Monday, June 3, 2013

Six Perfect Panels, One Perfect Comic

Last summer we at JHU Comic Books had a special Kids Comics Day. We gave away free comics, had games and activities, food, the works. It was a big success, and I personally always love when kids are in the store. Sometimes, as The King foretold, comics can break your heart, but seeing all the kids in the store then (and every time) just makes you feel good about comics... it can mend that inevitable break (until the next time, anyway).

As part of the festivities we had coloring pages for kids and adults to illustrate at their heart's content, as well as blank panel pages for kids to create short little six-panel strips. There were many comics and illustrations created that day, many wonderful expressions of creativity not bound by known color schemes or desire for conformity or even logic. But there was one stand-out six-panel comic, one creation that on reflection is nothing less than a perfect comic.
This is the comic, by a ten-ish year-old fellow named Nate (I don't know his last name, I only have this scan of the piece and the memory of its discovery). The first thing that jumps out is the beautiful simplicity of the piece. A (presumably) human figure, simply yet extremely effectively drawn in basic crayon, jumps into a toxic vat of some sort. But what is, at first blush a humorous trifle, a brief little illustration dashed off by a child on a lazy Saturday at the comic shop, is in actuality nothing short of a transcendent piece of interpretive graphic narrative that elegantly, simply and powerfully tells a number of stories while being a stunning example of the very mechanics at the heart of the language of comics.

If you sense hyperbole, be assured I am quite serious. Now, to be certain, Nate likely had no intention other than to tell a brief, funny story about someone falling into a toxic pit. But in doing so he reveals a deep, almost inherent understanding of how comics work as a visual storytelling medium - a telling example of the universality and accessibility of the language of comics. And even if it wasn't the artist's intent, the finished piece evokes multiple interpretations, something that can only be achieved by the graphic narrative.

The first and easiest interpretation is the figure - I'll call him The Blue Man - jumps in to the toxic vat on the final panel. But there is something immediately striking about how the author chose to tell this story. The tale - "The Blue Man jumps into the toxic vat" is something that can be done in two panels sequentially, or even in just a one panel gag-illustration. But the author chooses to stretch the events out across six panels. The effect is profound: assuming we are watching a single event, putting it across multiple panels stretches out the action, like a tragedy happening in slow motion. The author instinctively recognizes that the panel gutter can represent any time period, be it centuries or seconds, and he breaks down the action of a few seconds across many panels. If the intent is humor, the effect creates - upon multiple rereadings and replayings of the comic in the mind - a funny sequence easily replayed and broken down and replayed again. If the intent is tragedy, the prolonging of The Blue Man's ultimate fate into a slow-motion drama heightens the calamity, each panel another blow to The Blue Man, each panel a tease of redemption, each panel an illustration of Schrodinger's Cat in its box, only for the box to open in panel six with all quantum possibilities coalescing into one final end for The Blue Man.

But the character's fall may not be a fall at all. The comic's uniquely interpretive nature may represent a slow-motion drama of The Blue Man being flung into the toxic abyss. The overall structure of the piece makes it very clear that The Blue Man is on a platform (or maybe plank?) of some sort above the toxic vat, as revealed by the vat's sudden appearance in panel six. (Any number of things could have been happening to The Blue Man until the vat's appearance, an appearance which enhances both the tragedy and humor of the piece.) But The Blue Man's descent is rigid. Do the first three panels represent the character's deliberate, stiff fall over the edge, only to be hastened by his jumping in panel four? Or do the motion lines in panel four represent the character being flung from the platform by some unknown force down into his fate? No matter the interpretation of the first four panels, panel five is brilliantly framed: how best to minimalistically represent the character's fall then to have him hang, half out of frame, from the top of the panel, in obvious downward motion as evidenced by the speed lines flanking his figure. The empty space in the panel created by the framing brilliantly creates a sense of the unknown - the emptiness a representation of what could be. There is space between The Blue Man and his fate, a fate that could be anything, and ultimately is his doom as illustrated one panel later.

But is the toxic vat The Blue Man's doom? Or is it the end of the beginning of The Blue Man's story? Through any modern window, falling into a toxic vat is hardly a beneficial activity. But what about through the frame of reference of superhero comics' Silver Age? With Marvel Comics specifically, beyond the artistic and narrative innovations initiated by the House That Jack Built in the 1960s, there was Stan Lee's old stand-by origin of nuclear rays or toxic waste or some similar mechanism endowing some unassuming individual with fantastic powers. The Fantastic Four were created by Cosmic Rays beyond the shielding of the Earth's magnetosphere, The Hulk transformed from Bruce Banner after being exposed to a Gamma-Ray burst, Matt Murdock being given the extraordinary senses of Daredevil after being doused with toxic waste. That these things didn't kill all of them, as would actually happen, is part of superhero comics' gloriously ridiculous fantasy. Hardly an obscure element of a peculiar genre, these origin stories are, thanks to movies and television and products and the proliferation of the comics themselves, an ingrained part of American popular culture. The foundation of many aspects of the new American myth-space is in toxic accidents. The Blue Man's descent, be it intentional, accidental, or as a victim, is not an ending, but an origin in the modern-neoclassical sense. In six panels, Nate gives us a representation not just of this character's origin, but the origin of hundreds of the gods and monsters that populate so much of the contemporary popular American fictional sub-conscious.

And my final interpretation, just as possible though likely far outside the artist's intent - each panel is not representative of one figure falling through time. Indeed, each panel is a singular illustration of different characters in their commonly shared fall into apotheosis, the panel gutters not just the space between moments in time of a sequential event but moments in time separated by years or decades or entire universes. This isn't a single illustrative example of one commonly shared origin but an illustration of every origin of that type ever told. It is the Red Hood and it is Daredevil and it is The Blue Man, all separate, all at-once.

No matter the interpretation or whatever over-analysis I bring to the work, in the end it is a perfect illustration of the language of comics. Story through sequential art, distilled into six simple panels. Comics are intuitive and powerful as a force for telling a story. The human brain is hardwired to understand language, and comics are a unique pictorial language all their own. This piece illustrates the universality of the comics language.
But more than any of that, it is a brief little cartoon, dashed off by a child on a lazy Saturday at the comic shop. And that is pretty awesome.

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