Friday, 18 October 2013

Deep Sequencing: Making An Entrance In Stumptown: The Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini)

Or the fantastic character introduction of Dex in Stumptown Vol. 1
By Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth; Oni Press

You only get one chance to make a first impression. The first five minutes of a movie, the first sentence of a story, the opening page of a comic. The preface of a novel. The first time we meet a new character. If done masterfully, the audience knows exactly what the story is going to be like and has an understanding, a solid sense, of the newly introduced character.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It's the Star Destroyer pursuing the Rebel corvette in Star Wars. It's Clint Barton falling out the window in Hawkguy. It's a screaming comes across the sky. And it's the cold open to Stumptown: The Girl Who Took Her Shampoo (But Left Her Mini).

This post contains slight *SPOILERS* for Stumptown Vol. 1. All of the information is from the first half dozen pages and constitutes the cold open of the comic, so no big reveals are given away, buuuut it's probably better that you go and read Stumptown for yourself.

The comic opens with this page which effectively sets out a number of important facts about the comic. We have a car travelling to a remote location, killing dah lights, and two sketchy looking men doing something that doesn't look above board. This page establishes that Stumptown is a comic about little-c-crime, not supervillains and heists, but the more ubiquitous texture of crime in any urban centre. This page tells us that the world it's set in, at least from the information presented in this page, follows the rules of our own. Basically, this page sets a contract with the reader about what kind of comic Stumptown will be. It's not a brilliant, revolutionary page, but it does effectively set the tone of the book.

The brilliant part is what comes next.

This is the first panel of the next page, and our first glimpse of the protagonist of Stumptown, Dexedrine Parios. It is also the best character introduction I can think of in comics. 

This single panel, especially following the page turn from the previous page, manages to convey a surprisingly dense character sketch of Dex. For starters she is in the trunk of the car in a remote area where she is held prisoner by the two sketchy dudes from the first page. We also see she has a black eye and is at least a bit beat up. Together this information suggests that Dex has shitty luck and that she has a tendency to get in over her head. But then we see her face, cracked in a wry grin, and read the speech bubble which, I imagine, is her pleasantly and casually speaking to her captors. This tells us Dex is brave (or at least bravado), she isn't flipping the fuck out, which is really the standard and reasonable response of being held captive in the trunk of a car. It also tells us that, given the self-aware smile and the blatantly ridiculous question, that Dex has a sense of humour and, with a wink to us audience folk, is aware of the ridiculousness of her circumstances. This of course, is all kinds of charming. (The casualness also feeds back to the down-on-her-luck characterization, because it suggests that yeah, she is used to this shit, but what are you going to do?) Closer inspection of the panel also reveals that she has a cell phone in her hand. While it is unclear at this point if she is phoning for help or just trying to use the phone to provide some light, it does convey that she is smart and resourceful. All of this, that Dex is charming, brave, resourceful, and terribly unlucky, all of it is packed into this single panel. And that is absolutely brilliant comics.

(I'd also like to point out how great this double page spread is. The way the bird flying away is used as a semi-sound effect as well as a time keeper, like sand through an hourglass, to drag the moment out is really smart and interesting. And I am ALWAYS a sucker for a beautiful picture of a bridge. Love me some bridges.)

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