Comics are a visual medium, but so often criticism of the medium hinges on narrative, ignoring or minimizing the visual storytelling and unique structures that make comics so different from cinema and photography. We’ve decided to change that up with a feature that we’re calling Anatomy of a Page, in which we explore pages and panels that showcase the language of comics and how the best visual storytellers maximize the freedom of comics in order to tell stories that can’t be told anywhere else. Today we will be taking a look at Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, rated the 10th best comic of the past five years by present company. While praise and criticism alike of Urasawa typically focus on the BIG features of his work, Urasawa really sets himself apart with the small things he does under the hood of his stories.
Sometimes, a page of a comic just needs to carry the story. That’s not to say creators aren’t still putting a ton of work into them. Rather, it’s simply true that some pages, as a whole, don’t have something super interesting going on. All pages (of any comic worth a damn) are mostly-irreducible moving parts of a story; some simply aren’t that exciting.
Urasawa is a case study in taking “boring” story pages and turning them into clever narrative Swiss Army knives. Even when his page is *just* composed of carefully choreographed, steadily paced conversation, it’s deceiving how much he’s really up to.
Pictured are pages 66 and 67 of the first volume of Urasawa’s mystery/sci-fi/detective procedural/Tezuka homage/magnum opus for any other creator who wasn’t so fucking prolific, Pluto. Prior to the past few weeks, my only exposure to Urasawa was the ambitious and always mysterious Billy Bat. I don’t use the word “ambitious” lightly with Urasawa: his stories constantly act like they are the most mystifying thing you have ever read. Billy Bat earns it for a little while, until it earns too much and collapses under the weight of its own expectations for itself. Pluto is unique in Urasawa’s corpus because its status as a Tezuka tribute/cover forces Urasawa to focus. For a meatier blurb about both Urasawa’s faults and the triumph of Pluto, make sure you check out JAM’s take.
In any case, for your consideration, check out page 66 (the right-hand page) above, and take particular note of the final two panels. Throughout the conversation between the male detective Gesicht and the female travel agent, Urasawa moves our perspective around. None of these perspectives are particularly dramatic, and all amount to simple rotations such that we’re focused on the face of either the speaker, or the listener when their reaction is salient to the narrative.
Conversations in comics can be boring. Generally, creators shift perspectives to keep the reader’s eye engaged with the page, or otherwise choose to build a page that is in itself narratively interesting and significant as a higher-order narrative and artistic unit. I’m usually inclined to use Anatomy of a Page to talk about the latter type of page. I contend that Urasawa’s pages, like the one above, are often less flash, more function, but with all of the narrative cachet one wants from a carefully constructed pictorial narrative.
The last two panels of page 66 make the whole practical enterprise of this conversational page particularly worth noting. You see, despite the fact that Urasawa plays with our perspective, he consistently maintains the spatial relationship of the speakers across from one another in the scene until he fucks with us in those last two panels by presenting their heads back to back. In all eight volumes of Pluto, Urasawa only shows speakers juxtaposed in this manner a total of two times (the other being on a really important story page I don’t want to put on blast here).
In order to understand why Urasawa paces this page in this manner, we have to consider the two previous pages.
Gesicht is flashing back, distracted, remembering something he just found out about the case he’s working. Then, we see him snap out of it. The conversation continues on the next page, where we get a brief establishing shot, showing just enough of his location so that we know he’s in public. Urasawa could have given us a big establishing shot here, but he waits. He teases us, and yet we don’t even know we’re being teased. This allows the rhythm of the conversation to continue uninterrupted by fancy splash panels that detract from the narrative. By doing this (as we will see in the proceeding pages), Urasawa maintains full control of the reader’s expectations and can strategically drop in establishing shots at the moments of his choosing, and not the moments you expect. Western creators would do well to take note of this kind of fine-grained narrative throttling.
Gesicht is on the right every time he’s depicted on the same horizontal field as the travel agent so far, except at the very end of the page. There are several reasons why he breaks it up and ends the page with Gesicht. The most important one is that it puts a tremendous amount of weight on the final panel of this page. Urasawa wants you thinking about Gesicht’s very minor, very casual befuddlement at being asked whether this is his first trip to Japan. Urasawa built this page not only to very simply and effectively serve this particular conversational sequence, but in order to give the reader a nudge about a major bit of foreshadowing. Remember that once we turn the page, the travel agent is very casual about the question. It has no significance in this context, and she’s just wondering if it’s his first trip. But Urasawa paces this sequence so that the question is left hanging for the reader in a way that it wouldn’t have been without the page turn interrupting the question’s resolution.
All of these storytelling decisions feed into each other, one after the other, making for a smooth read. Urasawa is a narrative metronome, and one of the reasons that page 66 ends with Gesicht is because an alternative way of framing the conversation—one that is just not Urasawa’s style—would be to have Gesicht on the right with his speech bubble merely under the words of the travel agent. Urasawa’s conversations are tight, rhythmic, and finely controlled to lead you from page to page.
Another reason Page 66 ends with the speakers flipped is because seeing Gesicht facing off to the left makes for a smooth transition into the title splash on 67. And saving the splash for 67 rather than blowing his load earlier with an establishing shot on 65 allows him to build more tension leading to the title page, while also allowing for that title page to lead more smoothly into the next page turn.
There’s page 68, four aspect shots establishing the next scene. Western comics creators simply don’t use aspect shots the same way as many mangakas, but when they do, few are as careful about it as Urasawa (not that this is always a bad thing: different storytelling styles will often dictate these decisions). Urasawa, again, doesn’t just whack you in the side of the head with establishing shots of the city: he builds to the title splash on 67 which shows the city beyond the vaulted windows, making the page turn a journey merely beyond some windows, rather than a gross, jarring narrative leap, aided only by a caption.
I can think of dozens of analogous scenes in Western comics where this entire sequence would have been constructed 1. *open conversation* 2. *big establishing title shot* 3. *more conversation* 4. *switch to next scene*. Urasawa opts for 3 before 2, but what’s most important is that he earns his choice of narrative structure one small story beat at a time.