Thursday, 11 April 2013

Some Assembly Required: Casanova Quinn, Pandas and Music

A pretty typical Casanova page.

There are several things that make a good comic. Some of those things are difficult to define; others are, well, just as difficult. One of the things that constitute a good comic to me is the role I play in the reading process. A comic that spoon feeds me the story through unnecessary storytelling elements is not only annoying as a reader but ineffective. This isn’t making too much sense, is it? Ok, let me try and explain as best I can.

When reading a book or a newspaper article or anything other form of prose, your participation in the reading process is limited. There are words on the page organized in lines stacked atop one another horizontally. The words are put in order from left to right and that’s how you read them. You read one word, move to the next word on the right, read it as well and as you go along you string one word after the other and read a sentence. As you’re reading you understand the words individually and as each new word is read, the meanings change and transform into something more meaningful than any of those words on their own. With this sort of storytelling medium, the writer has absolute control over which words appear where in the order and we, as the reader, have very little choice but to go along. If we go along with the established left to right reading order, we’ll be rewarded with whatever the writer has put together. If we choose to read it differently, say reading only every fourth word, we’ll get nothing but gibberish.

This might be surprising to some, but comics work very differently. The combination of words and pictures require us to combine the two into one narrative whole. Comics are further made complicated by the division of panels on one given page. The reader must read one panel at a time, understand it, move to the next panel all the while understand the relationship between the first and the second panel. You repeat this procedure panel after panel and eventually page after page. As a whole you’re working left to right but you can also work up to down and even right to left. In comics, contrarily to books, it’s not words that direct the way the eye flows on a page, but the art. Comic book artist are not limited to illustrating the comic, but also to direct it. How characters and objects are place in a panel will determine how it is read. Not only that, but the artist must also be conscious of the space the words will require in any given panel. Likewise, the writer must be conscious of how many words he tries to fit in each panel. The art is as important as the words, neither one can dominate for too long or else the comic becomes unbalanced and the story suffers.
Comics need more pandas. Especially
if Gabriel Bá is drawing them.
Before taking a closer look at these two pages, it’s important to mention a few details about the comic from which they’re taken.  The pages are from the third volume, Avaritia, in the Casanova series, all of which is written by Fraction. The first and third volumes are drawn by Gabriel Bá and the second volume is drawn by his twin brother Fábio Moon. The first two series were originally sparsely coloured and they have since been recolored by Chris Peter. She also coloured Casanova: Avaritia and she’s an indispensable member of the creative team.

Casanova is a very dense and rather complicated comic. It’s about Casanova Quinn a super spy in a world of inter-dimensional espionage where time travel is just another part of the job. Avaritia begins with Casanova visiting alternate worlds on which his nemesis, Newman Xeno, exists and destroy them in order to avoid Xeno’s rise to power. Casanova visits a world where he meets a Xeno that has yet to become evil and discovers what his real name is. His mission then changes and instead of killing entire worlds, he is sent to assassinate the Xenos of every world. The scene I’m presenting here is one of these assassination attempts.

Pages are routinely filled with many panels and even more words but that’s not the case for these two pages. There must be a reason for it, so what does it mean? The page is composed of four panels. The first one depicts a quite scene where a beautiful panda is having a snack. The only words in the panel are descriptive of where we are located. The colours indicate the sun is either rising or setting. I’m tempted to say its dawn because the colours are still a bit cold. Bá leads our eye from left to right following the gentle slope of the ground on which the panda sits and what appears to be hills in the background. This is a quiet moment, something uncommon for Casanova. The second and third panels work together. The first shows a close-up of the panda, it’s clearly disturbed by something. The third panel shocks us as much as it shocks the panda. Out of nowhere a left to right diagonal slash cuts the panda and the surrounding bamboo trucks. A single drop of blood is our only indication of what has happened. With the second and third panel our eyes are guide both by the art and the lettering. We look at the panda and then up towards the bubble. From there we begin in the upper left corner of the third panel and follow the slash to the lower right corner, to the speck of red. The fourth panel contrasts greatly with the first panel as well as the fourth. The understated carnage of the third panel literally erupts in the fourth. A fountain of blood forces the top half of the pandas head clear off the page. What was once a peaceful morning breakfast is now an endangered species crime scene. Again, our eyes start in the top left corner with the fountain of blood which leads to the panda’s body. We then shift our gaze towards the right at the bodies of other massacred pandas. From there we look at the figure of a man holding a sword, the obvious culprit. We follow the stairs to a lone figure, sitting at the tope playing music. The colouring makes it clear that he is the focus here. The pandas don’t matter anymore; they were nothing but collateral damage. The killer’s target is the musician at the top of the stairs. The colour plays an important role in this final panel simultaneously indicating the relative unimportance of the pandas by colouring them in darker tones and the revelation of the intended target by colouring it in warmer colours, making the lone musician pop off the page. The sizes of the panels are proportionate to their importance as well as their function. The fourth panel, the largest on the page, establishes several elements that drastically transform the simple narrative begun by the first three panels on the page but it must also set up the second half of the story taking place on the following page.

