[From Velvet #1: art by Steve Epting, words by Ed Brubaker; actual review pending]
Was plenty late getting actual comics this week, so I haven’t been able to properly take in any particular comic, but I wanted to share this because it interests me. It’s the second panel on the first page of Velvet #1, and the way it twists pacing and expectations helps set the stage for how the comic itself attempts to do this with the traditional spy story.
Comics, as a general rule, don’t have a whole lot of rules when it comes to storytelling. There’s certainly guidelines, which Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics illustrates, but not much “Thou Shalt Nots…”, which can be both encouraging and tricky. One major tendency, however, is to stick to a linear progression both on the page and within individual panels. Typically, this adheres to whatever reading idiom a comic is operating in: Western comics, of which Velvet belongs, follow Western reading ‘rules’ (left-to-right, top-to-bottom), whereas manga follows Japanese reading ‘rules’ (right-to-left). This is, of course, ignoring the tricky field of translation and adaptation, but these are the broad strokes of reading comics.
So, with Velvet, we Americans (along with the British, the French, Canadians, etc.) are reading left-to-right. Usually, comics–especially action comics–will progress their action along this linear path as well. Not always, but usually, and the big exceptions to this loose rule–from the top of my head, I can think of a few issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and the Amy Reeder-drawn one-shot Halloween Eve (which had panel tiers zig-zagging the direction readers were meant to read them in)–will make it plain and clear when the rule is being broken, either with arrows directing the reader’s eye or the use of repeating-images to indicate movement. Steve Epting, on the other hand, is a gritty pseudo-realist like Michael Lark and Sean Phillips (both also being favorite companions of writer Ed Brubaker), which is part of the larger trend to make mainstream comics more “movie-like”; these guys tend to draw in straightforward layouts where the real art is how they cut from one image to the next (like many styles, it has its drawbacks). Yet, here we enter the panel as an action is happening (the guy being shot), then pan over to see another action has already taken place (another guy having been shot), which is when the narration kicks in.
(Also of note is how quickly this action is happening: the people directly witnessing the assassination are just starting to react, while the people in the background haven’t yet reacted. The entire first page is built out of these micro-seconds of action, caught in freeze frame).
In a typical action comic layout, the guy on the right would be on the left so readers would get a sense they are watching action as it happens. Epting keeps the reader off-balance as they figure out what’s going on and why, instead of simply riding along with the action. McCloud would likely argue this projects the reader forward and backward through the panel’s timeline simultaneously–something I don’t necessarily agree with, but Epting is using the static nature of his style to toy with readers’ senses (an evolution of what this team did on their much-lauded Captain America run).
This, in turn, sets the stage for the comic’s purpose of turning the James Bond/Ms. Moneypenny relationship on its head: the spy doing the shooting is modeled on Roger Moore’s Bond, and the titular Velvet is (officially) his boss’ secretary. Epting and Brubaker are neither flashy storytellers (like Jamie McKelvie or Frank Quitely) nor reinventing the wheel (Chris Ware or Osamu Tezuka), but they’ve got a good grasp of the fundamentals and know how to manipulate them to achieve interesting effects.