THE UNCANNY X-MEN NEED AN UNCANNY EDITOR
The Uncanny X-Men #372 has its share of faults. There's a central plot point that gets hammered home over and over again, but that's not the problem. The problem lies mainly in the storytelling, from both the writer's perspective as well as the artist's.
And it begins on the first page.
Adam Kubert is the artist on this issue. I've really enjoyed his stuff since I first started following it on his short stint on THE INCREDIBLE HULK. It's always well laid out, easy to read, and easy on the eye. The first page, however, contains a storytelling mistake, in my opinion. It's a 6-panel grid. The first panel is a long shot of a hotel. The second panels gets us a little closer to a given hotel room. The camera continues to "push in" to the third panel that is now focused on the window of the room in which the following action takes place. We see a woman staring out through the curtains. In the next panel, we're in the hotel room, looking at that same woman from behind, as she turns to face the camera. The fifth panel switches the camera back around to her perspective as we see a little child huddled in fear in the corner of the room. And the final panel is an extreme close-up of that child's eye.
Can you "see" the mistake yet? Think of this as a movie. The camera starts out way far and slowly pushes in 'til the end of the scene. However, halfway through the scene, the camera suddenly changes, turning 180 degrees around for a panel, only to turn back around again for the next panel. The trouble lies in the fourth panel. I think that panel should have been a two-shot on the woman and the child. Put the woman in the foreground, even if her head is turned towards the child. The panel frame, better yet, turns into the windowpane. You also get to keep the continuity of the 'frame' throughout the page. We start out with a far shot of the hotel and continue straight through until we end at the extreme close-up of the child's eye.
But that's just one page and an error that many probably wouldn't even notice. I'm just anal.
One of the reasons people have trouble getting into the X-MEN is that nothing stands alone. UNCANNY X-MEN and X-MEN are intertwined more than they probably need to be. Plots from a year ago or from another mini-series inexplicably show up and disappear again in any of the books. It is pages 5 and 6 of this issue that gives us a two-page glimpse into the lives of Bishop and Deathbird. It lasts two pages, has no relevance to anything else in the issue, and seems mostly pointless.
But for some reason, there's more confusion about costumes in this issue than your average Rob Liefeld-drawn title. For starter's, Storm gets a new costume which we never get the chance to see fully and which the colorist has no idea what looks like. In the panel Rogue mentions it to Storm, Storm is seen in profile, her head turned away. I'd like a frontal full-body view somewhere in the issue if you're going to make such a big deal about it. And the confusion doesn't end there, as the colorist isn't entirely sure if Ororo's legs are bare or not.
Marrow is equally confusing. It looks like one of those classic cases of Marvel getting skittish about a possible too-revealing costume, as it seems the top portion of her costume is painted on by the colorist and not drawn in by the artist. Or, maybe she's going the Smurf route and turning all blue, as she does on page 7 and 8 there, which I imagine is just the colorist's way of de-emphasizing her in the panel. Usually, you do that for people in the background and not the foreground.
But if Alan Davis is guilty of poor plotting or redundant plotting or out-of-left-field plotting, Terry Kavanagh is equally to blame for redundant verbiage, ceaseless pratter, and turning a 7-minute read into a 15 minute pile of molasses. There is something to be said for the old theory that every book is someone's first, and I do concede that to be especially true in an issue which might be considered a strong "jumping-on" point. Such is another bane of the X-books. How many times do we hear the same old catch phrases ceasing to be cute and starting to rankle? Kavanagh manages to miss that problematic boat, but he sets sail on another one: unnecessary explanatory dialogue. Take Ororo's dialogue as the gang of X-Men race through the mansion to answer an alarm:
"The alarm is emanating from deep within the mansion, perhaps even from the Danger Room itself. Something has breached the defenses of the school. Apparently reaching the very heart of our headquarters."
That sounds like something out of a badly translated and redubbed anime movie. How about: "Sounds like it's coming from the Danger Room -- !" ?!? Granted, that might not be the way Ororo normally speaks, but you could have put those words in Wolverine's mouth and the effect would have been the same.
Take Deathbird's soliloquy a couple of pages later in response to another alarm, this one raise by her ship: "To aid in our quest for your earth, I had set the ship's sensors to search for certain specifics. Recognizable star systems primarily, but also rare trace elements, characteristics of human civilization. It has detected terrestrial D.N.A. Homo Superior D.N.A., no less. And by the strength of the reading, there must have been an entire world, with a population of billions . . . "
Besides the annoyance of the consonation and alliteration of the 's' sounds in the first sentence -- go back and read it to see what I'm saying -- this is the kind of technobabble that slows everything down for no good reason. In addition, just two panels earlier, Deathbird mentioned that they were on a path leading back to earth. Couple that with the fact that they're on an alien ship -- another fact Deathbird mentioned in the second panel of the page -- and you could omit the first two balloons completely, which leave you with just those last three sentences.
