Review: SHIELD Infinity

SHIELD: Infinity
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artists: Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, Nick Pitarra, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Rachelle Rosenberg, Dan Brown

My, it’s been a while. Suffice to say that this winter was a bit too adventurous for the Department’s tastes, and it’s not quite over yet– I may have a lot more time on my hands this summer to write than I expected, thanks to a bit of unemployment and an impending bout of surgery for a newly-discovered chronic medical issue. (I’m OK, as far as I know; if I’m not, I’ll tell you guys; yes, Wedge is taking care of me and I have very good doctors.)

That being said, I keep seeing reviews of this Marvel one-shot that don’t quite seem to grasp what Hickman’s up to here– which means, yes, spoilers galore below. You’ve been warned.

Cover for SHIELD: Infinity


SHIELD: Infinity is a bit of an odd duck as a one-shot. It’s a little bit inside baseball– if you don’t already know a bit about the Brotherhood of the Shield, its ultimate aims, and the ongoing struggle between Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as its once and future leaders from the main SHIELD book, you’re not going to pick up on everything going on in these four stories. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that regular SHIELD readers won’t miss anything if they give this pass. There’s certainly a lot of backplot here, and most of it probably won’t be covered in the main title.

Also, honestly, I have a hard time conceiving of a hardcore SHIELD fan, or a hardcore Hickman fan, who’s not going to get this book. You either really dig Hickman’s oblique nods to epic, Kirby-esque concepts, or you don’t. You probably already know if you’re in this book’s target audience.

(If you’re unsure, or, if, like me, you love this book and rarely have the mental bandwidth to grasp everything at once, you may want to read Robert Loss’s excellent review of the series, which I’m using to fill in my own gaps as I write this review.)

New readers will find the basic concepts of the Brotherhood of the Shield– a secret society of legendary historical figures sworn to protect humanity from all manner of fantastical menace, from the Brood up to Galactus himself– laid out as simply as possible in Hickman and Pitarra’s opening story, “Colossus.” Sequential storytelling doesn’t get more didactic than this, with Hickman framing a tale of classical antiquity as a Socratic dialogue between Leonardo da Vinci and his students. In ten lean pages, we’re introduced to Leonardo’s vocation as a teacher and mastermind, his inquisitive apprentices, and their fraternity’s mission statement. It’s tightly-told, with just enough action to leaven the exposition for those of us who are already familiar with the setup.

Folks who are up on their current Hickman news might note that “Colossus” is the first work we’ve seen from his collaboration with artist Nick Pitarra; they’re slated to deliver The Red Wing to Image this year, and have talked about more creator-owned work to come. How does Pitarra measure up? I’m impressed; his angular linework and muted palettes of soft pastels remind me of artists like Moebius. The sense of the fantastical Pitarra provides is well-suited to Hickman’s cosmic-level concepts. Pitarra’s panels provide clear angles on the action, whether it’s an overhead shot of Leonardo’s classroom or a pitched fight between Archimedes and an alien invader. I look forward to more Hickman/ Pitarra work; Wedge is already beside himself with glee about the time traveling fighter pilots of The Red Wing.

Zachary Baldus teams up with Hickman for the second tale, an impressionistic story of Nostradamus called “The Hidden Message.” This story falls down a little on accessibility– if you don’t already know that there’s a guy chained up in a mystical well beneath Rome, that he’s Nostradamus, and that he’s not down there for his own good, you’ll be largely lost here. That being said, the overall tone here is distant, as if this moment in time isn’t something we the readership were meant to see at all, and Hickman and Baldus carry that off ably. If it left me cold, well, I think it was supposed to– but we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

Kevin Mellon gets the graphic honors for the only tale of SHIELD’s most enigmatic adventurer, Nikola Tesla. The story rejoices in the Hickmantastic title “Life, the End of the World, and the Key.” The end of the world is a popular topic in the main SHIELD title– Newton thinks he has all the details locked down, and he’s enough of a total madman that he might be just right about that. (After all, he was right about elliptical orbits.) Leonardo, on the other hand, thinks that humanity can ascend and prevail over even the apocalypse– which should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Fantastic Four lately, or Hickman’s earlier Image works Pax Romana and Red Mass For Mars.

