Four Black Panels

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 21, 2014.

It’s often stunning how differently the same exact tools can be applied in comics. This Wednesday Marvel Comics published two issues with pages that are almost identical in design: Avengers and X-Men: Axis #6 and Daredevil #10. Each issue contains a page composed of four black panels. With only one very small (but notable) exception, the panels contain only text. Yet the difference in effect is astounding. While Axis #6 represents one of the laziest artistic efforts of 2014, Daredevil #10 creates an incredible emotional poignancy.

I’ve made no qualms about my dislike for the series Axis. It has been poorly crafted and executed throughout the six issues currently published. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the opening page of Axis #6.

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There is no reason for the darkness in these panels. The second page of Axis #6 reveals a discussion amongst various members of the X-Men that draws no metaphorical or visual connections to these black panels. This design is not an artistic choice, but one made out of laziness. Axis has been pushed out with a rotating group of artists on an almost weekly schedule. The dismal efforts found on the following pages provide insight into the strain and rush being put on the series’ artists. Choosing to provide four entirely black panels is a shortcut to avoid actually creating any art. The first page of Axis #6 only pretends to be a comic, when it is in fact prose in disguise. It is a lazy attempt to avoid providing a visual story in order to rush an issue to publication as quickly as possible. There is nothing of value to be found in these four black panels with the sole exception of Chris Eliopoulos’ capable lettering.

So what makes the almost exact same composition in Daredevil #10 such a striking example of comics art?

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Everything in this page is purposeful from the panel layout to the lettering to the smallest inclusion of art. Chris Samnee has designed this page to summon the emotions and ephemeral ideas in Mark Waid’s script. Even when read out of context, this page acts as a powerful, self-contained comic that lingers on the nature of depression. Waid’s script creates a potent concept of what depression is. The loss of joy and slow, deepening roll of isolation are summoned in his prose. Even without the magnificent comic that accompanies them, these words would be striking. With these panels, they become something far more powerful.

Four continuous panels of darkness draw our eyes down into an endless abyss. The effect of staring into a monochromatic panel is to be consumed by whatever color it contains. Black is a color of death; it is the void which lets no light escape. There is no joy or hope to be gleaned here, only the lack of these things. Samnee introduces this darkness by beginning the previous page with a bright display of Daredevil’s friends and how he perceives them. The darkness is placed in stark contrast to colorist Matthew Wilson’s exuberant depiction of Daredevil’s closest allies.

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The darkness is not alone in these panels though. Joe Caramagna’s lettering guides the eye down through the each blackened panel. He sets his white typeface against the darkness creating a stark contrast. There is no speech bubble to protect the words from the darkness. They are exposed to it and made to feel small and insignificant in comparison. Caramagna’s words are made to be a small, isolated voice crying out in the night, almost overwhelmed by the lack of response. They begin in the top right, but slowly shift down and to the left. It’s a subtle movement that brings your eye to settle on the sole speck of color provided by Samnee and Wilson.

Daredevil is finally revealed in a fetal position in the bottommost panel. There is only enough detail provided to discern his identity and posture. Given that, he is then made to be as small as possible. Just like his words in the panels above, he is overwhelmed by the darkness around him. He is not only isolated by the enormous, unending space around him, but by the complete lack of color. Daredevil is portrayed to not only be alone, but to be lost. The lettering has moved across the page, so that when Daredevil is revealed he is off center. He is on neither the horizontal nor vertical axis of the panel, leaving him floating in space with no sense of direction.

All of these elements are purposeful and add meaning to this page. They create a powerful statement about the feeling of depression from the perspective of someone suffering from it. This page does not stand alone though, it is an integral part of the issue that surrounds it. Samnee calls back to this final panel in the closing pages of the issue, when Matt is shown in the fetal position again in a quarter-panel at the bottom of a page.

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Suddenly, all of the emotions and meaning created on the second page of the issue come flooding back. Without providing a single word, Samnee summons the same feelings of isolation and disorientation. The issue creates an emotional loop connecting Matt’s abstract state of depression from the beginning with his very real despondency at the end. The final panel lands like a sledgehammer, drawing power from across twenty pages to make this moment land.

Four black panels: They are the key to both of these pages, but they are used to drastically different  effect.

In Axis #6 four black panels are an excuse. They are composed to provide a plot synopsis and avoid the creation of additional art.

In Daredevil #10 four black panels are an incredible statement about the nature of depression. They are crafted with care to evoke feeling and meaning in the reader and create an empathetic connection with those who suffer from depression. Samnee, Wilson, Waid, and Caramagna work together to build a page that is absolutely perfect in its crushing emotion. It’s also what allows for them to turn and craft an ending that, while not entirely bright, is optimistic. After the return to Matt’s depression as he is lying in bed there is one more page that shatters the long panel composition and reveals someone waiting outside the darkness. It’s a turn so startlingly and effective that it drove a grown man to tears. The final moment is a powerful reminder that things do get better and it was created with the use of four black panels.

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If you are struggling with depression or know someone who is, please seek help. You can call this number at anytime for assistance: 1-800-273-8255

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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