Category Archives: Visual Storytelling

Review: CRASH COURSE by Woodrow Phoenix, published by Street Noise Books

CRASH COURSE by Woodrow Phoenix

Crash Course. by Woodrow Phoenix. Street Noise Books. Brooklyn, New York , 2020, $16.99.

Woodrow Phoenix provides a compelling case against the automobile in Crash Course, a work in comics. This is an excellent example of the power of the comics medium. Phoenix masterfully distills his argument into images and concise text that engage the reader. Phoenix drives home the point that cars are a devil’s bargain. Whether you own one or not, we all have to live with them, the price to pay for civilization. Phoenix filters brilliant facts, examples and accounts into an artful framework that ensures it will resonate and be retained by the reader. This is what the power of comics, and the world of visual storytelling, is all about. Cars! So easy to be seduced by them. Cars! So easy to be killed by them. Cars are easily turned into weapons, by accident or intentionally.

Page from CRASH COURSE

Our life with cars is indeed complicated. We’ve become so dependent upon them. Our daily routine, our everyday environment, is dominated by cars. Phoenix keeps his narrative streamlined and accessible. There are no abrupt detours. Phoenix provides a smooth path as he presents facts and commentary, both thoughtful and artful. It’s quite literally a smooth path as all humans have been eliminated from this narrative. We’re just left with empty streets, parking lots and freeways. Phoenix really gets into the head of the reader and provides some priceless observations like this: “Drivers get frustrated when pedestrians fail to behave with appropriate gratitude and deference for being allowed on a street. Pedestrians should not dawdle. Pedestrians should cross streets as quickly as possible. Hurry up. Run. Listen, it’s for their own safety.” Mix this with some cold hard facts: “City planners and traffic engineers are responsible for our entire transit environment. But in practice that means one thing. ‘Providing roadway conditions that contribute to smooth and efficient traffic flow. Flow. Flow is what it’s all about. Keep the traffic moving. A wide, clear, straight street is a good street. But people on foot or on bicycles barely register as traffic. They are slow, erratic, unpredictable, inconvenient impediments to flow.”

Panel excerpt from CRASH COURSE

As an avid pedestrian, I was really taken with this book. I prefer to walk. I like to take long walks, barefoot when possible. I’ll do my best to find some peace and time for reflection during a walk but usually not for very long. Soon enough, I’ll be interrupted by whatever I have to do next involving a car. Either it’s a car idling in a carport on the verge of pulling out. Or a car at a stop sign with the driver taking a phone break. Or a crosswalk that may or may not be acknowledged. When I was a kid, I saw this brilliant animated short that depicted a world completely run by cars, or at least that’s what it looked like to the intergalactic visitors observing Earth. That’s how I feel sometimes: the world is run by cars and we humans are only grudgingly tolerated. Woodrow Phoenix would appear to agree. However, it was a bit of a shock to discover at the very end of this book that Phoenix not only owns a car, he owns a sporty Mini Cooper One. Well, life is complicated. Phoenix didn’t have to reveal that but I’m glad that he did. I understand.

Panel excerpt from CRASH COURSE

Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car is a 208-page fully illustrated trade paperback, available starting August 4, 2020. For more information, visit Street Noise Books right here.

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Movie Sketchnote Review: ‘Parasite’

Cramped Quarters

Would I have seen Parasite differently if I’d never heard of it and I’d simply stumbled upon it? I believe that I would have recognized it as something unique. But how high would my praise have gone? The important thing now is to go see it! Part of the point of the movement for change at the Academy Awards is to shake up the playing field and reconsider what makes for great cinema. Looking back on the Oscars, I see now how painfully obvious it would have been for 1917 to have won for Best Picture. It certainly delivered the goods but all too much in an Old Hollywood tradition. Director Bong Joon-ho is, of course, well-versed in and part of a new generation that is upturning the status quo. It’s all about mashing up genres and exuberant irreverence. While 1917 is in the great anti-war spirit, Parasite is as disruptive as the best work by another fellow cultural rebel, Jordan Peele. As is the case with many movies that take on an iconic status, you can read all sorts of things into Parasite. Many people, without having seen it, believe it is a movie about the need to care for others. I’m sure that Bong Joon-ho would be the first to laugh at the irony over some of the platitudes being said about his horror fable. Yes, there is social commentary. But, in the end, it is an artful, and highly entertaining, story told well.