Yep, this is SHIELD’s version of the “Solve Everything” problem that’s underlaid Reed Richards’ entire arc in the old Fantastic Four and the new FF books. It shouldn’t be in the least bit new to anyone who has any prior familiarity with Hickman’s favorite concepts. That being said, if Hickman wants a constant touchstone to return to across his works, “the aspiration of man and his technologies against inevitable entropy” beats the hell out of either “smartphones” or “mind-controlling dinosaurs.”

Mellon’s work is pulpy and spare, playing in an extremely limited colorspace provided by Dan Brown. It works well to illustrate just how much of an engineer– of machines and people– Leonardo really is. Leonardo brings Tesla back to life not out of any real concern for Tesla himself, but for the sake of Tesla’s son Leonid, the protagonist of SHIELD. (In comparison, Tesla’s apparently named his only begotten son after Leonardo. I think Tesla’s really getting the raw end of this friendship.) This is a story about stark necessities, and the high-level maneuvering that characterizes the entire game Leonardo and Newton are playing out in their quest to immanentize the Eschaton. Hickman’s choice of Mellon’s strong visual style to underlie that unnerving message points back to his previous career as an art director; this is a writer who knows how to convey a visual concept, and an employer who knows how to bring his best talent to the project at hand.

The fourth story is where I took some exception to prior reviews of SHIELD: Infinity, though; I feel they somewhat understate the case for this book’s characterization of Isaac Newton. Gabriel Hernandez Walta pairs off with Hickman for “The Apple,” and this is where the book goes somewhere most mainstream Marvel comics never approach in this sort of detail. Simply put, “The Apple” is as much of an origin story as we’re going to get for Sir Isaac Newton, the dark mirror of Leonardo and the nominal archvillain of SHIELD. Not so simply put, well…

…Newton the historical figure was not well-liked in his time, and was, at best, what one of my friends calls “a class-A weirdboy.” He was extensively learned in both conventional sciences of the day and in eschatology, alchemy, and other occult specialties. (Wikipedia goes so far as to speculate that he came by all the science secondary to his love for the occult.) He thought he was among an elect group who could actually know the mind of God via Biblical study and interpretation; he was very secretive; he was combative with his colleagues and driven by a sense of vengeance. Hickman’s done the reading– more than I have, for sure– and he’s brought all of that to the fore here. How does he capture the mercurial, brooding genius of the historical Newton and align it with the chthonic, ideological evil of the 616 Newton?

Well, uh, Newton beats Gottfried Leibniz to death (mostly off-panel; this isn’t a MAX book) with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. That all goes down after Leibniz reveals that, yes, he has rather noticed that Isaac Newton is a god damned serial killer who’s been murdering all of his intellectual rivals.

Needless to say, this is entirely not what I expected from my SHIELD one-shot purchase. “The Apple” is about a step shy of that whole buggering-to-death business with Hyde and the Invisible Man in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it’s pretty stunning to see even in a T+ Marvel book. Hickman’s Newton isn’t so much a scientist, or even a mystic, as he’s a full-on Criminal Minds-style unsub, psychopathically driven to exterminate everyone who fails to find accord with his thanatic vision. Leibniz is no Batman, either; while he carries off his investigation, there’s nothing he can do to stop Newton from making him the next victim.

It would be easy to say that “The Apple” only has one purpose– to make you hate Hickman’s version of Newton, and, conversely, like his Leonardo all the more. I’d actually be happier if that was all it was supposed to do… but, like every Hickman story, it’s not that simple. Sure, Newton is certifiably beyond redemption, a spree killer with no thought for anyone or anything beyond his own intellectual glory, coldly driven to torture and exterminate his foes (as we saw in “The Hidden Message”)…

…but he might also be right about being the smartest man that ever lived. He might be right about everything, in the end, and that’s what SHIELD: Infinity wants you to wonder about as you close the covers. What hope can even the original Renaissance Man hold out against the annihiliatingly precise, logical vision of the end of the world held within Newton’s apple?

