By far the most successful panel in "Batman: The Dark Knight" # 3 is that showing the efforts of a nameless girl who's desperately trying to drive a stolen Batmobile through the nighttime streets of Gotham City. Such small mercies of storytelling are very much appreciated at first by the reader who's gullibly invested in a content-lite 20 page book bearing, for example, not one but two double-page splashes, carrying between them but 15 words and a presumably telling "Rarrrgggh!", all as part of a tale where few plot elements are explained and where most characters remain frustratingly unintroduced. At least the above frame presents a relatively compressed reading experience, marked by action and what at first passes for informing detail. After all, not every artist today would attempt to tackle such a mildly challenging scene as this, despite it being the kind of view which previous generations of less self-regarding creators might have considered something of a bread'n'butter shot. And Mr Finch's panel certainly does succeed in capturing the sense that a single frame of a crane-filmed movie sequence has been isolated and presented to the reader. We can note, for example, that the scene is set in a recognizably urban area, that the road is somewhat dangerously crowded, and that the Batmobile is moving faster than the vehicles around it, the illusion of speed having been created by the trail of smoke which pours behind it as if Batman had fitted a particularly faulty exhaust earlier that same evening.
For an artist so expert that he's produced instructional DVDs designed to assist those willing to invest $49.00 in the mastering of the comic book visual arts, Mr Finch has made some very strange storytelling choices here. Perhaps most puzzling is his decision not to savagely crop the panel, leaving the overwhelming vertical emphasis created by the buildings at the back of the composition diffusing the intensity of the scene. The vertical lines of those functionally worthless city blocks drag the eye up and away from the action, and they diminish the sense of claustrophobia and of imminent disaster which the scene needs in order to make it compelling. Where we should be focusing solely on the probability of a shattering collision, we're actually glancing on a hundred other design elements too. As a result, the reader finds themselves wandering, focusing on a mass of detail which is not only unnecessary to the narrative, but actually counter-productive to its purpose. And it's that fetishistic love of stuff for its own sake which then compels the reader's to quickly note how poorly constructed the panel actually is. A less compulsively busy and more sensibly composed design would've made its point and then directed the reader on with some enthusiasm to the next frame. But here, with the eye snagged on this useless fancy or that unnecessary confection, all that's transmitted is the fact of how disastrously Mr Finch has managed to substitute
passivity for drama, agoraphobia for claustrophobia, and sense for empty spectacle. Note, for example, how Mr Finch has placed the cars on the right of the frame so close and parallel to the pavement there they appear at first sight to be either stationary or pulling calmly out of a parking space. Instead of having to swerve away from the Batmobile, these cars seem initially to present nothing more of a dramatic challenge than that of a stationary obstacle. Given that that convertible actually offers the opportunity for the reader to be presented with the jeopardy-intensifying sight of a driver with his arms in the air in horror, as well as with a shot perhaps of his car mounting the pavement, the reluctance to so exploit the scene's potential is very odd indeed. Similarly, the figures to the right of the careering Batmobile appear to be barely bothered at all about the great speeding hi-tech beast that's just raced past them, nor are the figures at the street corner above them at all curious, let alone shocked, by what's just torn past them. But then, a second look reveals that the Batmobile has actually been placed on the page in such a way that a collision isn't particularly imminent at all, since it's heading towards a clear space opening before it. And even if the Batmobile does get pranged a touch, there's no sense in Mr Finch's art that something serious and memorable and significant is going to occur. There might be a bit of a bash, there may perhaps be some paintwork scraped, there may even the slightest if still somewhat painful degree of whiplash generated, but that's all. Perhaps the citizens of Gotham recognise dramatic fakery when they see it.