When looking at the second page, the first thing we notice is the colours. They’re more vibrant than the previous page. The musician (Xeno) is in a blissful state of harmony with his music and he nature. His hair indicates he’s leaning in the wind and he doesn’t so much hold the instrument as almost caresses it. The guitar (or whatever it is) leads are eyes up from bottom left to top right. The next panel does the same with the staircase and the body language of the assassin (Casanova). The natural left to right movement gives the illusion of great speed, the absence of text also adds to the illusion since we do not idle on the image. We immediately move to the third panel. Again, the upward momentum continues to build here but at a much more severe angle. The blood erupting from a panda’s skull is nearly vertical. This reminds us that the panda is physically situated at the bottom of the stairs. The action however, is at the top and as the fourth panel shows us, the blood is still part of the action. The blood does another thing though. It’s clearly gushing out violently and during this time the assassin has almost climbed to the top of the stairs toward his target. The blood continues its journey however and we follow it from left to right in the fourth panel. In the fifth, we see it collide with the instrument, making a perfect musical note. Look at the placement of the fingers. They look like they’re shocked by the blood drop’s interruption of their dance on the strings. (Excuse my waxing poetic, it’s a beautiful two pages, ok?) The sixth and final panel is excellent. So far all of the action has taken place in a very, very short amount of time. Casanova moves climbed the stairs so quickly he appears to be flying towards Xeno. Xeno, after being interrupted by the blood and at the same time alerted of Casanova’s presence, is immediately at the ready. He went from a near meditative state to a state of acute preparedness and focus. He’s ready for combat.  Bá does an excellent job showing how quick Xeno is by having his guitar hover in the air. It’s incredible how much kinetic energy and speed can be expressed by what are individually static images. There is a clear momentum that has been building since the first panel on the first page and in the last panel of the second page we witness the fraction of the second before both men collide. The next page segues into another scene and Casanova: Avaritia #2 continues on with its story. For two pages though, Fraction, Bá and Peter give is a beautiful, hilarious and violent scene that does an excellent job demonstrating the storytelling potential of words and pictures.

In the context of the rest of the issue, these pages provide a welcome breather to the complex story being told. The larger than normal panels, the relatively sparse detail, the almost total absence of words all contribute to the peaceful tone (peaceful despite the violence). Again, dealing with contrasts, the reader is almost forced to slow down despite the rapid action taking place. I would like to talk about what these scene represents in the context of the story, why it’s meaningful that Casanova is wearing black and Xeno/Luther’s skin is so pale in comparison and how this is a reversal of roles for the characters from the first two stories, but that’s not what this post was about.

Everyone has heard the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” and its great collaborations like this one that truly demonstrate the truth of that. A picture is worth so many words not because of the detail, but because of the story an image or a series of images can tell. Comics challenge the reader by forcing us to interpret the art, to read it as we read words. We have to connect these snippets of story into a complete narrative. When the story and the collaboration are as strong as what you can find in Casanova, it’s incredibly rewarding. If you don’t believe me go buy the first volume Casanova: Luxuria and we’ll talk about it.  

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