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Blog - A Dip into the "Language" of Comics

March 25, 2024

I mostly read what is usually called "literary fiction."  I'm not snobbish about it, though.  I also enjoy science fiction, cosmic horror, fantasy, noir, etc.  I'm not super interested in airport read type action or mystery stories, particularly open ended series.  I'm not opposed on any moral level, it's just an opportunity cost thing, as I'm a completionist and for serial open ended formula stuff I prefer television.  For example, I like the show Reacher quite a bit, but I will probably never bother with the books the show is based on.

This past year I've started diving deep into comics / graphic novels.   I'll probably just say comics from here on out.  This may not be technically accurate in all cases as some of the things I've read came out all at once as a graphic novel rather than in monthlies, but whatever.  I don't read monthly comic issues but rather the collected editions with a bias towards reading entire story arcs.


I had only dipped my toe in comics before this past year, mostly for an exploration of influential media like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen or Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. (My brother had a collection of Miller's Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns in the 80s which I read a bunch as a kid.)


So after a deep dive and a lot of time spent thinking about the medium, I had some thoughts I wanted to share.  I've also included some interesting books I'd recommend at the end (non-superhero ones for this entry.)  


Special thanks to my comic aficionado friend James for frequent consults and to my wife for letting me read her copy of Watchmen.  And hat tip to YouTube channels ComicPop, Matt Draper, and Owen Likes Comics.


(Note: I've included an index at the end with all of the books I reference.  So if I leave out an author or artists name in the body of the text, it'll be listed in the index.)

Medium Not Genre


A thing it took me a bit to internalize was that comics are a medium not a genre.  In a Western pop culture sense "comics" is shorthand for "superhero stories."  But though most comics in popular consciousness are that, there's a lot of others, too.   Accepting that shorthand would be the equivalent of saying "Movies are Action Stories," which would be a nutty thing to say.  


For comics, there are things like the horror of Ito's Shiver, the Shakespearean hip hop samurai remix of Wimberly's Prince of Cats, science fiction like Lemire's Sentient, noir like Cooke's Parker or Pichetshote's The Good Asian, autobiographies like Satrapi's Persepolis.  You get the point.  


(This is leaving aside Japanese Manga, which I know basically nothing about.  Though side note, I do think it's interesting how animated series are pigeonholed as kid's stuff in the West, but seems to be more accepted as a "valid" adult thing in Japan)


Hybrid Techniques


The medium itself is an interesting one to think about.  It's a hybrid of visual art like film and literature.  It's visual, but not temporaly locked like a movie; you experience it at whatever pace you want to.  There's text, sometimes a lot of it, but like in film the images themselves carry most of the storytelling load.


There's obviously some overlap in the storytelling vocabulary between comics and the mediums it's hybridizing.  Comics are like a novel with a cinematographer, using some techniques that are familiar to anyone who has seen a movie: editing, montage, color palette, framing, gaze etc.  


They have the ability to deliver a lot of information incredibly quickly, like film, but also can convey interiority and inner monologue via the text in the way a novel can.  Persistent inner monologue or dialogue that would feel stilted or unrealistic in a film doesn't stand out as all that weird in a comic, just as it wouldn't in a novel.  It's like the social contract of the medium between the creator and consumer, like a novel, allows for a higher suspension of disbelief for dialog than when you see and hear actual humans acting it out.  


Comics also share novels' lack of budget constraint.  A setting that would cost 500 million dollars to believably create on film can be done really easily in a comic.   IDW's Angel: Season 6 aka After the Fall is a continuation of the TV show's cliffhanger series finale and escalates the story in a way they would never have been able to do on screen, yet it stills feeling like it is part of the same narrative.

Unique Techniques


Snapshots in Time


Comics also have unique visual language techniques and conventions.  Since they capture snapshot images it ends up being like a guided reading, suggesting action and motion, but offloading the connective tissue to your imagination.


Not having to get to one of these snapshots through continuous action allows the artist and writer to emphasize moments that have the greatest impact to the story.  In Tom King and Andy Kubert's Up in the Sky, you don't have to see Superman fly up to his overconfident attacker, wind up, knock it down and then give his line.  There's an image of it coming towards him, and then just a tight close up of his fist smashing through its armor.  It gives the impression of an attacker being stopped absolutely dead in its tracks by overwhelming power.  