Spacious Elegance

It is the contrast between the poverty-stricken Kim family and the ultra-rich Park family that is the linchpin to this tale. We begin with the Kim family and find mother, father, and teen daughter and son literally hunched over in their tiny decrepit basement apartment. Played for laughs, we see them as they struggle to catch a free Wi-Fi signal from a neighbor. They are so starved for space that even the bathroom works as a suitable meeting area. In fact, it might be one of the bigger spaces as all functionality has been pushed up against a wall. You need to walk up some steps in order to reach the open toilet that rests just a few feet below the ceiling. Fast forward a bit and we see that the Kim family has set their sights on exploiting the wealthy Park family. First, it’s the son who lands a job as a tutor and, from there, it all spirals out of control as the whole family takes over each remaining staff position. It is a splendid caper that allows the Kim family to, at least, have a taste of the good life. Representing the best is the Park’s home, built by a famous architect and the ultimate in spacious elegance.

Going Underground

The story takes a decidedly grisly turn once the plot goes underground and focuses on activity in the Park’s secret bunker. Like any good horror movie, Parasite is by degrees turning up the heat in the frog kettle. Without spoiling a thing, it’s safe to say that this is a tale of one thing leading to another and then another and the consequences that arise. One by one, each of the Kim family members must confront what lives in the basement. If not for their own scheming, the Kim family could have remained blissfully poor and naive and all the better for it. But sometimes you gain wisdom once it’s too late. The rich Park family aren’t villains, even if they think the Kims smell of damp old rags. The Kim family only needs to look in the mirror to see the true culprits.

Basking in Luxury

The rich are not like you and me, so said F. Scott Fitzgerald, in one of the most celebrated lines of fiction. Bong Joon-ho enjoys his take on it with gleeful passion. While much has been said about the one percent versus the rest of us theme attached to this movie, another aspect is simply human folly. The rich, just like anyone else, can be utterly duped. The reason it’s important when it happens to the rich is pretty obvious. There’s money to be made from human vanity and ignorance. A perfect example in the movie is when so much is made of the Park family’s little boy who has aspirations to becoming the next Jean-Michel Basquiat. A obviously splapdash painting hangs in a hallway there as a shrine. It is definitely not lost on Bong Joon-ho that Jean-Michel Basquiat himself remains a bit of a mixed bag of authentic artistic genius and oversaturated superstardom. Jean-Michel Basquiat provides a cautionary example not only to the viewer but to the celebrated movie director as well.

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Movie Sketchnote Review: ‘1917’

A story told in the trenches.

1917 is a movie that brings World War I to life, a story told in the trenches and meant to be sobering. Early scenes in the film are looking down into the trenches. The humble title sets the tone for a narrative that focuses the viewer on a specific time, place, and protagonist. This is a journey that one soldier must take in order to save a battalion of 1,600 men. The battalion is being ordered to stand down in order to avoid an enemy trap and two soldiers have been tasked as couriers to send that message.

Crouching toward the goal.

Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) never expected such a dangerous, and pivotal, assignment but there he is, paired with another soldier (Dean-Charles Chapman) who he doesn’t really care for. But any callow sentiment is quickly wiped away once the race is on. As the two move above ground, they can’t help but remain low, crouching toward their goal. It’s not long before Schofield loses his teammate and the focus tightens upon the determination of one man.

Schofield’s silhouette often holds together the composition of scenes.

Designed to play out in the form of a single, extended, endlessly mobile shot, 1917 is visually stunning, bringing The Great War into brilliant 21st century relevance. No, we are not at all that different from our early 20th century ancestors, even with our technological superiority and cultural awakening. Bravery is the overriding theme. Schofield is the unlikely hero who is but a little cog in a system. It has been foisted upon him to do the right thing and that will only happen if he follows his conscience and precisely follows orders. Now, the camera moves closer on Schofield and his silhouette often holds together the composition of scenes.

Schofield retains the grace of the understated hero.

Director Sam Mendes pays tribute to his grandfather’s exploits in this epic film. Both Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns were guided by family war stories. The narrative is, by all measures, epic in the extreme. Influenced by the lore found in some of the best in cinema, literature, and even video games, this is a movie packed to the gills with intensity, a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows. Sandwiched between two heart-wrenching scenes of mortal combat, there’s even a quiet moment when Schofield stumbles upon a mother and child quietly surviving in the shadows. This tender scene inspires Schofield to sing a few lines from Edward Lear: “On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day, In a Sieve they went to sea!” Not long after that, Schofield himself is fighting the mighty life-threatening river currents. No doubt, this is a movie that can get caught up in its own grandiloquence. And yet, through it all, Schofield remains the stalwart understated hero and preserves for this epic film the irresistible charm of a fable. For all its grandeur, 1917 manages to retain a great sense of humility. Among its many influences is the classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, a story that is decidedly humble. Within this big epic film resides a modest human heart.