Yes, comics are too quick to read for the price we pay for them. The solution to this isn't to fill up the panels with more word balloons, but to add more plot and character interactions and development to fill the space. That would make the book take a little longer to read, but it would be time well spent.
ALAN MOORE SAVES THE DAY
On the other side of the spectrum, you have a book like TOP 10, from America's Best Comics, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon. It's 32 pages of story long, plus two pages of text. The pages are packed. For $3.50, you get a lot of reading time here. And it's not meaningless banter. It all counts.
Rather than explain it in glowing terms of a standard review, I'll dissect it as a writing exercise to explain why it's so good.
The first and biggest writing tip to take from this book is point of view. This is the story of Robyn Slinger, newly graduated from police academy and taking a job in the wackiest police department you've ever seen. Picture a police department set in a town full of super-powered people. That's what's going on here. And the first character we're really introduced to is Slinger, a young fresh face. We follow her through her first day on the job. There's not a scene in the book that doesn't include here. Heck, there are very few panels that don't include her explicitly. I can just imagine Gene Ha and Zander Cannon looking at the script and thinking, "I've gotta draw her how often?!?"
The hoariest writing trick in the book is to introduce the readers to a new universe by following around someone who is new to it, as well. That's what Alan Moore does so well here. Slinger provides that perspective, and has the additional benefit of being probably about the same age as most of the readers of the book will be -- early 20s. At the very least, it's an age most comics fans can relate to in one form or another. (It's also the reason networks like the WB force shows like the animated Batman series to include child characters. It provides the targeted viewing audience with someone they can relate to and follow.)
Secondly, the book is paced and plotted like an episode of ER or, maybe more relevantly, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. In your mind, you can almost picture the hand-held camera tracking the action through the police precinct's hallways in some shots. As we follow Slinger around, we learn not just about her, but the characters around her by listening in to some bits of conversation she'd probably be able to hear, although not necessarily being a part of the conversation. Things don't really ever start and stop. There's a lot of overlapping, both of dialogue and situations. Things move fluidly.
I can't overemphasize, really, the effect the art team has on this comic. Ha and Cannon are asked to draw just about 32 pages of talking heads here. Not only do they do so, but also they make it interesting to look at, easy to follow, well designed, and strongly detailed when it needs to be. The atmosphere is evoked beautifully by the complicated architectural backgrounds.
Moore doesn't script redundantly, either, like Kavanagh does in the UNCANNY X-MEN book reviewed earlier. The script and art complement each other. The dialogue serves to explain items seen in the art. It doesn't explain what the art is first!
There's a fully developed language and set of jargon (argot, even, if you care to use your dictionaries) in this universe. It's obvious Moore planned much more than he just laid on each of the pages. Most of the characters introduced have backstories, some of which get explained in the text page in the back a little better. Some of them are merely hinted at in dialogue and situations.
Just one more thing before I start overanalyzing this too much: Read the first page. The first rule of short-story prose writing is to grab the reader as quickly as possible. This has to happen on the first page, preferably in the first paragraph or two. Comics are different. If the artist is particularly good, you could probably get away with a slightly slower beginning. However, Moore does a good job on the first page with piquing the reader's interesting. There are four panels on the page, in 'widescreen' format. It's a static shot of a subway car, as we watch action happen to go by it. The first two panels just have shots of normal looking people on a normal looking train having normal conversations. Then the train stops, and some people dressed up like superheroes come in and reverse direction, talking about their exploits in the field as if it were normal afterwork conversation. It's a complete shift of expectations for the reader to take, and it works well. You turn the page to see a half-page shot of the gloriously intricate cityscape, with bridge and futuristic buildings and monorails -- the whole nine yards. If you're not hooked by there, you never will be.
This is good stuff. If you're a wannabe-writer, it's interesting to dissect. But if you're just a regular comics fan, it's still a lot of fun. This is the kind of book people can point to as being something accessible to the 'outside' comics fan. It's done in a style familiar to them, but with a completely different set of circumstances.
If none of this works, you can point out the semi-exposed nipple and up-tilted skirt of the character in the center of the Alex Ross-painted cover. Reel them in with a little titillation. Whatever works for you. =)