(This is a little tangential, but the above example kind of reminds me of something I saw on the channel "Every Frame a Painting" about how Hong Kong action films are edited to make the hits feel really impactful.  You can watch the relevant clip here, but in short they start on a wide shot for the hit, then cut to a close up, but they don't match continuity.  They essentially cut from the wide shot late, and to a "too early" close up so you actually see the hit twice but because it happens really fast and you see the entirety of the action in both shots it feels way more impactful.  And, honestly, in the examples they showed if I wasn't consciously looking for it, I doubt I'd have noticed the continuity "error."  It's like my brain smoothed it over.  That channel doesn't update anymore, but it's a great one for film analysis.)


Comics also have a different set of conventions and suspension of disbelief when it comes to the image and the text.  Characters manage to get entire lines of dialogue out over a single image.  When exactly did they say that whole sentence?  It doesn't really matter. Again the whole medium is more evocative and suggestive rather than literal.  It doesn't feel out of place like it would in a film if a character brought the action to a dead stop to deliver a line. 

The Splash Page


Probably the most obvious bit of standard comics-only language is the splash page.  (i.e. a page or two page spread that's a single image.)  It's such as standard thing that it almost seems weirdly to point it out, like if I were to say "You know there's music playing in movies, and it's called the 'score.'"  But I really don't think there's an equivalent in any other storytelling medium, unless you count straight up paintings like, I don't know, The Oath of the Horatii which does kind of have a narrative.  I guess something like that though is just a splash page for a comic that hasn't been written yet.   


(Hmm. Idea: create comic books that use classical art as splash pages)


The splash page is a really powerful element to a comic and gives the image an immediate signifier of "This is important."  Or maybe just "This is awesome" depending on the writer and artist, I suppose.  I have heard a lot of comics in the 90s, a rather self-indulgent period, were prone to having big static shots of all the characters just kind of standing there, "looking awesome [citation needed]" but not actually doing anything.  I have not encountered this myself.


A splash's placement in the narrative, as much as the image itself, can carry a weight, too. In Angel: Season 6, in a striking two page splash, the title character sees a vision of himself ecstatic and bloody amidst a pile of bodies, sword in hand as a willing agent of the bad side of the Apocalypse and it serves as the culminating moment in his decision to let himself die to avert that future.  It's a powerful image, amplified by it's function in the narrative.  It doesn't just look great, it's the catalyst for a momentous character decision.


(Angel: Season 6, aka After the Fall is really good, if probably confusing if you haven't seen the show.  But absolutely do NOT get the omnibus.  They made the bewildering decision to publish the omnibus in the stories' chronological order rather than the original publication order, which wrecks the setups and payoffs and destroys some of the mysteries and revelations.  Baffling.  Read the original trades instead.)

The final page of Up in the Sky is another great use of a splash, really putting an exclamation point on an emotionally and thematically resonant final panel.


In addition to its placement in the narrative, the physical configuration of a splash in the book is also important, and I would be curious to see how it gets planned out.  The most effective thing is to have it on the other side of a page turn; it would't do to spoil the dramatic impact by having the reader be able to see it in their peripheral vision before the writer wants them to.


Because my comics journey has been pretty well curated and researched, I haven't encountered any bad books, where techniques like the splash are overused, devalued, and/or haphazardly chosen and placed.  I'm sure they exist.


Panel Layout


Another structural thing comics have is the panel layout.  The panel layout, in the good ones at least, is not haphazard.  They lead your eye, and can have a sort of meter and rhythm of their own, like syllables in a song or a poem.  Some books have panels of varying shapes or sizes and some have a rigid frame while in others the art seems to spill out of the panels.  


Tom King and Mitch Gerads' Mr. Miracle has a rigid 9 panel grid on each page throughout the entire book. Only 5 pages out of 300 or so do not use this layout.  It's claustrophobic, confining, and sometimes suffocating which reinforces the themes of a story largely about depression, self-harm, and trauma.  (Seriously, that book is a masterpiece of the medium and genre.)


