Monday, March 18, 2013

Opening Contract - Channel Zero

This weeks panel is from Channel Zero #1 by Brian Wood (originally published by Image in 1997 before being collected by AIT/Planet Lar in 2000 and more recently by Dark Horse).

This is another splash page/single panel but one that resonates well beyond this first issue.  

Join me after the cut where all becomes clear... 

Channel Zero deals with a near future America, oppressed and dominated by a police-state media conglomerate. The protagonist of the story is Jennie 2.5, a media hacker ,and her revolutionary efforts make up the bulk of the plot. Wood later teamed up with Becky Cloonan for the series Jennie One, a prequel, charting a young Jennie’s journey to becoming the woman we meet in Channel Zero.

In the panel we’re at street level in New York City and we can see a number of high rise buildings. On the side of these buildings are various signs all showing different logos, slogans and bits of information. This is the dominant visual of the panel almost clouding out the cityscape itself.

This ties in with one of the themes in Channel Zero’s narrative— oppression and control. The state tell people what to think, say and do and these signs are equally suggestive in their instruction; “be gentle”, “taste the tangible” “consumer worship”, “choice” and “truth”. These fragmentary statements and abstract words suggest a message being pushed on us, almost subliminally. The sheer number of them on display only reinforces that notion. Because the work is in black and white too it allows Wood to play with aspects of negative space further developing that idea of the images overwhelming the panel. 

Later, when we catch our first glimpse of Jennie 2.5 another aspect of this panel becomes clear. We only see brief snatches of her bare arms, but it’s enough to see they're heavily tattooed with slogans, logos and symbols covering each arm in a patchwork sleeve design. We see company logos such as Visa, nestled alongside familiar road signs such as 'Give Way'. 

It’s indicative of the Jennie 2.5 character that she'd appropriate the symbols of the enemy, perhaps to strip them of their power, or maybe to take on their power by etching them onto her own body. When we see Jennie for the first time in the prequel she has none of these tattoos. Instead they grow in size and frequency on her arms as her path towards the person we know evolves.  Signs in Jennie's world then,  exist not only as a signifier of where society is at, but play a part in explaining the character's evolution in subsequent works. This opening panel establishes their importance, showing us their power as well as their ability to overwhelm and grab our focus. 

The caption in the panel describes Jennie’s initial ignorance as New York and the country as a whole change around her. It details the rise of a vocal Christian Right and the establishment of The Clean Act. These words are Wood’s first in comics and they’re indicative of the kind of world building that he’s now known for with works such as DMZ, Northlanders and lately The Massive.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the panel— how it ties in visually (and thematically) to Wood’s subsequent work. Wood has stated in several interviews his analogue process for creating the artwork for Channel Zero: 

“The art and design work I do on DMZ is a continuation, a refinement, of the CHANNEL ZERO “style,” which, at the time, was 100% analog. I didn’t own a computer, and this was 1996-ish, and Parsons had yet to really stress the value of computers as creative tools. Found imagery, stencils, fax, and photocopier effects – I did all that by hand. I ran art through my fax machine for visual effects, I bought hacked Kinko’s cards to experiment with copy art, to scale my stuff up and down. I cut stencils and searched through the image library at school for stuff to use/steal/incorporate. I really, really miss those times. I used a lot of glue sticks. Now, I do all that digitally, but my goal is to always try and recreate that analog look.”

It’s this look that gives the opening panel and those that follow its power. It plays into the notion of the comics and the stories within as found artefacts of a time and place that never existed. It gives the work texture and resonance that others don’t always match or achieve-- world building through tangibility. At the time Wood was doing a BFA in illustration and graphic design and used tools such as a quill pen, brush ink and a photocopier. Computers were used quite sparingly, only being used for cover photos, illustrations and to type out the text for captions and dialogue. These were then cut out and rubber cemented onto Bristol Board. 

This creates a lo-fi, almost zine-like feel to the work that was further developed in DMZ. If we take a look at the opening panel of DMZ we can quite clearly see the influence there, albeit a more refined, and visually more complex continuation. We have the aerial map of New York City along with a stencil-type font depicting factions and territories. The more traditional font and captions are used to world build and give the comic some context. 

For his more modern creator-owned work Wood has distilled this style somewhat, but trace elements of it can still be found. This distillation is almost literal in the case of Mara's opening panel which shows us simply "The City" in "The Future". The single caption accompanying the panel is again used to establish context through the use of a news-style narration. The analogue lo-fi aesthetic is gone, but the underlying structure and execution remains mostly unchanged. In this way, like Jennie's tattoos, we can use the opening panel of Channel Zero as a kind of visual yardstick that charts the evolution of Wood as a creator and storyteller. 

As a side note, I can’t help but see Channel Zero as being an analogue forebear to Jonathan Hickman’s Nightly News. Both are assured debuts from creators that have gone on to great things, but it’s these initial works that got the ball rolling. Compare and contrast the opening panel/page to see what I mean. 

As well as its visual touches and legacies this page has something else-- confidence. This is a voice (sometimes an angry one) that has something to say, a voice with a love of the medium, but one not beholden to treading the same path. Wood uses elements of his own education and love of New York and brings it front and centre here, something he maintains throughout this work and those that followed.

It’s a testament to all that comics can be as a medium, melding imagery and elements from numerous fields and walks of life and spitting out something unique at the other end.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of any other opening panels that resonate through a career quite so clearly? Am I way off tangent with the Nightly News comparison?

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