Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Odd Place For Innovation - The Mighty Avengers

Today we're taking a look at some new things being done in comics. This has minor spoilers for Marvel projects, specifically those involving people who may or may not "Avenge" things. With that, let us commence:

Brian Bendis is an influential guy.

Love his work, or hate his work, you can't deny that Bendis has popularized a more fast-paced, cinematic style of dialog in popular comic books. Through the use of short bursts of incomplete sentences, important beats of repeated key words or phrases and Bendis' total lack of fear in using technical terms and real world slang very quickly made him our very own David Mamet/Aaron Sorkin.

In fact, looking back over his body of work for Marvel, cinematic is kind of the key word. The Bendis work in Daredevil, especially, brought a film noir atmosphere to the Marvel Universe that managed to be both very gritty and somewhat grim thankfully without involving Venom, The Punisher, or Spawn (What's up, 1990?). It felt like a great gangster movie, and as I've said before, I consider this work to be the absolute best modern run of super-hero comics to date.

This trend reached it's zenith a few months ago, when Civil War concluded, it's story crushed under the influence of books like The Authority and The Ultimates. In Civil War, readers saw everything wrong with making comics more like film - scenes that on film would be packed with action were shrunk down to one panel rendering them cramped, images that would have been awe inspiring or exciting became boring when rendered in static. Pages that could have been used to character or story, or heck, anything were taken up by huge splash pages to better evoke big-scale "widescreen" action. I can think of no better example in recent comics that is a clear example of not writing for the medium that you're working in.

So it's in this darkest hour, with that heavy hand of influence that Brian Bendis brings the comics innovation, and like The One Ring it's found in the most unlikely of places:

The Mighty Avengers #1

What's so innovative about this issue? Let's put the content aside. The Mighty Avengers is on the surface your standard super-heroes smash story, and the last page was especially ridiculous:

Seriously... there better be a good reason
for this nonsense in issue #2.

However, separating the content from the technique, this book does things in some brilliant new ways.

I got into a discussion of what defines "innovation." The two devices Bendis brings back to mainstream comics are thought balloons and back-story caption boxes. That's right - Thought Balloons are back.

Back? Then how can it be innovative? I got into a discussion about this with Mike at Comicazi. He described Bendis' use of these old comic book conventions (not THAT kind of convention) as more of a "return to form," and as such was not innovation. But it's the elegance of their implementation and seamless integration into the story that makes this issue such a great example of how to use the medium of comics to show things no other medium can do.

Remember the days when you'd pick up a comic, and Peter Parker would say something like, "Boy, it sure is good I got rid of that alien costume!" and there would be a teeeeeeeny box in the corner saying the likes of "Spidey picked up the costume during Marvel's Secret Wars! - Smilin' Stan!" While those were informative and a great way to make sure noone felt totally lost going into a book for the first time, they were more than a little obtrusive.

In this issue, Bendis works those back into the story in case someone left on the planet doesn't know what happened in Civil War, and he does it through Iron Man's armor. The "HIT TAB" boxes gave us access to what Tony's armor would tell him, but really referenced the read to Civil War, or to the time the Avengers met Ares. Very smooth.

But really? What did you read this far for? That's right - Thought Balloons.

Ever get the feeling that someone isn't saying exactly what they mean? That they're mind's in another place entirely, or that they have something more to say? Well, film can convey a character's thoughts loosely through action - a quick glance or camera movement - or clumsily through voice-over. Prose can simply spell it out, but there's obviously the complete lack of visuals in a novel or short story. Or now thanks to Brian Bendis, comics can use Thought Balloons to do it.

This device does everything right. It better fleshes out the characters by showing the reader a side of them that not even the others in the scene get to see. It manages to give us multiple points of view to the story without the use of multi-colored caption boxes. And it shows us what the characters really care about.

Take the example on the left -

Throughout the book, Tony Stark is talking to Carol Danvers, and his mind is on math, his armor, an emergency elsewhere. Though at one point, she really grabs his attention, and by placing a thought balloon that mirror's Tony's words Bendis is able to deftly emphasize that she's got his attention. I was blown away.

These two new tools, I hope, will take main stream comics closer to where they need to go; Towards becoming a medium of their own, something capable of communicating in a unique way, something that's more than just a static movie on paper.

Kudos, Bendis.



lily said...

so uh, who's a wolverine and a thor?

maybe i should read the comic.

Leonard said...

Thorverine. Duh.

Bob said...

My question is, will Not-The-Terminatrix.. er.. I mean New-Naked-Chick-Ultron still be freaking out and thrashing around calling Hank and Jan "mommy" and "daddy?" Cuz that... might get a little much.

Jeff Munson said...

I totally would have said Wolveror, but Thorverine just rolls off the tongue. Kick ass post Casey!