Saturday, March 19, 2011

Crossbones, Shalvey, Wilson, and the Art of Death

The Captain America one-shots are all dropping one at a time and this week saw the Crossbones issue from William Harms and Declan Shalvey hit. And it was damn good. It’s an 80s action flick done right and while there’s plenty to say on the matter I want to talk about the art. Most specifically, I want to discuss how Shalvey, and colourist Matthew Wilson, convey death through negative space. It’s pure brilliance so hit the jump to see how it all goes down.

The premise of the issue is that some shady government operative visits Crossbones, Brock Rumlow, in his cell. He says he has a secret mission so clandestine that even Steve Rogers doesn’t know about it. It’s just dangerous enough to get Rumlow’s attention. He’s on board and to arrange it all the operative shoots Rumlow in the neck with a blow dart to knock him out.

This action might seem superfluous, Rumlow already said he was in for the gig, but obviously no chances are being taken. Rumlow is a very strong man. He’s also strong in will and this mixture makes him excessively dangerous. You never know what he’s going to do or how he’s going to do it so the operative realises there’s no point in taking chances with such a dangerous killer. This is the guy who managed to assassinate Captain America. He need not be afforded any civil privileges.

Shalvey and Wilson set up the panel so we see the shot but around and between these two men there is nothing but white space. This thin distance represents the fact the operative doesn’t care if Rumlow lives or dies. In this moment, Rumlow is an asset being acquired, a weapon to be used, and his status of humanity is very low. This is a dangerous mission and the operative can easily afford for Rumlow to not come back. Hell, it’s probably a win/win if he doesn’t.

After bundling Rumlow into some airborne transport, and getting him into his iconic costume, the operative and other handlers take the liberty of throwing him out into the open sky. His hands are tied, for initial safety reasons, and there is a parachute packed for him. A soldier mentions, in a disingenuous voice, that he hopes he packed it correctly for their secret muscle-clad spy.

Rumlow doesn’t get a choice, he takes his chances in each moment as he finds them.

There is the possibility Rumlow could just die. Armed forces commit acts of brutality every day in the name of national pride and frustration. You don’t really think the lead of this one-shot is going to die a quarter of the way in but you have to know these soldiers don’t care if he does or not. One, in particular, shoots his mouth off because his grandfather was saved by Cap and so Rumlow is nothing but scum for having shot Cap. In that place, with those people, Rumlow has no rights and will be afforded none. This isn’t just how the operative thinks of him, as the first white panel showed, but this is how the world reacts to someone like Crossbones. They throw them into terrible situations and hope they die. It’s cold and it’s cunning and it’s exactly how the world works. We all deal with it and Rumlow has to as well.

My absolute favourite panel of the book comes after Rumlow lands in the hot zone. He finds it deserted which either means people have been completely overplaying this situation, or they’ve severely underestimated it. In this case, it seems the operative barely has any idea of what’s truly happening. The horror is that not only does he completely understand this death but he’s the cause of it. Rumlow is simply caught in the middle. But that revelation comes later, for now Rumlow walks blind into something that could be the death of him. And he still walks on. Is it stupidity or courage or arrogance that fuel and power Rumlow?

Placing Rumlow into the background, small and still walking further away, shows that the death in and of this town is immense. The landscape has been razed of life and humanity. There is nothing left, even the cars are washed out figures. With the spark of life gone, the canvas of this scene loses its lustre. There’s, literally, nothing to see. Or at least worthy of note.

The main break in the white is the trail of blood. The liquid of life itself and yet when removed from that which it animates it becomes a material for horror. Yet Crossbones follows it. Does he hope to find this horror, inspect it, and revel in it? Or is he actually following the destruction to find that which has survived? It’s a tricky situation and one truly at the heart of this one-shot. What is it Crossbones really continues for? He doesn’t need to follow the rules placed upon him, even at the end of the issue he states that he is capable of much more, and yet he yields under the direction of the operative. There must be purpose to it. There must be more to this man.

