It’s hard to suppress the suspicion that there are comic-book creators who have quite deliberately chosen to ignore the business of storytelling in favor of butt-shots and throw-downs, pin-ups and continuity porn. Whether it’s more or less disturbing that there also seems to be a considerable number of writers and artists who appear to know nothing of storytelling in the first place is hard to say. Is it a more worrying thing to see the craft being stubbornly and purposefully neglected, or is it more disconcerting to note that the absolutely vital knowledge of the storyteller’s craft is apparently absent in the first place?
But there’s also a great deal of fundamental competence at work in a number of today’s monthly super-hero books, and I fear that it often goes unnoted in all the hullabaloo of continuity reboots and cultural insensitivities. In such a way does excellence often go largely undiscussed while incompetence and pretension eats up the mass of the blogosphere’s acreage of chit-chat. For while pretty much anyone can draw attention to themselves by filling up the page with a mass of brawling costumes, porn-star physiques, and hyper-violence, the apparently more prosaic business of guiding the reader in a clear and entertaining fashion from plot point A to plot point B is a business which requires a host of competencies and qualities. Of these, the will to tell a well-constructed and purposeful story in as transparent a fashion as possible, rather than the churning out of page after page of noise, is perhaps the most important, because no-one ever became a highly competent storyteller by accident.
For example, the synthesis of a courtesy towards the potentially-unfamiliar reader and a brave faith in the audience’s desire for a narrative rather than a grab-bag of the pseudo-spectacular makes the work of Mr. Slott and Mr. Martin in The Amazing Spider-Man #618 well worth the applauding. At every stage of the book, the reader is constantly and entertainingly informed of where they are, who they’re looking at, and why they ought to consider these matters important. Much of this effort could have been side-stepped by less responsible and meticulous craftsfolk. But here the creators know that the grand set-pieces of their tale will be all the more impressive if the comic isn’t just one self-aggrandising sequence of indulgent water-cooler moments after another. This micro-management of the text extends to the fine details of how to establish back story without drowning the reader in exposition. And so, for example, we’re introduced to the detective in the foreground of page ten’s second panel as “Cooper” by the sniping suits there, while her first name is added two panels later, when Peter Parker, who obviously thinks considerably better of her, calls her “Carlie.”
This process of never dumping information, but rather judiciously placing it where it will serve in the least redundant of ways can be seen through this book. In the panel above, for example, we’re not simply and baldly told that there’s suspicion about Carlie’s trustworthiness in the NYPD, but rather shown three detectives discussing the matter in terms of their fondness for her father. What would be mere information in another writer’s script, if it appeared at all, is here used to give a sense that backstory has an emotional as well as a factual purpose. And Mr. Martin’s art brings the business of three police officers discussing a fourth to life in a way that’s as informing as it is unshowy and modest. The story is the thing here, after all, and so the panel serves to explain (1) what’s gone before while (2) showing the plot at the crime-scene progressing, with Carlie reaching for evidence while everyone else simply stands uselessly around. In cropping the panel so tightly on Carlie’s form, Mr. Martin ensures that she’s both the focus of our attention and a figure who’s obviously constrained by the circumstances we find her in. And while she’s caught in movement, her pink top serving as the only expression of energy and life in the pallet of the whole frame, her grey companions are still and hunched and unfriendly. Just from the organisation of the figures in the panel, and from the restrained use of colour by Mr. Martin too, the new-to-this-continuity reader such as myself can immediately tell who they should be rooting for. Yet even the three tutting figures are as individual and as distinct from the other as they’re united in their condemnation of the only person actually at work in the crime scene. (Again, if she’s working alone while they’re whinging on in a group, our sympathies are immediately with her.) What a pleasure to see characters who are drawn as if they are individuals rather than types; the sheer loathing carried in the tense shoulders, snotty glance, and balled fists of the third of the gossiping detectives, for example, is a joy to note. For as our our eye moves across the panel from left to right, the body language of each of the grey-hued observers becomes progressively more disapproving of Carlie, until the woman’s despising stare sends our gaze, and our immediate support, across the room to Detective Cooper herself.
It’s also worth noting that the almost lost and forever-devalued art of word-balloon placement is very much alive here. The four balloons in this panel carry almost 40 words, but there’s no sense of the panel being crowded. It’s as if Stan Lee himself had organised the placement of this text, for the eye is taken, just as the Man’s work was want to do, by dialogue alone into, across, and out of the panel, which is as fine an example of paternalistic storytelling as you might find in any of today’s books. And by having Carlie’s arm break through the bridge between the last two balloons, her active nature is emphasised while the fact of her being the subject of tittle-tattle — or perhaps more than just tittle-tattle — is underscored. The conversation isn’t just bubbling in the background so much as intimately involving her too, as indeed it does.
Finally, it’s heartening to note that this single panel has been designed so that the reader is presented with enigmas which will snare them and drive them onwards into the story. There’s no complacency here, no idleness on the creators’ part in assuming that whoever has reached page ten will persevere until page 11 and beyond simply because this is The Amazing Spider-Man. Instead, the panel is carefully studded by Mr. Slott with unanswered questions. The new reader will want to know whether this “Cooper” really has been “skirtin’ the rules lately” to the point to which she can’t ever be regarded as “a good cop,” while the more experienced one will want to know whether Carlie will be exonerated from the whispermongering. Similarly, Mr. Martin’s artwork quietly encourages the reader’s curiosity while not distracting from the text by showing Carlie reaching for but never picking up the bundle of notes before her. Just that single example of movement and restraint on the artist’s part means that we’re prodded to read onwards, simply because we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Given the background of a scenario that’s so claustrophobically defined, that’s so packed with the emotions and motivations of those before us, the reader’s desire to find out what’s next can be propelled simply by the sight of a hand stretching out but not grasping a single, static, and unremarkable prop. For it really doesn’t always require the death-marrying return of Thanos or the almost-triumph of the Anti-Monitor to make us determined to read on.
All it takes — “all” — is a fearsomely competent investment of craft on the part of Mr. Slott and Mr. Martin where the content of one single panel after another is concerned.
This article was originally published on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.