Five-Panel Draw

I was quite taken by the following sequence from The Uncanny X-Men #166, dated Feb. 1983.

Excerpt from The Uncanny X-Men #166 © 1982 and characters TM/® Marvel Comics.
Script: Chris Claremont. Pencils: Paul Smith. Inks: Bob Wiacek. Colors: Glynis
Wein/Oliver. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editing: Louise Jones/Simonson.

The set of five panels is at the bottom of Pg. 12 of the issue's extra-length story, "Live Free or Die!", drawn by Paul Smith in his second issue as penciler of the series.

If you're unfamiliar with the issue and would like some context, you can head over to my blog-buddy Teebore's post on it — the reason I was rereading the issue in the first place. What I have to say about the panels below is taken from comments I made there, but I thought I'd repost the passage here even though I'm on some semblance of a vacation. It seems fitting to be publishing this analysis online from the same library where I did my first historical and critical reading about comics 35 years ago.

Cover to The Uncanny X-Men #166 © 1982, characters and logo
TM/® Marvel Comics. Pencils, Inks: Paul Smith. Colors: Unknown.

[Above is the cover to the issue. It's not part of my analysis, but I wanted a buffer between my preamble and the meat of the post. (For the uninitiated it also begs the question "Why is Spider-Man's head in a box and why is that girl blasting that box with a hair dryer that shoots pink laser beams?"). If you'd like to open the image under discussion in its own window for easier reference, Voilà!]

"Live Free or Die!" is the first of two climaxes to the Brood saga, with the other coming in the next issue as the X-Men return home from deep space to confront their mentor, Charles Xavier. The X-Men, including Xavier, have been implanted by the alien Brood with eggs that are slowly taking over their powers and personalities, in the name of, well, breeding supercreatures loyal to the Brood queen. Wolverine's mutant healing power has successfully excised the nascent Brood inside him like a virus, but his teammates are biological time bombs with short fuses — an analogy that describes Cyclops' temperament in addition to the embryonic Brood that his body hosts. On the 12th page of the story, as Kitty Pryde — a.k.a. Ariel, if anyone ever actually called her that — and the rest look on, Wolverine's concern over his infected comrades' trustworthiness in battle is called out by Cyclops. The long-simmering conflict felt by Wolverine over whether and when to kill them before the Broods within them manifest comes to a head.

Not only do the panels get smaller, but both the tension between the characters and the quickening pace of the action is further suggested by the claustrophobia of the shrinking margins ("gutters") between the panels. The sequence begins pensively; by the time Wolverine unsheathes his claws, the panel practically overlaps the next one with Kitty shouting, suggesting virtual simultaneity.

Tom Orzechowski's lettering further underscores this — not that Smith's layout left him much of an alternative, so credit both of them — as our eye wants to go down from the words above Pn. 4 to Wolverine's arm but also sideways to Kitty's "No!!" attached to Pn. 5. We struggle to take them in as separate units just as the characters are struggling, until the panels are punctuated by the "Snikt!" of the claws back at the bottom of Pn. 4. This all happens unconsciously and at the speed of thought, minus the buffering our brains do when toggling between the competing visual avenues, but I'm convinced that it happens nonetheless.

The way the lettering separates from the panels as the sequence progresses also, to me, heightens that claustrophobic feeling as well as the way the characters are separated amongst themselves out of mistrust and separated from the readers. Wolverine's thought bubble is fully contained in Pn. 1, Cyclops' word balloon breaks the top of Pn. 2, Wolverine's internal monologue continues as quoted text hovering above/apart from Pns. 3 & 4, and Kitty's shout-burst hangs above Pn. 5 in tension with Pn. 4's sound effect and the claws that pierce it at the bottom.

You'd think that the desired effort on the part of Smith, writer Chris Claremont, et al. would be to draw us in. But I find that the way the characters are boxed in, their faces obscured, the panel borders shrinking progressively smaller, distances me — not in a way detrimental to the narrative, although the emotional outcome is negative; being put at arm's length from what is usually (or at least ideally) an intimate involvement with the storytelling is a very effective way of making me feel helpless during the showdown. Reading prose or comics is usually an immersive complicity, and here we're ever so slightly made observers instead of participants as the white space on the page, which we understand to be "outside" the action, becomes larger and more obvious.

I'll admit that I have no idea how much of all this is intentional on the part of the creative team. A lot of it could be happy accident. But I think that craftsmen with an innate understanding of the comics medium, be they veteran or (as in the case of Smith) young turk, are quite capable of exploiting its elements in such a pitch-perfect way consciously or otherwise.

People talk about comics being more than just a variation on film in print and this sequence is a prime example why. Much is made of the reader's control over the reading experience in comics, i.e. lingering over the art or flipping back to earlier in the story, but the way smart creators try to influence that experience through mechanisms in panel-to-panel storytelling is also virtually unique to the medium. The author(s) — here most definitely including the illustrators — are suggesting the tempo in a way that prose authors and filmmakers can't. That our wires get crossed at the end of this dramatic sequence completes the sequence perfectly.

Once upon a time I think I would've been upset that the transition between Pn. 3 and Pn. 4 is a moment-to-moment transition with the "camera" held on the same object, Wolverine's hand, whereas every other transition in the sequence is a leap to a different discrete shot. Now, whether the product of sophisticated intent or simple freewheeling choice, I consider it crucially appropriate.

I don't love the red background in Pn. 4, as it kind-of washes out Wolverine's fist, but I'll give Glynis Oliver the benefit of the doubt and figure that, in addition to the rage/violence/bloodlust suggested by the red as Logan's claws extend, she's intentionally focusing our eyes on the claws and the "Snikt!" by making them, well, pop. The way the brown and red blend together produces a result similar to that of a photography lens focusing, which reminds me that I'd much rather have the effect accomplished this way than the actual blurring — to denote either speed or "lens focus" — through computer effects, rather common in comics today and not at all to my liking.

Maybe that's a lot to say about a five-panel sequence in an issue of X-Men, but you don't have to be studying Eisner, Kurtzman, or Krigstein to examine the medium.

Kindred Posts: eXtras; Foyer, Guns, and Honeys; A Wing and a Prayer


El Qué said...

You am smart.

Arben said...

Great analysis, Blam!

I totally agree with you that even if much or most of what's going there isn't conscious on the rarified level at which your analysis is working it's still intentional to the extent that Smith, et al. are making valuable, sophisticated choices on impulse.

"Why is Spider-Man's head in a box and why is that girl blasting that box with a hair dryer that shoots pink laser beams?"


I haven't read the Paul Smith run in a while now. So far I've successfully resisted the lure of doing this reread with you over at Teebore's, but the temptation is mounting.

Can "Immersive Complicity" be my new band name, or is it spoken for? What a fantastic phrase!

tony said...

Good stuff, Brian!

Blam said...

Thanks, everyone!

Teebore said...

"Why is Spider-Man's head in a box and why is that girl blasting that box with a hair dryer that shoots pink laser beams?"

Ha! That Brood ray gun seemed a lot more menacing (and less hair dryer) in the hands of the Brood than it does in the hands of Kitty.

@Arben: So far I've successfully resisted the lure of doing this reread with you over at Teebore's, but the temptation is mounting.

Join us, Arben, join us! Resistance is futile.