Thursday, 17 May 2012
On Salvador Larroca & The Invincible Iron Man #512
Salvatore Larroca's closing double-page spread for The Invincible Iron Man #512 is that rarest of experiences in the modern-era monthly super-book; a comics diptych which not only brilliantly serves the narrative, but does so in a way which no other form of storytelling on the page could match, let alone improve upon.
It's not that Larroca's work on these two sides is without its problems. In the detail above, for example, the foreshortening on the Dreadnought's left leg is unconvincing, while by contrast, the left arm appears to be implausibly long. Worse yet, Larroca draws attention unfavourably to the semi-circular features clustered on the Dreadnought's thigh-armour, leaving the robot looking as if it's sporting unthreateningly white-spotted, scarlet jockey-shorts.
But those very qualities of awkwardness mostly work in the favour of the composition as a whole. Larroca's chosen to accentuate the gracelessness of several of the Dreadnoughts, and in doing so gives us the impression of machines responding by necessity to the aerial conditions they're experiencing. While much of the worth of the shot as a whole relies upon the sense of the Dreadnought's implacable forward momentum, the presence in their number of robots which appear to be attempting to jerkily adapt to circumstance suggests technology that's as distinct as it is similar to that of Iron Man's. These are creatures with their own specific body language, with their own presence and therefore their own mechanical personality. Furthermore, there's a sense of audience-involving verisimilitude created by the suggestion of the buffeting of crosswinds and updrafts which brings the scene to life, which encourages the reader to think of flying as a dynamic rather than a passive process. It's something which that the super-book rarely does. This isn't the presentation of flight as an effortless and therefore imaginatively disengaging experience. Instead, it presents it as a challenging trial which requires even the Dreadnought's programming to carry an awareness of the environment and the potential to compensate - no matter how sometimes artlessly - for challenging conditions.
In fact, the whole design works to involve the reader in the progress of the Dreadnoughts towards their target. The most distant of the robots forms the apex of what's effectively an equilateral, equiangular triangle, with the twin flanks of the robot flight arranged roughly along the two edges leading towards it. (Larroca has of course placed his figures fluidly on either side of the triangle's form so as to avoid an all-too-obvious and static arrangement on the page.) This works to create the illusion that the reader's seeing events from the point-of-view of the next Deadnought in line, and ensures that the first plane that events are perceived within reaches horizontally forward towards the sight-distorting sun on the horizon. Similarly, the fact that each robot is placed either above or below the reader's initial point-of-view suggests a great threatening number of weapons of mass destruction swarming onwards. It's a design which ensures that the very first thing which the reader perceives is the speed and strength of the Dreadnoughts as they power towards their target.
But the brilliance of this composition lies in how it also creates a second plane in which to experience events. For, as in the detail above, Dreadnoughts have also been placed to carry the reader's gaze downwards towards Sandouping below, creating a vertiginous sense of height and jeopardy. Again, Larroca's art isn't obsessively perfect here; some of the perspective work in the structures to the right of the two pylons is a touch indistinct and confusing. Yet anyone who can't disengage from dwelling on those few and largely irrelevant details is missing a rare experience in the super-book. What appears to be the addition of well-judged freehand tracings over a photograph of the Three Gorges Dam creates a mixture of precision with spontaneity, and that suggests a specific, well-observed and distinctly real-world environment. In looking down as well as ahead, the reader finds themselves enjoying one of the outstanding virtues of the well-executed post-Hitch/Authority widescreen shot; the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane, of the patently unreal colliding excitingly with the obviously everyday. Here the contribution made by Frank D'Armata's colours deserve the highest praise. His well-judged use of a pallet dominated by subtle greens and browns differentiates the different aspects of the landscape without ever drawing the eye away from the action of the piece. Where a less discriminating colourist might have directed our gaze to the explosions threatening the dam's structure, D'Armata quite rightly chooses not to distract us from the forward motion of the Dreadnoughts. Similarly, he avoids making the robots in any way garish or otherwise cartoony, allowing the reader to believe that the Dreadnoughts and the Three Gorges Dam occupy the same reality. In doing so, it's actually the restrained but eye-directing glow of the robot's boot-jets which dominate the page's colour-scheme and pulls our gaze forwards into the panel towards the horizon's distant glare.
Unlike the vast majority of today's comics diptychs, Larroca's work here repays far more than a single glance. The page itself initially creates an intense sense of foreboding from those above-mentioned three key aspects of his work; the apparently irresistible drive forwards of the Dreadnoughts, the worrying and giddy sense of height, and the hi-tech destruction of the undefended damn. But there's also secondary elements of the design, such as the ominous difference in the water-level between the right-hand and and left-hand pages, which inspires a slightly delayed awareness of how appalling the consequences of the Mandarin's actions may well be. Cleverly, Larroca has also divided the page into two triangles through the placement of the line of the damn itself. As it stretches up from the bottom right of the scene, and creates another division of the frame into two sections, it suggests a world that's slightly askew, and creates the almost-subliminal impression that the waters of the lake are pressing down with terrible force upon the dam's structure, pushing the far end of it just slightly forwards even before the worst arrives.(Of course, the progress of the flight of the Dreadnoughts takes them right through the hypotenuse created by the top of the dam, which again summons a sense of a strong structure which is profoundly threatened.) Even the fact that the dam's too strong for the Dreadnought's attack to immediately breach it only emphasises how terrible the consequences of it being destroyed would be. (After all, why would any dam need to be that resistant to attack, and what would happen if it failed to hold?) Typically, the results of a super-villainous assault upon a vulnerable structure are explained in the text, or sketched out in a what-if shot containing a shorthand depiction of destruction featuring the suffering of a mass of anonymous victims. By contrast, Larroca's work unhysterically inspires the reader to create that hypothetical scenario for themselves, which more than justifies writer Matt Fraction's decision to leave the bulk of the heavy lifting for this part of the story in the hands of his colleague.
Salvador Larroca's work isn't always to my own taste, although the man can hardly be blamed for that. It's just that I tend not to enjoy art which seems regularly sourced from photographs and, as a consequence, somewhat still and mannered. Yet here he's created a closing shot for The Invincible Iron Man #512 which in another's hands could have so easily been a cold-hearted collage of photo-shopped elements which fulfilled the story-brief without adding anything of significance at all. Yet quite the contrary is true, and my own scepticism is quite disarmed. His contribution stands as the most outstanding double-page spread which I've seen in the mainstream super-book so far in 2012.Your suggestions for examples of the breed which are anything other than bombast and space-wasting, and which I've either forgotten, ill-judged or missed, would be welcome in the comments below. (*1)