In my reading of comic books, and in my coverage of comic books as a journalist, I tend to pay more attention to the artists who write the words than those who draw the pictures. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what pencilers, inkers and colorists do; I do, even if I often don’t give them the thought (and ink) they deserve. I promise to change. But I am a child of the ’80s, the decade that introduced us to Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and ushered in the era of the auteur scribe — inventive, intelligent scripters with a vision and distinctive authorial voice that was discernable no matter who was making the pictures, even if you didn’t like the pictures. The irony, of course, is that the only reason I purchased my first Alan Moore comic (Swamp Thing #36) was because when I dared to pick it up and leaf through it, the art work of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben knocked me on my ass. Here’s the truth: When you go to the comic book store fishing for The Next Good Thing, chances are it’ll be the visual storytelling, not the word balloons, that’ll hook you. And for me, it often comes down to one arresting page — one that stops me in my flip-through tracks and makes me go: “There’s something special going on here — something worth my time.”
Last Saturday, I had exactly such an experience in my local comic book shop, a dimly lit, uncomfortably humid shoebox of a place tucked away in a strip mall in Long Beach, California. The comic: The Amazing Spider-Man #655. It’s a funeral story, filled with quietly observed grief — just like Fantastic Four #588, which we reviewed yesterday in Shelf Life. (What a deadly-sad month in the Marvel Universe.) The departed character: Marla Jameson, wife of J. Jonah Jameson, mayor of New York City and Peter Parker’s former boss at The Daily Bugle. To be clear, I don’t know Marla, and her passing means little to me, because I haven’t read The Amazing Spider-Man in quite awhile. But I will begin buying it every month — as long as Dan Slott is doing the writing and especially if Marcos Martin is doing the drawing. (For a peek at what I’m talking about, check out the preview of the issue posted at Newsarama.com.)
The page that wowed me: Page Nine. It begins with a narrow, page-length panel of J. Jonah Jameson entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The man is rendered in shadowy silhouette and made to look very small, framed within a block cold, blue-tinted white space meant to represent the church’s door. A long gray aisle looms before him; a rosary window floats high in the darkness looming above him. Flanking this panel are six smaller ones. An overhead shot of Jameson walking alone down the aisle, moving between pews filled with mourners. In the next panel, we see Jameson’s father, Jay, reach out to touch his son’s arm. The very next panel reverses the shot and widens the frame, so we can see that Jonah has clasped his father’s hand and see the two people sitting next to Jay: Peter Parker’s Aunt May and Peter’s girlfriend, Carlie Cooper, both of whom are looking tenderly toward Jonah. But right next to this panel, we get another, smaller one that widens the perspective to reveal the man sitting next to Carlie. It’s Peter himself — looking squished, not looking at James, looking like he’s about to lose his mind from some internal crisis; you immediately sense, from his facial expression and his bracketed isolation from the other mourners, that Peter has a unique and awful relationship to the tragedy these people have gathered to grieve. In the last two panels, we see Jameson reach the front of the church, and then we get a close-up of a portrait of Marla mounted on an easel next to her casket.
Here’s what I find extraordinary about the way Martin has drawn this page. First, the design of it all — the thoughtfully considered composition of each panel, and how those panels, taken together, create a compelling composition unto itself. And yet, even though the page is clearly “designed,” there’s a naturalistic vibe to it all; it feels like a collection of found moments, captured by Martin’s camera and then artfully arrayed on the page. And I love the hands — Jay’s bony fingers; Peter’s clenched anxiety; Aunt May covering her heart. Martin’s style is reminiscent of Spider-Man’s first artist, Steve Ditko, especially in the slinky bodies and even more so in the long, expressive hands. It is a page that’s striking for its subtlety, that suggests so much about the characters and the relationships between characters without saying a word. I am deeply impressed by a storytelling intelligence that can produce pages like this and wants to produce pages like this. I want more of it.
You will find other pages filled with such quiet power in this issue. And there’s some more ostentatiously dynamic stuff, too — especially the surreal sequence inside Peter’s head, which reminded me of those trippy Tony Soprano dream sequences we used to get from The Sopranos, suffused with guilt and anger and flecked with cryptic, fearful portents of even more awful things to come. I wish I understood more of the context; like I said, I haven’t been reading the comic of late. But I intend to invest in the back issues and get up to speed — and I intend to come back next month to experience more of Martin’s amazing magic.