King told Polygon, in regards to Mr. Miracle's 9 panel grid:


"It literally puts bars between the reader and the pictures. It creates cramped spaces on the page where the action occurs, giving [the] reader a sense of being squished, shut in. It’s the form reflecting the content, an old but good trick.”

Even one of the action scenes that goes across the panels and could have been a splash page is confined to the bars of the grid.  I don't know how you would even approximate that in a film or a novel.  


Also, another subtle thing in Mr. Miracle that shows some of the possibilities for panel layout is that the panel outlines are white for the scenes on Earth and black for the ones that are elsewhere.  I didn't even notice this the first time through.  The book has a rather ambiguous ending (in the Inception type way), and the effect is heightened by the black panel outlines showing up when it seems like they shouldn't.


Changes in the frame configuration can give a sense of motion or tension, or off kilter-ness, similar to how a thoughtful framing variation from a standard shot-reverse shot in a movie can convey a shift in a conversation using only visual language.  To go back to Mr. Miracle one last time, there are occasionally single panels in the 9 panel grid that are just solid black with the white text "Darkseid Is," which can be read as a manifestation of the main character's depression and trauma breaking into and interrupting his story.  There's a moment early on, after some bad news and a proliferation of the black panels, where a page turn reveals a single black panel taking up the entire next page, obliterating the 9 panel grid in a kind of anti-splash image.  It's jarring and really gives the sense of being totally overwhelmed.


Panel layout can also be used as a tool for parallelism.  My favorite example of this is in Batman: Earth One, an alternate retelling of Batman's early years.  He's out of his depth and rather incompetent in the first volume.  The story starts with him chasing someone down on a rooftop.  The page has four horizontal panels: a skyline, a ground level closeup of a running man's foot, the man looking over his shoulder with an amorphous leaping/falling shadow in the background, then a ground level close-up of Batman's foot as he runs.  After a page turn you get a full page panel of Batman in shadow springing towards the camera.  Ultimately, he misjudges a jump between buildings and falls, and his quarry escapes.  


Volume 2 starts with the exact same scenario and exact same panel layouts and shot composition, with some small differences.  In the third frame, the shadow isn't the chaotic shape of Volume 1, it's distinctly Batman's silhouette; he's more in control of his body now.  In the panel with Batman's foot, he's farther forward in the frame; he's gotten faster. And in the full page reveal of him, he's closer to the camera than he was in Volume 1.  And this time he makes the jump and catches the man he's chasing.


They wouldn't have needed to do this to show he'd gotten better, but it was a really nice touch, a great example of using a medium specific technique to reinforce the story.  I probably wouldn't have even consciously noticed it if I hadn't read Volumes 1 and 2 back to back.  God knows how much of this kind of stuff I've missed.




Insets for closeups overlayed on bigger image can give the feeling of simultaneity and specificity, showing both a vista and drawing attention to an intimate detail.  Superman: Up in the Sky, referenced earlier, has a lot these.  (Full disclosure: Tom King is probably my favorite comic book author at the moment.)


Part 11 of Up in the Sky, subtitled "In Need" illustrates the power of insets really well.  On a large splash of Superman, back to the camera, facing down an army while being assured by its leader that "There are enough here to defeat you, Superman," there is inlayed on the bottom right a small panel of just Superman's determined, furious eyes in profile with a good bit of negative space as he says simply "No, sir.  There are not." Since both images are on the page at the same time you don't lose the contrast between the theoretical hopelessness of the situation and Superman's angry confidence. The inlay in effect recontextualizes the splash image.  Turns out the situation is hopeless, just not in the direction it first seemed.


And then you don't even see the fight.  The story cuts away to a different location and returns to Superman amidst the wreckage.  But the book had already signaled from the way the splash and inlay was done that the outcome was absolutely a foregone conclusion.  


Three Other Small Things


A more dramatic layout thing I encountered is Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman: Court of Owls where, when in the headspace of a hallucinating Batman, lost in a labyrinth and starving to death, the reader has to rotate the book first sideways then upside down to the follow the panels.  It was a cool choice, intentionally making the narrative disorienting in a moment where Batman himself was losing the thread, and requiring the reader to actively turn his world upside down. I get the impression from Sal from ComicPop that there were a lot of 90's comics that would have splash pages that required rotating the book, but not for any really story effect.  (He seems to find this, understandably, rather annoying.)


