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 in Loser City 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. First up is a sequence from Brian Churilla’s excellent miniseries, The Secret History of DB Cooper, out now from Oni Press.
The general rule of thumb if you’re a comics writer is that the more panels you ask for on a page, the more likely you are to lose your artist. Luckily, Brian Churilla doesn’t have this problem, since he’s his own damn artist and can throw in however many panels he wants. Churilla’s masterpiece The Secret History of DB Cooper is the perfect story to show off that kind of freedom, set as it is in the contradictory yet parallel realms of ’70s Cold War era US and Russia and the more fantastical world of The Glut. That contrast in settings doesn’t necessarily require a contrast in structure and layout, but because Churilla is an artist-writer who knows how to maximize opposition on a comics page, he doesn’t shy away from intense grids in his panels that might scare off lesser artists. The result is a surplus of beautifully ugly pages, where CIA operatives and Soviet government figures are set against one another across thousands of miles and entire other dimensions; the division is made starkly clear as the Glut’s monstrous figures morph into their real life counterparts with deadly results. But it’s perhaps most effective when Churilla goes entirely domestic with full on pages of calm before our anti-hero D.B. Cooper— secretly the CIA’s top assassin due to his abilities to effortlessly move between the Glut and the real world— starts his hunt.
Towards the end of the series’ first issue, we get a glimpse at how Cooper seems to exist in two worlds at once. Though issue one starts in the Glut, as Cooper travels with his Glut companion Lee, a one-eared, raggedy day-glo teddy bear, it moves backwards from there to explain that setting and why Cooper is within it. In one of the most effective and interesting pages in the entire series, Cooper lays down and prepares to be dosed with Oculus, a drug that allows its user to transfer themselves into the Glut. Using an incredible 15 panel layout (the first, not pictured above, is the establishing shot of Cooper laying down, which takes up the top tier), Churilla breaks down what is probably a second in real time, showing us Cooper’s stoic expression as his rival, Agent Saunders, looks on with hostility, just before Oculus hits his eye and his vision fades to black for a brief moment before the return to the Glut.
This sequence as it’s presented here might be possible in film using slow-mo and still frames, but it wouldn’t have the same effect as the viewer would essentially have no control over their registration of each moment and frame. In comics, we have the freedom to spend as much time as we want on each panel, to cycle through it over and over at our leisure, or to rush through, eager to get to the next sequence. That enables us to focus in and to catch things filled with deeper meaning, or that make more sense after we’ve finished a work. Here, it’s the coloration of the Oculus, the eerily similar facial features shared between Cooper and the doctor, Saunders’ closed eyes that open at the same time Cooper’s do. It’s a beautifully minimal sequence, but it’s also full of meaning and clues, made all the more effective and enchanting because of how Churilla counts on our innate understanding of comics as a language to bring it to life.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover