Thursday, October 06, 2005

Peng

There's a lot of talk these days about formats. About "floppys" and "digests", about the tankobon format all the kids are dancin' to versus the standard monthly 32 pager. It's an interesting discussion for both publishers and consumers. A pocket-sized "slab of culture" that's hefty in page count but easy on the debit card is a great way to enjoy comics. But are there artistic implications as well? Does everything work better in tankobon?

I had heard a lot about Sharknife by Corey Lewis, and it was always mentioned in the same breath as Scott Pilgrim. Both were black-and-white tankobon from Oni Press, both were poster children for "game logic comix", both were pimped by Warren Ellis in the same "Bad Signal" post. So after gushing over Scott Pilgrim, I picked up Sharknife and was ... lukewarm. Not through much fault of Sharknife itself, mind you. It's a whole different beast than Scott Pilgrim, and talking about them as cojoined twins does a disservice to them both. They use some similar techniques and conceits, but to completely different ends. Scott Pilgrim borrows some game metaphors at heighten what is, at heart, a subtle and realistic story. Sharknife is an action movie, telling the story of life inside a videogame. It was one of those situations where hype created false expectations - Sharknife is not Scott Pilgrim, nor is it trying to be. Beyond those expectations, the biggest issue I had with Sharknife, though, was the art itself. With no color to help break down the images, I got lost in each panel at times. I was having trouble reading the flow of each page, and deciphering the gonzo action packed in each panel. It just felt too dense, too much visual information packed into too small a size ... like a white dwarf, the gravity was just too immense.

Now along comes Peng, Lewis' "Martial-Arts Encrusted Sports Fable". It's a 72-page one-shot from Oni Press, and published in standard comic size. All my reservations about Lewis' work based off Sharknife were instantly washed away by this manic story of an Advanced Kickball tournament. This is one of those cases where format makes all the difference. In the tankobon format, Lewis' art seemed cramped and confusing. There was too much linework in each small panel, and his frequent use of double-page spreads was a problem when the middle of the spread was swallowed by the spine of the book. In Peng's standard comic format, his art has room to breathe, and the splash pages can be enjoyed in their full glory. Peng leaps off the page like a kickball off a foot, full of kinetic energy. One of the conceits of the books is that Advanced Kickball is so fast, spectators need to take SLO-MOZ drugs in order to slow down time. Lewis fully immerses the reader in that time distortion, as moments throughout the tournament become stretched and packed with information and emotion. Though you see very little of these characters outside the game itself, you get a great sense of them as people as each mement is broken down and examined.

Part of the incredible density of the action scenes is that "game logic" that keeps cropping up. Peng fully immerses it's characters in a videogame world complete with menus. Lewis is using visual shortcuts that are not all that dissimilar from such familiar comic concepts as thought balloons or captions ... he's just borrowing them from another medium. For someone steeped in the visual language of videogames from sports gaming to Final Fantasy, a simple menu conveys both information and the passage of time. In the reader's head, they can instantly interpret the series of actions the character is taking, a process that might have taken multiple panels using traditional sequential art. It's a shorthand that communicates story by relying on the fact that many readers will be familiar with the concepts.

I'm really glad I got a chance to see Lewis' work in a bigger format, as I don't know if I would have had the same reaction to Peng in a tankobon . It's like a rich chocolate torte, that doesn't need to be made any more dense. Peng is a joy, and a completely different take on a new visual language for comics that starts to shatter the ol' Understanding Comics paradigm by using some fantastic new storytelling techniques.

And it has talking puke. And Advanced Kickball. And Canada jokes. And a special appearance by another Oni superstar.

I did mention the talking puke, right?

Victory Puke, indeed.

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2 comments:

Shane Bailey said...

Just letting you know I'm still reading even though you aren't showing up on the updates page for some reason.

Mark Fossen said...

Thanks.

I dropped off the page, and my hits plummeted like a freakin' rock. I contacted Dave, and he fixed me right up, though. It's shocking how much of my hits are dependent on the Update-A-tron.