Friday, 17 April 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #6

Or a look at a panel using layered narratives in Spider-Woman #6
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, and Travis Lanham; Marvel Comics

Spider-Woman continues to be a pretty fun comic featuring some pretty impressive comics. The story of Jessica Drew as a down-on-her-luck private investigator looking into the kidnapping of d-list villain's families is charming. Like, riffing on City Llamas levels of charming. Spider-Woman also continues to be a comic that showcases some really clear, adroit storytelling that does some interesting things. And there is one panel in particular that I want to take a closer look at.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #6 here.

The story of the sequence here is that Jessica Drew confronts Mister Luck, who has just held up the Chicken Top fast food restaurant, in an effort to learn who has been kidnapping the loved ones of supervillains. Mister Luck, not appreciating the questions, spins his dynamo/roulette wheel thing which charges up his glove-blaster things. So while the wheel is spinning, Spider-Woman springs to action and incapacitates Mister Luck before his wheel stops spinning. Which is a pretty straightforward bit of story.

What impresses me here is how well Team Spider-Woman sells the action-packed moment of combat here and the really interesting comic machinery that makes the panel work.

The magic of this page, for me, is how it layers multiple narrative paths of action into the same panel. This approach packs in the narrative information and really hammers home the feeling of a flurry of activity happening in a single moment. Which makes for a chaotic feeling panel that is still very clear and easy to read. It's pretty smart stuff.

The lynchpin of this effect, I think, is the inclusion of the spinning dynamo/roulette wheel across the page. The importance of the wheel in the action panel is set up in the top row of panels which emphasize the spinning wheel as a key feature of the situation. This choice helps draw attention to the wheel in the busier main panel and helps make it one of the viable narrative paths through this page. The bright blue, green, and yellow colours of the wheel on the mostly red page also plays an important role in drawing the reader to the spinning wheel. If the reader takes the bait, the spinning wheel and its sound effect provide a reading path through the page, with the wheel's carnival arrow pointing the way. When read this way, with the dynamo/roulette wheel as the focus, this sequence emphasizes the timeframe of the action and makes the fighting a blur of motion around the slowing clock. Which was the really cool way I first read through the page.

While I think the spinning wheel might be the dominant way to move through the page, there are two other plausible pathways established by the artwork. If one focuses on the characters, there is a route through the page established by the heavy black limbs of Spider-Woman's costume. In this case we are drawn along her arm, through her body, and down into her slam motion. This provides a very quick frictionless way to read the page and encodes time with the multiple posses of the characters within the single snapshot of the panel; Jessica moves to fast to be caught in one position by the "camera". The other plausible path is one shaped by the lettering. If you were to read the text of the page first, you would enter in the top right, cruise the sound effect and then find through the motion and onomatopoeia of the page in another clear route. This route is also noteworthy in that it emphasizes speed with it's quick path and in the way the fairly short dialogue is broken across the sequence and motion of the panel. When combined with the wheel path, this gives the page three built in routes through the panel.

I think this is a really exciting choice. I would argue that the reader is forced to engage with all three of these narrative paths to fully experience the story. This basically triples the information packed into a single unit of story-time, which creates the sense that a massive amount of activity is happening very quickly. It also, while giving clear narrative paths, creates a certain sense of chaos and wildness to the panel which makes it really fun to read. This is fantastic comics.


Another element I really like about this page is how the vectors of motion interact with the reading paths to make the action feel very dramatic and impactful. Spider-Woman punches right-to-left and then slams Mister Luck straight down into the table. This is pretty cool in that it places the direction of the punch *against* the left-to-right reading paths which makes this punch feel unexpected and brutal. What's more the the downward table slam follows the reading paths which makes it feel fast until it abruptly slams into the table where all the reading paths jog to the right corner. Which, of course makes this motion feel like a rapid slam and bone-crunching smash. Again this uses the reading paths and direction of motion to really drive home the brutality and feeling of the action. It's great composition.

This is a really superlative panel of comics and while I think it is the best example in Spider-Woman #6, it's really representative of the quality and excitement of the whole comic. Spider-Woman, with this creative team, is certainly worth checking out.

Spider-Woman #5: Character Design and composition

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