To write for the trade or for each individual monthly issue? It's a false dichotomy, of course, and yet far too much energy is still on occasion frittered away in squabbling over this imaginary either/or situation. For as with all serial fiction, the challenge for the comic book scripter isn't to write for the single episode or for the competed narrative, but for both. It's an obligation that's often perceived to be both far too arduous and counter-intuitively unnecessary, with the eventual collected edition being seen more and more as the context in which the success of each individual issue should be judged. Yet to avoid grappling with both aspects of this dilemma is to sidestep one of the essential responsibilities of the writer who's producing work for two separate audiences at the same time, namely that of not cheating the one in favour of the other.
Producing work that will be serialised brings its advantages as well as its profoundly exacting technical challenges. For the writer who's open to the opportunity, there's a chance to review future intentions in the light of both reader's feedback and sales figures. (If Dickens was willing to revise his work on a month-to-month basis according to his audience's responses, then I'd imagine that modern-era superhero writers might want to do so too, even given the far more protracted turnaround for today's comics.) Similarly, the conflict that's always present between crafting both the satisfying individual chapter and the accomplished collected edition can be put to use to drive writerly innovation, can inspire new ways in which to keep the audience informed while constantly propelling the narrative forward.
There appears to be the evidence of a writer wrestling with this conflict on the first page of "Secret Six" # 33. For there's a clear break between the storytelling choices used at the end of the previous chapter of "The Darkest Hour" and here, where Scandal Savage's first person narration has been introduced to compliment and ground the events at hand. This in itself is hardly typical in the modern-era superhero book, where such a shift in authorial technique between one chapter and the next is very much the exception rather than the rule. (Perhaps the general assumption is that the reader may be alienated by the introduction of different storytelling approaches from one chapter to another, although a contrary view might be that variety and cleverness would increase the pleasure of the reader's experience.) It seems to be that Gail Simone has here decided to frame the final chapter of this rather complex story in terms of Scandal's emotional response to the disconcertingly absurd and deeply hurtful circumstances surrounding her. In doing so, Ms Simone is explaining to the unfamiliar reader a great deal of why this opening scene is important in terms of Scandal's feelings rather than with reference to any mass of backstory, the repetition of which might weary the reader who's already consumed previous chapters of "The Darkest House".
|Wasted space: move the bouquet and the blurb upwards and nothing of visual importance is lost.|
As an approach to snaring the reader's attention through inspiring an empathetic engagement with Scandal's predicament, it's a clever strategy. We're immediately made to understand that something exceptionally shocking and upsetting has occurred to the tale's point-of-view character, and any such awareness inevitably motivates the reader to plough onwards. And as the narration locks the reader emotionally into associating with Scandal, so the next two panels reveal more and more of the physical circumstances informing her situation. The second panel shows her surrounded by her teammates, and the third presents us with both her opponents and something of the stakes for which this conflict is being fought. But the problem is that although the narration inspires both emotion and curiosity, neither the art nor the dialogue functions precisely enough to deliver the bare minimum of the information which the new reader needs to hit the ground running. Much of this results from the problems Mr Calafiore has with presenting the basic information informing the confrontation between Ragdoll and Scandal. For example, there's
|Very much not wasted space; a very impressive establishing shot might have been built up around the above as its centre-piece.|
no establishing shot on this page, and so the new reader is quite lost as to the essential business of where the events are occurring and of how the characters spatially relate to each other. It seems obvious that the third panel was the best opportunity for the placing of such an establishing shot, but Mr Calafiore has made a series of choices which make it exceptionally hard for the reader to grasp what's happening on the page. For one thing, Mr Calafiore's decision to arrange his panels in such an unconventional and awkward way makes it hard to the eye to work its way around the page. It's hard to grasp, for example, why Knockout and Ragdoll have been placed in that strange pentagon of a frame, because although their size means that we immediately grasp their importance, the situation they're being pictured fails to carry any sense of why we should be paying attention to them; they dominate this strangely-shaped panel, but the characters are given so much of the space that's available that all context is lost. And although this composition does allow a sense of claustrophobia to be created from the way in which the two leads are crammed over to one side of the page, much of the design is wasted on showing Knockout's garter belt and Ragdoll's knee. In truth, all the visual information that lies beneath Ragdoll's right hand is irrelevant to the meaning of the scene, which stands as a terrible example of wastefulness given that several other panels are crowded and, through absence of space, lacking in clarity and purpose. Indeed, placing Knockout so far out to the left of the page quite disastrously unbalances the composition, because the eye struggles to want to travel back to the last two, disconnected tiny panels placed so oddly one above the other far over to the right. In short, the reader who wants to quickly pick up the essential business of who, where and why on this opening page will first face the challenge of making sense of an unnecessarily turgid design and a confusing lack of transparency.
