Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moments of the Year: Detective Comics #858

J.H. Williams III, in possession of an endless arsenal of artistic styles and imagination, is one of the most visually inventive artists working in comics today. Yet his most striking single page this entire year is one composed entirely in black.

Page 18 of Detective Comics #858 is pure blackness, segmented into a 12 panel grid. There are no images on the page, only the sound of hostages straining at their bonds, blindly calling out for each other from underneath their burlap hoods. There are the sounds of random movement, slow, from various directions. Panel 2 opens up to the top page bleed, it's complete emptiness stretching out into an infinite abyss. Then comes the final cries of a mother, calling the names of her two daughters, and then the sound of one single gunshot, then the dull thump of a slumping lifeless body. Panel 9 opens out to the left page bleed, it's silent emptiness slowly being intruded by the faint mirage of distant light. Suddenly, the last three panels shake and rattle with the thunder of stomping boots and the crack of gunfire, the urgent military jargon of operational rescue.

For being completely without drawn images, this is a page that so beautifully demonstrates the visual power of the comics medium, as well as its power to control and segment the readers sense of place and time. What exactly is happening in each panel? What does each sound effect correspond to, a jostled chair, a punch, the firing pin of a gun being cocked? How long does this entire scene last? How much time is represented by the blank and open panels? By segmenting the page into equal panels does that mean each represents an equal amount of time, and therefore, do the open panels represent longer, more amorphous beats?

This is a writer's page, as well, and it is to Greg Rucka's immense credit that he gives us a scene such as this, without exploitation or unnecessary dramatic affectations. He knows the confusion in our minds as we attempt to fit these pieces of noise and lettering, of wobbly and jagged word balloons, together into a coherent structure is what adds to the horror of the scene. He gives the story over to us to fill in the images in our minds, and what we come up with is all the more heartbreaking and terrifying for being kept in imagination.

I have read this page repeatedly, at differing speeds, allowing for longer or shorter pauses, allowing the lettering choices to color the inflections of my readings, and it is always a powerful and telling experience, and one that still remains sadly just out of reach. The answers to all of the questions this page poses, about time and structure, about the specifics of what is happening to the characters in the scene, are still elusive. It is a perfect interpretation of how terrifying moments in life can never be fully pieced together or understood. It is the shock, and the emotional rush that is remembered. Rucka and Williams have given us perhaps the most perfect single page example of what the comics medium can accomplish that no other medium can. They have given us a seemingly blank page and shown it to be the most difficult thing to read.

Detective Comics #858 written by Greg Rucka, with art by J.H. Williams III and color by Dave Stewart, was released on October 28, 2009 by DC comics.

No comments:

Post a Comment