I’ll be honest. None of the new releases I read this week compelled me to write about them for 1000+ words. So rather than struggle to find things to say about Wonder Woman #20 (besides it’s a damn good read), I’m going to take a look at a relatively new, ongoing series and it’s use of panel composition. Sounds exciting, right? These are my thoughts on Kieron Gillen’s “Young Avengers”.
Addendum: Even if you’re not currently reading “Young Avengers”, I’ve done my best to avoid mentioning any spoilers in this article, so feel free to read ahead and check out some of the great things being done in this book.
Composition in comics is a lot like cinematography in films. It’s an incredibly important part of every comic. Without a good sense of composition, any piece falls apart and becomes largely impenetrable. Yet it’s rarely noticed by most of its audience. A bad (or simply mediocre) sense of composition can make a book unreadable, even if we do not always recognize it as the central cause for a poor reading experience. It’s something that is often taken for granted. However, when a page is crafted in an innovative and effective way, sometimes the audience takes notice.
“Young Avengers” is a book in which you can’t help but take notice.
The standard composition of comics can typically be described by several types of panel transitions. According to Scott McCloud there are six, although most comics rely largely on three: action-to-action, subject-to-subject, and scene-to-scene. These transitions between two sequential pictures are exactly what they sound like the juxtaposition of two different actions, subjects, or scenes, allowing readers to imagine what occurs in between (in a process known as closure). It’s easy to flip through most books and quickly recognize the prominence of these three types of transitions (let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s the same standard of composition set forth by folks like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner and it’s incredibly effective). It’s easier to look at examples of non-standard compositions to recognize how versatile a page of comics can be though.
The series started out with a bold statement in this two-page spread. Hawkeye’s (not Hawkguy’s) inner monologue is detached from the individual beat of the panels. This leaves her thoughts detached from the closure occuring between panels and thus from a sense of time. Rather than seeing her think “I’m doing this anyway” as she rushes to the controls, the audience sees the action occur separately her thoughts about this situation. The panels are almost all of the “subject-to-subject” variety, moving between attacking aliens, Hawkeye, Noh-Varr, and the ship. This redoubles on itself as the subjects resurface every few panels, allowing readers to take in the action again as “action-to-action”. The combination of this panel juxtaposition and detachment of words creates the effect of a summarized action sequence, to be taken in from multiple perspectives. It’s all there, the whole thirty seconds (rough guess) of an oncoming attack and the thoughts spurred by the moment, but it’s interpretation and effect is left to be continually defined by the reader. It creates a clear thesis about what this page and, subsequently, this book are about. It’s about young people and adventure. It’s about fantastical problems and crazier solutions. It’s about taking risks and it’s all very cool. Let me remind you that all of this information is relayed in a scene as basic as having two superheroes respond to a threat. The impact boils down to how the page is put together.
Issue four featured another action sequence contained in a two-page spread. This spread challenges some definitions of comics. The central panel can be taken by itself. It reads like an entire action sequence, juxtaposing a series of moments in a single panel of art. It begs the question of whether or not diagrams are comics. I’m inclined to believe so, even more so with evidence like this on my side. The numbering serves a two-fold purpose, helping to guide the readers eye through the sequence of actions and corresponding notes, which create a specific tone for this raucous blitz. Like more familiar action-to-action sequences, there is a clear progression of events, relating a story. The key difference is the removal of gutters, instead allowing the negative space between drawings of Noh-Varr to create closure. Without the description index, the close-ups spanning the corners, or even the numbering, the story is well written and paced. This panel makes a strong case that labeled and unlabeled diagrams fall into the medium of comics, even emotionally unattached and boring ones like instructions on disassembling an engine or Billy’s wanderings in “Family Circus”.
Speaking of Billy’s wanderings (ouch, that transition hurt)… One last example of the kind of experimentation going on within this book is the (literal) breakage of panel structure. This page better represents an escape from inter-dimensional confinement than the most detailed of paintings. Comics are dependent upon symbolic language, typically in the form of drawings, onomatopoeia, and speech bubbles. In this instance, one of the fundamental components of a comic is transformed into a symbol within the story. The frame becomes a prison and the page becomes the panel. The cells still help to guide the reader, along with the movements of Billy and Kid Loki, but they are no longer an element of construction. They are now an element of the story and one which helps to convey a lot of information. Billy has been captured by an “interdimensional parasite” and rather than simply telling the reader about the monsters abilities, Gillen and McKelvie show the reader. What better way to express a control over reality than to warp the very reality of the comic itself. Playing with form effectively displays power in a way that is both intriguing and disturbing to the reader.
The truth is that these are just some of the most obvious examples of what makes the panel composition in “Young Avengers” so refreshing. The introduction and credits pages are a blast to review. Issue four established a motif of crossing, diagonal panels, reflecting the conflict and dramatic crossfire of the scene. These decisions don’t exist purely for the sake of experimentation either. They add value to the story and themes of the book, whether it’s in expressing tone effectively or making action scenes feel as dynamic as they should. Innovation, at its best, serves a purpose. The innovative ideas in “Young Avengers” are behooved to the story and themes of the book. That’s why they aren’t just interesting, they’re effective. There are a lot of cool things occurring in the pages of this book and the three examples above are just the obvious, but small, tip of the metaphorical iceberg.
And beyond that there’s a lot more to like, including dynamic characters, an incredible sense of humor, and the feel of being the coolest comic to hit shelves since “Scott Pilgrim”. I’d try to write some cool and funny endorsement to reflect the quality of this book, but I think that’s best left to Marvel B… I mean, Noh Varr: