There are a couple of curious things about Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s The Invincible Iron Man #29, which came out this week–one of them obvious on a first reading, one less so. The one that’s not immediately evident is that this is a Marvel superhero comic with barely a hint of an action scene. Okay, there’s one little explosion, but that’s about it. For the most part, this is a talking-heads issue, in which characters work toward their goals through conversation and casual interaction. That plays to a lot of Larroca’s strengths as an artist, as well as Fraction’s as a writer: there’s a nicely staged sequence near the end where two characters are attempting to embrace in front of a crowd and find that they’re physically unable to.
The immediately obvious curiosity, though, is the way Larroca’s laid out this issue. Of its 23 story pages, 18 are mostly or entirely panels that extend the width of the page but are a quarter or less of its height–the “widescreen” effect. (You can see a few pages here.) I’ve mentioned this trend in recent comics before; it’s a technique that makes the comics page look like a series of frame captures from a big action movie (which, of course, Iron Man recently was). On a comics page, though, a short, wide panel is tricky to pull off. People are generally portrait-shaped, not landscape-shaped, so all you can show of a character in a “widescreen” panel is a little horizontal cross-section, without room for much body language; if two or more characters are interacting, they have to be lined up just right. See, for instance, the scene in this issue where General Babbage and Rhodey are talking: Larroca is barely able to show them in the same panel.
About the only way the widescreen layout can make a scene look more exciting is if there’s some kind of movement going on within the panels–and then it usually has to be moving consistently from left to right, at least in Western comics. But there’s not much motion in this issue, and Larroca tends to keep the focal point of each panel somewhere around the middle. That means that almost every page feels like there’s a line going right down the center, with a lot of dead space around it. Even in the three-page sequence that’s this issue’s dramatic high point–Pepper Potts getting back into her Rescue suit and flying off, for which Larroca gives each page a single big, dominant image–there’s still a lot of unused airspace to the left and right of the action.
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There’s not nearly as much underutilized space in the first comic book to be numbered as Invincible Iron Man #29, which was published almost exactly forty years ago–it’s cover-dated September 1970. As you might guess from its cover, it’s something of a muddle; writer Mimi Gold seems to have come and gone from Marvel very quickly, and the art is nowhere near (Iron Man co-creator) Don Heck’s finest hour either. It’s even more cluttered with overwrought captions and word balloons than most of the comics of its era. But it’s worth noting that only a few pages of Heck’s art include any “widescreen” panels at all; only one page has two in a row, and they’re both images involving very strong left-to-right motion (including the one you can see up top). So there always seems to be a lot going on, even in the rare scenes where Iron Man’s chatting with political refugees rather than fighting evil robots; Heck gives himself room to establish the story’s settings and the characters’ relationships by varying panel dimensions and perspectives.
One comic that does make excellent use of “widescreen” panels came out last year: Gilbert Hernandez’s graphic novel The Troublemakers. (Here’s a preview.) Aside from its title page, the entire thing is laid out as four identically shaped wide horizontal panels on each page, and the movie-screen shape is formally appropriate–the book is supposedly a kind of comics translation of a (nonexistent) B-movie.
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The Troublemakers is brutally effective as cartooning, though: Hernandez has designed it so that something’s happening horizontally in almost every panel, and there’s usually a different kind of motion from each panel to the next. (Look at the top left panel here: he pulls off right-to-left movement!) The natural tendency with a layout like this, as with Larroca’s, is to have action move down the middle of the page–and, in fact, the dramatic climax of Hernandez’s book involves bullets flying down the exact center of the page. Whenever The Troublemakers starts to settle in toward visual equilibrium, though, something happens to shove it off to one side or the other. The plot of the book is the way its lowlife characters compete for power with one another, trying to dominate each other and their surroundings, and the unchanging horizontal space of Hernandez’s design is their playing field. Their world isn’t very tall at all, but it’s wide.