Having Avoided Death, I Post Some Capsule Reviews

Greetings! I still exist, despite a bout of dental havoc that had me laid up on painkillers and antibiotics for eight freaking days. Chad has been taking good care of me, and thus I can now return with a bunch of capsule summaries of books from the last couple weeks.

Avengers #2 (Bendis, JRJR, Janson, White): Bendis continues solidifying the new primary Avengers lineup with the addition of Noh-Varr. I don’t have any prior experience of Noh-Varr, but he seems likable enough. He has kind of a “Sheldon Cooper and Longshot get it on” vibe that I appreciate.

This issue ends with the abrupt arrival of a major X-Men villain, which seems a bit incongruous. I’m not sure how much of a red herring that’s going to be, given that we’re already dealing with Kang/ Immortus, but I’m willing to see where it goes. I do wish Tony Stark were a little more cognizant of his current dire financial and logistical straits, though– either Bendis is playing fast and loose with continuity, or Invincible Iron Man‘s current “Tony tries to rebuild his holdings” arc finishes up before this issue.

Fantastic Four #580 (Hickman, Edwards, Currie, Mounts): Um, it’s Arcade and the Impossible Man! Arcade seems to be having himself a mini-renaissance– he was in the Dazzler one-shot this month, too. Unfortunately, he’s never quite grown past his B-list Riddler tics, and it’s kind of hard to work up any excitement about him. Likewise, Impy seems terribly restrained here, keeping in mind that I haven’t seen a book with Impy in it for fifteen years or so.

Oh, and there’s another baffling two-page future history of Nu-Earth sequence, and, uh, Dragon Man and the other kids in Reed’s Brave New School have figured out how to cure the Thing. Sort of. But! Arcade and the Impossible Man! Majority of the book! Exploding Impossible Man toys!

Yeah, I’m not sure about this narrative arrangement either, but I find myself enjoying the hell out of it regardless. Just, please, someone figure out something else to do with Arcade already.

Young Allies #1 (McKeever, Baldeon, Sotomayor): Firestar, Gravity, Arana, Nomad, and Toro… don’t exactly team up, but they do take on a bunch of bad guys in this extremely efficient first issue. You meet everyone, you get a good handle on their personalities, there’s a fight, and it’s over. It’s a refreshingly clear-cut introduction, and David Baldeon’s art is fantastic, a bit reminiscent of Stuart Immonen with a slightly more expansive feel.

Arana and Nomad, in particular, sell this for me; they’re really the only established partnership in the book, and their banter is both realistic and hilarious. I could read an entire series focused on them and feel like I was getting my money’s worth. Throwing in Firestar is a bonus, although she hasn’t had much significant screen time yet; adding Gravity ensures that Chad, at least, will pick this book up as long as Marvel cares to publish it. (I don’t get it, but hey, there are worse people to be married to than a Gravity fanboy.)

Avengers Academy #1 (Gage, McKone, Cox): The other new team book of that week showcases a bunch of the teenaged characters from Norman Osborn’s failed Initiative, thrown together under the guidance of some disgraced Avengers. While the kids work together to find out why the Avengers have offered to train them, the adult mentors are shooting for personal redemption after their own setbacks and defeats.

It does rather read like the Doom Patrol to the Thunderbolts’ Suicide Squad, to be sure, but I don’t think that’s a problem. Gage gives every character a compelling reason to be at the Academy, which offsets the “who are these people” factor and lets you roll with the concepts. I particularly like Finesse, a young woman who’s got about the same power set as Monet from Generation X. Refreshingly, Finesse seems to lack an obnoxious, complicated family history– she’s a straight-up psychopathic polymath with no social ties, and I can get behind that concept.

If you don’t like struggling-superhero redemption stories, or you just can’t bring yourself to give a crap about Tigra and Speedball, you might give this one a pass. Otherwise, this is a quirky book with a lot of high concept, and it’s worth a read.

New Avengers #1 (Bendis, Immonen, Von Grawbadger, Martin): Well! Now that the onslaught of Avengers first issues is over, I’ve found the one I like the best. New Avengers plants Bendis squarely in his quip-tossing, hanging-out-with-the-guys comfort zone, and the results are incredibly endearing. Danny Rand lends Luke Cage a dollar to buy Avengers Mansion from Tony, for Christ’s sake. There’s no way you can hate that.

