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. This week, Austin Lanari sinks his teeth into a page from Matt Taylor and Ales Kot’s Wolf, a supernatural LA noir that is by its nature dialogue heavy yet manages to present that dialogue in a far more artful way than so many of its peers.
Inspired by this post by Colin Smith regarding the lackluster state of visually presenting conversations in comics, I started digging through my recent pulls to find good and bad examples of people talking at each other in nerd pamphlets. One of the best examples I found comes from Wolf #1. The first issue of Wolf was full of things to like and dislike, with the high points for me being Loughridge’s simple-but-stellar (as always) color work and the low points being some of the dialog itself; but, that’s probably my fault for not being the biggest fan of noir. In any case, even where the dialog gets a little flimsy, the way the conversation is visually presented is often one of the stronger features of the issue. Page 26 (not counting credits) is my favorite example:
First off, this page works on a fundamental level, prior to any consideration for what the page itself is really about. What I mean by that is rather than just having these two guys talking, the visual story beats actually make for a page that is interesting to look at. This page is far-removed from a rote demonstration of talking heads, but still captures the humanity of conversation while providing that final panel to give the conversation some breathing room and transition to the next page.
But what makes this page great is the main thing that many other layouts–especially in illustrated conversations–lack: the page itself is about something. Namely, the page is about the difference between these two men and their opinions about each other. Even if you haven’t read this comic and thus lack the context of previous pages, it’s pretty obvious given the dialog itself that the old white fellow, Sterling Gibson, is a racist piece of shit. Of course, you don’t have to wait to find this out if you read the comic, since two pages earlier there is a caption that says, “Sterling Gibson is a racist piece of shit.”
What makes this comic so well-executed is that it doesn’t just lay it on thick in the captions and dialog that there is racial tension here: the images back it up. The page opens with a head-on contrast of a black man and a white man, right in the midst of a tense, more-than-a-little racially-charged exchange. Then, we see Gibson’s old, white, wrinkled hands contrasted with Wolf’s young, black hands, as Wolf ponders what this “old gnat” wants. Not only do we get side-to-side contrast in those top four panels, we get top-to-bottom contrast since each man’s face is vertically juxtaposed with the hands of the other.
The final two panels of this page might seem like a departure from the theme of contrast, especially in terms of the theme of racial tension, but look again. What we have in the penultimate image is a well-dressed white man, posed stoically against the backdrop of his vaulted windows and the art hanging in his office. When we pan over and zoom in on that painting, we do, in fact, get a contrasting image: a beast. While a cursory read-through makes it seem as if this Wolf-man represents Wolf’s abilities, it represents far more than that to Gibson. Wolf might be powerful, but to Gibson, Wolf is nothing more than a beast. His powers make him useful as an employee and interesting as ornamentation, but Gibson doubtlessly sees little else in Wolf because Gibson is, after all, a racist piece of shit.
It’s hard to overstate how well this interpretation of the visuals on the page matches the dialog itself. The first four panels are about an exchange between both men, and these images contrast the men according to Wolf’s internal monologue. The latter two panels see a release from that monologue, and provide us, in their own way, with Gibson’s perspective. Since Gibson is not the narrator, the visuals are deployed in order to give us a sense of how he sees the situation. The visuals thus continue throughout this page to do more than merely provide a place for the story to unfold: they help tell the story in concert with the words while maintaining an attractive and functional aesthetic.
Austin Lanari is a recovering philosopher who can never catch up with any of the goddamn anime he wants to watch. He disgorges comicy thoughts and criticism for Comic Bastards and on his own blog. You can read those thoughts and less on Twitter @AustinLanari.