Thursday, January 14, 2016

Comedy Isn't Pretty, Part I: Silent Forest #0

 A book I have to thank for doing something wrong

Before we get to today's review, let's talk about Will Eisner first, shall we?

Particularly why we have a prestigious award given out annually to people named after Mr. Eisner.

Eisner wasn't just a genius. The comic book medium has had many genius artists and creators. Eisner was THE first genius who KNEW what writing comics was all about. The first guy to understand the medium and its impact. He was also one of the first to pass this information on to others in an understandable format.

His spectacular work on The Spirit is a testament to his expert craftsmanship at telling a story in a visual medium. But he didn't just write The Spirit, he also used it as a teaching tool. Once the comic was in magazine form, he explained the principles and methods utilized in the art of graphic novels between its very pages.  These essays, which he wrote as companion pieces to his lectures at the School For Visual Arts in New York, were compiled into a book of invaluable knowledge known as Comics and Sequential Art. He followed it with a companion piece on creating the narrative called Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. These two books became sort of a Bible for all creators of graphic storytelling to follow. Heck, the man actually coined that term "graphic novel."

Eisner realized that composition of scenes and sequencing of both panels and dialogue are more than just slapping art on a page. In the graphical medium, they are the very essence of storytelling. Abuse them at your (and your reader's) peril.

Which brings us to the issue at hand, a black and white book told in the comedic vein about a bunch of animals trying to rid themselves of the neighborhood golf course. The book is brought to us by Silent Devil Productions, a publishing house that lasted the better part of two decades pumping out various titles and one-shots. This issue constituted half of Silent Devil's first publishing endeavor and to be honest it has a lot of rough edges. Sharp, jagged edges that will cut your hand off if you aren’t careful. The infant stages of many publishing houses are recorded in my stacks of Crapbox comics, but this one I've singled out because it taught me something.

Silent Devil Productions was formed in 1996 by David Fairley, Christian Beranek, and Adam Beranek. They produced a handful of books from 2002-2004, finally getting two series with staying power. Around 2005 or so, Dracula vs. King Arthur and The Devil's Panties books became modest sellers and the startup publisher was on its way. The former book I'll be reviewing later, as it has wandered into the Crapbox as well. I'm glad that the company stuck with it and found eventual success, growing out of the awkward period that produced Silent Forest #0.

I'm not going to lie, the book is all kinds of terrible. The jokes are flat, the art inconsistent, the narrative trite and the characters underdeveloped.

It also hurt me to read it.

Why would I say something so horrid, you might ask? It is due to the nature of what lurks between the covers of Silent Forest. Knowing this was one of the first things out the chute and a labor of love for writer Adam Beranek and artist Heidi Evans, shouldn't I go a bit easier? I will say that the knowledge this was released following their college years makes accepting unpolished art and juvenile humor a bit more bearable (pardon that pun).

But it is the execution of that material that gives me the that headachy pain in my frontal lobes. Unexpectedly it also leads me to an epiphany about comics in general:

Layout and panel design aren’t just important from an aesthetic standpoint, but have to be carefully orchestrated from a storytelling standpoint. Or to put it more directly, it doesn't matter if your art is pretty if it makes understanding the story difficult.

Simply put, Silent Forest #0 makes following the story a chore.

I've written short stories and articles for publication, so I am very familiar with the concept of clarity in writing and keeping people involved in the narrative. The moment the author does anything that distracts the reader, like the dreaded "head-hop" or convoluted flashback sequence, you risk throwing that person completely out of the reading experience. You have to keep them engaged and interested, surely, but the worst sin you can do is to break that fourth wall by doing anything that makes them stop, go back and re-read a passage.

That includes basic mechanical errors, something our current generation of text and instant message obsessed youths would do well to take heed of. In writing, something as simple as poor grammar or spelling errors creates the same effect as something so vast as an unbelievable plot contrivance. Both can act to disrupt the reading experience.

In comics you have an additional "gotcha" that can break the reader's flow: anything in the visual realm. Something as small as mis-ordering the expected arrangement of dialogue boxes, say.

And Silent Forest does that.


In a way that if you pay as close attention to the material as I was, you begin to have a deeper understanding of the challenge faced by the artist to tell a story in a graphical medium. It is MUCH more than slapping characters into a panel with some dialogue. It takes a layer of skill that we seldom if ever think about. Using sequential art design is a tricky skill to master.

Let me show you what I mean.

