What's the first page of a superhero monthly book for? It sounds like a trick question, but I'm not trying to be disingenuous. It might be assumed that the opening scene of each new comic would be concerned with three vital functions, namely to entertain, explain and entice. To entertain would be to convince the reader, and particularly the uncommitted buyer, that the comicbook before them is without the slightest doubt well worth their time and money. In that, the first page of a comic should surely be the second swing in a purposeful and skillfully wrought one-two, following up the excitement generated by an eye-catching cover with a more substantial declaration of excellence. This, the first page should be declaring, regardless of where its mood lies on the continuum from misery to exultation, is just the first page of what's surely going to be a really fine comic book indeed. To explain is to inform the reader of the basic terms of what they need to make sense of what's before them; who are they looking at, what's the conflict, what's at stake, where is the action taking place, why should anyone care, and so on? And to entice is, of course, to create a page which structurally coerces the reader into moving swiftly onto the next one with a sense of purpose and anticipation. To achieve that, we'd expect the presence of (1) entertainment and (2) key information to be supplemented by (3) enigmas designed to snare the reader's curiosity matched with an absolutely compelling page-turner of a final panel.
Yet nothing speaks so much of the collapse of the intent to appeal to a broader audience beyond that of a title's committed fan as the strange inertia which marks so many of the first pages to be found in today's comics. There's a great deal of an obviously unintended but crippling complacency and craftlessness in a great many of them, and looking at them, it's hard to tell who they're supposed to be beguiling. In fact, there's a terrible sense that they're not being written to beguile anyone at all. Consider, for example, the first page of Marvel's new "Alpha Flight" title. (Above.) It's very difficult to imagine who thought that such an opening scene could lure and snare anyone beyond Alpha Flight's hardcore of readers. Given that those fans have for many years now proven too thin on the ground to support a regular title, we might be forgiven for assuming that Marvel would be intensely focused on broadening the properties readership. Yet, a scene composed of an angry would-be voter ranting against the receiving of a parking ticket simply can't be considered to be intriguing in any persuasive fashion. After all, there appears to be nothing immediately at stake here for anyone beyond an unpleasant and selfish driver who its impossible to care for. Certainly there's little that's promising at play here when it comes to inspiring the interest and the emotions of the reader. and it surely can't be argued that the end of the scene promises anything of a payoff where the matter of how Mister "I'm-Taking-A-Stand-For-The-People"' and his ticket-shredding act of defiance is concerned. (In fact, he disappears from the narrative completely, leaving nothing but a great big "why was this worth a page?" behind.)Why should we care about this crisis of car-parking, for example, when the issue at stake is so straight-forward and so easily resolved, and when Officer Mackenzie herself, the guardian of order in this scene, is so calm and unconcerned?
It's not that a first page has to be super-charged with violence or the imminent specter of the end of the world. Some of the most effectively engrossing opening scenes in the history of the superhero sub-genre have involved anything other than punches being thrown and energy-bolts being flung. Captain America and Bucky in a World War II bomber at the beginning of "The Ultimates", the Batman brooding while the Joker's deadline approaches and a storm gathers in "The Sign Of The Joker", a simple and yet menacing street scene at the beginning of Azarello and Corben's 'Cage'; it's not the presence of action that matters, but the creation of a sense of meaning, of a scenario where the outcomes are various and uncertain and meaningful, and where the reader as a consequence can't help but wonder "what next?".
It's not that this opening sequence in 'Alpha Flight' fails to seed any relevant information as concerns the coming story, but rather that that's all that it does. There is an election running in the background of this tale, for example, and it's obviously one which is vital to the future of the book, but, in the context of the casual reader's first experience of "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, I've no idea who'd be fascinated by the fact of the exterior of a polling station in Canada per se. I'm a Politics graduate myself, but even I can't find too much that's compelling about a line of voters peaceably queuing to undertake their duty as citizens, or a grumpy single example of their number. For a rude and irresponsible driver, and a polite ticket-issuing policewomen, are in this context little but stock characters which express nothing that might grab at the reader's attention by the simple fact of their presence. Nor is it likely that the socio-economic indicator of Canada's unemployment figures, or the fact of its apparent economic crisis, will entice many of the prospective audience for this book to pass this threshold. Instead, the lack of any cleverly constructed drama to drive this scene forward leaves a page cluttered up with plot-points lacking the context to give them any sense of narrative worth. In such a way is any potential enticement to read on effectively neutered before the tale has even begun.