It's very hard to grasp why Mr Calafiore didn't simply arrange his page in the form of three tiers, with the middle row being used as a panoramic establishing shot. It's certainly difficult to understand why those final two frames stand where they are, given that even the presence of the lone bar of guttering on the page between them sticks out as a mark of compositional clumsiness. For it's difficult not to conclude that the page seems not to have been composed and executed with clarity as its main purpose. And so, there's also a puzzling lack of continuity here. Bane only appears as a hairy shoulder far off to the left of Scandal Savage in panel two's line-up of the Six, but in panel four he's moved right behind his colleagues to stand to Savage's left, having apparently pushed Deadshot quite out of the way. These are, surely, basic and easily recognised and resolved storytelling issues.
This whole matter of the lack of artistic comprehensibility is all the more to be regretted because Ms Simone's script, focusing as it does more on emotion than plot specifics, places a great deal of responsibility upon the art to explain who's present and how they relate to each other. Yet even where the art delivers something of this, the idiosyncrasies of Mr Calafiore's design choices distract the eye and obscure the text's purpose. No-one could deny Mr Calafiore the effort and attention he's paid to the detail of his work, and much of what he presents is energetic to say the least. But without further attention being paid to the basic compositional organisation and structural meaning of his pages, his art work will rarely stand as even the sum of its often-laudable parts.
But there are problems with the transparency of the script too. For example, although Ragdoll declares "This marriage is necessary." in panel 3, there's nothing on the page to indicate who that marriage is to be between. (*1) The reader not already up to scratch with the backstory of "The Darkest House" will be left trying to deduce who's supposed to marrying who. Similarly, Kay is referred to as "the property of my associate" by Bane, but that's not going to help a reader who's only lightly marinated in the history of the Six. Essential information is here delivered in a way that avoids clogging up the page with exposition, but there's a lack of a twist of precision which, to give but one instance, would've made the relationship between Scandal and Kay easier to grasp. Similarly, the adding of the two words "in Hell" to Ragdoll's page-turner of a declaration would've intensified the force of the cliffhanger for a newcomer, while clarifying for them exactly where these events are taking place.
In the end, the question is what would've been lost by making this page just that touch more welcoming to the unfamiliar consumer? As a reader who experiences "Secret Six" in trade form, I was myself quite seriously baffled by this tale, and I had to go back and buy up the preceding issues simply to grasp the basics of what's at stake here. Yet this page was in its fundamental properties remarkably close to carrying those qualities of entertainment, explanation and enticement that we were discussing yesterday. Scandal's narration certainly anchors events in a fascinating and involving manner. There's conflict in play and jeopardy too. And yet, the page remains relatively opaque even to a keen fan of the Six who's as yet only familiar with the last trade paperback collection.With just a touch more attention being given to the neophyte's needs, this page could've retained all of its potential and achievement - there's a clear and intense air of threat and loss radiating from these panels - while adding the storytelling clarity which the casual, and sometimes the not-so-casual, reader requires.
*1:- This reader thought at first that Ragdoll was insisting Scandal Savage should marry her dead ex-lover, given that Merkel appears to be offering Knockout's hand rather than claiming it for himself. In fact, the matter of who's getting married to whom isn't clarified until page 11.
to be continued, though probably not until after a return to "Why I Hate The Bat-Man";