Here is a page from early on in the story. The art is a crudely simplistic, but given that this was a "funny animal" book, let's give that a pass for now. The first panel is setup. 

The second is where our problem starts. As American comic readers, we typically read things from left-to-right. In the comic realm, higher balloons are usually read before lower balloons. Now here is our problem, in this panel we have three balloons. Normally you would read them starting at the lower left and continuing to the upper right. 

However, to read these in the correct order you have to ignore the expected left-to-right reading flow. Instead you would read them right-to-left, like a manga. At least the artist attempted to clue the audience in by making those dialogue boxes higher, but put quite simply this panel doesn't work.

In several instances I caught myself reading answers before questions. Or reading statements made with the supposition that a previous statement spoken by a character to the right of the speaker had already been read.

And what those experiences did was break the forth wall. With a good outcome, I suppose, since the experience created an uneasy feeling that there was an important principle that had been violated to thrust me out of the story if I could just figure out what it was. Let me give you another example. Read this box as you would a normal American comic book panel.

Our three main characters meet this female animal while looking for the wise owl who will help them get rid of the golfers. I have to state for the record that I have no idea what that female animal is supposed to be. She is located on the far right.

When I first saw her I immediately thought it was the unholy love child of two lemurs from the movie Madagascar. Tell me you don't see a little King Julien combined with Mort in that character design?

Whatever she is, one of the werebears has fallen for her. The one in the middle. And he has the first piece of dialogue in this panel. So our correct reading flow is middle balloon, right balloon and then left balloon. There is no country where reading this way is the expected flow

Another example is here:

The flow starts with the sound effect of the character in the upper left laughing at a previous panel's joke. Then for some inexplicable reason we are supposed to know to shift to the character in the bottom right-hand corner. From there the order goes upper right dialogue box followed by middle left. If you draw a line for how your eye should move about the panel it would look like this:

There is no way that is natural or expected.

What all this boils down to is that panel design and storyflow are both in the hands of the artist in a graphical medium. 

While the first is kind of a given, it is the second that comes as a surprise. An award-winning story in the hands of an artist with talent BUT doesn't understand how to properly structure their panels will end up horrible. And an average story in the hands of even an average artist who understands the advantages and limitations of spinning a yarn visually will end up looking like an award winner. 

I've seen this time and time again in the Crapbox, but it took Silent Forest to really unravel the mystery.

I'm pretty sure these are rookie mistakes, but how do comic book artists address them if they want to succeed?

I'll admit to NOT being Eisner or having anywhere near his understanding of the medium that is comic art. I'll also state that I haven't read much of his essays on design. However I think I can throw together a couple of thoughts on it that might be relevant.

I can think of three ways to address problems of dialogue sequencing like we see in Silent Forest #0. The first is to utilize your dialogue boxes to always create left to right flow. If you have to, stretch them across the top to attribute them to a character standing on the right and then layer subsequent dialogue boxes directly below them. It is an ugly fix, but it works and could have saved that first panel I presented.

Second would be to reattribute dialogue (if possible) to create the correct flow. This is tricky, since much of dialogue is used to inform the audience about the character. If what is being said is personal and can apply to ONLY that character, then you are stuck. In those instances you must move on to the third tactic. However, there are instances where the contents of what is being said isn't specific to that character. In those instances it doesn't matter if character A or character B says a certain thing as long as it is stated so the story can move forward. In that case, redistributing the spoken lines would be much better than causing confusion.

Third would be to send it all back to the drawing board. If the layout of the panel doesn't fit the dialogue sequence, you can always have the artist draw the entire panel over, perhaps from a different angle or moving characters from position A to B, or from foreground to background. This is possibly the cleanest method in regards to how it looks, but also the most time-consuming.

Yes, Silent Forest has weak spots but the most glaring was a problem that every comic struggles with. Give the book a seasoned illustrator and/or an objective editor and this problem gets caught before it heads to the presses.

What happened with Silent Devil? Sources show the follow-up Silent Forest book had a portion of the writing chores headed to ChristianBeranek, who has proven herself a talented writer and went on to bigger things running Disney's comic book subdivision in 2008. She collaborated with brother Adam on writing the Dracula vs King Arthur book and not to spoil a later review, but it has the potential of being one of the better Crapbox finds.  Given its long print run it appears to have been a commercial success as well. Adam had his own successes, even contributing to the comic book tie-ins to David Fincher's "Se7en" movie. As for this Silent Forest? Perhaps the more silent I remain, the better.

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