Reinventing Widescreen:

Sorrentino’s Green Arrow

Fall of 2006, my freshman year of college, I sat in the television room of my dorm and watched Green Arrow make his live-action debut on Smallville.  I remember the raw fanboy glee that swelled within me when the episode ended with Oliver Queen nailing a thousand yard archery shot onto the Daily Planet.  But I also remember my distinctly non-geeky friend Alex, who joined in during the last five minutes waiting to watch Grey’s Anatomy, react with a very befuddled  “Who was that supposed to be?”

Flash forward to 2013, it’s a better time for Green Arrow.  For one, Arrow proved to be a bit more successful than the character’s previous venture into live-action television.  But it was also the year that writer Jeff Lemire and artist Andrea Sorrentino took over the eponymous DC comic and revitalized a series that had languished in mediocrity for years.  Despite starting at issue #17, it was a creative reboot in all but name.  Ignoring most of the story elements left behind by their predecessors, Lemire’s and Sorrentino’s stewardship of the series saw a dramatic overhaul of the series that included a compelling new villain for Oliver Queen, an inspired new addition to the Green Arrow mythos with the Outsider Weapon Clans, and the (re)introduction of classic supporting characters like Shado, Count Vertigo, and Richard Dragon into the DC universe.

Fans and critics welcomed these overdue creative overhauls, but that’s one that seems to go underappreciated, which is the art direction. While praised for his bold use of color and shadow, little has said about Sorrentino’s kinetic panel layouts, a marked departure from the industry standard of “widescreen comics.”  Of all the new artistic changes to this comic, this is one with the most significant implication, not just for Green Arrow, but for the entire mainstream superhero genre.

For the unfamiliar, “widescreen comics” refers to comics that make ubiquitous use of horizontal panels with greater width than height, named for its mimicry of films shot in wide aspect ratio.  Writer Warren Ellis coined the term in his description of The Authority, which he co-created with artist Bryan Hitch.  Originally published in 1999 under the now defunct Wildstorm imprint, it was Elli’s conscious attempt to pioneer a new kind of superhero comic by taking the genre up to eleven.  His high-concept stories was complemented by Hitch’s expansive and dynamic art direction and manga-influenced panel layout.

The wide horizontals make it easy for the reader’s eye to move from panel to panel, giving the comic a cinematic look.  These seamless transitions are well suited for fast-paced, action-driven storytelling.  Hitch’s layouts also make liberal use of  “splash panels;” massively sized panels taking up most or all the given space on a page, sometimes even going as far to be two page spread.  Functioning the opposite way of wide panel, they bring the reading pace to a halt, and forcing the reader to pause and take in the image.  Frequently seen with this are smaller panels overlaid on or around the splash panel if the artist needs to show something concurring concurrently within the scene.  As the name suggests, it’s a visually splashy and perfect for moments that need to emphasize scale and spectacle, two things that go hand in and hand with superhero stories.

Hitch’s bombastic yet streamlined approach made The Authority felt less like reading a comic book and more like watching a Hollywood blockbuster, and his widescreen style was quickly adopted by subsequent artists.  A decade and half later, the mainstream comics industry has shown reluctance to move away from such a proven model of success, and at first glance, Sorrentino doesn’t deviate from the widescreen formula in the opening pages of Green Arrow #17.  It’s when we get to the fourth page, when the action starts and the plot kicks off, when his original stylings encroach.

Per convention, Sorrentino opens with an oversized panel to convey shock of this sudden attack on Queen Industries’s CEO.  This is followed by two wide panels revealing the trick arrow shot into Emerson’s back and where Sorrentino adds his first visual flourish.  Using a small, guttered panel in high contrasted color, he directs the reader’s eye to the mysterious archer in the background about to defenestrate poor Emerson.  Later on the next page, we return to the same window, only to see the min-panel spotlight empty space, aptly colored green.

These “spotlighting panels” are a brilliant in how they an eye-catching yet unobtrusive method enough to highlight significant details a scene.  If Sorrentino were to take a more conventional approach by laying out these spotlighting panels separately onto the page, it would have to be read as distinct images in the sequence.  This adds more moment-to-moment transitions, more distinct gaps in time for the reader to process, slowing the overall visual rhythm of the page.

But Sorrentino solves this problem by taking advantage of closure in comics.  By framing the panel within another, it blurs the transition in time, enabling the reader to read it in the same temporal moment of the larger panel, and thus recognize as one part of a larger image.  At the same time, the reader can also comprehend it as a separate image through the contrast in framing and color. This is a technique that draws its strength from the interactive sensibilities of found in comics but lacking in film, since the reader has to be able to “fill the gap” themselves.

Sorrentino further demonstrates the versatility of this technique on the next page, highlighting a security camera and a piece of debris, foreshadowing their importance to both the reader and Green Arrow.  In the next sequence, we see why.

In the midst of Ollie pummeling two hapless mooks, the reader is able to follow him throwing the piece of metal into the camera and disable any surveillance as he escapes.  Also highlighted in one of these panels is the guard’s taser that Olver disarms then grabs in order disable the remaining security on his way out.

Within Oliver’s internal monologue is an apt  description for the proceeding visuals: “I don’t see men…I see targets.”  Given the specificity of where these panels are drawn over Oliver connecting with his strikes, adding clarity to a kinetic action sequence, It might be more fitting  think of these as “targeting panels” instead.

But it’s in issue #22 where Sorrentino makes his most dramatic departure from the widescreen model, reminding us that we’re reading a superhero comic, emphasis on “comic.”

Rather than pinpointing specific visual details, the guttered mini-panel technique is instead to convey the characters’ disorientation.  Sorrentino arranges the layout to make it seem the panel itself is falling apart, as pieces of it appear to break off and float away.  We see why on the following page as a classic member of Green Arrow’s rogues gallery makes his (re)introduction into the DC universe.

Eschewing the obvious depiction of wavy circles, Sorrentino takes an evocative approach by weaving the feeling of vertigo into the panel itself, throwing the reader just as much off-balance as he does to the characters.   The objective perspective of a more cinematic presentation makes it perfect for showing scale and kinetic movement, but those aren’t Sorrentino’s main objectives in this sequence.  To elicit more ineffable elements like mood or atmosphere, he takes advantage of the comic’s sequential nature to bring back a subjective perspective back into the widescreen layout.

By innovating upon the widescreen comics model, Sorrentino shows that an action-driven superhero story can possess the clarity and dynamism of a cinematic veneer without abandoning the abstract capabilities of a comic.  Superhero comics have spent the last fifteen years looking like widescreen movies, and Sorrentino’s Green Arrow is exactly the blueprint the genre needs to move forward.

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Eric Wong is a high school speech and debate coach, aspiring comics scholar, and struggling writer. He graduated in 2010 from the Johnston Center of Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands, with an emphasis titled "Creative Writing and Sequential Art." For his senior project, he and a close friend developed and taught a course on comics titled "Seduction of the Innocent." He is currently applying to grad school with the goal of obtaining an MFA in comic studies. If you're still interested in his ramblings, you can check out his Tumblr and his podcast where his co-hosts dissect a new comic every episode.

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