Monday, June 24, 2013

Opening Contract - Valentine #1

This weeks entry, Valentine by Alex De Campi and Christine Larsen, is something entirely different from what’s come before in Opening Contract. Not only was Valentine entirely self-published, but was produced from the ground up for digital consumption. As such, the strip, and by extension this edition of the column, pushes the boundaries of what a single panel is in the traditional sense of the word.

De Campi set out to get the story onto as many digital devices and marketplaces as possible (including translating it into a number of languages as detailed here). It’s also worth pointing out that this series came into being at the back half of 2009 long before the release of the now ubiquitous iPad. When creators like Mark Waid and Reilly Brown herald De Campi as a pioneer in the field of digital comics, they’re not kidding. I can’t think of a more fitting comic for my first digital-centric Opening Contract.

Note: The entire series can be grabbed for free from ComiXology. I haven't included all of the images described in the column as it would have crowded out the page so feel free to read along at home on this one.

Valentine’s plot follows two cavalry officers, the eponymous Valentine and Oscar, as they’re separated from the main army during Napoleon’s retreat from Russia during the War of 1812. This first issue details the duo stumbling across a pair of strangers in a blizzard, an event that will embroil them in an ancient conflict that threatens the entire world.

The story opens on a long line of soldiers, partly obscured by a blizzard, as they march towards us. In the centre of the panel, in blood red type, is the legend ‘1812’. A swipe on the panel removes the obscurity of the blizzard and the logo. We can now see just how far the column of soldiers goes back, giving us our first real look on the scale of the scene and the army itself. Another swipe brings up a set of captions that talk about life carrying on, about people in Paris going about their business, shopping for Christmas presents. Time on the Russian front, like this panel, moves differently (“It must be December now”).

The next swipe pans right (this is still the same panel remember), revealing more of the landscape and scene. We see the bodies of dead soldiers littering the landscape as others try to help. We see birds circling the dead overhead, waiting for their moment. In the foreground of the scene a bird picks at the flesh of a corpse. The stark white of the panel is broken up by two splashes of red here— the flesh of the dead soldier, and the eyes of the bird in the foreground. It highlights the death present in the panel as well as suggesting a primal, visceral evil. It also serves as a nice bit of foreshadowing of the villains appearance at the end of this issue, their eyes glowing red, cutting through the blizzard they appear out of.

A swipe brings up a new set of captions, a pattern that’s repeated in this first panel. Each time we're given a new image, devoid of text,  allowing our eyes the opportunity to run across all of the myriad details. Afterwards, we’re given the captions which serve to add more resonance and context for the images. It’s a great way to add several layers of meaning to a single image, giving the reader time to process the information being put across. This time the captions place the images more firmly into a historical context, talking about the number of soldiers who never made it out of Russia alive.
”Not in Russia, where this summer 500’000 men of France marched in and now 50’000 are marching out again.”
The next swipe is perhaps the most important of the panel as it takes us past the typical dimensions of a page width panel, panning right once again. This part of the panel is broken up visually with the left side of the screen filled with the top of the head of the corpse from the previous screen. This blocks off the left side, forcing the reader’s eye onto the right. Here, a soldier crouches over a fallen comrade, silently mourning him. So, on the one hand we have De Campi and Larsen expanding beyond what a traditional panel can do dimension wise, whilst at the same time choosing to focus in on a small, intimate moment. To further emphasise this shift from the macro to the micro the next swipe brings up a set of captions that describe some of the personal quirks of the men who've been lost:
”Capt. Peyronnet, he had a thick Provencal accent and he wrote letters to his sweetheart with spelling so bad you had to laugh. He’s gone.”
The next swipe reveals even more snow, but this time with partial pieces of limbs, weapons and debris jutting out. It’s an effective way to suggest the horrors of war and the number of casualties without actually showing them. The reader’s mind supplies the images instead. This panel too is broken up with splashes of red, albeit subtler shades than before. The captions that accompany this image continue the process of ascribing personal details to those who were lost, the countless dead beneath the snow, faceless, far from home and lost forever. But the captions serve to give them a voice and a past, giving emotion and resonance to the panel.

The next, and final swipe pans across to the right once more and frames things in a similar manner. This time the left side of the screen is blocked out by snow/white space (with a tiny hint of the bodies below). The right side of the screen is taken up by a more visible corpse with another bird sitting atop it. Flesh dangles from the bird’s mouth as it looks towards the horizon and the background of the scene. This has the effect once again of leading the reader’s eye, this time towards the two figures stumbling out of the blizzard in the background of the panel (who we learn are our protagonists in the next panel).
One of the theories of comics constructed solely for digital (specifically landscape) is the idea of every panel being a page turn. Taking that idea on board the final swipe swerves as a great end to the panel visually revealing a final set of captions that poses the question who are the lucky ones, the dead? Or those who survived?

All I’ve described and talked about so far, the imagery, the scale is all done in one panel. It’s sort of a riff on Scott McCloud’s idea of the Infinite Canvas, whereby digital comics don’t have to adhere to the restrictions and tropes of the printed page. Valentine has been brought to print via a trade published by Dark Horse, but many of the scenes, panels and transitions had to be drastically altered for the printed page.

This opening panel is also a single, small moment in time, stretched out over seven ‘swipes’ of the screen. Digital comics allow creators to control the passage and perception of time like never before. With print comics this can be done with panel size, panel count, word count, etc but here it can be controlled via a medium which allows for almost a potentially infinite amount of space to play with. Tension and focus are elements that can really be taken to the next level in the narrative via digital comics. Each swipe of the screen can produce a shock or mete out tension over a prolonged period (there’s a superb example of this in the first part of Tim Gibson’s Moth City). The reader’s eye can be controlled to a much greater degree too, something De Campi and Larsen take advantage of here. Despite this though it’s something that only a few digital comics are employing well at the moment (with only the aforementioned Moth City, some of the Marvel Infinite titles and the work over at Thrillbent coming to mind).

De Campi, in the CBR interview linked to at the beginning of this post, said that she found the switch to digital easy as it allowed her to utilise some of her experience with storyboards. The opening of Valentine serves as a great Opening Contract of what digital comics are capable of. But it’s only the start. As more creators dip their toes into the water we’ll see new techniques and flourishes appear that are wholly new to this iteration of an existing medium rather than trading on techniques that have come before.

This is just the beginning.

Can anyone think of any other excellent digital-only opening panels? I'll be looking to do more of these in the future, so leave them (and any other feedback) in the comments section.

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