|This scene is so terrifying that the witnesses to it barely choose to notice that it's happening, let alone react to it.|
In fact, the more the reader looks at the panel, the more unconvincing and poorly designed it is. The strangely archaic car to the left of the panel, for example, is no doubt supposed to be attempting to get out of the way of the Batmobile. Yet that car should never have been that far over to the right of the street in the first place, a point accentuated by Mr Finch's decision to leave all the barely filled and again-useless space to the far left of the panel so empty. If Mr Finch had wanted to create the sense of a narrow street where cars were compelled to thrillingly weave in and out of each other's way, he surely shouldn't have shown us quite how much free space there actually is there. Counting that empty pavement to the left and the absence of parked cars on the road beside it, there's plenty of room for vehicles to swerve and stay safe. Yet Mr Finch decided to diminish the tension in his own work by refusing to note how much cropping of the scene he might have undertaken. It's as if more is always more where Mr
|Oddly enough, this section of the panel provides a measure of drama in the driver's response quite absent in the scene as a whole.|
Finch is concerned, and his strangely undisciplined choices derail the panel's drama, and inevitably cause the reader to wonder about what's really going on there. Where we should be flinching in case two cars smash into each other, we're first strangely disinterested and then rather bemused. We ought to be being made to focus on the story, but instead at least some of us are going to be diverted into wondering why that green car was so far out of its own lane in the first place. Was it pulling out from the pavement on the right? Is its driver drunk? A panel which had been precisely composed and executed would've killed rather than inspired any such confusions, and in doing so ensured that the artist's intentions were the work's achievements. But Mr Finch's self-indulgence, his fundamental lack of discipline, constantly derails his own narrative, because it results in panels which combine two qualities which no sensibly composed frames should ever contain; an excess of extraneous detail and a deeply unconvincing grasp of compositional basics. And so, the compulsive faux-realism of this single panel ultimately destroys the very idea of a Batmobile operating in Gotham City in the first place. Take a look at that traffic, at those relatively impassable if rather broad streets, at those pedestrians, and at all that might clog up the City even at nighttime: in focusing on his messy comic-book verisimilitude, Mr Finch does little more than raise the prospect that the Batmobile couldn't ever manage to race to a crime, or indeed away from one, in a modern day metropolis.
Yet an exquisitely composed panel counter-intuitively often acts to close rather than to open up any such debate about how real and feasible the fantastic scenario being offered to the reader is. For a comic book story well told allows the reader to loose themselves in the imaginary world before them without their ever having to suspect that what they're staring at is as practically impossible as it is fantastically absurd. In Glen Murakami's frame above, from 1995's "White Christmas", the reader's left in no doubt about the essential reality of what's occurring.;the Batmobile is racing away from Arkham Asylum into a night lit by a full moon and swept by a snowstorm, and no-one's likely to be inspired to sit back and consider whether what they're being shown is feasible or not. By stripping away any unnecessary fancies, Mr Murakami has increased rather than diminished the authenticity as well as the pleasure of the work. Tilted to one side as it is, the panel emphasizes the askew and perverse nature of Arkham Asylum, accentuates its unsettling nature by placing it far away from any other mark of human culture while crowning it with a disconcerting full moon. There's nowhere to hide in the panel's design, and there's not even shadows for the Batman to skulk in under that
moon, and because of that, the Batmobile appears as oddly vulnerable as it's so obviously powerful too. The forced perspective used to slightly elongate its already apparently-aerodynamic frame, combined with that leaning Asylum, also serves to add a sense of considerable speed and effort to the shot, for it suggests that if the Batman doesn't keep his foot down, he'll be dragged backwards into the uncaring underworld he's trying to leave behind, or even skid and tumble off of the steep road he's racing along. And even in purely functional terms, the panel succeeds in efficiently catching the reader's gaze at the entrance point of the panel - top left - and guiding it through the line of moon, building, road and Batmobile onwards to the exit point at bottom-right. In doing so, the fact that Mr Murakami has had to solve a particularly challenging design problem is effectively obscured. For without the creation of the steep hill on which the Batmobile rockets forwards, Arkham and it could never have been both shown as substantial objects in their own right while also creating that sense of distance traveled and speed attained. Without that hill, the Batmobile would either have had to be shown so close to Arkham that there'd be little urgency to the scene, or so far away that Asylum's baleful pull would be greatly diminished.
