Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Webcomic: Legostar Galactica

Ok now, “Legostar Galactica” has a giant archive, daily updates since 2002. Luckily, you get the right impression of the comic right after first several comics. So you know whether to go on or to quit, unless you want to review it so you have to read all ;)

But honestly, I had to skip chinks of archives on occasions because I wanted to do this review soon and because I want to save some read for later (it’s enjoyable read).

“Legostar galactica” is a mix of parody and a sitcom. Though I always found it strange that most of what we call sit-coms are actually character comedies but I’ll stick to the usual terminology. So yes, LG is based on a set of characters, and their differences, quirks and running gags make the comedy. Parody elements, besides the fact that the setup is a loose throw back at “Battlestar Galactica” and “Star trek”, are contained in absurd and silly humor, and sometimes, twisting reoccurring setups of action series (giant squid, evil twin). When saying parody, most of people will think of Mel Brooks, but I think that LG humor is the closest to Abrahams/zucker team (“Airplane”, “Top secret”, “Hot shots”) with sheer hit-and-miss piling up jokes taking reign from the strictly directed jab. Someone said in review of their “Naked gun”: First you’ll laugh at how stupid the joke was, and then you’ll laugh because you fell into their trap and laughed at the joke. I think this is often applicable to LG, but that’s not to say that there’s something bad in stupid jokes. I’ve found that sometimes, it takes more acquired way of thinking to get stupid jokes, than the conventional humor; It takes understanding of irrational thinking; Ok, well, maybe I’ve gone too far, but the fact is that final judgment of a parody boils down to whether you laugh at it or not. Well, you laugh at LG, very much.

Comics relying on humor often fade with time as you get used to a certain type of humor and it doesn’t seem as funny to you in later re-hashing, for one, running jokes became stale. I haven’t seen this effect in LG yet, even though later good jokes are not as regular as at the beginning, they still manage to take a good laugh out of me. True, I read LG in several sittings, while those who read it daily for years might feel different, but I can’t know that. Anyway, LG is a kind of read that is very quotable, that is, it contains quotes that might just became reoccurring in-jokes, would LG became very popular, because they’re funny for themselves, without visual or contextual aid.

Similarly to that, conventional judging isn’t applicable to parodies. Do you think that comics have to have good characterization? But that’s not true for parodies, in fact, sometimes characterization drags down the parody, obviously one-dimensional, cliché characters are often much better actors for parody (with LG, most of characters are a kind of elaborated running gags. As you see them, you know that there is only one thing that can happen to them. Red shirt guy is always going to be killed, stubble guy is always going to be scared of something trivial, doctor is always going to put someone down…) Similarly, stories that work the best in parodies are the ones that are well known, re-hashed: there are a lot of such stories in LG. I consider those better than the others. Other stories are more sitcom-natured, happening mostly on the ship and centering on character quirks during the everyday activities; I consider these sitcom-style stories a bit boring, but I guess they can serve as a break between parody-stories. But it’s all good there.

Now, LG has a steady update for years now and you can say that it’s achievement, but considering that activities that take most time to other webartists are here brought down to taking several snapshots, there’s a clue at how Dusan does it. All in all, it seems like LG takes very little pre-planning, except for building a setting if needed. By pre-planning I consider, first, drafting a script before writing it out, and then planning the layout, camera angles, etc, possibly even making (or thinking up) a storyboard before actually talking shots and assembling them. I see a little of that in LG, and while you could say that parody needs no pre-planning, there are still two complains I could direct regarding this:

First, I don’t think that storylines are properly drained. Sometimes, he cuts a storyline too soon, sometimes you feel that there’s a lot more jokes lying there unspoken, opportunities are missed, sometimes you simply want to see more of it. A bit more organized approach to writing might help there, parody or not. Second thing is related to narrative language used and I’ll elaborate that a bit more later.

Now, visually, the thing that astounds me all the time is Dusan’s resourcefulness, the way he manages to show unexpected things with Legos, certainly limited means no matter how many sets of them you posses. You could call those “Lego-effects”, changes of bodies for a different outfit, changes of head for different expression, and even much more elaborate tricks that Dusan employs, like the one where you see legos in the first plane and a picture of the mountain they’re watching further in the distance. It impressed me to see lego parts that were used only once and in the background (various alien heads in the market, for instance), that shows his sense of measure, as too often and obvious re-using of same parts would probably look cheap. Photoshop effects and usually smooth and fitting, only in a few cases (mostly when they represent speed lines) they’re not.