On the art side, there's some neat visual things they can do that would be hard to pull off or be unnatural in film and aren't really possible at all to do in novels.  Like in Marv Wolfman and Claudio Castellini's Man and Superman, where the story dodges around showing Lois's face via panel framing and shadows until Clark sees her for the first time.  I didn't even notice they were doing it until her face was finally revealed and I thought to look back at her earlier appearances.  This would have been absolutely blatantly obvious, contrived, and probably irritating in a movie, but it worked well in a comic, allowing a strong first impression mirroring our protagonist's (i.e. Superman), even after Lois had already been present in the story for a while.  


Also, I've seen in several books the convention of depicting characters speaking another language with different outlines of the speech bubbles.  You both understand what they are saying and know the other characters don't, an effect that would be hard to pull off non-intrusively in another medium.

Depth of Story 


While the popular conception of comics is that they're superhero punch-ups, there's quite a wide spread in depth of the stories I've read.  This shouldn't be surprising if you accept comics as a medium rather than genre; it's no different than movies or books. 


Like all stories, they exist on a spectrum.  Both John Wick and The Godfather are good movies, but they are qualitatively different kinds of movies that provide different things.  I really like John Wick, but it isn't exactly a thoughtful exploration of violence and character the way The Godfather is. 


It's the same with comics.  To use Batman as an example, on one hand you have Court of Owls which is a really good and engaging action/mystery story, but isn't super deep; the character conflict is more "how is Batman going to get out of this one" rather than "what is all of this saying?"  On the other hand there's Three Jokers which is explicitly about trauma, violence, and reconciliation and has actual character arcs, including the rare one for Batman himself.


At my current stage of life, my preference is for deeper stories. For me, fun adventures or whatever are more satisfying in movies or TV.  But that preference is just a preference; I don't have any pretension that it's morally better.


My ultimate point is no matter what kind of stories you like or are looking for at the moment, you can find it in comics.


Conclusion and Some (non-Superhero) Recommendations 


I think there's no use in being dismissive of comics.  We're long past comics as just funny papers serials geared towards young kids.  There's a lot of really interesting and really fun stories to read and I've only scratched the surface myself.  


It's always good to see stories told and told well and think about different tools and new mediums to tell them.  


Unless they're really long, a graphic novel or collected edition takes about the same time investment as a movie.  In way less time than a novel or TV series you can still get stronger and deeper character work than you get in most films.  Also, since reading is an active rather than passive thing, I personally feel more mentally engaged and less likely to zone out or futz around on my phone than I do when I'm watching something.


I will undoubtedly do a big superhero thing later, but for now here are those non-superhero comics I've really enjoyed.



Prince of Cats  

Writer / Artist: Ron Wimberly


This is one of my favorite books, any medium, ever.  The back cover blurb describes it as "the B side" of Romeo and Juliet. It's hip hop and samurai infused, and set in early 1980's New York with a black cast and Tybalt as the protagonist.  ("Prince of Cats" is one of his epithets in the play.  Hence Mercutio's invitation to duel: "Tybalt, you rat catcher, will you walk?")  


To quote UC Riverside Professor John Jennings in the book's forward:


Prince of Cats cleverly deals with notions of class, race, and gender through this unlikely courtship of comics, Hip Hop, and the work of Shakespeare. Wimberly creates a black speculative space that explores the constructions of black masculinity, notions of good and evil, and the nuanced storytelling methods that are totally part of the affordances of the comics medium.


The story is well told, the blaxploitation samurai setting is really interesting and the artwork is great, but the thing that I found the absolute most impressive was the language.  


The opening prologue, like the one in Romeo and Juliet, is a sonnet with a similar rhyme and some language taken directly from the play, with the end couplet referencing Langston Hughes's 'Harlem.' (i.e. "What happens to a dream deferred?")  The meter is a hybrid, slipping into iambic pentameter in the middle, but more often in 11 syllable lines, weaving between what almost sounds like freestyle rapping and a stricter Shakespearean line.  It sets up the book beautifully.


