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Color and Violence in Cucumber Quest

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

I follow or have followed a great many webcomics over the years, and even before this week’s run of strips, I would have felt comfortable saying that Gigi D.G., creator of Cucumber Quest, had far and away the greatest mastery of color of any of them. But the three most recent strips as of this writing show her stepping up her already insanely formidable game, and it’s worth looking at in more detail to examine how her colors advance the story.

The first strip is part of a transitional interlude between arcs. The last of the strip’s major baddies has just been defeated, and our heroes are on their way to the next kingdom to battle the next villain and win back the next Disaster Stone, as per the JRPG-like checklist of Cucumber Quest’s plot. (It’s not that simple, of course, but in broad strokes that’s what’s happening.) The last two times the protagonists needed to travel quickly, a strange young rabbit named Cosmo showed up with a convenient new invention to take them to their destination. Cosmo’s back here too, in the first strip of this triptych, and the first few panels are in Cucumber Quest’s typical palette of bright pastels, signifying business as usual.

But something is different about Cosmo’s appearance this time, andt he first sign is the way all the color drops out of the background between panels five and six. Cosmo is still standing in the same position, but the blue sky and white clouds have abruptly been replaced with solid black. In addition, whereas in panel five they were standing with the sun lighting the back of their head from outside, in panel six they’re being lit with a bright blue glow from below, visible on the crest of their hair and the curve of their cheek. (Probably this has something to do with the alarming dissipation of his arm into floating pixels, but we’re still talking about the color scheme here.) The blue glow is permeating the tips of their fingers in panel seven as they continues to dissolve, and in panels eight and nine we can see that it’s coming from a solid shaft of blue seemingly spiriting Cosmo away entirely.

Note also that in panel nine, the background has changed again: though it’s no longer solid black, it’s also not reverted to the “realistic” blues and whites of the sky. Both backgrounds have been replaced by a set of thick, angular, dark-hued lines, setting the stage for the next two strips of the sequence.

The next page is forcible end of the usual CQ pastels, a process you can see happening in panel 2 as Nautilus’ normal coloration is being actively overwritten by the new color scheme that’s already taken Cucumber and Almond behind her. We’re now into a vastly simplified palette of simple neon outlines against a solid black background. All other shading and color has been eliminated; where Cucumber used to have green clothing and orange hair, now both he and his sister are reduced to empty purple lines. Notice that the coloring isn’t consistent, though: Almond is a light blue by panel five, and Nautilus and Cucumber take turns being red in the last few panels.

(Metatextually, this effect is reminiscent of the color palette found in the town of Moonside in the SNES cult classic Earthbound. The dialogue balloons of the new arrival are similarly formatted as that game’s text windows. Since his theme seems to be glitches and corruption, the visual cues of that jarringly off-kilter city from the game are a good fit.)

The new arrival on this page, by contrast, is not bound by the newly corrupted color palette, signifying that they’re in control here. Though their body is mostly solid black, the cloud of smoke they inhabit gets the usual Cucumber Quest pastels of blue and purple, though applied in an unusual way. The cloud is made up entirely of squarish blotches of color, echoing the solid rectangles of the dialogue balloons and the angled lines of the new background. When the new arrival conjures up an image in panel six, it gets the same treatment.

And then we reach the third page of this sequence. The introduction of the red glow off the palm of the hand in panel two is the first warning sign here, carried into the matching red of the word “annihilation” in the word balloon. The red gathers in panel four, beginning to dominate the background, until it explodes into a frenzy of red action in the remainder of the page.

A brief word on violence on Cucumber Quest: it’s always short and non-graphic. Though the strip draws a number of tropes from Japanese console RPGs, which are known for thousands and thousands of battles over the course of the game, real fights in Cucumber Quest are few and characterized by brief exchanges of decisive blows. The heroes’ epic battle with Splashmaster devoted more time to a limbo contest than Almond decisively hacking the fiend apart, and when it came to fight the tag-team duo of Noisemaster and Mutemaster, they were themselves quickly defeated at a few strokes from the villains.