LG has playfulness, a melancholic feel for people who remained children in soul. It’s like our childhood plays have come alive and with a backstory. Even when characters stumble on to each other clumsily, because their knees don’t bend, or turn over to one side, it still has a feel of the child play. I don’t think Dusan could escape from this even if he wanted to, Legos have their place in pop-culture, which, in return, makes LG’s twist on such familiar theme a sort of pop-art, while, on the other hand, instant recognisability of figures gives a lot to comic’s credibility – our will to believe that those are real characters. Managing all this, while maintaining clever humor and script, is the achievement of GL. It’s possibly a direction to which toy comics should strive in general.

I am practically forced to draw a parallel between “Star bored”, as the other resident SF parody. Comparation makes me realize how SB is West-European humor in nature, as its obvious influences are euro comics that are oriented to parody (“Lucky Luke”, “Umpah Pah” that Bob, strangely, never read) while LG seems, as I said, closest to “Airplane” film parodies. Bob’s humor relies on drama-queen and exaggerated reactions of characters, while LG is given flavour to the fact that the characters are disabled from exaggerating in expressions. In fact, LG characters will say the silliest things while retaining the same straight face, of will go through a horror with the standard grin, and that gives LG a kind of sustained emotion quality, both absurd and contrast (note: absurd is good).

LG is put in a position where its closest relatives in webcomic world are a vast majority of crappy photo comics, either made by kids photographing their action toys or teenagers assembling photos they found on the web. It’s a very unfavorable position because people will mostly want to generalize on photo comics as they do on sprite comics. I don’t really like to reject one medium just like that, I figure, if for instance there’s no good sprite comics (which is debatable), that’s just because there’s no good authors making sprite comics not because sprite comics can’t be good by their nature or something, they’re just too wide category for that. Similarly with photo comics, if you’ve read 10 crappy photo comics and you conclude that all photo comics are crappy, you’re just applying incomplete induction or whatever. LG position here is also unfavorable because, being one of a percentually small number of good photo comics, it is unwillingly put in a position of one of leaders of that genre (both with its script and visual resourcefulness). It doesn’t seem like Dusan’s ambition is to be any sort of leader or to break into new visual territories, but when talking about photo comics, more objective people will bring up best cases of photo comics, so LG will inevitably be brought up. The subject of where photo comics could go further to be accepted as equal among other webcomics, is inevitable so I think I’ll talk about it for a bit now.

It’s mostly a matter of graphic narration or, being that photo comics have some similarities with film, film language. One of Dusan’s great leaps from average photo comic is his variation of camera positions, slight zooming or unzooming, rotation of camera around the scene, occasional close shots that work as well as a parody of standard film close cuts (as the face here, shows no expression). Camera angle, though, changes almost never, something I’ll go back to a bit later. Needles to say, this is a big step from comics made with webcam in a fixed position, where nearly nothing is done to give credibility to the sight that is photographed. Which is another big step that Dusan makes, as he gives his best (beyond Lego limitations) to give his scenes credibility. He never lets object from outside of the scene peak into the shot, thus giving hint of real size of his characters, he always fills the scene with credible, lego-made background, all in all you can believe in what’s happening and not for one moment you’ll even ask yourself whether Dusan is keeping his legos on table, on floor, what his room looks like, you’ll never know what colour his wallpapers are.

There’s one thing that steps in the way of credibility, and that’s where I come back to camera angles. Namely, most if not all of LG is shot from the upper angle, looking down at the scene. This is a major give-away at the real size of LG characters and setting, we are watching them from above, thus we know they are much smaller than us. This is too bad, I believe that the impression would be much stronger were we at the same plane as they are (I don’t know how possible this would be, though, I was never actually trying to take a shot of such small objects) – that doesn’t exclude upper angles, but you know what such shot means in film: it usually gives impression that characters shot from above are being watched by the outsider, and that’s actually the overall impression in LG – that we are outsiders watching at those characters from the same, but ambivalent distance. Is this impression good or not? On one side, there is playfulness that I was mentioning earlier, which is supported by this upper view at the world, because we are put in position of the person who plays with toys. On the other hand, if he wanted to make his stories more convincing, he’d have to step back from it and do a bit more experimenting. It’s his decision, and I don’t think the results would be bad in either case.

