Friday, 13 July 2012
On One Single Panel From McKelvie & Gillen's Phonogram: The Singles Club
It's been a long time since I picked up a pencil with any serious intent, but I think that I still know enough to feel confident of filling up a side of paper with obsessively-rendered and embarrassingly hyper-muscled super-ladettes and mega-dudes in their crime-fighting togs. A frozen, angst-ridden moment of stolen-from-Gil-Kane anatomy with Kirby Krackles conveniently obscuring those pesky ankles and feet in the foreground? No problem at all. As a kid, I was Rob Liefeld before Rob Liefeld had even been fitted for his first school pants. But the nuts and bolts of storytelling? The really tough, demanding challenges? The unspectacular moments where very little apparently happens and yet all of it's essential? No, that I can't aspire to, because I never mastered the skills, and with the time that's left to me, I never will. Hurtling towards the speed-bump that's the age of fifty makes it obvious that time really is running out, and the skills of the professional comicbook artist aren't those which can be mastered at the wrong end of a lifetime.
But this one single panel from the first issue of Phonogram; The Singles Club, by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, sums up for me everything that I wish I had learned to accomplish as an artist. For what's so inspiring about McKelvie's work here is how it admirably attends to the fundamentals of storytelling without ever seeming to draw attention to the artist's efforts at all. In the best sense of the word, this panel is transparent. In that, it doesn't advertise McKelvie's skills in an obvious way. It's not showy or buried in a mass of detail and cross-hatching. It simply tells the story, and yet the way that it does so isn't, of course, any simple matter at all.
Because I once did spend those decades trying and failing to make an artist of myself, I have a tendency to imagine what the description in a script might have been for any particular panel which catches the eye. The one that comes to mind for this frame would undoubtedly have set an intimidating task for any hack or faker;
"A high-angle shot looking down on Penny & Laura as they climb the stairs up to the club. As they do, the quietly excited Penny dominates the readers' view, treating them as she would a friend standing before her, while an unmoved Laura notes the rules of the club on the wall as she walks upwards."
Simple enough, you might think, if you weren't actually thinking of all that that description was demanding. Even pushing aside the responsibility to make the panel compelling without being inappropriately melodramatic, and characterful without falling back upon cliche, there's the "simple" demands of the stairs and the hand-rail and the perspective and the posters on the wall and the cropping and so on and on. It's an everyday scene, and yet the challenges it brings with it are such that turning the description which inspired it into a finished work may well have defeated a fair number of professional comics artists. I find myself trying to imagine, for example, where I would have placed the focal point of the frame, and of what I might have excluded so as to carry the story without burying events in irrelevancies. How easy would it have been to have given the shot such a sense of liveliness when more than a third of the panel was going to have to be allocated to the text? Would I have been brave enough to eliminate the sight of the steps entirely, or dared to show so little of the character's bodies? I certainly suspect that even if I could have envisaged a solution, its execution would have defeated me.
Yet McKelvie's panel bears hardly any signs of having been hammered into shape at all, despite the not inconsiderable challenges set by Gillen's script. As always in Phonogram, McKelvie's leads are distinctive and characterful without being objectivised or stereotypical, and there's a charm and sense of purpose about both women here which on its own secures the reader's attention. There's Penny, hopeful and trusting, and Laura, who appears self-contained while tellingly reading through the rules of the coming night's engagement. As such, the artwork does its job brilliantly because it's almost impossible to want to look beyond the charisma and motion of the characters to the details of the scene's construction, which means that all that shines off the page is the story itself.