Immonen’s art suits the humor. When Peter Parker crams in a bit of dinner, mask pulled up to his nose, it’s hard not to think of Brad Pitt in Ocean’s 11, constantly stuffing his face through entire scenes. Iron Fist is appropriately bemused and whimsical, genially tolerating all of Luke’s command angst. Victoria Hand, dragooned into the role of operations coordinator, is put-upon and defensive. Her body language speaks volumes about her ambivalence towards Luke and his team. This is good, and I want more like this.

The team dynamic here is far less fractious than the Tony-Steve conflict of the main Avengers title, and less square-jawed than Steve’s covert team in Brubaker’s Secret Avengers. There’s a sense of camaraderie between Luke, Danny, Jessica, and the other members of the team; the pace is relaxed, everything is congenial. It’s a fun read, with none of the tension or timestream-threatening high stakes of the main title.

Review: Fantastic Four #579

“The Future Foundation”

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: Neil Edwards
Inker: Andrew Currie
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer & Production: VC’s Rus Wooton
Cover: Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, & Javier Rodriguez

Futurists perform a quirky, but necessary, task in modern society: we function as the long-range scanners for a species evolved to pay close attention to short-range horizons.

–Jamais Cascio, “Ethical Futurism

Reed Richards has been a lot of things in his tenure with the Fantastic Four. Scientist, adventurer, hero, husband, father– he’s even been on the wrong side of history a few times in recent memory. In “The Future Foundation,” Jonathan Hickman has taken stock of those sides and given Reed one convenient identity to cover it all.

It turns out that Reed Richards is demonstrably a futurist, cast in the mold of real-life folks like Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio. There’s only one question left– is he an ethical one?

Cover to Fantastic Four #579.

Ooo, Alan Davis!

Certainly, this storyline positions Reed in the vanguard of thinkers tackling issues like posthumanism and global change. He has no problems publically taking his colleagues to task at an event that looks suspiciously like the Singularity Summit, berating them for their lack of forward vision. His futurism brooks no boundaries and accepts no setbacks; his end goal is nothing less than a star-spanning empire of humanity, broken free of the dying Earth to achieve near-godhood through science.

And that’s where everything gets problematic. Instead of inviting his colleagues to reconsider, Reed stomps off on his own to apply some long-term thinking to the problem. Remember “Solve Everything?” Remember how creepy and Machiavellian an entire roomful of Reeds operating as one body was? Yeah, this is pretty much that all over again, except this time there’s just one Reed. And he’s pissed.

Reed stomps home and institutes the Future Foundation within the Baxter Building, with the stated goal of educating the FF’s cast of wayward children in the finer points of creating a sustainable human future. Because nothing could possibly be wrong with indoctrinating your son, your alleged daughter, a Moloid head in a jar, a few Atlantean kids, and Alex freaking Power with your somewhat obsessive, singleminded, possibly-fascist worldview.

I know I sound like I’m down on this plan– and I am– but the actual setup is great, delightfully warped reading. Prior Hickman plotlines have demonstrated that Reed’s theories don’t always survive contact with their applications. We know that Reed has a tendency to sequester himself from others, mentally and psychologically, when he’s working towards a specific end. And, well, didn’t we just see Reed saying a few issues ago that he would renounce his quest to solve the world’s problems? He’s right back on the crack pipe, ladies and gentlemen, only now he’s trying to get the kids to suck the fumes back with him. This can’t end well, but it’s going to be awesome to watch it all fall apart.

Hickman’s setting up a fairly grand endeavor in this book, and it’s compelling reading even when I don’t quite grasp everything that’s going on. There are two pages of Nu-World flashbacks and flash-forwards in this issue, for instance– I thought we left Nu-World behind a couple of arcs ago. That doesn’t stop the spread from being both visually stunning (I’m still partial to Dale Eaglesham’s muscular take on Reed, but Neil Edwards brings the ultratech in an appealing manner) and poignant in its cryptic separation from the rest of the book. Hickman never gives me the sense that he’s going to leave things hanging, though, for all the isolated hints and off-beat moments. If we’re checking in on Nu-World, I know it’s going to play some role in the long game.

