A Certain Scientific Railgun Volume 5

Storytellers: Story by Kazuma Kamachi, art by Motoi Fuyukawa
Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment
Year of Publication: 2010
Page Count: Approximately 175 pages

What I learned about Writing/Storytelling:
1.  One of a writer’s most important jobs is finding an interesting way to tell a scene, this is possibly their most important job. I want to demonstrate with a four page excerpt from A Certain Scientific Railgun.

Here’s some background on the story: our heroine is a girl named Misaka, who carries the nickname “The Railgun”. She has power over electricity, which means, among other things, she can move metal like Magneto or Static. In this volume, she’s broken into a laboratory facility with the goal of stopping science experiments on human subjects.  The scientists, expecting her arrival, have hired a team of female assassins to stop her. One of the assassins has booby trapped the place with bombs.

In this sequence, Misaka is crossing a stairway over a chasm, and the booby trap goes off:
Railgun scene page 1
Railgn scene page 2
Railgun scene page 3
Railgun scene page 4

What’s interesting here is it shifts perspective from the hero to the villain.  We begin with the perspective of the hero is in pursuit of the bad guy. Point of view shifts to the bad guy, waiting for her trap to go off. As it goes off, we shift back to the hero, surprised at the trap.  Shift to the villain, pleased with herself as the trap goes off. She hears some metal pieces crashing onto the ground, and assumes her trap has worked.  We stay with her as she is shocked to learn that the hero has survived. By shifting perspective, the creative team has discovered an interesting way to tell the event.

What a lesser writer might have done is stick with the hero throughout the scene, maybe have some sort of thought bubble over her head “Oh no, a trap has gone off…. if I can just use my control of electricity to magnetize the metal…..”  That would be serviceable to communicate what is happening, but be lacking in drama. By changing the point of view, we follow the character having the most dramatic reaction at any given moment in time. If things are more dramatic from the villain’s POV, go there.

You can even shift perspective on the same page, as they do in this sequence, as the hero and a supervillain realize they have similar superpowers:

railgun power level same type as mine

Incidentally, this shows a seemingly RANDOM switch between thought balloons (or whatever you call those shiny manga things) and spoken out loud dialogue. I’ve thought about it, and I figure what is happening is that the artist simply chooses whichever type of balloon he feels blends with the art at any given moment.  Internal monologue and speaking out loud are seemingly interchangeable for this type of scene.

This style is pretty much as far from the formalism of my favorite writers, Alan Moore, as possible. While Moore and his collaborators are concerned with structure and consistency, meticulously creating a story out of a specific set of devices, A Certain Scientific Railgun has a more relaxed approach to storytelling. “Does the thought bubble look better here than the narrative box?  Ok, draw it that way!”

if you dig deeper, however, there are some similarities in terms of craft.  A big part of Alan Moore’s style is elaborate set ups for scene to scene transitions. This book sometimes sets up transitions as well, but it doesn’t draw attention to what it’s doing the way a device like a close up on a puddle with a reflection of a sign that mirrors the black freighter logo of a comic within the comic, or whatever:

Railgun scene she says one more down guy says and only two facilities to go

After destroying a bad guy’s facility, she says “One more down…” but the sentence is continued by the bad guy in the next scene, saying “… and only two facilities to go.”  So, there’s definitely narrative tools being used here here, but it’s a more relaxed, less showy sort of craft.
One notable thing about the page above is it uses the last panel to start the next scene.  Moore virtually always shifts on the page turn, and most other writers seem to do it that way as well, so this is a bit unusual from an American comics perspective.

Here’s another example of an author picking a dramatic “hook” for a scene:

Railgun Misaka being badass

How would a lesser writer depict this scene?  They’d probably have the hero say something banal like “I’m off to save the day!” A mediocre artist might give us a grid of identically shaped panels with paint by numbers long shots.

This team team makes things interesting by giving us a BIG heroic strut and this badass exchange:
“Do you really believe you can take them all out?”
“Do you have any idea who I am?”  (The response makes sense if you are aware that the main character is one of the most powerful super powered people in the world of the story.)

One final page: Check this out:

Railgun lobbing powers back and forth

The climactic battle in this volume plays out like a tennis match, with the hero and villain shooting powers back and forth. Both characters are perfectly matched. In this page, Misaka lobs a doll containing a bomb at the villain, the villain disables it with her blast power, Misaka acknowledges this and prepares to try a different move. The person who is gaining the upper hand goes back and fourth during the battle.  Thoughts are used to show the emotional reactions of the characters, but not to give out what move they plan to do next.