Similarly, a page-turner which consists of the absence of colour from the last frame while a character off-panel asks "Hey! What happened to the lights?" is hardly enticing, especially given that the previous panel inexplicably reduced the two characters in play to silhouettes anyway, meaning that there's little force being carried by a loss of light, since the story was already populated by shadows anyway! As page-turners go, this is quite honestly the least compelling that I can imagine short of that presented in this month's "Justice Society Of America # 51."
|Her -- name -- was -- JENNIFER!|
The first page of June's issue of the JSA carries even less of emotional weight than that of the curtain opener present in "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, which is as perplexing a truth as it is a depressing one, given that the Society's members are being shown discussing a slain colleague while being gathered around her body. This collapse of the will to Pop, of the responsibility to involve and intrigue and move the reader cannot be irrelevant to the matter of the superhero book's continued decline in the marketplace. If, as here, a comicbook presents characters debating the slaughter of a comrade without any significant emotion apparently informing their discussion, then what is it about the page that was supposed to attract and hold the reader's attention in the first place? What is it that was supposed to inspire the reader to choose this of all the comics on the stands on the basis of this page 1? Whatever that property of attraction was presumed to be, the fact is that the reader's first experience of "Weird Worlds Part 1" is a static four panels showing six nameless superfolk delivering a mass of backstory. Only if the uncommitted consumer is possessed of an extreme curiosity for the arcana of continuity can this page be regarded as entertaining. In addition to the absence of feeling and action, there's little of character on show here, with only Blue Devil's man-of-the-people spiel and "Ri"'s one-word anti-sexist response to him standing as a marker of anything of individuality. As a consequence, it's certainly hard to grasp that the members of the JSA are discussing a fallen, youthful colleague. It's as if they're discussing a plot-device, and indeed, that's exactly what they're doing. This regrettable truth is something which becomes all the more apparent when the reader twigs that everyone in the room already knows everything that's being discussed. They know that Lightning's dead, they know her spirit has survived, and I'm assuming that they grasp that the unnamed superheroine who's "relatively new to the team" has a "healing touch", since it's impossible to believe that new members get to join without their powers being explained to their teammates. In truth, there's no dramatic urgency to this page at all, because there's no reason for the events to even be occurring.
As far as the information being delivered in this sequence is concerned, we are told in the first panel that a character has been killed. We're even told how she was killed, and rather callously too, but the writer never thinks to tell us the dead heroine's name until the third panel, leaving the impression that those who're discussing their fallen colleague care so little for her that she's little more than an object to them. Worse yet, even when she is referred to as "Lightning", the casual reader might be forgiven for wondering why they should care about her death, since no-one even thinks to talk of her in terms of her personal name. There's no mention of "Jennifer", or even of "Ms Pierce", meaning that anyone not already in the loop where "Lightning" is concerned will inevitably struggle to care about this person who no-one thinks of as having a name. We are, it seems, supposed to be fascinated by the comicbook question of whether she's alive or dead, in 'another dimension' or whatever, but we're not expected to need to relate to her as a person. By the same token, it's assumed in the text that we'll be fascinated by superheroes discussing hyper-babble, but not be interested in how they feel about those obviously minor issues concerning mortality and loss.
