Friday, 23 May 2014

Marvelling at Captain Marvel #3

Or the tension between punchline and setting in Captain Marvel #3
by Kelly Sue DeConnick, David Lopez, Lee Loughridge, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

As a general rule I try not to write critical posts. I avoid comics that I don't think I'll like very much, and try to focus my time and money on the best comics I can. As a result, especially for my mainstream comics intake, I read a reliably fantastic collection of comics. When I write about these books, it's much easier to highlight especially interesting positives than trying to find problems to worry at. And when I do notice something about these comics that I don't especially like, it's usually something obvious like deadline rushed art in a crossover or awkward fill in art, neither of which makes for a particularly interesting bit of criticism (It is bad and I don't like it!). However there is a sequence in Captain Marvel that I think, given the collision between two different storytelling priorities, is worth taking a critical look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Captain Marvel #3 in this post.

Now, I really enjoyed Captain Marvel #3! In a time when I am becoming increasingly less interested in straightforward super heroics, Captain Marvel remains my example of the best conventional superhero comic being made. The comic is fun, aspirational, rock and roll action packed, has a sense of humour, and manages to provide sufficient character stakes to feel substantiative and dramatic. Kelly Sue DeConnick's dialogue wizardry makes every character interaction a joy to read and her approach to Captain Marvel as a confident, driven, professional whose personality is both her greatest asset and largest challenge is immensely relatable. (I think it's pretty common that the curiosity, competitiveness, or drive of a lot of very talented, successful people can make them simultaneously exceptional and pretty flawed people, and it's pretty great and humanizing that Carol displays this). I'm also really into the way Team Captain Marvel creates challenges that are beyond Captain Marvel's powers to directly address: be it Vol. 1's medical affliction or Vol. 2's diplomacy and plague challenges. A powerful hero who is fallible and has to struggle against broader challenges is great. David Lopez is a pretty fantastic new voice for the comic too: his modern, but very superhero-y style really fits the aesthetic of the comic and does a solid job storytelling. By any reasonable metric Captain Marvel #3 is a very good comic that is completely worth reading.

The thing is, there is one sequence in this comic that I think is super interesting because it is a compromise between two different aspects of comics.

So these two panels here, I think, represent the set up of a joke. The premise is that Carol will have to travel to a planet and act as a diplomat to convince a group of alien refugees to flee their new, toxic home and that Starlord doesn't think it will be an easy task. The set up for the punchline is that Carol has "got some moves", that her diplomatic skills are up the task. And then....

...we get this long, very well thought out storytelling sequence. We see your standard, new planet setting establishing shot, Carol dropping in like this whole thing will be easy, a panel introducing a big, tough looking new character, who then punches Carol in the face. This sequence is very good storytelling that quickly establishes a new setting, introduces a new character, and succinctly displays the thematic challenge of the story (that Carol's help isn't exactly wanted and that she is ill equipped for it.) However, I think, steps all over the joke that was set up on the previous page. By my estimation the punchline of the gag set up in those two previous panels is the punch to the face and because of storytelling clarity needs there are four panels between the set up and the delivery. And this, I think, waters down the effectiveness of the joke.

So there is this whole type of comic which is the short gag strip. Now the best of these, like the above new (ohmygodnew!) Perry Bible Fellowship comic, follow a certain idealized structure. (I mean, there are a lot of ways to skin a cake, but this is one common forumla that works quite well.) The idea here is that in three, immediately connected frames, a premise is etsbalished, a joke is set up, and then an unexpected and impactful punchline is deployed. And those two panels in Captain Marvel at least looked like they were a panel 1 and 2 in a three joke structure gag strip. And then there was a page turn, which set the stage for a great punchline reveal. Which did not materialize.

Instead we get premise, setup, setting. Which, while it is good storytelling to establish where the story is happening, maybe does not fully deliver on the joke setup.

In my opinion this collection of panels is the most direct delivery of the gag. We get premise, the joke setup, and punchline rapidly to maximum impact (ha ha). Of course, this collection of panels makes a pretty big compromise in storytelling: it delivers the joke but with no information about setting, characters, or the context of the punch. This is a pretty big omission and a lot to expect the reader to figure out on their own and, since storytelling is king, probably not the best course. 

So after all maybe the actual layout is best: it maximizes storytelling clarity and still manages to deliver a pretty decent punchline on the gag. If the joke isn't in service to the story, than what's the point?

But I wonder if maybe there is some sort of compromise between the two that would provide the needed storytelling and still maximize the punchline. Maybe something like this?

Or maybe I'm completely wrong?

Regardless, Captain Marvel #3 is a great comic you ought to read and judge for yourself.

Marvelling at Captain Marvel 17: A meta-fandom salute
Marvelling at Captain Marvel 15-16: On tie ins
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #13-14: On The Enemy Within
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #12: Demarcating reality and fantasy
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #10: A dramatic contract
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #9: How your brain tells time
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #7: Saving a reporter in distress... AND ITS A MAN!
Marvelling At Captain Marvel #1: An alternate reading order that I liked more

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