Monday, 25 February 2013

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #10

Or writing about a writer's contract with their readers.

There be *SPOILERS* in this one. So go read Captain Marvel #10 before reading this post. 

Captain Marvel #10 is another great comic from the creative team of Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christopher Sebela, and Filipe Andrade. It picks up where #9 left off with the revelation that Carol Danvers has a lesion in her brain that may be catastrophically exacerbated through the use of her powers. As a result, Carol is literally grounded by sound medical advice. Captain Marvel #10, then, is a comic about Carol dealing, or rather failing to deal, with the revelation of her condition. It's a comic about willfully ignoring weakness, pushing past limitations, and the consequences of hubris. It's a comic about falling.

(Captain Marvel #10 is also a super well constructed comic that functions both as an individual story and as a part of an ongoing narrative. It's also beautifully drawn.)

Captain Marvel #10 also does something really effective in how it lays out the story and sets up its themes.

The first page of the comic depicts a dream Carol is having about her love of flying to the edge of the atmosphere, passing out, and free-falling back to Earth. In the dream this is presented as a kind-of-game-of-chicken with gravity where the object of the game is to wake up before she hits the ground. It's a pretty great summary of Carol as a character: she loves to fly, is happiest when using her powers, and is stubborn enough to challenge gravity. This sequence also simultaneously introduces her powers and illustrates that Carol enjoys taking risks. The dream further manages to be a pitch perfect moment following the revelation of the brain lesion in the previous issue: I feel it reveals Carol's fear and establishes flight as something important to her; something that would be very difficult for her to lose.  Perhaps most importantly, though, the opening dream sequence beautifully sets up the themes of the comic.

Let me explain. There exists between writers and their audience a... kind of unspoken contract. Readers enter into a manuscript with a certain set of expectations based on all kinds of things: the cover art, the genre, the author's previous work, etc. The author may make further contracts with the audience within the body of the text that also set up additional reader expectations. Something like the brutal murder of The Comedian in the opening pages Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchman tells the audience that the comic is going to be mature and brutal and that the audience should get ready for an unforgiving read. In a conventional reading sense, the success of the book can be judged by how well the author manages to live up to, or at least address, the contract they establish with their readers. 

(That isn't to say satisfying expectations is the only good way to structure a story-some of my favourite reads, like Fraction and Moon's Casanova: Gula, are about subverting or breaking the contract with the reader- but I think nearly all good fiction is at least aware of the contract that has been made and is interacting with it. Besides, this is supposed to be a short essay on CM#10)

The introductory dream sequence in Captain Marvel #10 works beautifully to establish a contract with the reader. It tells us, whether we realize it consciously or not, that this is a comic about flying too high and falling or pushing too hard and suffering the consequences. With this established CM#10 becomes less a reading experience about discovering the next unexpected story development, and more a comic about waiting for the inevitable disaster and dreading the consequences. I think it ratchets up the tension in a really effective way and changes every brash action on the part of Carol Danvers from her-just-being-stubborn into a stepping stone to disaster. It makes every symptom of her brain condition another second clicking off a timer strapped to an explosive that we know will go off. And when Carol inevitably overuses her powers by flying and is sent plummeting back to the ground in a brilliant parallel to the first page dream sequence, it feels EARNED. Which I think is part of why Captain Marvel #10 is such a satisfying reading experience.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that Captain Marvel #10 is a great comic that, by explicitly stating its intensions early, manages to create palpable tension and a genuinely solid conclusion. I'd go so far as to say that CM#10 is a lesson in how establishing and satisfying a the contract with the reader makes for an especially satisfying read.

Did I mention I really, really like this comic?

Also, this has to be one of the more beautiful single panels in a comic I've seen:

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