Wimberly clearly knows what he's doing; the iambic dialog really feels and sounds like Shakespeare, while still being integrated with the new setting, both culturally and temporally.  A really small thing that I think encapsulates that integration is the characters calling each other "coz," which feels appropriate to the setting but also is a clever reference to the original, as several characters in the play do the same. Wimberly also manages to capture that Shakespearean mix of high brow and low brow in the dialog; elevated language in service of sometimes rather crude subjects.


My favorite example of this is when Jacquelyn, talking to Juliet about performing oral sex, refers to herself as:


[Medusa] Whose very gaze doth calcify mankind 

And spying her rigid handiwork 

Doth furnish her carnal appetites. 

Made hungry by her labor's ripened fruits 

The petrified she doth head first consume.


It's brilliant, as is Juliet's response to Jacquelyn asking what she's saving herself for:


Jacquelyn, please, dost thou know my father?

The Booming Voice of Lord Capulet quickens Medusa's stoniest victim.


Read: her intimidating father makes men lose their erections.


Prince of Cats, man.  I could probably write 4000 words on just this 150 page book.  


Go get it.  To quote Alice Castle: "Prince of Cats is a goddamn masterpiece."

The Harrowing of Hell 

Writer / Artist: Evan Dahm 


The Harrowing of Hell, written and drawn by Evan Dahm, is an adaptation of both the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Gospel of Mark.  The Harrowing of Hell is a Christian theological doctrine about Jesus's descent into Hell in the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection.  I knew of it, through reading Dante's Divine Comedy, as a Roman Catholic teaching, but it's apparently also part of the Orthodox, and to a lesser extent, Lutheran traditions.  (And maybe also Mormonism?).  In it, Jesus descends into hell and frees the souls imprisoned there.   (The wrecked gates of the City of Dis in Dante's Inferno are from the earthquake in hell when Jesus descended.)


The main Catholic text for the Harrowing is the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.   Dahm pulled from Nicodemus and the Gospel of Mark to tell this story, which begins with Jesus judged by Pilate and crucified, then entering Hell.  While he proceeds through the Pit, there are  three flashbacks to scenes from the Gospel of Mark.


Jesus actually says very little throughout but what is really striking is the artwork and his depiction.   There are only three colors in the book: white, black, and red.   The beginning and the flashbacks are in black and white with some accents in red e.g. the Roman centurion's uniforms, the crown of thorns, and the crucifix etc.   Then after death when he descends into a gaping mouth of Hell, the whole book becomes black and red, with Jesus the only bit of white.  


In contrast to the flashbacks, where he is often prominent in the panel and framed from slightly below giving a sense of power and command, in Hell he's small, a tiny shock of white in a sea of red, and framed from above, imparting a sense of isolation and ostensible powerlessness..  He looks disheveled, overwhelmed, scared, but determined.  He has big expressive, often sad, eyes.  You can't really see his mouth under his scraggly beard.  


There's a lot of great imagery and scenes in this book. For me, one of the most poignant and affecting was near the end when Jesus encounters the prison of Adam and Eve where, in a departure from the theological teaching, after he throws open the gate, they refuse to go with him.  He looks defeated, falls to his knees and says "Lord, why have you abandoned me?"  His exhaustion was so palpable; the scene stuck with me for a while.


One of the themes of the book is a skepticism about the expectation of Jesus as a conqueror, taking the reigns of armies and worldly power.  In the first flashback to Galilee, the Disciple Thomas says of the kingdom of God, "A kingdom is made of stone and labor, swords, warfare, and law, and the retribution of the Lord upon the Gentile Empire."  Jesus, gently, challenges this belief.  And later, in the bottom of Hell, Satan shows Jesus an image of a warrior version of himself brandishing a sword at the head of a host of armed angels and says "In righteousness wilt thou judge and make war.  The only kingdom they [i.e. humanity] know is the crucifying Kingdom."  


Jesus replies, simply, with "That is not my kingdom."


Thomas speaks for the contemporary Pharisaic expectation of what the Messiah would look like as well as a more 21st Century American one, where he becomes a sort of secular power fantasy holding the reigns of government.  (Evan Dahm is an American.)  The narrative and Jesus himself explicitly rejects this in the story, and even the books opening epigraph, a quote from Leo Tolstoy, says "Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government."


