF from Wowio.

Download PDF from DriveThruComics.

In the coming days, The Standard #1 will also be available from Graphic.ly, Iverse, MyDigitalComics and Oxicomics.  Keep on checking thestandardcomic.comfor updates.

If you would rather have a print edition of The Standard #1 you can hold in your hands, we’ve got you covered.  Soon, you’ll be able to order a copy from IndyPlanet.  This will soon be ready to go, I’m just making a few final checks.  Hopefully, you should be able to get The Standard #1 in print as soon as next week.

Please check the comic out, and let me know what you think!  And keep on checking out thestandardcomic.com for release information and original content!

The Standard and Free Comic Book Day

ComixTribe, the publishers of The Standard, are joining forces with Red Handed Studios to commemorate Free Comic Book Day with a special showcase comic.  Available digitally from May 7th, The ComixTribe/Red Handed Studios Free Comic Book Day Special will provide a sneak peek at what both publishers have got in store in the coming months.  I’ve had a chance to see the comic, and it’s definitely worth checking out.  It’s FREE, what do you have to lose?

The collection is headlined by an Epic/DynaGirl crossover, co-written by Tyler James and Cary Kelley, the respective creators of the two superheroes.  Epic artist Matt Zolman provides the visuals, giving us a taste of just how beautiful Tyler James’ series is going to look when it goes on sale later this year.  It’s a short, self-contained story, managing to be both hilarious and action-packed, and containing more than enough to make those who know both characters happy, and those who don’t know them into fans.  This story alone is worth checking out the FREE COMIC (I’m gonna keep on capitalising that) for.

Next up is Red Handed Studio’s offering, a solo adventure for DynaGirl.  If her team-up with Epic in the first story piques your interest, this explosive tale – with Cary Kelley’s script beautifully brought to life by artist Harold Edge and colorist Paul Little – is sure to make you a full-blown fan of the superhero single mom.  You can read new pages of DynaGirl every Tuesday and Thursday on www.dynagirlonle.com.

ComixTribe then takes centre stage, starting with a hype package for Epic by Tyler James and Matt Zolman.  There are no completed pages to make up a preview here, with Tyler instead tantalising us by laying out the clever high concept behind Epic – an awkward teenager becomes an all-powerful superhero whose one weakness is getting turned on by pretty girls – and providing us with a sizzle reel of GORGEOUS pencils from Matt Zolman.  This comic simply looks fantastic, and with Tyler James on scripting duties you know it’s going to have a cracking story to go with the visuals.  Check out Epic #0 on Graphic.ly.

Another upcoming ComixTribe title featured is one I’m very much looking forward to: Runners, by Steven Forbes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to read the scripts for the first couple of issues, and am pleased to report that the narrative provides a brilliant twist on the zombie genre.  The preview of the opening pages gives us a glimpse of the twisted tale that lies ahead, as well as a taste of the beautiful artwork by penciller Mac Radwanski and inker Vic Moya.  As good as I knew this comic was going to be, seeing the art has elevated my excitement for it to a whole other level.  Make sure you check out this Free Comic Book Day Special to see why Runners has shot up to right near the top of my “most anticipated comics” list.

I’m forgetting something?  Oh yeah, one more comic to round out ComixTribe’s lineup: The Standard!  It’s the same preview that was posted up on my Standard blog on Friday, but in luscious high resolution, with an extra page – and this one’s a doozy!  I’m excited and grateful that my comic is getting showcased alongside such a high calibre of work.

Every comic featured in this package is worth your attention.  Cary Kelley’s Red Handed Studios put out good stuff, and ComixTribe is set to make a big splash with its output this year.  The comic is FREE, so don’t forget to check it out.  The ComixTribe/Red Handed Studios Free Comic Book Day Special will be available from May 7th, and you’ll be able to buy it directly from thestandardcomic.com within the next couple of weeks.

TheStandardComic.com Launches Today!

Hey folks!

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been developing my first comic book: The Standard.  It is a 6-issue miniseries, each issue being 28 pages long, and in color.  The first issue is due for release April 28th.

