In which the blogger discusses aspects of the storytelling in three of this year’s Free Comic Book Day titles. Attempts to express opinions shouldn’t be mistaken for attempts to express facts. Please also be aware, spoilers will very much be lying in wait;
What a strange, strange tale it is that we’re given in Marvel’s FCBD edition of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers, and that’s especially so given the in-no-way inconsiderable talents of writer Jason Aaron and artist Sara Pichelli. We might imagine that the feature was chosen in light of the stratospheric success of the Avengers movie franchise. Yet with Infinity War at the peak of both its box office success and media profile, Marvel chose to publish a tale populated by an excess of talking heads matched with an intimidating landslide of continuity. It’s not hard to imagine a story less welcoming to comics neophytes than this, but it is difficult to imagine it seeing print on a FCBD.
It’s often close to impossible to reverse engineer a Big Two Event book and work out who was responsible for what. Who, outside the companies themselves, can possibly decipher why a story that’s so crammed with dialogue while lacking in visual incident could have seen print? All the reader has is bafflement. Why was tell rather than show the guiding principle here? Given how prosaic the conversation-filled story is, why ignore the potential to enthrall that’s buried in the script itself? When the Black Panther mentions that Odin had sent a ‘talking raven’ to request his presence, the reader longs to see an idea that striking represented on the page. Similarly, the story presents us with a group of prehistoric Avengers describing their victory over a Celestial rather than the conflict itself being played out before us. (Just why we should care about the Celestial’s presence isn’t helpfully explained, while we’re never shown anything of it that’s more impressively eye-catching than, in one panel, a shot of its chest-and-head and, in another, its hand.) The assumption must have been that characters chatting is more fascinating than characters chatting while doing something of interest.
The comic’s nadir in terms of effectiveness can be seen in the scan above. No-one could suggest that the individual panels are executed without artistry and care, or that the dialogue doesn’t reflect ambition or skill. But the monotony of the page, which follows a sequence of similarly underwhelming sides, obscures many of its possible virtues. The absence of place reduces the characters to extravagantly costumed players on a jerry-rigged and unimpressively bare theatre stage set. The choice to present each individual panel as if it were being viewed from a single front-and-centre point is similarly uninspiring. An unhelpful tastefulness means that the body language of both Loki and, in particular, Odin often lack pellucidity and directness. The indulgent page design, which mysteriously swaps from guttering to its absence, undercuts the ease of panel-to-panel continuity, while the crushed final widescreen frame entirely shortcircuits the page-turning enigma that’s being set up there. We should find it easy to recognise Odin’s amazement, and perhaps even horror, at the off-page appearance of a Celestial, but in truth, the Lord Of Asgard looks at best mildly interested in an unspecified manner. It takes a frowning third look to even begin to realise that Odin has stood up in astonishment, a confusion that reveals how ill-chosen that painfully narrow panel was. But then, even had Odin been astonished in the direct style of Jack Kirby, the page’s design would have taken our gaze straight down from Loki’s face in panel 4 to the same in the following frame. We should be guided directly to Odin’s expression and words, but instead, the storytelling bypasses him and we have to deliberately scan leftwards in the frame in order to make some sense of events. In short, the page doesn’t just mitigate against the reader’s interest. It also undercuts the basic requirements of the script. What an odd and unhelpful collection of choices these are.
Even given the problems I’ve mentioned with this story, it is quite easy to imagine a far more dynamic page design. In particular, Odin’s striding away from Loki in frame two and the afore-mentioned set-up that’s the last panel surely should’ve provided the reader with some considerable sense of drama, of intensity. With a less precious and humdrum approach, the undeniable subtleties of panels 3 and 4 could have been, unchanged, exceptionally effective. Instead, and unhelped by a tasteful but soporifically one-note colouring job, good and less-good aspects of the art disappear into much of a sameness.
Even though the script for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers seems remarkably unwelcoming for a FCBD title, a more inclusive, energetic and purposeful approach on the page itself might have saved something of the day. Instead, it’s the worst of all possible words for a loss-leader taster comic: a dull, wordy, opaque story matched to over-polite and ill-focused artwork. As I say, it’s a strange, strange comic.
To compare the above page from Catch A Falling Star – from the Doctor Who FCBD edition – with the one already discussed from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers isn’t to compare like with like. This closing side from writer Nick Abadzis and artists Giorgia Sposito and Arianna Florean’ short tale is, as with The Avengers, a conversation between two characters, but it features a far more intimate and cheering situation. Still, the difference in approach between the two pages is marked. There is a hugely effective subtlety that informs the body language given to the Twelfth Doctor and his companion Gabby Gonzalez, and it reinforces rather than undercuts the story at hand. Admittedly, fondness and relief can be easier to portray than the too-and-frooing of confrontational verbal sparring, but that shouldn’t obscure how delicately and successfully this encounter between Time Lord and once-lost friend is played out. Long before their hug, for example, the pleasure felt by The Doctor as he offers Gabby his arm is impossible to miss and tough not to feel warmed by. The dialogue is similarly touching, and together, there’s a degree of engrossing precision that prevents the reader from having to ask, what’s going on here?, or even, why is this happening? Instead, we’re free to simply go with the story as we’re being – benevolently – directed. Whether a reader new to the franchise or an experienced fan, it’s a wholly satisfying page. In that, it speaks of a determination to invent and present a story that welcomes and rewards its readers.
If I had one quibble, it would be in the lack of background in panels three and four. The shot of the Tardis in the second frame adds both a sharp sense of place and, through the high-angle adopted, a welcome example of variety. In choosing to ignore any further backgrounds, focus is undoubtedly centered on The Doctor and Jenny. And yet, the broad blue spaces in those frames actually serves to distract rather than concentrate our attention. After all, the Tardis is in so many ways a key character in its own right. In its absence, colour and space threaten to overwhelm and even diminish the main players.
The most eyeopening contribution to FCBD for me was Black Hammer: The Quantum Age, by Jeff Lemire, Wilfredo Torres, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein. Having never truly warmed to Lemire’s work before, and that includes a few issues of Black Hammer itself, I was unexpectedly beguiled and condemned to a serious bout of crow eating. If I’ve read a comic that summarised the fundamentals of an existing franchise with greater discipline and to greater effect, then I truly can’t recall it.
In many ways, the side scanned in directly above is the least visually outstanding of those in The Quantum Age. It is, despite the artistic challenges that needed to be overcome, still an absolutely delightful example of storytelling. There’s a considerable amount of information needing to be delivered here, and the number of panels needed to do so threatens to diminish the pleasure and precision of events. The establishing shot, for all its clarity and atmosphere, is a touch small. The sixth panel suffers in a similar way, in that there’s barely enough space for Ormston to show Gail grabbing her sunglasses while delivering a longshot that lends the page a necessary measure of variety. But for all of that, the storytelling works. The writing itself delivers a clear and satisfying scene that’s complete in itself. (This is true even down to each individual row of panels, which establish in their first frame a new turn for the tale before closing on an effectively enticing set-up for what’s to immediately follow.) The characters are wittily illuminated by conflict. The panels are marked by clarity, a clear sense of purpose and a defining atmosphere of claustrophobia, unease and splendidly sour humour. Never overloaded by too many words or undermined by artistic carelessness, it’s a side that’s an absolute pleasure to read and reread.
In short, it does its job. Nothing more and nothing less. Which is to my mind the highest, if the strangely only-rarely celebrated, accomplishment that a team of storytellers can pull off. The result is, to my complete surprise, that I can’t wait to delve further into the Black Hammer universe. I was as wrong as can be. Who knew, apart from your good selves?
Them Darned Superpeople will return next week.