If it was my comic, however, I’d vote for experimenting, if nothing, because it’d take comic to territory that noone evaded before. For the sake of mind-chewing, I will now consider in which direction this experimenting could go:

I’d like to see more classic film language, or to call it that way, film trickery in photo comics. To explain, film language is, as you all know, full of tricks. Two characters might seem to talk to each other even if two actors playing them never met in real life. Their shots might’ve been taken separately and then edited together. Film is to me similar to a magician’s show: you know it’s a trick but, by coming to the show, you accept being tricked. Even more, because of the wit and skills with which the tricks are performed, you feel even more joy than if he was performing the real magic. That, to me, is the essence of the film and if I was to consider the further development of photo comics, I would point to that direction. We have examples of this in said resourcefulness of LG: take, for instance, if an artist draws a fire. Big deal, he drew a fire, fire is not so hard to draw – one way or the other, all you need is a pencil and paper. When Dusan sets a fire, you notice that it is a particular lego piece that represents the fire. I think I could find better examples of this, but the point is there: you see that it’s a plastic fire-piece, you accept that it is a real fire because it’s credible. The fact that it’s obvious that it’s a plastic piece is like when a magician tells you how he does his trick, and then you enjoy it even more, because the trick was very clever. It is a kind of impression that you get in Dusan’s tricks too, helped by the fact that you can actually say how he did it. But in his place, I would go even further:

Take camera angles. I haven’t seen anything shot in lower angle yet, but would he want to, for instance, make a scene with lego giant, he’d have to shoot a lego figure from above and the impression that the figure is a giant could be credible. He’d need a pair of giant feet if he wants to shoot him in the same shot with normal people.

Other example: LG is most literally a comic without 4th wall. That is, all rooms have no 4th wall because that’s the wall Dusan is taking photos through. But in a few instances, he did give a 4th wall, specifically in cases when his crew talks with an alien through a screen. How does he do it when there’s no actual 4th wall? Well, of course, he shoots a wall that is separate from the rest of the scene, and the central figures that he keeps in front of the wall, support the impression of spatial unity. Dusan could use this more often to avoid that 3 walls impression that his comic has: by building opposite “walls” (could be landscapes, even) of the scene separate and then shooting them against each other, switching shots of those two parts and making an impression that everything is just the part of one big scene. I think I’d flip off if I saw this being a part of usual narrative language in a photo comic (as I said, in LG this happens just occasionally).

Then there’s a matter of lightning. In LG, light always comes from above, a little on the side, probably camera’s flash. I’ve seen this actually look good in a few cases, like when character is standing in frond of the wall and his shadow is behind him, on the wall, but in most of cases, I think that LG misses on a lot of expressiveness that it could have, would the light source be a bit more deliberately placed. Perhaps Dusan could experiment with them if he was making stories where light is more important (like stories with horror elements). This, then, makes me think of possibilities of lenses, filters, etc, but this would be far out of the reach of ordinary, house-made photo comic. I suppose if Stanley Kubrick ever made photo comics, he’d use those as well ;)

Close shots get a bit blurry, I’m not sure you can actually make them sharp unless you have manual objective, I remember trying to shoot something very close once and getting a blurry image. In one instance, Dusan gets a very blurry character but the background behind him is sharp. My impression was that this was not intentional. Automatic objectives have a sort of, hm, invisible concentrated ray that measures the distance of the object and lets the objective length to that. Ray usually goes from the center of the objective; In this case, center point wasn’t containing the character, ray fell on the background and sharpened to it instead of to character.

Oh, yeah, I loved double-exposition shots, even if they were made in Photoshop (I can’t tell).

I generally think that layout format of 4 equal panels is rather static. Such layout requires very dynamic content of panels to avoid looking dull from times to times, which is, in LG case, tough. With no sizeable panels, or even circular ones for close cuts, Dusan in forced to feature entire scene with all characters in it every time, unless he goes for a rather close cut. With sizeable panels, he’s be able to avoid that, to show just one character, a detail, or even to skip on background sometimes which might, in return, make more centered and elegant pages.

Also, LG could use a bit smoother speech bubbles.

But as I said, Dusan shows little will to experiment, and maybe he shouldn’t, at least as long as he has material for what is going on now. His intention is simply to play with Legos, and that’s mostly what playfulness and spontaniousness of the comic comes from. Also, if he decided to indulge into more complicated layout or script, it might take him significantly more time. I’m not sure if most of his readers would prefer experimenting over a steady update.


At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i must say that i am deeply impressed with the amount of detail you put into your review. i have been reading legostar since it started and i think that you have given it the praise that it deserves

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a link form legostar that I followed to this site!

At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He could also bother to check his spelling.


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