This was a really good and interesting read.  It's not polemical and, from the afterward it seems like a story Dahm wanted to explore rather than one he wanted to use as a theological catechism / pedagogy.  It is, by its nature, obviously a religious story, but it's not a proselytizing one.


Gotham: Year One 

Writer:  Tom King 

Artist:  Phil Hester


This is technically a Batman book, but he's only in the framing device for like two panels and he has only two lines of dialogue at the end.  There's no superheroes and no supervillains.  It's a noir / crime story set in a sort of prelapsarian Gotham City, two generations before Batman, where a private detective gets drawn into unraveling the "kidnapping of the century," an event that causes a chain reaction that spirals the city out of control.  


It deals with things like race, policing, decadence, gentrification, and systemic injustice in a way I haven't seen really in any of the superhero stuff I've read.  There's a lot of ambiguity and messiness in it, in the best way.


Was Gotham ever the shining city on a hill?  Or does that depend on if you lived on the North Side or the South Side?   Did it even Fall?  Or did the veil just drop?


There's a lot here, and the art and writing are great.  You don't need to know anything about the Batman mythos other than "present day" Gotham is a shithole.  


Can't recommend it enough.



Writer:  Neil Gaiman 

Artist:  Various


Sandman is a (maybe) "dark fantasy" written by English author Neil Gaiman, though it sort of defies easy genre categorization.  It follows Dream, the Lord of, well, "Dreams," one of the Endless, personified manifestations of concepts like Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destiny.  The Endless serve a vital function in the operation of the universe, and Dream is perhaps the most dutiful and, for the ones who frequently interact with humans, the most detached.  He's also a giant asshole at the beginning.  Watching him, ever so slowly, shift his outlook is really satisfying and handled really well.


Sandman is an exploration of the nature and power of stories and creativity.  Gaiman clearly loves this stuff and the series pulls from history, mythology, and literature and has some really interesting dips into genres other than dark fantasy.  It's also a really resonant meditation on mortality, legacy, and purpose.


The series ran from 1989 to 1996 and is 75 issues, so it's really long but I think definitely worth a read in its entirety.  I'd at least suggest looking into the first two trades, Preludes and Nocturnes (Vol 1) and The Doll's House (Vol 2).  They have the most conventional narrative and straightforward plot.  And a Lucifer modeled after David Bowie.  (There's a couple of cameos from other DC characters near the beginning but you don't need to know anything about DC to understand what's happening. Sandman started out as maybe in continuity with the mainline DC universe but quickly became its own thing.)


After these first two volumes the story becomes way more episodic in nature, though there is still an overarching thrust.  Dream is often a secondary, though important, character in these episodes.  Shakespeare pops in here, as does Augustus Caesar, Christopher Marlowe, and Harun al-Rashid to name just a few.

A volume 1 highlight, and this is hardly a controversial opinion, is the story "The Sound of Her Wings" where a morose Dream spends the day with his sister Death.   Gaiman's portrayal of Death is itself a subversion, with her being a young, cheerful, and loving presence who goes out of her way to ease people's passage to whatever is on the other side.


They also have this exchange, which I really like:


Death: Mostly they aren't too keen to see me. They fear the sunless lands. But they enter your realm each night without fear. 

Dream: And I am far more terrible than you, my sister. 


And Dream is absolutely not kidding.


It's an amazing series.  Gaiman's writing is compelling, subtle, and layered, and the art work throughout, by various artists, is great.


(Also the Netflix series is both a good show and a good adaptation.)



Writer:  Santiago Garcia 

Artist:  David Rubin


This is a pretty straight up adaptation of the Scandinavian epic poem Beowulf.  It doesn't really update, subvert, or recontextualize anything the way that the 2007 animated film did.  (That's a movie a *really* like by the way,  It departs from the source material quite a bit in the middle in an interesting way, and to great thematic effect.  I wonder how the subversion would land for someone not very familiar with the source material...)


