Heroes Never Rust #28 by Sean Ironman
Comics = Text + Art
Comics undergo cycles just like any other creative medium. For a decade or so, a certain style will be in vogue, and then another style will become popular. In the early 1990s, art-driven comics were the thing. Then, the industry had some dark years and a lot of companies went bankrupt. Writer-driven comics began to come back. But the art wasn’t ignored. What really came into style were cinematic comics. Hollywood started its push into comic-based films with X-Men, Spider-Man, and many others, and many comics began to feel more like a film than a comic book. Don’t get me wrong—there are a lot of great cinematic comics, like The Ultimates, for example. Comics became story-driven again, but the writer took a step back, in a way. A lot of comics lost the captions, and the only text on the pages were dialogue, which could be scarce in a lot of places. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. I like comics that are pretty much all art and no text, and I like comics that are the opposite.
One of the biggest writers in comics for the past decade has been Brian Michael Bendis, who seems to have written nearly every major character in the Marvel Universe. In 2000, he and Michael Avon Oeming created Powers, a comic about homicide detectives (Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim) assigned to cases involving people with superhuman powers. For the first few years, Image Comics published it, but in 2004, the comic went over to Marvel Comics’ Icon line. I’m going to stick to the opening few pages of the first issue here because I don’t want to ruin any of the fun. Bendis and Oeming really take these characters to some weird and fun places. They also create a great blend of dialogue and art to bring out the reality of the detectives’ situation.
The comic opens with Walker arriving at an apartment the police have surrounded. The suspect has holed himself up and asked specifically for Walker. The first page where Walker arrives is covered in dialogue balloons. Bendis has spoken about in interviews about learning dialogue from David Mamet’s work. The trick here with not getting bogged down in text is that there are no big speeches. Walker or the Captain aren’t rambling on about something. Sure, it’s exposition to get the reader caught up, but Bendis creates an energy with the back and forth. I couldn’t find an image of it, so here’s it in text:
Walker: Yeah, well—what is this? I’m homicide.
Captain: You’re a cop, and the guy inside wants you.
Walker: Who? Williams?
Negotiator: No—hey, Walker—No, I screwed the pooch.
Captain: You—You couldn’t negotiate supersizing a Happy Meal, you total piece of–!
Negotiator: Come on Captain! I—
Captain: I’m going to deal with your incompetent ass later.
Now, even with the speed of the back and forth, a reader might not be interested in the comic after seeing all that text on the first page, especially since there were so many art-driven comics setting the standard in the ‘90s. An old college friend used to skip over most of the text when reading comics. He said he could understand what was going on just with the art. I think he missed a lot of the story, but that’s how he liked to read comics. But, here’s the thing, so what if a reader doesn’t want to read the comic? No story, no work of art, is for everybody. I had a professor at UCF who taught me that each story operates on its own terms. The only thing a writer needs to do is to let the reader in on it early, as early as possible. Bendis likes his dialogue. He starts the comic with a page crammed full of it. If the reader decides not to read, then it’s not Bendis’s problem. That reader just wasn’t interested in what Bendis and Oeming were doing.
One of the issues with text-heavy comics is that the art tends to suffer. But this is something Bendis and Oeming make sure to show off in the opening sequence as well. First, the art is clean and interesting throughout, but when Walker gets to the apartment and there seems to be an explosion, the panels get all wacky. There’s a big boom at the top of a page, and the panel is twisted to the right. The next few panels of Walker trying to get his bearings are small and tilted and show the world through Walker’s eyes. The dialogue disappears. We see Walker enter the room and there’s a hole in the roof. The comic evens out a bit when Walker finds a little girl eating and watching TV in the next room.
There’s also a lot of empty space on that page. A lot of blackness. Something similar happens on the next couple of pages. The suspect has taken off in a rocketpack that isn’t working very well. As he crashes down to Earth, the comic features long, thin panels that are aren’t aligned next to each other. The white page behind the panels shows through. This helps the reader get into the situation of the suspect losing control and falling. This technique of using larger gutters (the space between panels) can be found throughout Powers, and in other work written by Bendis. White space is used to direct the eye, to keep tension and pacing throughout dialogue-heavy comics.
There are a lot of different types of comics out there on the stands. But I find that the best ones are when the writer and the artist are operating on the same page, like in Powers, when neither the writing nor the art takes center stage. They’re both working together to taking advantage of all that comics can do.
Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.