Happy New Year! I hope that you had a marvelous holiday and you are ready to get back to comic-booking. Let’s continue our examination of the deconstruction categories with this next topic, “Comic Craftwork.” This month, I chose Silver Surfer #11 by Dan Slott and the Allreds, Michael and Laura.
The focus of this month’s issue is on comic book craftwork. I believe this issue of Silver Surfer is one of the best demonstrations of high skill craftwork in contemporary comics. It not only presents a wildly new and exciting way of manipulating the medium, but it tells a wonderful story at the same time.
In the previous article I wrote about the visual storytelling of All Star Superman. Comparing the focus of that article with the image below and you will see why I am arguing a difference. Comic books routinely use illustrations as story components (as we learned in the December Edition). Here, in Silver Surfer #11, the team employed the entire book to move the plot and to convey its themes, emotional and dramatic. I don’t want to reveal too many images of the comic and spoil the effect so I will briefly describe what is happening here and how they are using it.
In the story, Silver Surfer and the alien refugees are trapped in a time loop. The comic book is split in half horizontally and then vertically in the middle. At the beginning, the top stream begins the story and explains the predicament the travellers find themselves. As you follow along when you get to the middle split (the vertical trap) you will rotate the book and follow the bottom stream which has now become the top stream. The direction sends you back to the beginning page of the comic. If you are not careful, this will continuously loop you through the first half of the comic (which is deliberate). Eventually you make the leap and “turn the page” to find the right path. This then breaks out to the conclusion of the comic in ordinary page by page.
The reoccurring argument of my ‘Deconstructing Comics’ series is why one thing is considered visual and the other considered craftwork? SS#11 proves the difference. The above image is an example of why I categorize this as craft over visual. In All Star Superman we saw how the illustrations of a panel tell a second story amidst the main plot of a work. Craftwork, if wielded with skill and forethought, can tell a “third story.”
Just as the characters are trapped in a worm hole time loop, by designing the comic book in this way the team is trapping the audience in with the characters. It is a way to make the reader feel what it is like to be stuck repeating actions and conversations indefinitely and, ultimately, to feel what it is like to liberate oneself from the repetition. The design of the book is embedded with clues and direction for the audience to follow so that the solution is not entirely impossible to find. If you notice, each panel is designed like a signpost to direct traffic along the page. There are subtle arrows drawn into the panel ends so the audience’s eye follows along seamlessly. Be wary of betrayal because the arrows manipulate you into the warp loop. Should the reader not take a moment to solve the problem they would probably miss the ending stream of the book and feel frustrated or cheated. That is the exact same feeling Silver Surfer expresses as he senses the motions of the loop. Just as the audience is trapped in figuring out how to puzzle their way out of the rotation, so is Silver Surfer. The mechanics of this comic demand the participation and interaction of the reader to solve the puzzle. This creates empathy with the characters as they too are stuck in the loop and trying to find their way out. The craft of this book conjoins those two emotions perfectly. It expresses the story of Silver Surfer and his friends struggling to find a sanctuary while at the same time expressing the story of the helpless reader trying to solve the puzzle of reading this comic book.
It can be difficult and risky to attempt something like this in the medium which is why we see it infrequently. It takes practice and planning to use the medium itself (rather than just its narrative and visual elements) to express a story for the audience. That extra element elevates the work and enhances its effect. This effort is something that can only be done by using the craft of the medium in addition to the visual and narrative aspects.
In All Star Superman we saw how the illustrations told a story of their own additional to the narrative. In Silver Surfer #11 we see how the page of the work tells its own story in addition to the illustrations and in addition to the narrative. Craftwork is a third and very integral element to comic books.