That innate sense of an eventual payoff, of an underlying order to the massive amount of plot presented, makes this book enormously fulfilling to pick up each month. If the finale of Lost made your inner skeptical futurist scream and throw things around the room, pick this book up and start pondering the ethics of Reed Richards, man of science and shaper of worlds.

Review: Siege: Secret Warriors

Siege: Secret Warriors cover by Marko Djurdjevic.

Yeah, that's pretty much what's going on here. No subtlety!

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Alessandro Vitti
Colorist: Jose Villarubia
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic

I’ve read three of the Siege one-shots now– I skipped Siege: Captain America and Siege: Young Avengers, since I’m not following their home titles– and I’ve been pretty solidly entertained all along. Two of those three issues have played directly to their authors’ strengths. Siege: Loki showcased Kieron Gillen’s grasp of the Asgardian mindset, first displayed in “The Latverian Prometheus.” Brian Reed’s knack for physical comedy got full run of the place in Siege: Spider-Man, including the single best Ms. Marvel panel I’ve ever seen.

Given that, you’d probably expect Siege: Secret Warriors to go straight up the usual Jonathan Hickman alley– weird conspiracies, epic pseudoscience, and portents of disaster at every turn. You’d figure on at least a token appearance by Hydra, and you’d guess that Secret Warriors leader-in-training Daisy might be integral to the plot, as usual.

You’d be entirely wrong, too.

The focal point of this issue is Alex, the extremely creepy boy-genius son of Ares, the recently-deceased god of war. Unlike his dad, Alex is the god of fear… and while Ares can’t possibly have been the best of parents, given his treatment of his charges in books like Dark Avengers: Ares, he did leave a few very specific instructions for Alex in event of an emergency. Alex sets off to fulfill those requests as best he can, and, well, when you’re the god of fear, your best is probably a damn sight better than most people’s.

Hickman throws every bit of his usual carefully-honed subtlety out the window in this issue. I lost count of the number of people Alex chops up on his way to finding out the reason for his father’s (quite temporary, it seems) death. The entire A-plot is pretty much one dirty, protracted fight sequence; there’s not a lot of talking, just a lot of Alex going house on mortals who aren’t prepared for his assault. People who’ve been following Secret Warriors from issue one will be pleased to see Alex finally embracing his father’s amorality, which he displays in flashes throughout the regular series. His actions certainly bring up questions about how much longer he’s going to put up with being the mascot in Nick Fury’s Junior SHIELD Scouts, and I think that’s exactly what Hickman wants the reader to ponder.

If you’re not a regular Secret Warriors reader, though, Alex’s quest for vengeance probably won’t do much for you. After all, you’ve got almost no reason to care about him. You’re not going out and buying, I dunno, Secret Phobos or Ultimate God of Fear or Alex: Origins every month, because he doesn’t have that kind of cachet in the Marvel lineup. For you guys, Hickman’s thoughtfully provided a B-plot where Nick Fury and the reborn Steve Rogers renew their acquaintance over a round of hapless mooks. Vitti does a fine job with this big, sprawling Avengers-style battle, rendering Cap with a brawler’s raw physicality and Nick with the breezy charm of an amiable drunk.

The editorial dictate of the month, if this book and Invincible Iron Man #25 are any indication, is “Get all the major players in the Illuminati/ Civil War plotline back on or near the same page before June’s Avengers event.” Siege: Secret Warriors accomplishes the reunion of Nick and Cap in swaggering style. And, hey, if you’re a fan of Alex’s ongoing quest to attain the full scope of his divinity, there’s a lot to like here too. Essential for Siege diehards who were left hanging by Ares’ death, folks who liked Dark Avengers: Ares, and Secret Warriors readers. You could probably skip it if you’re not in those three categories, but you’d miss a rare atypical Jonathan Hickman story, and I don’t think I’d recommend that.

Review: SHIELD #1

SHIELD #1 cover by Gerard Parel and Dustin Weaver

Gerard Parel and Dustin Weaver rock the Atari 2600 cartridge art.

