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.