Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Interrogating Black Widow #4

Or a look at some of my favourite storytelling in Black Widow #4
by Chris Samnee, Mark Waid, Matt Wilson, and Joe Caramagna; Marvel Comics

Black Widow remains a very exciting comic to analyze from a comics wonk perspective. With issue #4 the creative team delivers another instalment filled with skillful and interesting storytelling. Unlike previous issues where I could find a worthwhile throughline to frame an analysis, Black Widow #4 showcases a pretty varied mix of techniques. So, I guess in honour of this being issue #4, I'm going to discuss four sequences that I find fascinating. 

There will be *SPOILERS* beyond this point.

1. I've talked about this before  but Team Widow is really, really good at creating dynamic sequences that use eye tracking to focus the reader and create a sense of motion. This sequence is another great example to this approach. The page opens with a panel that has the black silhouetted Widow in the bottom left corner, then uses the tank-things to create a guide to Widow in the top right panel. This gets the reader efficiently across the page and sets the stakes of the sequence: one covert agent against a place with sci-fi tanks. From the top right panel, the reader drops to the next panel where Black Widow tosses a stone, which guides the reader back to the left, across the page in a carriage-return, and into the next panel where the stone hits the guard. Action, movement, consequence. The reader then moves onto the following panel where distracted-guard is hauled bodily out of frame in a way that synchs the readers eye path to the motion. The following panel, with the guard running, uses the angle of the guards body (and implied motion) to create an arc to the alarm box and inset circular panel. We see the SHNK effect in the round panel, and then carry across the page, creating the down-and-to-the-left motion of the guard yanking the alarm lever. This brings the reader to the bottom left panel where the heavy black of Widow creates an initial focus point. The reader then moves down and through the knife thrust, using eyes and the blade as a guide, and smoothly into the final panel where the long blood smear takes the reader to the end of the page where Widow is dragging the corpses. It is also significant that this final panel's motion seems to carry right out of the panel and into the next page which helps keep the motion going (something that was pointed out in this great video breakdown). It's a great, efficient, and exciting page constructed out very fluid eye tracking. 

2. Another aspect of Black Widow I've talked about previously was the use of misdirection in panels to hide story elements in the periphery of panels. This page here has another pretty remarkable example of this. In this case the page opens with Black Widow and two corpses she dragged out of the previous page. Widow is looking up toward the next panel which gives a great guide to focus the reader on where to go next. The reader enters the next page and sees that the guard in the middle of the panel has a brighter colouring and is the most visually emphasized part of the panel. If you are a reader like me, you then move onto the next panel and see Widow breaking into a room and go, wait, what? And then you maybe loop back to the previous panel and find Widow hidden in the top right corner of the panel. She is drawn as a black silhouette blended into the shadow of the wall/turret. This makes widow another black area in a part of the page rich with identical heavy blacks and very easy, I think, to miss. Especially since the one guard is emphasized so prominently by the colours. This is a fantastic choice since it has Black Widow literally sneaking through the panel! Which is awesome!

3. Black Widow #4 also has a tremendous quiet section where a wounded Natasha speaks with Iosef, apparently a former teacher who rescued her. The entire sequence is a feat of acting and atmosphere and how to make exposition interesting, but this sequence here I think is superbly executed.

One of the key aspects of Black Widow for me, is that we do not get direct thought narration from Widow. Black Widow for me is defined as being supremely competent and vaguely mysterious. Making this work in a comic where she is the central character requires a certain degree of inaccessibility to the protagonist: we can't see her literal thoughts without losing that critical ambiguity. At the same time, for the story to be compelling the reader needs to have some glimpse of the protagonists inner life. Which puts a huge burden on character acting and colouring to provide enough emotional queues that the reader can engage with the protagonist. Black Widow absolutely nails this.

The other challenge of this kind of storytelling is conveying critical story information in visual, organic ways. This above sequence functions to show that Iosef and Widow know each other from the past. In a thought narration comic this would be accomplished, probably, by a caption like: "Ah, Iosef, my old teacher. I haven't seen him in years..." In Black Widow it is all about visual information. We see a flashback, made obvious by the sepia colouring of a faded photograph. In this flashback we see a recognizable Widow, although a younger version of her, with an unknown man. We then see an older man, haggard but still recognizably the same man probably. Which, is actually a pretty remarkable feat of figure drawing. The thing that removes any ambiguity, though, is how the two characters relate to each other.  Iosef and Widow have the same spatial relationship throughout the page with Widow prone and to the left of Iosef throughout the page. This is especially true of the top right and bottom right panels where the poses are nearly identical and create an obvious parallel. By the time we leave the page we understand the relationship between Iosef and Widow without it ever being explicitly stated and that is really, really smart storytelling.

4. From a purely comics wonk perspective I think this page, though, is my favourite in the issue. 

The top half of the page provides a sequence of Black Widow sneaking into a secure facility in a series of inset panels on a maze-motif background. This is a great choice because it uses the symbology of a maze to convey to the reader that Widow is forced to navigate a convoluted route to reach her objectives. This allows the reader to appreciate the time and complexity of Widow's implied movement without having to depict every step, which reduces the space needed for this chunk of story. The use of the maze motif is also pretty interesting because, for me at least, it calls to mind the wire lines of circuitry. This along with the perspective, I think, makes the round panel in the top left feel like a shot taken by a nearby security camera. Which implies, along with the earlier pulled alarm lever, that Black Widow has been observed by the masters of the base she is infiltrating. To me this is part of the comic telling the reader, without making it explicit, that Widow is sneaking into a trap of sorts. It's pretty cool stuff.

The bottom half of the page is where I think some really nifty, if easily overlooked choices are being made. The sequence here is pretty straightforward: Black Widow, having snuck her way to her goal stands behind a dramatically opening door. The execution here, the way the story is constructed, is perfect. The most obvious aspect of this is that as the door opens, the amount of open space in the panel increases. This is enhanced by the shape of the panels which are not square, but fall into a shape with a angled top. This means that as the doorway opens, the panels themselves become taller and more "open" to the reader. In addition the angled top line helps sell a sense of upward motion to pull the readers attention from bottom left to top right. (To get a sense of why this is effective, compare it to the diagram that does the same shot using static square panels.) This sequence uses yet another trick as well: the perspective of the panels ascends with the door. By this I mean each subsequent image is aimed a little higher along Widow's body (which I breakdown in the bottom diagram). What this does is create a sense of upward momentum to the sequence since the door and the perspective are both ascending at the same time to create the feeling of motion. (Again, comparison to the static square diagram will show just how much more dynamic the ascending perspective is.) This choice also has the additional advantage of letting the final panel focus on Widows determined/angry eyes. Which all combined makes this three panel sequence have a tremendous amount of momentum that all focuses on the Widow in an important, solid emotional beat before the next part of the story is unveiled. It's a fairly effortless reading chunk of story constructed out of some very smart, complicated storytelling and why I think Black Widow is such an exciting comic to read and analyze. 

As an aside, the maze motif also recently popped up in Bitch Planet #8 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peter, and Clayton Cowles. In this sequence the characters are sneaking through a prison during a blackout to find a secret, isolated prison cell. Again the use of the maze motif is used to efficiently sell the idea of movement through a convoluted story space without investing a large amount of space to it. In this case, the maze motif is particularly apt because the characters are navigating in the dark from a hastily memorized map. It's a great choice that shows how convergent solutions to similar story challenges can exist.

Black Widow #1

Black Widow #2
Black Widow #3

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