All of which makes what happens in the second half of the third strip on display here so shocking. The stark red and white jagged lines show a level of violence never before depicted in Cucumber Quest; it feels like the whole palette change has been leading up to this one brutal moment. But if you look very carefully, it’s the color doing all the work. There’s no blood here, no one getting pierced or skewered, despite the masses of red and the chaos of sharp white lines. The artifacted color bands that you mistake for gore are just another corruption effect like the simplified palettes and chunky, pixelated word balloons. The red and white “spears” raining down are actually speed lines showing that the entire room is now in motion. Carrot and Cucumber look like they’re in pain, true, but it’s the color fooling the eye into thinking they might be dying.

Back at the start of Chapter 2, when Noisemaster burst onto the scene in huge swaths of garish day-glo, I didn’t think Gigi D.G. could top herself. This scene in the interlude has proven me wrong, and I’m so glad for that, and I can’t wait to see how she’ll top herself next.

A Wrinkle in Time

Monday, October 8th, 2012

I was talking with a friend about old children’s books just yesterday, and she mentioned that one of my favorites, A Wrinkle in Time, had just been adapted by Hope Larson into the graphic novel format. And then today, I happened across a copy at a bookstore while trading in some old books. So this review seemed as fated to happen as Meg and Charles Wallace meeting with Calvin at Mrs. Whatsit’s house.

There’s not much to say about the story, partly because Larson is borrowing it from Madeline L’Engle and partly because it’s so widely known. But in case you didn’t read it as a child: it’s an implicitly Christian story, like the Narnia series, in the way that it deals with virtue, vice, and temptation without explicitly casting the characters as Christian or even mentioning God. (Though I didn’t know it when I was younger, it actually owes more of a debt to Lewis’ Space Trilogy than to his Narnia books. I’d highly recommend The Space Trilogy to any Narnia fans, since it was written for adults, touches on more interesting themes, and has avoids what Neil Gaiman refers to as “The Problem of Susan.”) Also like Lewis, L’Engle expertly creates a world where the heroes are simply smarter, more interesting, and more enjoyable to spend time with than the villains, who are all suffocating dullness.

Larson’s version is a superb adaptation, though. The two challenges a graphical adaptation of a prose work faces are to depict through art, composition, and panel layout what is explicitly stated in the written word, and to make choices about what remains not explicitly stated in the written word yet must necessarily be a part of any depiction of the same scene. Larson’s strength in both areas is her expressive faces and character design. The precocious Charles Wallace, whose great failing in the book is being too sure of his own abilities, frequently wears a smug, sly expression when dealing with people outside his own family, which Meg responds to with obvious exasperation and rolled eyes.

Meg, the book’s protagonist, is especially well handled. In one of the book’s best touches, Larson picks up on L’Engle having established that Meg was in a fight to defend Charles Wallace and gives Meg a bruise under her eye. In Larson’s graphic adaptation, the bruise becomes a constant presence in the story and a visual shorthand for Meg’s open emotional wounds about her brother, her father, and herself. The bruise only heals toward the end of the book in the care of Aunt Beast, shortly before Meg comes into her own as the story’s heroine.

If Larson’s adaptation has any drawbacks, it’s the sometimes stiff poses, as well as the clash between her impressionistic style and some of the more sci-fi aspects of the book. While she does a great job with Aunt Beast’s race and Mrs. Whatsit’s true form, some of the extraplanetary landscapes that the children visit don’t feel quite as alien as a reader’s imagination might have rendered them, and the stark, inhuman perfection of the Central Intelligence Center doesn’t come across as well in Larson’s style.

Still, the point comes across clearly enough, and the adaptation excels in so many other ways that harping on one or pages’ worth of art in the book feels like nitpicking. (Most of the book is set on Earth or the very Earth-like Camazotz, anyway.) Reading it, especially in these serendipitous circumstances, felt like a gift, and I thank Ms. Larson for the chance to see an old favorite in a new light.

Please stand by

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Technical difficulties (involving my scanner crapping out) have put a damper on updates here, but I should have a replacement fairly soon. In the meantime, enjoy some pretty pictures.

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