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. This week, we’re biting into art by Francesco Francavilla in his and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife with Archie #5, page 22, out now from Archie Comics.
One of the hardest jobs a writer can give a comics artist is a dialogue heavy scene. It’s difficult to make all that talking exciting, no matter how important it is to the story. And it’s even more difficult in the horror realm, where the readers historically don’t have much incentive to care about the characters anyway. But Francesco Francavilla isn’t your normal artist, and Afterlife with Archie isn’t your normal horror series.
The fifth issue of the startlingly good horror series wraps up the first arc of the title, as Archie and co. are holed up in Lodge Manor trying to figure out what to do next. Though Archie is of course the heroic lead of the series, the fifth issue is mostly dedicated to the perspective of the Lodges’ butler, Hubert H. Smithers, whose entire life revolves around thinking ahead to ensure the needs of his employers are taken care of. Like a Riverdale version of Alfred, Smithers fulfills this need by preparing supplies and analyzing his wards, keeping an eye out for their strengths and weaknesses and mentally bookmarking resources that could come in handy later. The central conflict of this particular issue comes from Smithers’ promise to the late Mrs. Lodge to put her daughter Veronica’s interests above all else no matter what, even if it’s in opposition to her father’s desires.
The “action” in this sequence from page 22, when Archie is detailing his escape plan, isn’t physical but instead verbal, split between Archie attempting to remain confident enough to lead his friends to safety, Betty opening up to Veronica about her most recent trauma and Smithers inwardly reflecting on the strength of Archie, which is perhaps the boldest action given Mr. Lodge’s condescending view of Archie. Rather than use static perspectives and panels, Francavilla borrows the standard horror film technique of the tilted angle, utilizing it as a method to convey movement rather than confusion. Even the first panel, which is technically a view from a traditional medium shot, is cut off at the base so that it seems skewed as it leads into the more clearly tilted later sequences. The way Francavilla chops up some of the panels so that they split Smithers and Archie also creates a 360 degree effect of sorts, particularly since Francavilla pairs it with a coloring scheme that reflects shifting light. None of the characters are ever fully illuminated on this page, but Archie and Smithers come the closest, which helps define whose perspective is the most important in the sequence. It’s not a coincidence that Smithers is shrouded in darkness and doubt in the first panel, but by the end, once he’s begun to believe Archie’s “lunatic plan” might work, he’s almost fully in the light.
These techniques don’t just enliven a simple exposition sequence, they fully communicate the importance of the moment and how delicate the balance of hope and despair is. The fact that this scene is one of the most tense and vital moments in this issue is a testament to Francavilla’s skills and it serves to elevate Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script to a level it arguably wouldn’t have reached otherwise.
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