Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Wolverine #3 (1982), page 9. Frank Miller.
For all that Frank Miller deserves as much credit as any other American cartoonist for bringing Japanese comics to these shores, the intersections between his own comics and manga are somewhat surprisingly limited. It’s obvious from a flip through a vintage Miller comic that he’s fascinated by the work of Goseki (Lone Wolf and Cub) Kojima and Katsuhiro (Akira) Otomo — but beyond that powerful one-two punch, and maybe a bit of Golgo 13‘s Takao Saito, the chain of Japanese influence on Miller’s prime-period work is either subtle or nonexistent. Which doesn’t have to be any kind of problem; after all, the Miller of the early-mid 1980s was conducting a balancing act with the cartooning mannerisms of three continents, unifying the systems of visual codes used by comics from America, Europe, and Japan into a single style before anyone else even thought to do it. But it’s nice to see Miller go for a more purely Japanese moment on this page, one that calls back a lot further into that artistic tradition than his usual action manga debt-paying goes.
The “problem” in this sequence, such as it is, is one that faced just about every artist who worked with Wolverine writer Chris Claremont in his formidable prime: that’s an awful lot of words for one page to handle, isn’t it? More specifically as it faces the artist, it’s a lot of white space to deal with. The fact of the matter is that text looks really boring compared to drawings, and putting that much of it into a panel tends to kill the pictorial content stone dead. Rather than trying to compose around Claremont’s blocks of verbiage, Miller wisely takes them out of the equation, leaving them in the gutters with the rest of the white and turning a page with so much negative space into a showcase for minimalist composition.
Miller’s three wordless, fully packed panels recall Japanese picture scrolls as much as Kirbyist action comics, with Glynis Wein’s vibrant, perfectly restrained color job flourishing out against the empty white. The drawing, too, draws inspiration from the busy (but never crowded) compositions of print artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige, with inker Josef Rubenstein throwing in plenty of classic Marvel-style rendering for a true trans-Pacific effect. Miller goes off the grid here, eschewing the edge-to-edge panel arrangements used by the vast majority of American comics for something that has more balance than symmetry, a clean and simple layout that proceeds with much less effort than the prose-derived back and forth rows of most pages.
In fact, the whole thing is a piece of comics with a wonderful balance to it — white gives way gracefully to color, word to image, and picture to picture with a much more methodical, delayed sense of timing than the usual hit-hit-hit rhythm of action comics. These three panels, bridged by Claremont’s narration, which itself takes a good while to read, depict a great deal of time passing, with more implied than shown; not action comics’ default mode, but perfect for the agonized, lyrical staging Miller gives the scene. This sequence is so airy it floats, which is a bold approach for a scene featuring a man being shot with like a billion arrows, but Miller pulls it off with aplomb.
Finally, the directionality of this page is like a thesis on effective flow. There are two ways to read it, depending on whether your eye is immediately drawn to the first caption or the first picture: an S shape or a backward C. Either way the eye never has to pick up and start again at the beginning of the next tier the way it does with most comics, instead following a single, smoothly curving through line from the beginning to the little exclamation point provided by the splash of color set over the final text box. The arrows in panel one point the eye directly into panel two, where we’re led literally hand over hand along the shortest possible route into panel three. Of course, it all feels so natural that it’s easy to overlook the directions Miller gives you, but the effect they have, subliminal or not, is impossible not to feel. This may not be the most immediately impressive page Miller’s ever drawn, but it’s notable nonetheless for the lengths it requires its artist to go to in order to make it work, and the unique approach it produces from one of comics’ most iconic cartoonists.