Monday, February 18, 2013
This weeks column is taken from the first issue of current ‘Greatest Comic in the Universe’, Hawkeye from Marvel Comics by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth and Chris Eliopoulos.
Suit up, fill that quiver and meet me in the car park in five as I explain all about the birds and the bees and why I’ve chosen another splash page.
My last entry was an easy enough choice for me. It’s a classic image, seminal in its own way and hugely influential for me on a personal level. I went back and forth on what I should do next, and I kept comic back to the opening image of Hawkeye #1. I also noticed that most of my alternative choices were splash pages. Truth be told it felt like cheating.
Then, I began to question that impulse. Why? A splash page as a first panel is just as viable as a regular sized one, right? Looking at a number of issues it became clear to me that maybe they’re overused, or at least not used in the right way. A flashy, large opening image for the sake of it is nothing new. But in the current climate of lower page counts, is there a place for them?
It was only flicking through the first issue of Hawkeye and reading this post over at Fraction’s Tumblr that the subject and focus of this weeks column crystallised.
In the post Fraction points out that when taking on Hawkeye he was coming off multi-year runs on several superhero titles and wanted to cleanse his palette a little, re-evaluating his toolset. With page counts falling in books from mainstream publishers he decided that new techniques would be needed.
Using the Claremont/Byrne run on Uncanny X-Men as a base point Fraction decided to pursue a denser page, panel wise. Fraction’s confidence was bolstered by looking at issues of Master of Kung-Fu by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy. In those issues higher density pages were also used, but each issue began with a splash page/panel.
These pages differed in style and execution but always suggested the tone and direction of that particular issue. The most telling part of Fraction’s post comes when he says that when these splash pages were utilised by Grant Morrison in New X-Men they “suggested a shape for the whole series”.
He argues that the pages could be seen as almost throwaway in that regard, the story itself wasn’t really suggested there. It was a foot in the door, the sharp intake of breath before the heady rush of the pages that followed.
What Fraction has done with this opening panel in Hawkeye #1 then is take that opening splash page and used it as a mission statement for both the character and the series as a whole.
In this way Fraction is utilising the technique of Moench/Gulacy but giving it a modern flourish. This opening panel comes before the brilliant credits page (more on that later) and fulfils a number of functions. Lets get into the visuals first.
Visually, this is fairly close to a shot featured in The Avengers, depicting Jeremy Renner as Clint falling, the city streets below him as he fires an arrow towards us in a great “Hell yeah!” moment. You know the bit I mean. It was in all of the trailers.
But whilst the image gives a new reader a sense of familiarity it also subtly explains the differences between the two versions of the characters and how this title differs from the usual superhero fare. There’s no alien invasion going on around him here, no Avengers around to stop the fall at the last moment. This is 'Clint Unplugged' ,out on his own. Something the next few panels run with.
There are no jetpacks here, no safety nets or parachutes. Just a guy with some arrows whose ass now belongs to gravity. It ties into the notion of Clint as the Marvel Universe’s everyman. No powers. No back up. This is Clint on his days off. This is another difference between the comics and Renner’s version, with his version more of an icy cool military man that’s keeping more with the Ultimate version of the character. This difference is also shown with the only caption present in the panel in the form of Clint’s inner monologue:
“Okay…this looks bad” is this version of Clint in a nutshell, all ‘Aw shucks’ bravado and charm.
The opening line also serves as a catchphrase of sorts, a phrase that has been used in every single opening page of the series so far (bar Issue #4). Two of those pages feature Clint falling. In this way, whilst the images and tone of each opening panel may change, the text serves to unite them all, giving them a consistency despite the images existing separate from each other (I can’t help but think of Sam Beckett’s “Oh Boy!” from Quantum Leap).
One of the differences between this opening panel and the rest of the series is its distance from the story itself. The act of Clint falling from the building and getting injured sets the story in motion but has no bearing on the plot that follows; instead we follow Clint as he saves his building from evil landlords and a dog from Russian gangsters.
Interestingly it’s also the only one of the opening pages of the series that occurs BEFORE the credits/recap page. This perhaps is the biggest indicator that the panel has been designed to draw the reader in.
You pick up this issue and open it up and see that image? Sold.
Fraction has said in a few interviews that initially the series had a more James Bond type feel, and you can definitely see some trace elements of that remaining, this first panel amongst them.
This panel is the end of Clint’s pre-title sequence, the closing beats of action of Clint’s previous adventure before the theme song kicks in. This is a moment in time, a glimpse of what makes Clint tick, his cool in the face of danger, and a pitch perfect promise of everything to follow.
What do you think about splash pages as an opening panel? Effective? Do they have a place in modern, denser comics?
As usual, any thoughts and comments are appreciated.