“The Unholy Resurrection of Leonardo da Vinci”

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
Colorist: Christina Strain
Letterer: Todd Klein

Being a Marvel fan is a difficult thing. You’re at the mercy of editorial edict when it comes to how far any given plotline can advance in a single book, which means months of timekill in the book you’re reading while other writers move pawns on the board. Books with great writers might have less-than-great artists, while books with phenomenal art talent might sport atrocious writing. Worst of all, you might get behind a great title, only to watch it vanish due to low sales five or six issues later.

Thus, my dilemma with SHIELD. Make no mistake, this is a fucking fantastic first issue from Hickman and Co. Even Joe Quesada thinks it’s a great book… but I’m hesitant to get attached this soon. S.W.O.R.D. was a solid adventuring-couple book featuring an X-Man in a lead role, and it tanked. How much worse is a multi-layered, da Vinci-inspired, first-principles retcon of the history of the entire Marvel Universe going to do in this market? I’m afraid of the answer, honestly, because I want Marvel to do more books like these, and I’m not sure it’s feasible on a straight financial level for them.

As always, the visual design of the book screams “I am a Jonathan Hickman production,” and that’s one of the great things about his work. Hickman’s design sense is publisher-agnostic– if you see clean chart work, liberal use of Arial, and predominant browns and ambers in the color palette, you know it’s a Hickman book. Sure, in SHIELD, the storytelling hews closely to the Marvel house style, but the underlying creator-owned sensibility is there in all the little touches. You know what you’re getting when you pick this up; Hickman’s solidly established his brand and sticks to it.

That fundamental reliability spills over into the narrative of SHIELD, too. Hickman’s becoming a Ken Burns for the Invisibles set; he’s a documentarian of universes that never were, alternately enlightening and confounding his viewership with his research. The major themes here are familiar– the evolution of human potential, the predestined course of history, the duality of light and darkness. Anyone who’s familiar with Hickman’s work on Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four will find a lot of shared ground in SHIELD. POV character Leonid is chosen for a higher destiny in a manner reminiscent of Reed’s elevation to the Council of Reeds in “Solve Everything.” The ongoing battle between S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA that underpins Secret Warriors‘ “Wake the Beast” arc is obliquely referenced in a cryptic scene involving Han Dynasty warriors and a Celestial. There’s a mysterious hidden city, equally as weird as Attilan or any of the other cities of the current FF arc. The book is firmly grounded in what Hickman’s been doing all along in the 616 Marvel Universe, and that’s a positive sign.

And, of course, huge chunks of it are unabashed “so, how nerdy are you about science, progress, and the Marvel Unverse?” fanservice. Galactus! Galileo! Apocalypse! Leonardo da Vinci in steampunk power armor! An early Fist of Khonshu! Imhotep tearing chunks out of the Brood and posing like Cap! If you’ve ever thought that an episode of The Universe would be improved by Brian Cox talking about the Ultimate Nullifier, this book is exactly what you’ve always wanted Marvel to do for you. It’s every bit as audacious in concept and execution as The Nightly News was, which is something the mega-crossover-bound Marvel Universe has desperately needed.

Dustin Weaver provides rock-solid art throughout, which is no mean feat given the scope of Hickman’s vision here. Not every Marvel artist gets to go from New York in 1953 to 2620 BC in six pages with a stop in a Mysterious Underground City, after all, and Weaver makes it look easy. Christina Strain comes off her strong work on Pixie Strikes Back to deliver equally accomplished colors here, playing light and shadow off one another to create a visual metaphor for SHIELD’s battle against the premature end of human existence. The two-page spread of Rome late in the issue shows a confident synergy between Weaver and Strain; it looks good, it recalls the work of Moebius without slavishly imitating his style, and it made me have to stop and put the book down to get my shit together and keep reading.

April’s a little early to declare anything a frontrunner for “best books of the year.” There’s a lot of stuff coming up this summer that I want to see before I make any predictions– the Heroic Age Avengers titles, Madame Xanadu‘s female-artist showcase arc “Extra-Sensory,” the ongoing awesomeness that is Demo‘s second volume. Talk to me in September, though, and I think I might be able to say some very nice things about where Hickman, Weaver, and Strain are taking SHIELD.