The Standard a story spanning across two generations.  One narrative is set in the past, in a colorful, cheery, Silver Age styled past, where superhero The Standard and his sidekick Fabu-Lad battle nefarious supervillains and giant robots.  The other narrative is set in a darker present.  The original Standard has retired, and the former Fabu-Lad has inherited the mantle.  However, this new Standard decided to publicly unmask, revealing to the world his alter ego, Alex Thomas.  Now, The Standard has sponsorship deals, a merchandising empire, and is a reality TV star, making him less a crimefighter than a celebrity.  But secretly, Alex is tormented by what he’s done to the Standard legacy.  He has grown obsessed with the case of a missing girl that nobody else seems to be interested in.  Can he remember what it means to truly be a hero?  Or does fate have other plans in mind for The Standard?

TheStandardComic.com, the official blog for the comic, has now launched.  I’d really appreciate it if you guys would check it out.  I’ll be updating the site daily on Monday-Friday, so there should be plenty of new content to look at.  I hope I can capture your interest enough to make you want to find out more, and perhaps get the comic once it goes on sale!

Comic Book Pacing

As someone who’s fairly new to writing comics, one of the things I have found most difficult to get right is pacing.  It’s one of the most vital elements of comic book storytelling, but also one of the most inscrutable and elusive.  This week, Steven Forbes posted an excellent Bolts & Nuts column on the subject over on ComixTribe.  Anyone wanting to learn more about pacing, or how to write comics in general, should definitely be checking out Bolts & Nuts if you aren’t already.

I’m not sure I fully agree with everything Steve says there, though. I can see the logic that more panels on a page will slow it down and less on a page will speed it up, and some of the time I think that yes, this is indeed the case. Especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. But I don’t think it appliies all the time, and in many cases – particularly in action scenes – I find the opposite to be true.

For example, let’s imagine a big cimactic fight scene between Chilly Willy and The Golden Hemorrhoid. If I was writing this four page scene, I might start with a 4 panel page, showing both men facing each other down, then reaction shots of each man, before finishing up with them charging towards each other. I’m wanting this to be a slow moment, building up anticipation, and the larger, more detailed images encourage the eye to focus more on them, taking more time to dwell on the moment. I’d also probably make this an odd-numbered page, so the reader would have to turn the page to start reading the fight itself.

With the second page, I’d be tempted to try using 8 or 9 panels. All with shots in quick succession. Panel one could be Willy punching the Hemorrhoid in the face, panel 2 the Hemmorrhoid poking Willy in the eye, panel 3 Willy giving Hemorrhoid a purple nurple, and so on and so forth. Generally, a series of snapshots of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments. All small panels, crammed together, encourage the eye to race through them. It’s like putting the reader in amidst the quick, frenzied atmosphere of a battle.

By the third page, these two titans have grown exhausted from beating on each other, so the pace of the battle has slowed. Perhaps evil Chilly Willy has gained the advantage over our hero, The Golden Hemorrhoid, and so taunts him while he’s down, giving him a boot in the ribs while boasting about his superiority. But heroic Hemorrhoid is building up his strength, and regains the advantage, lecturing Willy on how evil will never prevail. There is motion here, so I’m not trying to create a sense of stillness like with the first page, but there is also dialogue, so the pace has slowed down a bit, and I want that reflected in the reading experience. So I’d probably use 5 or 6 panels here, with the reader taking a little time on each panel as they read the dialogue, but things are still moving forward. And with how I began the scene, page 3 also falls on an odd-numbered page, allowing for a page turn…

The final page of the fight is a full-page splash, with The Golden Hemorrhoid blasting a massive fireball out of his anus, setting Chilly Willy ablaze and flying screaming into the air like one of Dhalsim’s opponents in a “Street Fighter” game. This is a big moment, where the whole fight is brought to a standstill, and much like the big slow-motion knockout punch in a film, I want the reader to dwell on this climactic moment. A big splash page, lots of detail, encourages the reader’s eye to settle on that moment for a little while, slowing down the scene in their head.

So I think that more panels on a page CAN be said to speed up a scene, while less panels CAN slow it down. Though having said that, I’ve also done things the other way like Steve recommends, using 8 panels in a page to create a sense of slow motion, of a single moment being drawn out. It all depends on context.