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Sketchnotes: Senate Trial 23 Jan 2020: Donald Trump vs. Val Demings

A split-screen of Demings and Trump.

A highlight from today: presentation by house manager, and retired law enforcement officer, Rep. Val Demings. She focused on the machinations of Rudy Giuliani as he worked to pressure Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky to announce Biden investigations. At one point during the NBC News broadcast coverage, there was a split-screen of Demings and Trump arriving in Miami for one of his rallies. What is particularly interesting about this moment is that there is talk of Demings as the vice presidential running mate for the Democratic ticket in 2020. Demings, by the way, is from Florida, a most consequential state come election time. Ironically, Trump was heading to Miami during the Demings presentation.

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Book Review and Comics Digest: BLOWOUT by Rachel Maddow

Blowout by Rachel Maddow

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, by Rachel Maddow, published by Crown, 432 pages, $30.00.

Blowout, a comics digest, by Henry Chamberlain

If you want to understand something about how the world works, then a must-read is Blowout, by Rachel Maddow. It doesn’t matter what your politics are for this book to make an impact. Maddow drags out some major skeletons in the closet into the light of day on a global scale. In this case, we’re talking about our relationship with fossil fuels, which isn’t much better than our relationship with nuclear energy. Maddow guides the reader up and down this perilous rollercoaster journey. Anyone familiar with The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC knows that Maddow favors an in-depth approach that connects all the dots. For me, someone who often finds it helpful to “doodle” and combine concise words and images, Blowout proves to be an excellent subject to dissect.

Close-up of comics. First panel.

It is through the process of creating comics, storyboarding, and visual storytelling, activities that I’m very familiar with, that incredibly powerful facts can bubble up to the surface. I’ll jump ahead right now and tell you, with all the relevant news going on as I write this, that facts are facts and it’s important to pin them down. I point your direction to the comic that is presented here that I created focusing on Rex Tillerson, a prime example of how those in power, left unchecked, demand and grab even more power, as much power as possible. I also created an info-mural that gives an overview of the whole Blowout book. That said, this comic adds some finer precision to make a point. It’s as one digs deeper, connects those dots, that those facts bubble up that need to be pinned down and examined. At a time when we’ve heard so much about finding the ultimate “smoking gun,” when one news cycle is drowned out by another, I point you to the fact that, once in office, the Trump administration hurriedly did whatever it could to remove sanctions on Russia. But Congress acted in a bipartisan manner and shutdown any attempt to remove these sanctions. However, Congress looked the other way on another related matter, getting rid of Section 1504 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.

There are very real consequences to letting Big Oil bullies, like ExxonMobil do at they please. Section 1504, the much despised safety valve to help curb corruption, that the Trump administration successfully pushed Congress to make disappear was there to try to turn back the Resource Curse. When countries find themselves with vast amounts of valuable resources, like oil and gas, it is the corrupt power players who win and the citizens who lose. There’s no trickle down effect! Nope, it’s just a dictator and his family with cash to burn. As is pointed out in Blowout, the 1504 measure was only trying to fix a very messed up system:

It’s worth repeating what the late Republican senator Richard Lugar wrote when he sponsored the measure: “When oil revenue in a producing country can be easily tracked, that nation’s elite are more likely to use revenues for the vital needs of their citizens and less likely to squander newfound wealth for self-aggrandizing projects.” Lugar has also been clear-eyed about the cost to the United States of allowing corrupt government actors in those countries to consistently fail their own citizens. The Resource Curse, Lugar wrote, “exacerbates global poverty which can be a seedbed for terrorism, it dulls the effect of our foreign assistance, it empowers autocrats and dictators, and it can crimp the world petroleum supplies by breeding instability.”

Somehow, that wasn’t a compelling enough argument for Rex Tillerson or Donald Trump.

Panel 2

Maddow begins connecting the dots with John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company and we end up with Rex Tillerson and ExxonMobil. The first oil strike, the big bang that set it all into motion, was on August 28, 1859, long before there were any cars but not before a profit motive had been established. Fast forward to our own times, ExxonMobil, a descendant of Standard Oil, reigns supreme as the most profitable business in the world. Going back to John D Rockefeller, big oil has always felt entitled to do as it pleases, by whatever means. With Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil had the perfect CEO, both savvy and ruthless. As Maddow points out with great detail, Tillerson had no qualms about who he built a relationship with, including a very cozy one with Vladimir Putin, even if it put lives in danger. As Tillerson explains, if he could get away with something that favored ExxonMobil, then he was going to do it:

“Was there any country in the world whose record of civil rights was so horrible, or whose conduct was so directly a threat to global security or U.S. national security interests, that Exxon wouldn’t do business with it?” Rex was asked during an official U.S. Senate investigation. “The standard that is applied is, first, ‘Is it legal?'” he replied. “Does it violate any of the laws of the United States to conduct business with that particular country? Then, beyond that, it goes to the question of the country itself. Do they honor contract sanctity?” Contract sanctity, that’s the top. Below that, it’s all negotiable.

