Monday, April 29, 2013

Opening Contract - Batman #406

In interviews Frank Miller often mentions Mickey Spillane as a primary creative influence. One look at the likes of Sin City makes this very much apparent, as well as the noir stylings of his Daredevil run. However, join me after the cut to see how one of Spillane’s most effective techniques was used to grand effect in Batman #406 by Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis and Todd Klein.

This issue was the third part in the seminal Year One storyline. This was, of course, a modern reinterpretation of the Batman origin and follows Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham after years away learning the skills he will need to fight crime. As Part 3 of the story begins Bruce has begun to make his mark as Batman, successfully angering both Gotham’s police force and its established criminal fraternity. 

At the end of Part 2, after saving an old woman’s life, Batman is shot, flees the scene, and subsequently takes shelter in a derelict building. The issue ends with an overzealous police force dropping an explosive onto the building as a horrified Jim Gordon looks on. 

The opening panel in question takes up half a page and depicts Batman as he falls down a crumbling stairwell towards the floor as the abandoned building falls apart, consumed by flames. In the background of the panel on the left we see a vagrant, the flames seconds away from claiming him. Richmond Lewis’ colours are extremely evocative here, with various hues of orange and red hammering home the severity of the fire and heat. 

The shot Mazzucchelli has chosen here (no angle is suggested in Miller’s script, reprinted in the trade) heightens its effectiveness. The panel is at a slightly skewed angle, bringing up connotations of awkwardness and disorientation. This can be tied in with the stage Bruce is at in his crime fighting career when this story takes place, his inexperience being subtly suggested. This plays off an earlier scene when the first appearance of Bruce in the Batman costume takes the form of a frenzied and panicked fight on a fire escape. The angle of the panel also guides the eye, subconsciously suggesting a fast downward movement. 

The panel’s visuals are accompanied by a series of captions, all of which take the form of Bruce’s thought process as the action is occurring. For instance, one of the captions mentions the vagrant and the fact that he's beyond saving. This captions is cleverly placed near to the vagrant, perhaps suggesting that even if he’s falling to certain doom, Bruce has some element of situational awareness here. This is an improvement on the aforementioned fire escape scene where Bruce was taken by surprise, getting a TV smashed over his back for his trouble.

The captions also have a stream of consciousness, staccato, rapid-fire rhythm to them that is something of a hallmark in Miller’s work. This is where Spillane comes in. Spillane’s dialogue and descriptive prose were often fragmented. Indeed, one reviewer Cullen Gallagher, described it as: 

At times, it’s as staccato as a gunshot. At others it resembles stream of consciousness, a torrent of thought and action with which words can hardly keep up. In his more experimental moments, Spillane’s prose even shows traces of Imagism (though I’m sure he’d shun such scholarly tags)”

(Cullen Gallagher from his review of Kiss Her Goodbye)

Ring any bells? 

The book has two narrators in the form of Bruce and James Gordon. For the most part these captions are measured, calm and provide insight into the two most important men in Gotham. But when both of these characters are placed into dangerous situations the captions begin to break down, increasing in number, their sentences fragmenting as thoughts trail off and are superseded by an ever escalating series of events. Spillane used this brilliantly to evoke tension and Miller takes this and adapts it perfectly to the comic book form, showing us how these men are similar and the way in which their minds deal with a crisis. 

Miller would also expand on this further in much of his work, taking that staccato effect and using it in relation to switching scenes and locations too, often in the space of one page. The best example of this would come in Dark Knight Returns where Miller would use different variations on the 12 panel grid to switch scenes and locations rapidly, often using TV talking heads as a kind of Greek Chorus (an thorough and excellent analysis of DKR can be found here). 

This also has the effect of humanising Batman somewhat, grounding him. This is a Batman not yet fully confident in his abilities and the doubts and fears that creep into these captions only further that idea. The repetition of the words “can’t help him” (in reference to the vagrant) suggest Bruce assuaging himself of any guilt he may feel. This wasn’t his fault. Nothing could be done. Nothing. 

All of these disparate elements give this opening panel a true sense of chaos any mayhem. We don’t know which way is up, everything is falling apart around us. Miller tries to convey the same sense of sudden confusion on the reader by choosing to start the first scene in media res with this panel. There’s no establishing shot of the building or an exterior shot showing Gordon’s reaction to the building going up in flames. Instead we begin in mid-thought, mid-air as Batman falls. 

There’s also a bit of mirroring here with this panel serving as a twin of sorts for the opening panel of Daredevil #233 (from the issue entitled ‘Armageddon’, part of the Born Again storyline). Here an explosion engulfs a New York rooftop, sending one of those infamous water towers skywards as Daredevil leaps to safety. We start once again in the moment, in media res, as confused as the hero we’re following. 

This opening panel is a textbook example of an opening contract. It draws the reader in immediately, gets across emotion and the mindset of the protagonist as well as evoking the pure chaos and weight of the situation Bruce finds himself in. Writing, art, colours and lettering all combine and work together beautifully to offer us not only a window into Batman’s mind but give us a chance to observe elements of the techniques Miller has made his own. 

Are there any other Miller opening panels or sequences that are similar in construction and approach other than the ones I’ve mentioned? As always, this and any other questions, comments or observations are welcome in the comments section below. 

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