Godly Movements and Maimings

"Dawn of the Black Age" Part 1 from Shapeshifter Comics

The first thing that jumps out at you about this self-published comic isn't the gorgeous painted artwork. It's the production quality. Slick paper just shy of the quality Marvel and DC publish their corporate comics with, at the size of a double-sized issue (by the Big Two's standards). Plus the art reproduction is fine, the colors are sharp and the line-work clear. But there is a serious problem with the production involving the text and its integration with the page distracting the reader from the art and, more importantly, the story, that I'm going to explain later.

That said, the fully-painted Renaissance-style Jack Kirby-design influenced art itself is absolutely breathtaking. Especially on the splash pages: It seems that the wider a canvas Zack Stella has to play with, the more remarkable the result. Makes lots of sense if he is using actual oil-paint, as it sometimes appears he is. The visual storytelling on the simpler pages is also very strong, a sign not only of Stella's skill but the inspiration in writers Daniel Agatino and Nicholas Franco. An early page composed of just four panels shows Umbra, one of the gods in the multi-cultural pantheon Franco and Agatino have brought together, turning into the villain of the piece. [The page above is the one before this transformation; although it is also a fine example.] Sliding steadily into darker visuals and more vengeful dialogue, both directly inspired by Lucifer's turn away from the Christian god in the opening chapters of John Milton's epic-poem "Paradise Lost".

Even better is this moment in which the archangel Mithra stands and challenges the corrupted god Umbra:

The art that sold me on the comic-book is on pages 2-3, a double-splash page revealing the pantheon presiding over multitudes of angels. Another standout splash page is the supreme moment of betrayal when an angel spills the blood of an archangel for the first time. (I suspect it won't be the last before the story is done.) And all of those pale in comparison to the introduction of the Broken Tower, Umbra's base of operations in the celestial city of Prana. My god, this art! Unbelievable work. Stella undoubtedly brings a 'fine art' sensibility to the comic.

Although, the smaller panels cramp Stella's art and details have a smudgy look to them. It was once said that the proof-in-the-pudding of the medium of comics would have been a comic-script written by Shakespeare with visual art by Michelangelo, in the words of good ol' Stan 'the man' Lee:
"If Shakespeare and Michelangelo were alive today, and if they decided to collaborate on a comic, Shakespeare would write the script and Michelangelo would draw it. How could anybody say that this wouldn't be as worthwhile an artform as anything on earth? Comics are merely a method of telling a story through words and art." (Stan Lee Conversations, 105)
"Dawn of the Black Age" is as close as we are ever going to get! The weird thing is... it's a rough mix: the ornamental prose gets ahead of itself and covers the art at times when the visuals could use space to breathe and the paints are occasionally ostentatious and squeeze the text out from its proper placement. Comics is not "merely a method of telling a story through words and art", but a separate medium requiring visual storytelling, and as such the visual progression from moment to moment needs to be clear and smooth. Agatino, Franco, and Stella hit that sweet spot on several pages, but not consistently.

Truly the worst thing about the book is the lettering. Not the actual letters, mind you, but the text-containers and their placement are awful. The choice to letter the entire comic with basic text fonts and photoshopped balloons and boxes made of unique colors is not a bad one (in fact, every god character gets a unique color, balloon-shape, and font and that's AWESOME), but when your text containers are carved out of the rest of the image instead of drawn free-hand, the balloon tails are going to look awkward. Worse still, in showcasing the art, the dialogue and narration was sometimes moved to the edges of panels or right into adjacent ones! [See examples at left.]

If you don't think speech balloon's tails and placement are important in comics, imagine trying to watch a movie so badly sound-mixed that you can't tell which character is speaking, when, or from where! [Again, see left.] No bueno.

This work is proof that good comics can come from the mixture of visual art and literature, but truly exceptional comics come from a careful synthesis of different skills that make something else entirely. "Dawn of the Black Age" itself is exciting, gorgeous, and smart, even though it's missing one of the key production/design elements of a good comic: lettering. I am being critical specifically because there is quality and professional effort in every other element.

Shapeshifter Comics needs to solve this problem (by hiring a professional industry letterer, perhaps) because some great material is getting lost inside a muddle of colored balloons and boxes and it keeps this comic from being really great. However, if the true litmus test is whether I'll buy the next part when it comes out next year, I'm too curious as to how this epic tale continues not to. Franco and Agatino have me.
"for neither gods nor angels must ever forget..."
~ @JonGorga


  1. Hi, I have been reading this blog for some time now but never bothered to comment until today. Wanted to let you know that I am a fan and enjoy your work. Thanks

  2. Well, thank you so much sir or madam!