But then, it's not just Jennifer Pierce who goes unnamed on this page; everyone else does too, and there's no hope for the reader, such as myself, who has no idea where "Monument Point" is either.
|Bigger panel, but less words; still, 48 words isn't bad for cramming.|
The creation of this sense of alienation from this first page of JSA # 51 is only intensified by the decision to overload the last two panels of the page with so much dialogue that the reader inevitably struggles to process it. The tiny, penultimate frame is crammed with 56 words, while the fourth runs it close with a further 48. It's inevitably both hard work and dull work trying to process information dumped in this careless fashion, and that's especially so when there's no emotional imperative operating to motivate the reader in the first place.These are comicbook cut-outs talking about comicbook matters in comicbook voices. Who beyond the most loyal adherent to the cult of the costumed hero could possibly care?
The snares placed in the page carry little force too, again because the entertainment is so thin and the information so partial and so decoupled from character. Even the page-turner is bafflingly constructed. There's not a hint of urgency there in the slightest. "Ri has a healing touch. I've seen what she can do. It's impressive." declares Dr Midnight, in what's a statement unmarked by doubt. As such, his are words which inspires no curiosity. In fact, Midnight is so sure about Ri's abilities that the reader can have no doubt at all that Jennifer's body will be healed and all plot-complications resolved for the best. Instead of making the reader feel that turning the page is a priority, here turning the page is an optional extra if the will to do so can be found, if there's nothing better to do.
Finally, there's at least something more pressing at stake beyond manifestos, parking tickets and the continuity of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade on the splash page of "Legion Of Super-Heroes" # 13. Rather than the inconvenience of the lights going out or backstory chit-chat about souls and bodies and other dimensions, here we're shown Element Lad from behind jumping out of the way of a punch. Yet, for all there's at least a convincing sense of jeopardy here, in entertainment terms, the first page of "False Hopes" is incredibly thin. In relies at first on the casual reader being interested in the largely unadorned business of two superpeople hitting each other, and even those obsessively interested in hyper-violence would surely note that the tiny figures on show carry little of personality or power. Even the more experienced of Legion followers will surely need a more informing shot than this to inspire any significant degree of concern for Jan Arrah as he faces off against Immortus. We can't even see Element Lad's face, and his body language doesn't at this distance seem to be that of anything other than a competent costumed bloke in a fight. In fact, the composition of the page focuses our attention not so much upon the people before us, but upon what the text declares is "1 000 Mirror Lake on the Planet Colu". To the reader who knows nothing of what that is, or why it matters, all that's before them is a profoundly dull and technically unconvincing depiction of slabs of green glass radiating out in irregular circles from what appears to be a metal coffee-table from some kitsch nightmare of an easy-listening past. It's a terribly demanding task to set an artist, to create an impressive and moving splash page from such an uninvolving example of sci-fi architecture. Of all of the Legion's past illustrators, there are few beyond Forte, Gibbons, Sherman and, at his very best, Giffen, who might be capable of achieving the unlikely goal of making lime-green mirrors and a single tower utterly involving on their own terms. As such, it seems a task that had best not been commissioned at all in the first place, for the matter of the fate of "1 000 Mirror Lake" is hardly a fiercely-motivating reason to sign up for the story's remaining 19 pages.
Still, at least we do know where we are - a planet - and what's happening - a fight with things being broken - and who the two characters on stage are. There's even a little blurb about the Legion itself at the left-hand bottom of the page to lend the slightest of hands to the neophyte. Beyond that, there's nothing of emotion or character on show. As for enigmas, the 1 000 mirror lake and its destruction seems too visually dull and textually empty of meaning for this reader to care a whit about it being knocked about, and I can see nothing about the page which suggests any single reason beyond the question of who wins a standard-issue knockabout to make me want to read any further.
|Whyever should the 1 000 mirror lake matter? What should it make us be feeling, and thinking, and why is it there?|
Yes, it's worth saying again that "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, the first issue in a new series starring a perpetually unsuccessful franchise, opened with a scene in which a largely-unidentified major player in the series didn't get involved in any measure of conflict, and triggered nothing but good for herself by doing so!
To be continued, with a questioning look at - it had to happen sometime - at Gail Simone's Secret Six and and a positive tip-of-the-head to an aspect of Geoff Johns Flashpoint too. No, really. I have no friends and I don't mind playing on my own.