I’m also interested in the taboo of the silent opening page. It’s something I’ve never attempted, not feeling competent enough that I could pull it off, but I’m fascinated by the sheer ballsiness of the idea. The name of it escapes me, but I remember encountering one comic where the first FOUR pages are silent, and are taken up by nothing but sunrise in a city, as we see night give way to morning in intimate detail. I’d love the challenge of trying to grab someone’s attention without words.

I’ve long dwelled on the idea of a haunted house comic: speaking of taboos, the idea came to me from Steven Forbes saying that it is impossible to make one scary. I’ve never went ahead with writing it because, as far as I can tell, Steve is right, and I at least can’t find the tools within the comic medium to tell a haunted house story effectively. But I’m going to keep trying to figure it out. The one idea I do have would be to open with several silent pages, filled with establishing shots of the various rooms of the house, culminating in a full-page splash of the exterior establishing shot of the house as a whole. Not something I think I can pull off yet. Hence why I’m sitting on the idea for now.

Okay, so let’s look at how pacing works with the breaking down of scenes in an actual comic. I’ve been talking a lot about Scalped lately, so I’ll use the most recent issue, #46, as my case study. The issue can broken down into 5 scenes over its 20 pages.

The first scene is 4 pages, the first and fourth of which are both splash pages. The setting is a cave, where one character is holding another captive. In the case of the first page, we have a close-up of the character in peril. I imagine this is going to be a recurring trend throughout the current arc (“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”) as the first part began with a full-page close-up of another character. This is telling us that the issue will be told largely from that character’s perspective, slowing down as we dwell on getting into their mindset. The second page is 6 panels, and the third page is 5, both of which are dialogue based and move by pretty fast. The fourth page is another splash, in this case setting up a dangerous scenario, and drawing our eye across the page to explore said scenario in more detail. Again, slowing down.

The second scene is five pages long, and is a talking heads scene, based around one character visiting another in prison. As opposed to the previous scene, the increased number of panels are used here to slow things down – the panel counts are 7, 6, 6, 7 and 6 respectively. Here, close-ups and silent beats are inserted in to create pregnant pauses between the conversation, slowing the scene down. In the final page, we see the prisoner walking back to his cell. This could have been done in one panel. But by taking four – one of him walking, one with the camera placed behind a cell of prisoners staring at him as he walks, one with a close-up of the prisoner’s eyes looking sideways, and another high-angle shot looking down at him walking, we dwell on the scene, thinking more about the character’s vulnerability.

Now things get complicated, as the next 9 pages are shared by both the third and fourth scene of the comic, which us cutting back and forth between the two locations. Both are action scenes, of a sort. The first scene is of our kidnapped captive trying to escape from the cave, while the other returns to our prisoner, waiting anxiously for an attempted assassination in the showers he fears is coming his way. We’re four pages into scene three before scene four starts encroaching, and with both scenes jostling for space in the same page we get an increased page count, the page gets more crowded, and it feels like the pace is picking up, each scene building to a crescendo. But then scene 4 ends with a 7-panel page of its own and scene 3 ends with a 5-panel page, where the crescendo stops, and each ends surprisingly quietly. In the case of each scene conclusion, the panels on the top half of the page are packed tightly, before opening out into larger panels at the bottom of the page, when things get still. Again, larger panels slowing things down.

The final scene is a 2-panel page, with one character confronting an unknown figure at gunpoint. The first page is 5 panels, and goes by slowly, building tension for the reveal of who the character is. We turn the page, and the last page of the issue is a full-page splash, revealing what character our assailant is talking to. Because it’s the last moment of the issue, we dwell on it.

So I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful here. Pages with lots of panels can be used to slow things down… or speed them up. With the same writer using it to do two different things within the same comic, no less!

Given there are so many ways to get pacing right, and even more ways to get it wrong, it’s difficult finding a hard-and-fast rule of, “THIS is the best way to pace your comics.”  I think the hardest part about it is that pacing is so subjective.  No matter how many little tricks we might be able to use as creators to guide the eye or encourage the reader to speed up or slow down, ultimately there is no way we can exercise complete control over how fast or slow someone reads a comic.  The pages that I talked about spending some time on, another reader might have skimmed over, and vice versa.  In the end, it’s out of our hands.  Pacing is decided anew by each new reader who picks up your comic book.  The best we can do is offer some subtle encouragement.