life is feeling particularly unmanageable and i am feeling particularly powerless tonight so i thought if i could trick my brain into thinking about comics for a little while maybe i could get to sleep.
i’ve talked before about reverse-engineering comics, or doing cover versions, as being a big part of how i started to teach myself how to write comics. sometimes people look at me as though i’ve just opened my mouth and a torrent of fish and gold coins spilled out so I never know if it makes any sense. you basically sit with a finished comic and a blank page in front of you and you try to work out how they made it. You’ve got the finished result sitting by your side so it’s not hard — and if you change up the nature of what you’re looking for and how you go looking for it you can learn stuff sometimes.
i did one tonight of DAREDEVIL #230 by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis, and Joe Rosen. It’s part… four? of a storyline called “Born Again.” it’s one of my favorites.
I’m particularly enamored of cutting right now — how a comic goes from scene to scene on a page or across any given number of pages. Traditionally pages are considered something like stanzas and kept whole; scene changes come on page-flips. However in the mid to late eighties as art comics, experimental comics, and what we’ve come to think of as alternative comics came to the fore and smart people started to stop thinking of comics as being just Kids Stuff, art/experimental/alternative choices, styles, and techniques bubbled up into the superhero mainstream.
(i guess that’s all sort of received wisdom and i’ve never just grabbed a random bunch of comics from the seventies and eighties and clocked where the cuts come. some other depressed and sleepless night, maybe)
Miller’s work, which at its most baroque during this phase could be almost Faulknerian in its narrative shifts, tells “Born Again” across multiple plotlines and times. There are two different first person narrators and a close-third omniscient narrator. there is literally one instance of a nondiagetic narrative insertion in the issue of three total across the whole storyline. And the cuts come anywhere and everywhere — at some points across four different locations/times/storylines on a single page.
what i really wanted to do was pick his sense of cutting apart a little bit, just to get a feel for how they did it. i wanted to pay attention to that tonight.
so i took my little notebook, two pens, and a copy of the issue (reprinted, actually, as part of a trade in 1987. that means it was one of Marvel’s first and, as a result, the pagination — meaning what pages were planned to be on the left and what pages were planned to be on the right are fucked up here, which i only know because an overfamiliarity with the actual issues already. interesting to note that in the IDW artist’s edition, the pages are hand-numbered with what their actual number would be, meaning they knew where the ads would be placed… or maybe Ralph macchio, the editor, added that? I’ll ask him…)
Anyway so I opened to the first page, did a little thumbnail drawing of the panels there, and noted what timeline/plotline/etc was happening where. I hashed in some of ‘em when they got really cooking. that looks like this:
So one of my favorite sequences starts on page 11. Ben Urich, a reporter and friend of Daredevil, listens to the murder of a source who confessed to being bribed by the Kingpin to bear false witness against Daredevil (who, you of course all know, was actually introduced in Miller’s very FIRST issue of DAREDEVIL as writer and artist. DUH, i know, 101 shit, but here we are).
We start on 11, on the final tier of the page, in the third location/plotline of the page. Ben, on deadline, writes in the chaos of the Daily Bugle office when his phone rings. Ben answers —
Picking up on page 12, we cut back and forth across five panels (three times to Ben, twice to the source) as the source tries to tell his truth on the record. Ben, scared for his life, stalls. The locations have dramatically different lighting. Yellow mostly at the bugle, with ben boxed into the center of frame by two editors; the source, laid up in traction, black and blue. Probably not a coincidence that.
Originally there was a page flip; this destroys an effect.
So in this collection you flip to 13; now the source — and his murder — get three frames and Ben two, but in each of the ben frames we PUSH IN to him. Then on 14 ben beings to change color, from orange, to bright red. the killer taunts him and we cut away before the end of the page.
There’s a nice sequencing that happens when you look at the pages as intended, with the 3/2 ratio changing up between the flips.
And then we cut to a new story and location entirely. Rather than treat pages as stanzas, as indivisible units, Miller and co. seem to treat tiers as units — in all but one sequence of the book, any time one moves their eyes down, a sequence/timeline/plotline/location edit could occur.
That exception comes on page 17 and it’s the lead-up to the emotional climax of the issue.
My drawings are hard to interpret but on a seven panel page, we have two long flashback panels to manolis’s murder at top and bottom; Ben, long and tall, between those like a pillar, then Matt, the nun who may or may not be his mother, and his two best friends in the middle. Four discrete timelines, four discrete plot happenings, all in one page. it’s such a chaotic cut that when somebody like me sits with it making a twitchy-handed drawing of it in a tiny notebook it leaps out at you.
while the book follows no grid or pattern, there are certain rules seemingly at play so this violation of that rule draws attention to itself. as well it should — all of our characters in the three forward-moving plot threads here are at crises points simultaneously.
So that’s interesting. I’d picked up subconsciously that cuts could come with new tiers but not in the middle of a tier… and so when that rhythm is broken, you’re forced to slow down and think for a second about what you’re seeing and reading.
this makes cutting between four! five even six plot lines in a small, 22-page space possible. By not having to cut on a page flip, threads can be pared down to their bare minimum and moved on from. The real estate each of these scene cuts would otherwise require simply isn’t there — this issue alone would require 40 pages.
And what you’re seeing and reading is that this page also picks up on a triangle motif introduced on page two that informs multiple pages in the issue, echoing the Pietá:
Matt and Maggie.
Kingpin. the panel structure informs the triangle composition here as well as the drawings; also kingpin stands at his apotheosis in this issue. It’s all downhill from here.
JJJ and Ben. Again the panels inform the composition. The truth is the bearing down on ben.
Kingpin again. And the worm has begun to turn.
Matt, Foggy, and Karen. The pages where the scheme all goes shithouse.
Ben. Foggy and Karen. Truth and believing in Matt Murdock will save the day.
Karen and foggy. Two triangles here. Their friendship standing upright; the weight of the world crushing them down. The answer: judaism. No, wait.
An outright triangle — in the must-have IDW Artist’s Edition, you can see Mazzucchelli’s notes on the page making sure the triangle is visible and encouraging white paint to be added to the base.
Finally, then, on 22 — matt and maggie. And once more the panel structure supports the triangle. A wide singular panel sits atop two panels, which sit atop three panels.
And these are just the SIMPLE triangles.
Now, as a writer, i dunno that I would ever go into a script and say “Okay, now bury a triangular composition here atop the page” or whatever — and I’d bet Miller didn’t either. I have one of his scripts from this period and it’s not got any of that kind of writing in it at all — i’d be surprised if it was different here.
It goes to show, then, how much more an artist contributes to the writing than simply drawing what happens. it goes to show how lucky a writer is to find an artist as smart and simpatico as Mazzucchelli was with Miller. It goes to show how much you things you don’t see push a narrative not just forward but pushes it down deeper and creates a richer, more complex, experience.
Because even when you don’t notice — you notice.
Oh! That nondiagetic caption:
That little “Downtown” bit in panel one of the above image. It’s the only time that a non-narration bit of text happens in-frame in the issue. it happens twice more in the final issue but that’s it, i think.
the scene follows up a phone call we saw Kingpin make and sets up a sequence in the next issue but here, clearly, someone thought it was too incongruous with the other story lines and needed an iota of clarification. It reeks of editorial note to me but there’s nothing in the artist’s edition to indicate either way. I could ask ralph but, jesus, who’d remember one lone caption placed in a panel twenty-five years ago?
oh shit — i just found one more triangle, but you have to cheat to see it:
An editor i worked with said to me one time that i thought about comics more than anybody else he’d ever met. i said “don’t let it get around.”