I look at this panel of Crossbones following blood off into an empty world and I see him seeking something more. His life has been about nothing but destruction and in the end the major goal of his life, the assassination of Captain America, hasn’t fulfilled him. He didn’t really complete the job and now what path lies in front of him? It will certainly be a bloody road, but will its end be life or death?

A flashback page showcases Rumlow’s act of anti-patriotism as he lined up Steve Rogers in his crosshairs and pulled the trigger. This page is offered with only one line, spoken by Rumlow as he pulls the trigger. “Been waitin’ a long time for this, Rogers.” He had indeed, waiting his whole life, but once the deed is done what does it leave him and what does it make him see?

It’s difficult to say if this scene is Rumlow showing remorse or not. This ambiguity permeates the entire issue but this moment must be placed for a reason. Is Rumlow realising he needs a new goal in life? Did all that anticipation and then the deed truly leave him satisfied?

It is extremely interesting that the centre of this white panel is someone dying, or at least appearing to die, with his love by his side. The world around lives on, it’s Cap about to pass away, but the world gets the white treatment because in that moment the world is the one losing. This death affects everyone. This isn’t a man dying, it’s the death of an ideal. It’s an icon fading away and when that occurs the world is irrevocably changed.

Sharon Carter is also pictured because on a more micro level her world will never be the same. She loves this man and he’s slipping away from her as she holds him on the steps. If the world is losing a portion then she is losing one big fat chunk. The world might as well not even exist with Steve gone.

Then there’s the paper floating by. Everything is flashed out with white by a blowing piece of paper remains. The single word on it – traitor. Is this how Rumlow sees himself, a traitor to the cause? He’s turned his back on his country and can he really ignore that forever?

One small panel to quickly note is during a moment where Rumlow uses another man as a human distraction – even though this act kills the man. Rumlow hoists the man up and pulls the pins on his grenades with the same action. It is a death sentence so Rumlow, and his mission, can survive. A ruthless decision but a tactically sound one.

I guess you can never forget that Rumlow is a villain. He doesn’t see all human life the way most others do. He just doesn’t care and the ‘plink’ of the pin falling loose is the sound of Rumlow not caring. It’s a small moment because that’s what killing this man was.

The final white panel somewhat mimics Rumlow being shoved out of the sky. Except this is a different person falling, because of a different push, for a different reason. I won’t spoil the moment except to say that the decision is made by Rumlow. He does this because he feels he has to. He has to prove a point. He has to save an innocent. He has to stop another version of himself being created. Or perhaps he wants to be the only one. No good will come from saturating his impact on the world, diluting it.

He has to make the hard decision and perhaps that can be his position in the world. Rumlow can be a man, a man without allegiance or morals, but a man who does what the world needs. Or at least what Rumlow thinks it needs at any given moment. And to kick that off, someone has to fall to their death.

The body has a long way to fall but you can guarantee Rumlow will have forgotten all about it before it hits the white bottom. Rumlow will have moved on but it is hard to say where exactly. This issue is a crossroad opening up. Rumlow might never be a hero but he will always be around. Countries have long harnessed bad men to do the dirty deeds necessary, though not pretty, to keep the illusion of a happy world bright and constant. Rumlow is on his way somewhere, his journey isn't over.

But wherever it is he lands, there will be death. That much is certain.

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Brian Lee said...

Usually in comics when you see a bunch of empty backgrounds it's because the artist didn't bother to add them and you feel cheated, like you only got half the art. This, however, is negative space brought to the forefront and done really well. I wasn't going to even give this a glance (I've never gotten hooked on Cap and his oversaturation lately is getting annoying), but I'll have to take a look now.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Brian Lee - yeah, that lack of background so often feels like a cheat but it's anything but here. This one-shot is great, I really dug it, and the art completely matches the tale, if not slightly eclipses it. Shalvey is quickly becoming one of my favourites.

I hope you do pick the book up but more importantly I hope you enjoy it.

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