Friday, 16 October 2015

Insight Into Invincible Iron Man #1

Or a breaking down a beautiful, but problematic double page spread in Invincible Iron Man #1
by Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez, Justin Ponsor, and Clayton Cowles; Marvel Comics

With the arrival of current-Marvel-publishing-thing, a bunch of new comics are hitting the stands and a similar bunch of beloved titles are being ended. This has created an environment where I have the freedom to try some new comics to maybe add to my ten title pull list or at the very least to check out some new comics. Invincible Iron Man #1 is one such title.

I gave Iron Man a shot mostly because while I once overdosed on too many Brian Michael Bendis comics, it's been a while and I think I'm kind of jonesing for his brand of quippy Sorkian dialogue in a comic. Add in the fact that I also have fond memories of past Marquez and Ponsor comics and that it's been a while since I've last tried reading an Iron Man comic and my curiosity was piqued. So I gave it a shot.

Overall, it's, well, Iron Man. Invincible Iron Man #1 feels very much like a step towards the core of the character. The issue presents a familiar Tony Stark rendered in gorgeous, crisp artwork that feels very modern and in tune with the character. It's a take that I think will appeal to a lot of comics fans of the modern character while still being instantly familiar to fans of the character coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It's also a comic that I had some difficulty reading in spots in ways that I think might be interesting to unpack.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Invincible Iron Man #1 below.

This two page spread in particular I had difficulty navigating on the first pass. When viewed zoomed out like this the page clearly breaks down into three tiers of storytelling with a common image on the row of panels, a common image on the middle row of panels, and a themed montage arranged along the bottom of the page. From this perspective, it's pretty obvious how the page should read and is, frankly, a gorgeous piece of artwork that I think really sells the visual identity of the comic.

The problem is that when you zoom in and attack this page panel by panel, this page does a poor job instructing the reader that it is meant to be read as a double age spread. And a lot of this comes down to the minute details right around the central margins between the two pages of the composition.

The first issue is one of carry over: a double page spread needs some sort of clue to help steer the reader along the intended reading path. At the most basic level, there needs to be something about the transition between pages that drives reader attention. The simplest way to accomplish this is to have something in the images obviously overlap the panels right in the interface, and to a certain extent, Iron Man #1 does this. However, it is VERY subtle: a dark corner here, or a rounded shoulder in a corner out of the line of the text boxes. I found that it this was too subtle to get my attention. 

Another way to steer attention is to have some other aspect of the image carry through the transition. This could be a motion carried out by the characters which begs to continue through to the next page, and drags the reader with it. Or maybe it could be a tangent line, some sort of guiding shape or line that blasts across the entire composition providing a kind of attention anchor that helps focus the reader on where they are supposed to go. Or hell, it could be a text box that straddles two panels and makes it clear what the reading order is supposed to be. Unfortunately, this layout really doesn't take advantage of any of these tools to ensure the reader can instantly intuit the correct order of panels.

I also found this confusion was exacerbated by the colours used in this composition. I found that the first two rows of panels, despite sharing common images that span the width of the double page spread, had abrupt colour shifts at the centre margins. That is to say, the colours on the "left page" part of  a row would have an overall different colour identity than the part of the row depicted on the "right page" part. Which, in the absence of a clear panel overlap, made the two pages seem visually distinct from each other. And this in turn convinced me that I should read the comic as two distinct pages instead of a single large composition.

Usually when I find an ambiguous bit of layout in comics, I can suss out the correct order (or at least realize when I've gone astray) by reading the dialogue in the comic. If phrases and words continue smoothly from one panel to the next, I'm probably reading the page correctly. If things suddenly stop making sense? Then I've probably taken a wrong turn somewhere.

The trouble with this double page spread is that the actual dialogue of the page also gets really ambiguous at the page-to-page transition in the first row of panels. Bendis is doing a thing in Iron Man with choppy, scattered dialogue, which is a stylistic choice that conveys how busy, scattered and multi-tasky Tony Stark is which overall in the issue works quite well. The trouble is, in this layout the choppy dialogue adds to the confusion. The final bit of dialogue on the left page of the top row is: "THEN COMPLETELY NOT DEALING WITH THE FACT THAT MY PARENTS AREN'T REALLY MY PARENTS ON ANY LEVEL." It's a complete thought that doesn't transition into the next bit of dialogue which doesn't leave any clues on where the reader is supposed to go next. Worse the next two dialogue options: "SOME 15-YEAR-OLD AT M.I.T. REVERSE ENGINEERS IT ON A DARE AND POSTS IT ONLINE" and "I'M OUT THERE--GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT", do not directly follow that previous thought and, in my opinion, both could plausibly follow that last bit of dialogue. The writing on a page is usually the final safety net for panel order, and in this composition it hurts more than it helps.

And so I read this compositions as two separate pages on the first pass.

Which really creates a perfect storm of comics problems. There is no clear bridge or layout based guidance between pages, the colours break the page up, and the dialogue doesn't actually aid the reader in navigating the page. It's confusing. Which is a shame, because when you pull back, this is a gorgeous bit of artwork and what is overall a pretty astute character sketch of Tony Stark and his starting place in this new series.

Invincible Iron Man #1 is overall a very accomplished and polished comics experience. The creative team clearly knows how to make good, readable comics. What I think this layout conveys is just how important the details are to making comics work and just how easy it is to overlook something and make unclear comics. Which is interesting.

1 comment:

  1. The one thing I think they tried to do to lead the eye across the page besides the two art links you mentioned was with the placement of text boxes. Panels 3, 4, and 5 place their caption blocks along a vertical curve, with the box in 3 resting at the top of the page, the box in 4 occupying the midpoint, and the box in 5 sitting on the bottom, mimicking the eye movement readers use to parse the vertical rectangle shape of the panels. You can see them repeat this placement trick twice in the second row of panels. The problem is the mess this guide up right off the bat in the first two panels, where panel 1's text box should be the start of the curve, except then panel 2 has four text boxes placed everywhere, with an internal panel rhythm that completely interrupts any eye flow around it.