This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 24, 2015.
Comics possess the potential to transport readers literally anywhere. As long as an artist can envision a specific place and has the ability to depict it, that’s where their story can be told. From the personal environs of a childhood home to the extravagant cities in the world today to entirely new alien vistas, comics are limited only by imagination and skill. This is one of the qualities that makes genre stories so alluring to the medium. Superheroes, crime, and adventure comics can all feed on the excitement of simply being somewhere exciting.
It is a quality utilized well in the story of All-New Wolverine #1. The issue written by Tom Taylor and drawn by David Lopez and David Navarrot is a fresh introduction to Laura Kinney, who has assumed the mantle of her mentor, Logan. It features a brief adventure in which Laura foils an assassination with a neat twist at the end. Outside of a heartfelt flashback, there’s nothing exceptional about the plot of this debut, not without the setting. Rather than setting it in the all too familiar environs of Marvel’s New York City, the creative team chose to have it take place in Paris, France: The City of Lights, Romance, and Art.
This decision is clear from panel one of page one in which Laura is shown running across the street. In the background is Gustave Eiffel’s iconic tower from the 1889 world’s fair. There is truly nothing else like this famous piece of architecture in the world and its appearance instantly invokes knowledge (if not visions) of Paris. If that clear visual were not enough to cue readers into the scene, Taylor adds a caption at the top of the page to remind everyone that this is most certainly “Paris, France” and not some rogue nation in the Marvel universe attempting to duplicate beloved steel structures of the world.
It is one thing to locate an interesting setting and entirely another to utilize it well. All-New Wolverine #1 makes the most of its establishing shot. Not only does the first page introduce the place, it introduces the set piece for this action-oriented superhero comic. Laura’s battle with her mysterious would-be assassin takes place on the Eiffel Tower itself. Bullets are exchanged between a balcony and the landing below, a chase is made up the looming staircases, and they battle high above the city. The majority of the comic takes place within a single block of the Paris cityscape, but it feels every bit as big as it ought to.
Lopez and Navarrot consistently angle their panels to look up or down the length of the Tower, emphasizing its great height. The fear of a sniper perched in tightly woven steel beams is palpable. Laura’s lofty ascent feels like a truly superheroic feat. A batlle on a balcony almost inspires a sense of vertigo, not because of how close either combatant comes to the edge, but because readers have been constantly reminded of the element of height. It is a fun and effectively assemble action sequence centered around a recognizable set piece.
Even as Laura departs the Tower from a great height, the art continues to utilize the city well. Lopez and Navarrot’s depiction of a bird’s eye view (or rather an Angel’s eye view) of Paris is not very detailed, but it captures the height and rambling layout of the city well enough. The most important detail they include when transporting their characters is emphasizing another iconic Parisian landmark: the Arc de Triomphe. It is not significant in establishing Paris, that has already been done, but establishing the next action scene of All-New Wolverine #1. This is good storytelling, creating connections and utilizing the iconography of its setting to build a bridge between one big set piece and the next.
It is colorist Nathan Fairbairn who really brings Paris to life in these aerial panels. The sharp, cold rain and nighttime shadows balance beautifully against the glowing lights of the city. It hums like an early Edison light bulb, illuminating without overwhelming. For anyone who has visited the city, this coloring feels true. Much like the line work only provides an impression of the geography below, excluding the Arc, so does Fairbairn’s coloring. Yet the impression of how a city glows is something that reads far more accurately.
The depiction of Paris in All-New Wolverine #1 is not the most detailed or well-rendered of even this year. It is effective though. The creative team weaves the cities familiar landmarks into the script in ways that enhance the action. Two big landmarks are used to easily cue reader’s into where they are, giving them a sense of both place and scale. Colors are made to provide an impression of this truly magical city, helping to transport readers back or to a place they’ve never gone. Even in the least detailed of panels, the comic does not lose track of its sense of place and why that matters.
It’s that effective use of setting throughout the first 29 pages of the issue that makes the composition of the final page of the comic so baffling.
For those that have never visited or lived in Paris, this spread may appear to fit perfectly within the story that came before it. Yet for those even slightly familiar with the city and its features, it’s clear that the panel is lying. Lopez and Navarrot have dramatically shifted the position of the Eiffel tower, moving it almost a mile closer to Notre Dame and to the opposite side of the Seine River. This is not a minor tweak to the landscape of Paris, but a complete restructuring of the city.
Whereas many of the alterations or dismissals of details in All-New Wolverine #1 were to both the benefit of the story and its sense of place, this change serves neither. Minor changes work within reader’s suspension of disbelief, but this radical of a shift will break that suspension for anyone who has seen the tower or church in question. There is nothing more dramatic or uplifting about the close combination of yet another Parisian landmark with the city’s centerpiece. The reader can have no doubt in their mind as to where Laura is at this moment, so including Notre Dame does not inform so much as it beats over the head. Combining the two does not add a sense of the city, but transforms it into a greatest hits album.
Paris is a city littered with extraordinary architecture and seeking to combine a shot of the Seine and the Eiffel tower, thus leading Laura away from her conflict, is an opportunity to explore the city for a perfect shot. Decades ago this might have been difficult, but Google Maps has made it extraordinarily easy. In only a few minutes it is possible to both verify the impossibility of this presentation and then discover many workable alternatives. This final concept presented the creators with an opportunity to once more reveal Paris to a readership seeking to explore the world in the pages of a comic. It offers an unimaginative solution though, one that fails to serve the story, reveal something new to unfamiliar readers, and shake the rest out of the story.
This is the double-edged sword of setting a comic in such well-known places. It presents many opportunities and an easily accessed shorthand language of place. Yet it also demands a sense of truth. A place like Paris is filled with landmarks and an atmosphere and construction not replicated anywhere else. Putting clawed superheroes and agile assassins there can make for an incredible adventure. In turn that incredible adventure can take readers across the world and help them fall in love with a truly magnificent place, while reminding others of why they wish to return. If you betray the veracity of the city, not through understandable changes, but through unnecessary, distracting reinventions, it can potentially turn a charming story sour.