Monday, February 17, 2014

Opening Contract - Spider-Man (Various)

Panels as individual units of meaning + panels as time travel + panels as nostalgia x juxtaposition as source of true comic power = this week’s column.

Our opening salvo is a splash page from Amazing Spider-Man #1 from Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Johnny Dee from August 1962. Spidey’s name is proudly showcased at the top of the page, the creators credits sitting in a horizontal strip just beneath it. The caption box directly beneath it directly addresses the reader in a friendly tone, explaining the title they’re holding is because of their response to Amazing Fantasy #15.

This, and the other caption on the page, are a prototypical form of what would become a staple for Marvel. This same voice would find its way into caption boxes and the editorial notes that sit at the edges of panels and pages (“Get Issue #37 of Fantastic Four to see Paste-Pot-Pete kill a man, just to watch him die, true believer!”). The voice in the captions would become an extension of Stan Lee’s showman persona, establishing his importance in the emergence of Marvel as a brand, a factor in ensuring the man would later become inseparable from the company he helped propel skyward.

On the left of the panel is a flurry of hands, all pointing accusatorily at Spidey. Leading this charge of angry digits (prototypical Fox News viewers) is the permanently grouchy J Jonah Jameson. This particular adversarial relationship is, of course, one that would come to define the series. It’s also indicative of another hallmark – Spidey’s relationship to the general public as a whole – permanently misunderstood, forever shunned. As a character operating from an area of guilt, Spidey cares about what others think about him.

Ditko renders Spidey in an awkward, spindly pose. Ditko, probably more than any other creator to work on the character, evokes that sense of ‘otherness’, the misfit or the outsider. You glance across that page to the blue and red costume and you can see why people might be scared of Spidey. Is he coiling to spring into attack? To shoot some of that strange webbing? Look at the way his legs and arms are arrayed. There’s almost nothing heroic (in the traditional comic book sense of the time) about his pose, costume or demeanour. Even the white surrounding Spidey is like a spotlight on the character – a reminder of the ever-present public gaze.

The panel is like listening to Aftermath – all of the classic elements are there and they may not be well honed or realised, but the makings of something special are there for all to see (I’ll let all y’all argue about what era of Spidey is Let It Bleed).

The next panel is also an opening splash, this time from Amazing Spider-Man #122 published in July 1973 by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita, T. Mortellaro, Art Simek and Dave Hunt.
Even though he was no longer writing the title, Stan Lee’s name features at the top of the page. A decade after Spidey’s debut, Stan Lee was very much the face and voice of Marvel comics. The characters name at the top of the page is diminished since the last time we saw it. Spidey was still Marvel’s flagship character, but by now was a well-established one, part of a larger universe.

The panel still contains elements of that editorial voice, although it’s reduced in word count (but not its hyperbole). Credits have moved from the top of the page to the bottom. Any thoughts that this may indicate some diminished level of respect for the creative team are quickly dashed by the huge large yellow arrow pointing their way. The arrow is not light with its praise either.

The page serves as a reminder and recap, albeit in a more natural way than the previous example, catching the reader up with the plot whilst still moving it forward slightly. All of the elements needed to understand the plot up to now are here. Spidey stands atop the George Washington bridge, the love of his life Gwen Stacy dead in his arms as Green Goblin cackles and taunts.

The akward, spindly and lithe figure of Spidey in the early Ditko/Lee run has been replaced by something more muscular and traditional-looking, an indicator of the homogenisation of mainstream superhero comics around this time. We can also see a leap in terms of the visuals too. The backgrounds, figures and colours have more nuance to them, indicating a development in the technology involved in producing comics.

The next panel comes from Web Of Spider-Man #32 from November 1987 by JM DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, Bob McLeod, Janet Jackson and Rick Parker. The issue is Part 4 of the Kraven’s Last Hunt arc, but there’s no recap or summary. We hit the floor running, the plot already in progress. The elements we’ve seen up until now are absent – the tones used are darker, Spidey’s costume has changed from traditional red and blue to black and white (though it’s barely visible in this first panel).

This panel, and the arc as a whole, serve as a marker of where mainstream superhero comics were heading at the time of publication. 1986 was also the year of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, the beginning of darker, more adult-orientated storytelling. The lack of hand-holding in this opening panel (and page) is perhaps a manifestation of this more sophisticated approach to comics, a medium coming of age.

This opening panel is part of one of many different dream sequences in an arc rich with metaphor, symbolism and hidden meanings, with this issue serving as a homage to the classic Amazing Spider-Man #32.

Next up is Spider-Man #1 from August 1990, by Todd McFarlane, Bob Sharen and Rick Parker. This panel takes elements we’ve seen already and pushes them further (though this may not be for the best). Again, there’s no recap or summary, we’re straight into the action with McFarlane’s distinctive style giving the alleyway a dirty and ‘lived in’ feel.

Then grittier and darker story elements of the late 80’s continued into the early 90’s of superhero comics, manifesting in this panel in the depiction of the city itself. Gone are the water-towers and sweeping city vistas, replaced with a hellish landscape of a pre-Giuliani New York. Captions in Spidey titles had almost always been first-person (stretching back to the early days to the featured Web Of Spider-Man), but here the opening panel (and page) switch to third-person with McFarlane wearing his Frank Miller influence fully on his sleeve.

For the final panel we have Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 from August 2009 by Brian Michael Bendis, David Lafuente, Justin Ponsour and Cory Petit. It’s another splash page, this time featuring Peter in closeup with a number of captions running down the left hand side, before the page culminates with a single word balloon in the bottom right.

The page, like the McFarlane one, is beholden to a creator’s style. In this case Bendis’ style and voices comes through quite clearly in the caption work on show. Despite this, Lafuente’s rendering of a frustrated Peter is given all the space in the world, serving as an excellent taster for his work on the series.

But with just one central image, it’s not panels building momentum, but the captions on the left creating it instead. They incite an expectation from the reader, enhanced by Peter’s expression. It’s only when our eye glances over to the dialogue in the bottom right that the punchline is delivered.

But, in addition to it being a nice gag, the page also serves as a quick and concise recap of the character, his origin and some of his subsequent battles. This is a much more naturalistic iteration of this device than we saw in the Conway/Kane page, but this isn’t a dig or critique of that page either. As a medium grows in stature and breadth, a better understanding of it can be seen by those who create.

Techniques appear, disappear or evolve, elements from other media seep in. This leads to the creators who come along in the next generation to have a much deeper and varied toolbox to draw from. Nothing is inherently better, just of its time, in that regard.

By placing opening panels separated by decades, but joined by character, next to each other we create another narrative, another unit of meaning. We see the progression of a company, a character and a medium in five panels.

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Jarmir said...

Nice review of 5 decades of Spidey based on their opening panel. Never really thought about it like that

Dan Hill said...

Thanks, Jarmir.

It was interesting to see the development of styles throughout the ages. I guess you could flip the character and see other aspects change and emerge over the years too.

Jarmir said...

Thats that wonderful thing of having continuity... you really do see the character evolve and mature across time

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