Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 27 | Frank Miller

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.

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14 Comments

I have to disagree with you somewhat, on your take of this page being wordy. I’ll grant you that CC uses more words than the average comic book writer, but look at the effect. To look at the page, minus the words, what do you see? A guy in armor, besieged by arrows. A distraught man full of arrows. A woman with a bow and arrow. So, from the art alone, we see a woman shooting a man with arrows.

So, as we do in the medium of comics, words are added to clarify. And you could pencil a couple of words in to convey that the man who is being shot was in love with the archer, and it would be all well in good. But Claremont takes it a step further. Read the words by themselves. They are haunting and beautiful. The man’s feelings are conveyed, and they are tragic.

But the real beauty is to read the page as a whole. To see two masters of their craft combining brilliant artwork with epic narration to convey a heartwrenching and beautiful scene, it’s a wonderful thing. This page is what comics is about.

I don’t see a word heavy page that is saved by the wisdom of the artist, I see a balanced and wonderful page that does what all good comics should aspire to do, blend artwork and narrative together to tell a story in a way that no other medium can.

Hey Matt, I have to agree with Brian on this one.

Personally, if I look at the art alone, I see three awesome panels of FM art. However, when taken in with the text, it’s literary cinema!

I really don’t get the influence of Hokusai in these panels, maybe in the first one, but the others seems like a regular panel, with a regular composition.

The critic, Matt Seneca, isn’t saying the page should be without words. But there certainly are far too many for the sequence. It betrays a distrust of the artist.

“Her arrow pierces his soul, casting him screaming back into the abyss out of which he had struggled so long ago.” That’s a clumsy sentence, in comics or in lone text. So it out loud: it makes your tongue feel thick. It has no poetry as a whole.

I’m sure if you handed that page of comics script to Chris today he’d write it far more elegantly. And Frank Miller would draw it more simply. They’ve both moved on.

Sorry Gene, I agree with Brian and Aaron. It’s become fashionable to knock CSC for being overly wordy, but in this sequence alone he proves his mastery. I read this when it was new and it’s frustrating how attitudes have changed. This was a masterwork by two creators at their peak, each as good as the other, and equally essential. I’d like to think, if it were new today, that only the colouring would be different, due only to relatively new techniques.

I also doubt that Chris doubted Frank Miller in this instance. If I remember correctly, didn’t they come up with this story together on an airplane? Regardless, imho, i think it’s a fantastic page, both the narrative, and the art.

I remember this series. I enjoyed it, if only because it came from a time when Wolverine was still vaguely human and could even be defeated in battle by a single well-trained martial artist. Since then, the character has become so invulnerable that he has become a bit of a farce.

I agree with the general sentiment that Claremont was too wordy. But, in this case, his words work well and are necessary to the story and understanding. Claremont was not a great writer – not, say, like Alan Moore, whose writing itself is incredible. But he did believe that the writer had an essential role to play in making a story. It is interesting to wonder if comics have lost some complexity because they have become too visual a medium.

A good example of this: the recent Superman #1, by George Perez, actually took me some time to read and digest. It had a lot of words and a lot of things going on. I actually felt that I was getting my money’s worth out of the comic. I don’t often feel that way these days when I can read most comics in less than 10 minutes.

Chris was always wordy. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Brian and Gene are both right. That sentence is clumsy (I tried saying it out loud and the test worked) and CC is very wordy (newsflash) but man, they were on fire. These two talented men created comic book magic with that title. Like the poster above me said, I wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe for that clunky sentence…

Can someone point me to a trade or hardback this is collected in. That one panel has sold me and I want to read more.

reading panels from Holy Terror – I felt like nearly every page could be used for a “comic book art” 101 class

This page is full of melodrama, and in being involved in comics melodrama is something that this industry has been built on. The Wolverine miniseries, while being melodramatic, as a whole, is classic comics reading from two who defined what superhero comics could be.

While this page may not be defined as well as current comics, it reads well for contemporary times, and that is saying something for the two talents involved. It is unfair to frame a comic that made contemporary comics what they are in a contemporary setting and judge it. If you read Lee and Kirby, they drag compared to what we are used to in this day and age, but as a child, Lee and Kirby are entrancing.

These are comics folks, and while they have proven that you can make them into poetry, can’t we just enjoy some pulp-y goodness for just that.

Not feeling the love.

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