The characteristic fussiness and lack of clear purpose in Mr Finch's can be seen again in the panel above, where the still nameless thief of the Batmobile is shown making contact with Alfred. And it's worth asking here what the point of the panel actually is. It can't be to highlight the emotional state of the thief, for she's being shown at such an angle that her expression escapes us. Similarly, what we can see of her body language actually creates a sense of calm that contradicts the panic expressed in the contents of her word balloons; her posture appears relaxed, she's only the one untroubled hand on the wheel and, in truth, no-one looking solely at her could ever guess that she's in a state of considerable distress. What is it that we're supposed to be focusing on then, if it isn't the sense of jeopardy that the point-of-view character is supposed to be feeling? Strangely, the panel's design draws the eye to the dead space occupied by nothing but the balloon containing Alfred's dialogue, which then carries the reader to the appropriately blank screen to its right. Could there be a more oddly passive and meaningless area of art to direct our attention to? It actually takes the reader an effort of will to ignore the panel's composition and to look up and 'through' the Batmobile's windscreen, where it appears that the world's largest trash can is being effortlessly and unthreateningly smashed away. Obviously, such a collision poses no danger in the slightest to the car's occupant, because there's not a hint of the Batmobile shaking or shuddering, let alone of the thief even flinching in the most passing and least engaging fashion. Consequently, the panel serves to defuse any jeopardy in a whole series of ways while leaving it to the dialogue, such as it is, to further the plot. Indeed, the whole of the art in this panel could be removed and the story wouldn't be affected a jot. We learn nothing new, we see nothing that visually furthers the plot or even compels our attention, and Mr Finch even manages to make the inside of the Batmobile look little more fascinating than that of a mid-range hire car.
Yet even a considerably less hectic frame from Mr Murakami succeeds in achieving a significant clarity while also intensifying the mystery and unease woven throughout "White Wedding". Of course, these two panels are dissimilar in their meaning, but they're both concerned with events as seen from inside the Batmobile and they're both trying to put to use a view of the comicbook world as seen through its windscreen. And while Mr Finch has struggled with all the fixated minutiae of his art and failed to further his story not a whit in either emotion or fact, Mr Murakami has achieved exactly the opposite. There's an elegant use of negative space here, which creates a layering effect suggesting a sequence of planes in the panel without ever distracting the eye with extraneous material. The reader is carried into the frame from Batman to windscreen to frozen police car, from cemetery gates through the snow storm to the lightless towers of Gotham beyond. The elegance of the colour design is as
outstanding as the pen'n'ink work itself; the muted blues of the dashboard creates a sense of beneficent technology peering out into the dark, the pale yellow of the Batmobile's headlights suggests the recent arrival of the Dark Knight at this crime scene and the inevitable discovery there of this terrible act. And Mr Murakami's control of form matched with his conspicuous rejection of profligate detail renders the fact of a squad car encased in ice immediately recognisable and convincing. There's such an untypical quiet and yet compelling drama being summoned up here, such an air of a superhero closing in on his prey with determination and perplexity, but with no bravado or angst. This is the Batman as a fearsomely competent professional, as a man entirely driven and yet characterised by restraint and intelligence, which allows the reader to take his part in anticipating the coming conflict rather being compelled to indulge in his modern-era emotional excesses at a voyeuristic distance. Put simply, for all that the artwork here is apparently simple, and is almost abstract in its simplicity compared with Mr Finch's fill-up-all-72 tracks approach, it's incredibly productive where the telling of the story is concerned. How easy is it, after all, to stare at this panel and imagine sitting behind this Batman, and anticipating just how cold the night beyond the Batmobile must be, and wondering with no little trepidation what's waiting just ahead in Gotham Cemetery, and being fascinated by the Dark Knight's reserve and deeply curious about what it is that he's really thinking and feeling. By barely telling us anything at all, and yet by showing us everything we need to see, Mr Murakami ensured that Paul Dini's fine script for "White Christmas" was brought to life in a way that no excess of comic book 'realism' ever could match.
It might be noted in closing that the first of Mr Murakawi's panels above took up but two-thirds of the space given over to the scene of a speeding Batmobile from Batman: The Dark Knight # 3 with which I matched it. Similarly, his frame of Gotham Cemetery as shown through the windscreen of the Batmobile took up but 40% of the page-space claimed by Mr Finch's bafflingly purposeless shot of a thief's view from the Batman's driver's seat. In short, not only is there a far more able application of craft to be found in White Christmas, but there's also far, far more of a story on show there too. Less waste, more narrative, more heart; why would anyone choose to aspire to anything else?
Should anyone hear of Mr Murakami ever producing another comic book story, given that his time and his considerable talent is currently being invested in TV shows such as Ben 10, I'd appreciate you letting me know. And if there's ever an instructional DVD from Mr Murakami on the matter of comicbook art, at $49.00 a pop or considerably more, I'll happily invest in it. I really will.
nb: My own editorial skills being none too bright either, the blogger would like to apologise to anyone who came across this piece before 18.25 on the day it went up, for I allowed several draft paragraphs into the piece and really shouldn't have. Of course, no-one who read anything so awkward will be back to read this, but, on well, my own incompetence does oblige an apology.