I don’t recall reading long, extended, strategic badass scenes like this in American comics.

Some observations about the art:
1.  When composing the panel, there is no requirement to show the whole head. As long as you get at least an eye in shot, you seem to be good.  Look at the four page booby trap sequence above: Page 1 panel 2 of the sequence shows less than the whole face in order to get a BIG image to the right. The artists seems to do this a lot, small partial head shots in order to get room for BIG PANELS that convey dramatic action. These partial head views have the added benefit of providing variety, but the artist makes sure to give us the long shot images that show where the characters stand in physical space in relation to each other as well.

2.  Close up shots with a changed texture (often dots, sometimes lines) are used to signify emotion, usually shock or surprise. You see this on the booby trap sequence on page 2 panel 2 or page 3 panel 4.

Recommendation: A

This comic is absolutely not for everyone. For one thing, it’s can get pervy at times, in the way that only manga can. Its a mixed genre book that has plotlines that do not always contain a solid amount of action or adventure.  There’s a good review of volume 1 of the series, discussing its pervy aspects, here.

That said, I like it, and for the masterful craftsmanship on display here, I give Railgun volume 5 an ”A”.

Witch and Wizard

Storytellers: Svetlana Chmakova and Gabrielle Charbonnet, adapted from the novel by James Patterson.
Publisher: Yen Press
Year of Publication: 2011
Page Count: 256 pages

What I learned about Writing/Storytelling:

1.  You can sometimes slip values into your story without being preachy.

2.  This book contains another example of starting with an opening hook then cutting back before the opening scene. In this case the narrator uses the phrase “But I’m getting ahead of myself” and then it cuts back.  Here’s the first page of the book:





3. What’s cliche to me may not come off that way to young readers experiencing these tropes for the first time.

What I learned about art/storytelling:
1.  Here  you have characters talking to each other, but it’s not a two shot, it’s just angled on both characters one at a time but you can tell they are looking at each other:


It’s probably best done with similarly sized panels that are on the same row. I’m not sure if there’ any other trick to it.

2.  On the final two panels of this page, the first half of the death sentence is a zoomed out shot, but they zoom in for the second half,  providing shading to convey emotion:


3.  Body language and facial expressions are important. (And this artist fails at it, more on that below.

4.  Aspect to aspect establishing shots are neat. Rather than one by the book opening big panel, we have several panels showing different aspects of a scene.  It’s a tried and true manga device, but it works well:


Recommendation: C

So, this odd thing was heavily promoted at Barnes and Nobles with a rack in the front of the store.  I purchased it on impulse. The plot is basically, “What if Harry Potter was the X-men?” Children with magic powers are rounded up for being different.  And there’s a Voldemort type bad guy who controls the government, so he’s also like Palpatine in Star Wars, I guess. Plus there’s a kid resistance movement, I guess like the rebels in Star Wars, but with Kid Power.

The only people who can save the world are a brother and sister who have the potential to use the ultimate magic beyond any other magic, as declared by the prophecy (Cross marketing appeal to boys and girls!).  One would suspect the original novel was probably very cynically put together, this book has everything popular.  Or I guess its possible the author just likes this stuff, who knows.

This appears to be created by Americans who use a manga style.  It reads left to right. The main problem (or oddity) of the book is that the events of the book are heavy, with the protagonists put in jail, tortured, sentenced to be executed, experimented on, etc, but the art looks really lighthearted.

It’s possible this was a decision to keep it enjoyable to young adults,despite the grim and gritty scenes, I don’t know, and I wonder what the tone was like in the original book.

Check this out:


They’re going to be locked up forever for having magical powers, but she’s sticking her tongue out at the jailors?  That’s the reaction to being sentenced to Guantanamo Bay for life?

Then the next page suddenly wants to sort of be serious:


But it never keeps this serious tones for long, because the art looks too excited and expressive, in a happy sort of way.


In this bit below, the girl is supposed to be angry, but when you draw a mouth like that I just take it as excited in a not unhappy sort of way:


Despite these issues, I have to give props to the book for at least one thing: it’s a lot smarter and thoughtful on issues of power and violence than possibly any comic published by Marvel and DC. The resistance movement is very egalitarian.  For example, at the end of the book, the main characters are called heroes by their fellow members of the kid resistance movement, but “only for today”:


That panel may have been smarter than Civil War….
(Sorry, that line was too good to resist.  I’ve actually only read the first issue of Civil War.)