Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Interrogating Black Widow #1

Or my ten favourite things about Black Widow #1
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Usually when I write about a comic, I try to find a particularly interesting sequence or an aspect of the comic that created a better reading experience. The thing about Black Widow #1 is that the entire comic is a remarkable sequence that is filled with interesting devices and I can't figure out a cohesive way to talk about everything I want to. So, for lack of a better way to do this, here is a round up of my ten favourite things about Black Widow #1.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Black Widow #1 below. It's a really, really good comic so you ought to seek it out before reading on.

1. This is the moment, I think, that it became obvious how good this comic was going to be. This is the first panel of the second page, and shows all of the office workers attacking Black Widow. The thing I love about this page is the fist of the central attacker: it looks to me like it is slightly too large to be anatomically correct in a way that commands a lot of attention. Even if this is just me being crazy or reading too much into things, this fist is perfectly placed to nab attention coming off the lettering before the reader's eyes are captured by the commanding black/red presence of Black Widow. This fist more than anything else on this page states the violent intentions of the office workers and clearly, efficiently establishes Black Widow and the workers as antagonists. It's such a great bit of comics.

(And also, dat tie tho. I'm a firm believer that solid black ties are the best ties, but I would wear the hell out of that Kirby-circuit-esque necktie.)

2. I really like this headbutt sequence. I think it encapsulates the strong storytelling approach of the Black Widow Team, and showcases why this comic is so great to read. The basic engine of these sequence is the down-up-down-up motion of Black Widow butting her assailant in the face. This effect is sets up by the narrow panels, which establish a mostly vertical storytelling space and helps direct the reader to the correct reading paths. The lettering also plays an important role since the narration balloons occur in panels with a top-down paths, and make sure the reader starts at the top of those panels and lingers there for a moment. The upswing, face-smashing panels, in contrast lack complex captioning, allowing the reader to quickly parse them in violent, kinetic moment. And then you layer in the RED! colouring of the impact panels, which adds a dramatic burst and helps queue the reader to the violence of those panels. (Like, take a look at the grey-scaled sequence... it's striking how much less energy the impact panels have in the absence of the red colour.) Which, combined creates a short, effective sequence that takes advantage of multiple aspects of the page to create the best reading experience. It's this dedication to storytelling and collaboration that makes Black Widow so effective.

3. I like Black Widows new character design a lot. I appreciate how the new costume incorporates touches of practical combat apparel (knee pads, body armour, Parkour-ish shoes), while still maintaining the sleek silhouette and visual identity of Black Widow's core look. I also like the redesign from a storytelling standpoint: the concentrated black costume with its red highlight and Natasha's red hair can really a command a panel. It will be interesting how these elements are used going forward in the series...

4. I love this panel. The composition, colours, level of detail, and storybeat create this great moment of awkward, restive suspense for me. It's funny and captivating and I would buy a print of it.

(This is also, incidentally a good example of how the black/red of Black Widow can pop on the page.)

5. I love how the story escalates. The comic opens with Black Widow mysteriously fighting an office full of drably dressed ordinary looking people. Then she smashes through a wall and finds herself in a room full of SHIELD agents and the stakes and parameters of the story shift from maybe a mundane espionage mission to a comic book one. And then Black Widow explodes an exit and jumps out of the building... except the building is a helicarrier and things ratchet up to full-on superheroic scale. One of my favourite aspects of Black Widow #1 is how, as a reader, I was kind of chasing the story. What is happening? Why is Black Widow fighting these people? These agents? Is everything what it seems? By changing the scope of the story it helps unfold the mystery in an interesting way and keep the reader off balance. Great stuff.


6. There is something about sections of Black Widow #1 that remind me of Bandette (by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover). This is especially true of the falling section: with the ejection button kick, quips, pantomime, trickery, and playful kiss the entire section is kind of fantastic and fun in a way that makes me think Bandette. I really like how playful the early section of  this comic reads: it helps maintain the mystery of the comic (maybe it's all an exercise?) and it helps set up a contrast that makes the last sequence of the comic more impactful and significant. I am not sure whether the comparison with Bandette is intentional, but I really like Bandette and like, if you elevator pitched me highstakes espionage Bandette for an adult audience I would read it.

(Y'all are reading Bandette right?)

Also, I love the use of an implied triangle in the top tier of panels on this page. It creates the sense of the plane of the art falling away and helps sell that Black Widow is plummeting in a simple and effective way. Black Widow is filled with examples of this kind of quietly adroit storytelling.