The book retains the three part structure of the poem, with part 1 being the fight with Grendel, part 2 the fight with Grendel's avenging mother, and a 50 year time jump to an old King Beowulf confronting a rampaging dragon.  It also keeps one of the rather bleak and almost nihilistic themes of the original, that the world is a dark place and there's always another monster.  You may defeat one, but there'll just be another, and one day, you're going to lose.  Part three, in both the original and in this, has an elegiac weight under passage of time, the passage of youth, and the passage of a way of life.


I like the art in this one a lot.  It captures the cold of Scandinavia the mournful decay of the land in the wake of a decade of Grendal's predation, the chaos of battle, and really generates a palpable atmosphere.  And the fights are really violent and disorienting, with lots of blood and gore. 


The slow build up to the battle with Grendel is really tense and effective.  There's a striking overhead shot in the mead hall that manages to convey the monster silently creeping through the sleeping Danes, inspecting them while deciding where to start.  It does turn weirdly sexual as Grendel prepares to kill the "sleeping" Beowulf, which is definitely an interesting choice.  That first fight itself is really long but well done, being about 20 pages (out of a 200 page book).  I like the detail of the monsters' vision, when small panels overlayed on the scenes representing what the monsters see.  The human forms just kind of look like viscera to them, just muscle and sinew.


The monster designs are interesting, too.  In reviews, I've seen Grendel and his mother described as Xenomorph (from Alien) adjacent and I can't really disagree with that.  They're also evocative of the mimics from Edge of Tomorrow.  (A great, and underseen, movie btw).  The dragon design in part 3 consciously uses elements from Grendel and his mother as well, giving them a similar vibe.


There's also a lot of closeups of teeth in this book, of monsters and humans, either menacingly clenched or eating.  I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but it's pervasive enough that it has to be a conscious choice by the authors.  There's something kind of animalistic about it.




I guess this actually is a superhero comic.


Writer:  Jeff Lemire 

Artist:  Gabriel Walta


Sentient kind of feels like YA science fiction.  (Not a criticism).  It's the story of the U.S.S Montgomery, a ship transporting colonists from a ecologically ravaged Earth to a new planet.  When a Separatist kills all the adults on board in an attempted hijacking, the ship's AI, VAL, is given permission to take over.  After dispatching the separatist, VAL has to protect all the children on the dangerous journey to their new home.


The backdrop it's set against is really interesting, though the details aren't explored very much as they aren't really relevant to the plight of VAL and the Montgomery's children.  


There's also some really striking images, and I feel like the artist skillfully captures inner conflict, ambivalence, and layered emotion like a person putting on a brave face.  The character writing and conflicts are also good. 


It's fairly short and straightforward.  If you like sci-fi, definitely worth reading.




Happy reading



Referenced books:

  • Watchmen (Writer: Alan Moore / Artist: Dave Gibbons)

  • The Dark Knight Returns (Writer / Artist: Frank Miller)

  • Batman: Year One (Writer: Frank Miller / Artist: David Mazzucchelli)

  • Shiver   (Writer / Artist: Junji Ito)

  • Prince of Cats (Writer/Artist: Ronald Wimberly)

  • Sentient (Writer: Jeff Lemire / Artist: Gabriel Walta)

  • Parker (Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke)

  • The Good Asian (Writer: Pornsak Pichetsote / Artist: Alexandre Tefenkgi)

  • Persepolis (Writer / Artist: Mariane Satrapi)

  • Angel: After the Fall vol 3 (Writer: Brian Lynch / Artist: Nick Runge)

  • Superman: Up in the Sky (Writer: Tom King / Artist: Andy Kubert)

  • Mr. Miracle  (Writer: Tom King / Artist: Mitch Gerads)

  • Batman: Earth One  (Writer: Geoff Johns / Artist: Gary Frank)

  • Batman: Court of Owls (Writers: Scott Snyder / Artist: Greg Capullo)

  • Man and Superman (Writer: Marv Wolfman / Artist: Claudio Castellini)

  • Three Jokers (Writer; Geoff Johns / Artists: Jason Fabok. Brad Anderson)

  • The Harrowing of Hell (Writer/Artist: Evan Dahm)

  • Gotham: Year One   (Writer: Tom King / Artist: Phil Hester)

  • Sandman (Writer: Neil Gaiman / Artist: Various)

  • Beowulf (Writer: Santiago Garcia / Artist: David Rubin)

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