Or, you know, it’ll be over by then. Perhaps you should all buy two, and give a copy to your best buddy who likes science porn and Celestials… just in case. I’ve already offered to FedEx mine to a friend in Massachusetts.

Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter Three

Chapter 3 of Understanding Comics gets into the grit of panel-to-panel continuity, the literary equivalent of persistence of vision. It’s probably good that I’m hitting this now, when I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Hickman comics lately; I feel like I could use a refresher on the ground rules, since Hickman’s known to break them every which way he can in the space of a book.

Fantastic Four #575’s ending, which I won’t spoil, is a good example of breaking a lot of rules about compressed storytelling. The vast majority of Hickman’s The Nightly News doesn’t even deal in panel boundaries at all; it looks more like a web designer’s anarchist manifesto than a comic book. I picked up the second Secret Warriors HC in the shop last night, flipped it over to the stark back cover with the single emblem and the brief, terse description, and said “Gee, Chad, look! It’s a Hickman book!” Man has a style, and it’s largely based on taking Eisner and McCloud to heart and then proceeding on without further regard.

That being said, Hickman’s work-for-hire books look more like conventional comics (aside from the awesomely clean, shiny, Jonathan Ive-tastic backmatter) than his creator-owned works do. I’ve got the first eight issues of Secret Warriors sitting here with me, and I’m in a mood for less theory and more application this week. I’m going to break out McCloud’s six types of panel transitions and grab some examples from those issues, as Secret Warriors is arguably the Marvel book where Hickman is the most conventional with his scripting and Caselli is the most straightforward with the layouts and panel setups.

If you’re not familiar with Secret Warriors, I recommend it, by the way; it’s a tight thriller about the secret history of SHIELD and HYDRA as seen through the eyes of a team of teenage super-agents. It’s got that edge of weird that one expects from super-powered counterintelligence action, and if you’re not really into Hickman’s more experimental works, it’s conservative enough by his standards to be reassuring. Now, onto the transitions!

1. Moment-to-Moment

Nick Fury and the President, from Secret Warriors #1

No walking and a lot of talking: Hickman and Caselli redefine Sorkin's style.

The 12-panel grid on page 20 of issue 1 is a fantastic moment-to-moment that also spans eight major plot points, demonstrating incredible economy of storytelling in a confined space. A Sorkin-style walk and talk where the viewer’s eyes are doing all the walking while Fury and the President do all the talking.

And, uh, then there’s issue 4, page 15:

Nick Fury has a moment about massage, Secret Warriors issue 4.

Don't we all? Nick Fury has a moment.

It’s just barely McCloud’s version of a moment-to-moment transition– Fury doesn’t actually move here, although he does speak– but, um, AAAAA. Too much information, thanks, sir.

2. Action-to-Action

There’s two great examples of this in issue 1. First off:

Nick Fury tackles and injects a goon in three panels from Secret Warriors #1.

Three panels, one goon, no waiting.

Page 16, bottom three panels. Fury grabs the goon and injects him in three quick moves. Hickman and Caselli love this three-panel layout for fluid action, breaking out one scene into its component movements, as seen a couple pages later in the same issue when Fury accesses the Datacore.

Nick Fury accesses the Datacore, in Secret Warriors #1.

"This is a UNIX system! I know this!"

3. Subject-to-Subject

Nick Fury and Contessa Allegra Valentina face off.

Before we kill each other, Mr. Fury...

Issue 3, page 12. Nick, Allegra, the gun showdown. Cut to cut to cut, Tarantino-style. The suspicion between the SHIELD agent and the superspy hangs in every space between panels. Nothing is explicit, but everything is laid out for the reader.

4. Scene-to-Scene

Nick Fury's flashback ends in confusion for Daisy Johnson.

Wrapping up the flashback.

Issue 1, page 21. From the White House to the Coccoon, from Fury to Daisy.