In that, it's a panel which succeeds in making the commonplace beguiling. These are, after all, just two people walking up some stairs. Yet with Penny talking us through the stages of her journey to her "favourite club in the entire world", there's a sense of anticipation that's created through Gillen's script tapping into the rituals of clubbing which we've all experienced. What McKelvie does is to maintain that mix of the typical and the enticing while framing the action in an unobtrusively unfamiliar way. The characters themselves are fascinating enough, and yet, in addition to that, I simply can't recall ever seeing a panel which involves the reader's gaze looking back down a flight of stairs towards a character that they're supposedly in a conversation with. With Penny's eyes placed precisely where they'll concentrate the reader's attention and create a sense of focus and intimacy, and with the word balloon's expressing how wonderful the evening's going to be, the reader's curiosity about what's going on - as it were - behind their back, where the much-discussed club awaits, is intensified. Even the sense that we're staring down an uncommonly steep stair-well helps to add a slight but still effective touch of unease and urgency to the optimism that Penny's expressing. It's all adds up to a counter-intuitively impressive way of raising the degree of expectation in a story.
When I recall this panel, I almost feel as if I'm experiencing something of a muscle-memory, of a shadow of a moment in which I once physically turned around to talk to a friend after having climbed a flight of stairs. As such, much of the life of the panel is created by the way in which the reader is co-opted to function as a third character on the page.
It's also notable how neither Penny nor Laura are placed so as to play up their own power. For all that Penny's functioning as the strip's gatekeeper here, she's also clearly someone who lacks power where the situation's concerned. It's a friendly environment, but it's not one that's she's in control of. And there's certainly something vulnerable about both women which the high-angle shot inevitably helps to create, and that gently foreshadows the challenges which await them. Even the way in which the rules of the club are shown being studied by Laura helps to set up what's coming. On the one hand, it wordlessly suggests that she's more cautious and less delighted about the evening's destination than Penny. On the other, there's the suggestion that, as with any magic, there will be rules and contracts and trials soon coming into play. Yet for all of that, the scene is never over-played or made to feel in any way complicated or meaningful. It is essentially nothing more or less than two women on the stairs heading for an evening out.
It's not that it's a perfect composition. The sense of the design breaks down a touch at the bottom-left-hand corner, where it's hard to work out what's wall and what's floor, what might be paint job and what may be shadow. Yet the panel also seems designed to carry our gaze far away from that point. The combination of Penny's attention-centering stare, the poster immediately to her right and then the sequence of three word balloons hauls the eye to the panel's exit point, while obscuring the fact that Laura seems to have an an unclear relationship with the ground behind her right shoulder. Similarly, the diagonal integrators on the page, including particularly the hand-rail and its shadow, creates for the characters a sense of forward-momentum, which means that we're again always looking "upwards" towards the club and away from any possible confusion.
There's a paradox here. Because McKelvie's art doesn't tend to advertise its own presence, it becomes compelling in its own right. Because it doesn't draw our attention away from the story, our attention gets drawn in an attempt to work out just how the hell the job's been done. And when I look at that one particular panel, I'm reminded of how much work goes into making the story rather the storyteller the focus of attention. I may have no precise idea why this single frame above so many others has lodged itself in my memory. Perhaps it really is nothing more than my inability to imagine ever being able to match the charm that it expresses. Perhaps it's because its minor flaws suggest that it's been produced by a man who's had to work laudably hard to seem to be doing anything but. It's certainly an admirable example of how to make a prosaic shot shine without giving it an inappropriate, story-unbalancing importance.
And perhaps it's because the storytelling is so strong that I never once thought how ridiculous it is for Gillen and McKelvie to be asking this particular reader to assume the role of a visitor to The Singles Club. For that's an entirely ridiculous notion for a man of my advancing years, and yet that never crossed my mind. The characters are interesting and agreeable, the rituals of the evening involving and gently compelling. Convincing someone who's no longer youthful to feel complicit in a scene which involves a visit to a spaceship or an ancient civilization is, after all, an easy matter when compared to making them feel both comfortable and curious about wandering towards the Singles Club. And yet, the thought that this was no place for me never once crossed my too-often cynical mind.
Those that avoided the series because they suspected that it was a manifesto of hipster exclusiveness and mannered cool obviously never looked at the pages of the comic itself.