And it is Rex Tillerson who ends up becoming Secretary of State, at least for a while.

Panel 3

Once the genie was let out of the bottle, humans developed a rather disordered relationship with oil…and its close cousin, natural gas. When oil reserves became less of an easy grab, it was natural gas that seemed to be the energy alternative we’d all been looking for. Except natural gas was never really such an easy grab. Accessing it involves a process popularly known as “fracking,” which is highly disruptive and has resulted in a record number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, a darling of the fracking industry, and a region where earthquakes were nearly nonexistent. This is a thread in our story that travels the globe as more and more regions experience fracking–and subsequent environmental damage. From that already toxic mix, you can add rampant corruption inextricably linked to the search for oil and gas. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Maddow maintains a steady narrative pace, all the better to make sense of it all. For instance, let’s not overlook for a minute the significance of Ukraine which figures prominently in Putin’s designs for dominance. The plan had been to keep Ukraine dependent upon Russian natural gas–but then Ukraine discovered gas of its own. No matter, Ukraine had to bend its knee or it would be broken. The truth was that, ever since the break up of the Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine wished to be free. Instead, Putin inserted his gangsters, like Dmitry Firtash, to maintain control:

There was a pile of money to be made in natural gas in Ukraine, so there were plenty of very interested parties. Firtash had to be able to deal with bankers, pols, and, most important, organized crime bosses. All of them well armed. All of them locked in a dangerous and uneasy partnership that sometimes proved fatal for the unluckiest. Firtash knew certain dinner invitations could come with a side order of assassination. Even into the early years of the twenty-first century, the natural gas business was still operating by “the law of the streets,” Firtash explained to the U.S. ambassador of Ukraine. “It was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member,” Firtash said. He did what he had to do.

Panel 4

As many of my readers have come to appreciate, I aspire to the high standards of the auteur cartoonist, the artist-writer who processes compelling information into concise words and images. It is something I’ve done on some level as far back as I can remember. Sometimes, I can’t help myself and will take a riveting read and write a full-on prose review. And then there are times when some sort of “comics digest” is in order. So, I’ve taken some key moments in Blowout and turned them into what amounts to an info-mural. You can see the whole layout to my info-mural by viewing the video below.

Maybe I got something out of my system for now. I provide this without a focus either to the right or to the left. I sincerely believe that we only need to look back to the dark days of Watergate to see how a crisis, mired in polarizng politics, can inevitably lead to a consensus that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed, for the sake of not only one country but for the world at large. Looking beyond fossil fuels, we need to embrace renewable energy sources now more than ever. It wasn’t that long ago that an electric car seemed to only be a futuristic dream. Now, it’s common. We can do it.

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Trump Impeachment 4 December 2019: Some Visual Storytelling Notes

High Crimes and Misdemeanors

Prof. Jonathan Turley says that there might indeed be a case to be made for impeachment but that the process is moving too quickly. That’s definitely a big takeaway and speaks to the highly partisan nature of the house hearings. Turley also pointed out that it takes time for the public to catch up. If that is the best argument against pursuing impeachment, it certainly begs the question, How can abuses of power really be ignored?

Prof. Noah Feldman

Today’s hearings offer a great amount of historical information and insights. The four constitutional scholars who testified today: Noah Feldman, Pamela S. Karlan, Michael Gerhardt, and Jonathan Turley.

Prof. Pamela S. Karlan

Three professors came out in full agreement that President Trump has abused power and that it reaches the level of impeachment. Prof. Turley disagreed only to the extent that the process of impeachment is running too quickly.

Prof. Michael Gerhardt

If you were looking for something that might hit you in the gut with a common sense approach, Prof. Karlan offered this analogy: “Let’s say there’s a state dealing with a disaster like Hurricane Katrina and the governor is on the phone with the president. What would you think if the president tells that governor that he will get federal aid but, first, he has to do him a favor and dig up dirt on his political rival?”

Prof. Jonathan Turley

It’s not easy keeping up with the news. And the impeachment hearings are incredibly worthy of the public attention. Prof. Turley is saying that the public needs time to finally pay attention. It’s an argument that Republicans are willing to accept. Only time, precious time, will tell if that argument is enough.

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