7. I love this sequence of Black Widow crashing. One reason is the wonderful motion tangent that moves across the page merging Black Widows motion path with the readers eyepath to create a quick, fast feeling moment of comics. Woosh! I also really like this sequence because of the baby/toddler pointing at Black Widow falling. It might just be that as a new parent I am a sucker for cute kids being cute, but I think it's more than that... The inclusion of such a natural moment in the background helps make the comic world feel more inhabited and bigger. Sure, Black Widow is having airborne combat adventures, but this mother and kid also are going about their day and have their own, barely glimpsed story. The use of such an active background extra is a small detail, but I appreciate how much more alive it makes this sequence feel.

8. I love this sequence. It is visceral and brutal and simple and filled with great storytelling. The angry red background feels furious and dangerous. When combined with the heavy shadow on the figures, this backdrop also serves to disguise the striking red-highlights on Black Widow and make the two combatants look and feel more equal which is super cool comics. I also love the top-left pistol to carriage return trigger pull: it uses the swing across the page to create a sort-of jump cut reveal, like a page turn within a page, which makes the moment feel more shocking. The carriage return also adds a certain sense of motion to the transition which also makes the moment more dramatic. It's an awesome choice. This entire brutal sequence is also interesting from a broader story perspective: it is visceral and mean when contrasted against the more playful earlier stretch and helps establish that whatever the mystery is, whatever Black Widow stole must be important and for real. And the fact that Black Widow pulled the trigger, was willing to kill the agent she playfully kissed a few pages ago, establishes how far she is willing to go, how vitally important the secret is. It's a perfect moment.


9. I love the relative silence of Black Widow #1. Reading text inevitably causes the reader to slow down and stop focusing on the artwork, so it slows progression through a page and can interrupt the flow and rhythm of action. By not having a lot of dialogue or narration captions Black Widow #1 allows the visuals to do the storytelling and maximizes the flow and interaction of panels. I recently read a pretty good comic with a great premise and nice action artwork, but which had so much narration that each panel of action essentially became disconnected and isolated, and which prevented the kind of kinetic sequences that made Black Widow so enjoyable. The impact of text on the experience of sequential art cannot be overstated, and Black Widow #1 is a great example of the kind of storytelling that can be accomplished with judicious paring down. 

10. I especially love how silent Black Widow is. By not having Black Widow speak or narrate within the majority of Black Widow #1, the comic manages to be mysterious. We never find out what she took and for a huge swatch of the issue it wasn't clear if it was a training exercise, or like fake-SHIELD, or something else. It is ambiguous, which means that readers are always chasing the story, trying to figure out what is happening and why, which creates this driving impetus to move through and understand the action. It's really effective.

It's also kind of important for my conception of a Black Widow comic. I like takes on Black Widow that maintain a certain element of secrecy. Like, in an ensemble, I think Black Widow works really well as someone who is hyper-competent, kind of mysterious, and vaguely scary. I'm not sure this necessarily translates into a solo book, since a protagonist probably needs to be more complicated and accessible. But like, the Edmondson/Noto Black Widow, which while I really enjoyed the art of always bothered me because Black Widow was so unsure of herself and completely available to the reader... it felt like someone just starting out. (More Sydney Bristow less Natasha Romanov.) My favourite Black Widow comic, a run by Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna, did a great job maintaining a dramatic sense of mystery and danger around Black Widow. However, this series also featured a significant amount of time with Natasha unconscious and people talking and deciding things about her, which definitely hurt the badass and agency points of the series. This Black Widow #1, by omitting internal narration manages to create that sense of intrigue and secrecy while the silent action portrays Black Widow as a hyper-competent badass. It's only one issue so it's hard to judge how the series will be, but this might be my favourite single issue of Black Widow yet. 


  1. Great analysis. This issue is a comics masterclass. I'd like to call your attention to a very nice detail on page 1, panel 2, bottom right corner: the reflection of the falling guy's head on a computer screen. It gives you a feeling of time suspended, like a slow motion sequence. The effect is enhanced by the flying pens and paper ball. Those elements, together with the guy on the left (the one with the star tie), provide a nice frame to Natasha's figure at the center. Waid, Samnee, and Co. are doing it again!

    1. Thanks. Oh man, I totally missed the reflection! Such a nice touch. And yeah, your totally right about the framing! It's in a lot of those early-office panels... I wonder if it was an intentional strategy to make BW seem trapped?