Friday, 30 May 2014

Exposing The Secret Avengers #2-3

Or a look at the attention to detail in Secret Avengers #2 and #3 
by Ales Kot, Michael Walsh, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

I'm really enjoying Secret Avengers. The formula of gonzo spy stories with a sense of fun is just the kind of mad, accessible comic I want in a Marvel team book. It's also a pretty excellent example of a creative team firing on all cylinders: all of the component parts of the comic are excellent, from the taught, bawdry scripts to the ambitious, clear storytelling of the line art, to the sharp, clean palette of the colours, Secret Avengers is one of Marvel's best made books. That said, for all of its oomph, Secret Avengers most impresses me with its attention to layout and how this enhances every aspect of storytelling.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Secret Avengers #2 and #3.

Before I go spiralling off to panel placements and colour selections and a bunch of other tiny, wonky choices, I want take a moment and explain why I am so enthused by these selections. The fact is there are a lot of very pretty, very well drawn comics being made: Marvel as a mainstream publishing house has really showcased some awesome artists lately. In a pretty large proportion of comics being made the really big moments are delivered beautifully. For me what really characterizes the best comics is a commitment to making every moment as visually interesting as the biggest moments. These are the comics that feature lovingly rendered explosions in space, but also make talking heads feel fresh and interesting. And this is usually a matter of a bunch of small, hard to notice choices that make the entire comic easier to read and more emotionally resonant throughout.

Secret Avengers is currently one of those comics.

You might not immediately realise it, but this is a Talking Heads page. The characters, stranded and floating in space, shooting the shit about their situation with a veneer of hollow bravado. All the action in the page is two dudes talking calmly, but the layout makes this super interesting and adds a layer of unspoken complexity to the situation that adds emotional nuance. The reality of being adrift in space is that there is no (or very little) friction to slow you down, and so any small motion, like falling out of a space station, results in an uncontrolled, spinning tumble. The way this page uses extra panels without a fixed perspective totally sells this motion: the reader, like the characters, has a view that swings wildly between empty space, Earth, and the agents as if they too are careening through the vastness of space. This helps sell the feeling of spacey-ness and quiet majesty, but also just how fucked the agents are. There is something stomach turning and claustrophobic about the tight, tumbling reader's perspective that, despite Fury and Coulson's bravado, really captures the terrifying hopelessness of the agents predicament. So, yeah, this is a talking head page that layout has made awesome and interesting. 

Secret Avengers #2 has four separate storylines that all converge on a single, exciting moment in time. A really important aspect of this structure is that the various plot threads have to feel urgent and simultaneous to really sell the climactic moment. This layout here does a really great job in helping to accomplish this. The key here is that it shows the other three story lines (just after checking in with the agents in space in the last page I showed you) in a way that acts as a time key for them all: the secret avengers in the field arrive at the space station exactly when MODOK is grimly surveying weaponized satellites precisely while something in a duct approaches an injured and very screwed Maria Hill. This provides the temporal context needed to keep track of the various story threads. 

This layout also has some really smart colouring, with each tier of panels having a slightly different palette. The top row has a black/grey/green scheme, while the middle tier shows a lot of blue/yellow/fleshtone, and the bottom tier is done in magenta. This clearly delineates the three bands of panels as belonging to separate narratives and enhances the clarity of the pages.

The climax to one of the story threads in Secret Avengers #2 is a team of Avengers converging on a broken computer and basically, using team work, plugging it back in. This should be the most underwhelming anti-climax ever, and yet, it felt really satisfying and important in the context of the story. And I think this layout is a big reason why. Our heroes enter the page and approach a zoomed in, focussed strip of panels that show the toggles and wire that need repair/reboot. Some fun dialogue happens, and we see our heroes spring to action and fix the computer. The excitement of the moment comes through, I think, due to the tight focus on the computer elements in the second and fourth rows, the repetition (it's important enough to show twice), the elevated moving centre panel in the bottom row, and in the dull to bright green colouring of the wire panels. This page is, for me, a great example of how smart storytelling can sell pretty much any moment.

This large panel from Secret Avengers #3 is another example of really astute storytelling choices. In Secret Avengers #3, our heroes are out to stop a crazy, failed poet with a sentient reality destroying bomb. Black Widow and Spider-woman must find a way to stop the madman while also saving Coulson who is freaking out. What this panel here does is provide a spatial taking stock before all of the action happens. It tells us where all of the characters are in relation to each other, using the face bubbles and colour coding to make the fairly detailed page really quick and easy to suss out. 

What that last layout does is provide context for all of this activity. After seeing the overall layout we can appreciate exactly where all of this frenetic action is happening which helps reader understanding and the speed with which the reader can absorb the scene. It's really smart comics.

I love how these panels are coloured. I'm not sure how to articulate the why of it, though... Have you ever been hit really hard in the face? And have you also smacked the back of your head really hard on something solid, like to the point of blacking out or dazing yourself? Well I have, and the way these two panels are coloured captures the differing sensations of the two collisions. If I ever have to explain how the two things are different, these panels are now my answer.

Of course, Secret Avengers also does the big moments with gusto too. This spread here from Secret Avengers #3 is some varsity level comics. It breaks the page clearly into five discrete narrative regions and moves three different sub-narratives along to their convergent conclusions in a clear way. Beyond just kind of being an awesome couple of pages, I really love how this page splits up the sections: the cliffside combat silouettes without a background split the top row from the bottom, and within the bottom, the use of the tilted panel borders help signify which parts of the bottom half of the spread belong to which narrative region. This is a spread that could be super confusing, but due to really smart storytelling is quick and action packed and crazy.

Just like all of Secret Avengers.  


  1. hey i found your blog cuza the infographic in the back of Chew. kudos!

    i also am loving Secret Avengers. Your breakdown of why they are so great is much more elloquent than mine:

    1. Thanks! It was really cool of John Layman and Rob Guillory to include it in their backup. Certainly one of the highlights of my criticism/fandom blog so far. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Your SA#3 review was pretty good too, it just uses a different approach. (Also now I want caramel gelato...) I suspect I'll be dipping back into the SA well pretty often.