Secret Warriors does a lot of jumping from locale to locale—from Australia to Inside Straight in issue 4, from Fury in New Mexico in issue 3 to Daisy and her team at Red Worm—but it’s almost always split across pages, which just makes it a change of locale and less of a narrative hook between two parts of the plot. This one, however, bridges a timespan, as Fury briefs Daisy on his infiltration of the White House. The dark wood and midafternoon lighting of the Oval Office contrast starkly with the hyper-tech blue lighting of the Warriors’ base (remember, kids, as Kenneth Hite says, all comforting technology glows blue).

5. Aspect-to-Aspect

The Secret Warriors review security camera footage.

HYDRA knocks over a 7-11.

Issue 3, page 5, the security camera dump focusing on what HYDRA has been up to—the different aspects of the idea that HYDRA has subverted SHIELD and is now stepping up their plans.

I find the aspect-to-aspect transition the hardest one to get my head around. This could also play as subject-to-subject—different HYDRA agents being focused on within the framework of the plan– but I think it works better as a tense overview of entire HYDRA plan. McCloud focuses heavily on anime and atmospherics when he discusses aspect-to-aspect transitions; it’ll probably take me longer to get a handle on its use in Western comics as a result.

6. Non Sequitur

…for once, there’s not a non sequitur in a Hickman book. So, uh, I’ve taken it upon myself to make one. See you next week! (Author runs for the exit.)

The soldiers of HAMMER, uh, don't discuss Fin Fang Foom's mating habits.

...he did NOT tell you that. Tell me he didn't tell you that.

Review: Fantastic Four #575

Fantastic Four #575 (Cover by Alan Davis)

“Prime Elements 1: The Abandoned City of The High Evolutionary”

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dale Eaglesham
Color Artist: Paul Mounts
Letterer & Production: VC’s Rus Wooton

Should I ever have the chance- and who knows, maybe just putting it out there on the Internet like this will give me that chance- I’d be sorely tempted to ask Jonathan Hickman, in all sincerity and curiosity, “…what’s with the monkeys, anyway?” Admittedly, I was primarily introduced to his writing via Transhuman, which I like rather a lot, but if you’ve read it, well. Monkeys.

I won’t tell you what that has to do with issue 575 of Fantastic Four, because it’s a thing best left unspoiled. Hickman’s run on FF continues to barrel along as a rollicking example of what intelligent pulp sci-fi ought to be. Breakfast at The Baxter Building is interrupted by a trio of Moloids (one of which has been reduced to a disembodied head by an unfortunate encounter with a truck) which leads the the appearance of the Mole Man. Turns out he’s actually come seeking assistance for once; there’s trouble in Subterranea and he thinks Reed and company are the only people who can help. There’s trip in a flying submarine, strange underground lands, and Ben being amusingly wary of the entire Mole Man gestalt.

It’s here that I have to admit that, before issue 570, I was a Fantastic Four virgin. I’ve not even seen the movies. Of course, I’ve had enough exposure to know who they all are and what their powers are. I knew enough to make the “Well, there’s all the Fantastic Four movie we’ll ever need!” joke after seeing The Incredibles. As I mentioned in my bio, though, I came up with little to no Marvel exposure, and by the time I did start getting into it, the title was in enough of a state that Janice had long since sworn it off for greener pastures.

We both liked Hickman’s work at Image, however, so when we heard he was coming to this title, we were hopeful, and so far it’s paid off. I’m getting a great introduction to that part of the Marvel Universe, and she’s happy to be getting into the characters again.

I will be submitting my pitch for 'The Adventures of Mr. Head' to Marvel posthaste.

Dale Eaglesham’s art matches the flow of action well, and it all fits squarely in my mind as what this kind of comic should look like; lots of fine detail that doesn’t overwhelm the sense of action or discovery that’s integral to this introductory issue of the arc. The coloring, too, pops, especially when the FF traverse the different areas of the Underworld. The entire production team is on the ball here, and it’s fun to see the end result. I’m especially fond of the cover, which is only tangentially related to the story, but still manages to have that classic SF feeling.

The issue ends not only with more questions than we started with, but with an entirely new set of dilemmas as well. A mild false ending instead of a cliffhanger, it still sets a pretty strong hook for the arc, and leaves the reader wondering what fantastic things we’ll see next month. I’d vote for a return of Mr. Head, myself, if I had a choice, but I think I’ll enjoy whatever comes next.