Monday, 3 November 2014

Brooding About Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier #1

Or a look at the psychedelic layouts of Bucky Barnes: The Winter Solder #1
by Ales Kot and Marco Rudy; Marvel Comics

A lot of really good comics use layout as a machine to deliver narrative in the most efficient way possible. Familiar panel layouts and structure might be used so that the anatomy of the page becomes secondary to the writing and character acting. Or, maybe a hidden skeleton of guidelines and carefully positioned artwork creates vectors that guide the reader through points of interest in the page helping to create speed, dynamism, and impact. Such helpful approaches can make for fantastic reading experiences.

Some comics though create layouts that firmly reject this straight forward storytelling and instead utilize page layouts and panel arrangements that are deeply unconventional and somewhat difficult to navigate. And sometimes these challenging constructions can lead to storytelling that is just, if not more effective and atmospheric and interesting than more traditional layouts.

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Solider uses radically challenging page layouts in really interesting and arresting ways that I think are worth talking about.

I suspect this is going to evolve into a series, but for the sake of this post, I'm going to focus on how different, unconventional layout strategies within the issue are used to establish diverse feeling and emotionally evocative settings.

This post will have *SPOILERS* for BB:TWS #1

I feel like one of the more interesting aspects of the panel layouts in BB:TWS #1 is how the internal directions of the various pages evoke the setting they are placed against. For instance this page here, one of the most conventional layouts in the comic, depicts a quiet moment that happens on a space station orbiting Earth. From a practical standpoint that page is mostly a series of stacked panels that show the conversation taking place. And yet the panels radiate out from a pensive giant Bucky face on the left of the page which gives the page a very orbital vibe: the fairly light conversation is orbiting and tethered to Bucky's larger concerns. Moreover, the page creates a feeling of a non-central gravity like you might have on a space station that, say, relies on spin to generate artificial gravity. Combined, the giant Bucky face and radial panels create a sense of orbit and rotation that solidifies the experience of being on a space station. It's a great page.

I cannot get enough of this page here: the daring, non-conventional layout and use of colour on this page is nothing short of masterful. It's also another great example of how layout is used to convey narrative information and establish setting. For one, the red bullseye in the bottom right corner is like a gaping blackhole for eyes: no matter where you enter the page that red circle is going to yank your view to it rapidly. But the page also contains a wealth of other relevant narrative information that I think can be moved through in at least three distinct paths. The female sniper is a pretty obvious figure on the page and her silver/blue rifle commands a lot of attention. On my fest pass of the page I saw her, was drawn down the rifle barrel and steered right into the bullseye. Blam. The bullseye is filled with narrative information as well. You can draw a fairly straight line through the relevant narrative information from the pulled trigger, to the bullet in flight, to the bullet approachin gthe stage, to the shattered chains, to the blood splatter at the heart of the bullseye. And then there is the lettering, almost an afterthought, that meanders through the key compositional elements and almost strains against the direct vectors within the page. It's a complicated great page!

When all combined the page does a beautiful job of selling the moment of sniper assassination. The gravity of the red circle in the bottom right rapidly draws our eyes, no matter the path, to the point of impact and makes that moment feel heavy, visceral, and dramatic. The various straight line vectors also help emphasize speed and directionality: you move down these straight lines to impact and get the feeling of a bullet in flight. The fact there are multiple vectors and paths helps sell the chaos of the moment: a shot goes out and it is a moment of crisis when chaos reigns. It also removes the idea of a fixed reference frame, which I feel also helps establish the feeling of the sniper and bullet travelling through the gravity-less vacuum of space. There is a metric tonne of emotion and information here to enjoy.

This layout here, featuring enigmatic aliens which will likely be important to the ongoing series of BB:TWS is great because of how resoundingly alien it is. All of the pages focusing on these aliens have weird, sharp edged panels that revolve around a hub that they do not directly interact with. Moreover, the page utilizes a panel progression that shuns the top-to-bottom left-to-right standard and instead uses a circular, clockwise progression. By using such a bizarre layout the page manages to convey a completely alien feel, as if these pages of comics are not of this Earth. It’s a relatively straightforward approach, but it works wonderfully to evoke a certain emotional reaction.

This double page spread is a great example of another page that uses layout to cell a non-conventional setting. This page, which takes place underwater, also refuses to conform to a standard page layout and instead flows around wildly like the crazy undersea currents the page depicts. Which makes the page feel, well aquatic. We the reader have to swim and contend with the wild wave action of the page to migrate through the key elements. Which again makes the layout feel distinctly like being under water and completely unlike normal terrestrial comics. This is another great example of a page that uses layout to transport us to another world and mindset.

BB:TWS #1 is a treasure trove of innovative storytelling worth a closer look. 

This post is by Michael Bround

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