NEW X-MEN ANNUAL 2001
But does it work? Does Leinil Francis Yu make the format work? Not entirely. There are plenty of missed opportunities to explore here, but since this is the first full-scale use of the format, I’m willing to be patient. Marvel has solicited for two more annuals in “Marvelscope,” X-TREME X-MEN (art by Salvador Larroca) and UNCANNY X-MEN (art by Ashley Wood). They’re due out in December. Just to show that Marvel is learning already from this first book, the upcoming annuals will have cardstock covers. That will make it much easier to hold in your hands and read.
I’m hoping that Marvel eventually makes a Spider-Man Annual in this format. Picture Spider-Man (drawn by John Romita Jr.) web-slinging through New York City on a double-page spread and you’ll see why. I don’t know what the future of the format is, though, with Marvel’s stated intentions being to get rid of the annual and publish a thirteenth issue of their titles each year. We’ll see.
As a reviewer, I try as hard as I can to not include the phrase “That’s not how I would do it” in my reviews. I don’t write these columns in an attempt to break into the industry, or steal other writers’ jobs. I don’t want it to look like I’m just trying to stab them in their collective back so I can get their job. But widescreen comics are something I’ve written about for years here in Pipeline, and something I’ve given much thought. Since I have absolutely no aspirations to draw comics and even less in the way of artistic talent, I feel a little better about writing this column. I’m going to discuss various pages of the Annual and present what I think would be a better way to lay them out, and point out the pages where Yu hit the nail on the head.
A couple of introductory comments on my general art theory when it comes to comics.
First, I’ll be reviewing this with an eye towards the way it uses the sideways formatting. There are some pages in the book that are just fine, but I’ll downgrade just because they’re not horizontal enough.
Second, I believe that the best comic book art is art that looks planned out. There are way too many examples of artists drawing comic book pages by throwing large images together and drawing borders around them and letting the letterer try to guide your eye. I think it works much better to have panels grouped together in similar sizes and designs.
Third, the Marvelscope format, as mentioned above, is unique from the standard sideways formatting. The eye is drawn across two long pages in a spread. If the eye is abruptly stopped at the break between pages and suddenly redirected, then the format is wasted.
You’ll see what I mean as we go along.
Page 1: The book starts with a widescreen shot of a character strapped into a chair. The image was used in the solicitations and in on-line previews. It was also criticized for – believe it or not – using black bars on the top and bottom of the page to further point out the widescreen format. They don’t bother me to be honest. Drawing on another film analogy, there are different “widescreen” formats. Even if you have a widescreen television, it’s only 16:9 (anamorphic widescreen). There are other ratios that are bigger than that, such as Cinemascope at 2.35:1. Those widescreen movies will still have black bars at the top and bottom of your screen.
So the black bars on this page don’t bother me on this page, nor on the cover. It helps to cement the widescreen idea in people’s minds. After all, most people think of what they see on their television screens. Look at The West Wing or ER or Enterprise. They’re advertised as being “widescreen,” and that includes those black bars. Yes, that’s a case of a format being fit into a pre-existing square screen. The comic’s “screen” is already the shape of the picture so the analogy isn’t perfect.
Pages 2-3: These two pages flow together. There are eight vertical panels running across the two pages. The slot for the ninth, unfortunately, is broken down into two square panels. It brings the sequence to an abrupt halt. Since the scene ends at the end of the page, however, it doesn’t hurt it too much.
Page 4: The title page. Big widescreen shot. Pull back the camera. Take in the cityscape and the seascape. Show the cloud-crowded skies. It’s a beautiful page.
Page 5: Yu looks lost here. Three panels are just thrown together, and it’s not all together clear at first glance what order they’re supposed to be read in. There’s lot of negative space around the panels, also, that don’t seem to serve much purpose.
Pages 6-7: Nice use of a splashy image across the fold. It’s important to keep the concept of the widescreen layout intact by putting large panels across the traditional page break. The image of the X-Men team sitting around a table is a great use of that. The rest of the panels are rather haphazardly done, however. There’s no uniformity to their size. It’s like Yu just sized the panels to fit whatever he happened to be drawing at the time. I’d much prefer to see standard sized panels used in each sequence with the art designed to fit into them.
Page 8: Nice layout. Shows you don’t have to have a wide image to use the format to your advantage. The symmetry is well done.
Page 9: Not much to talk about here. There’s a general arc shape to the way your eye reads the page, which is nice. You start in the upper left and drop off and to the right as you follow the panels.
Page 10: Not much use of the widescreen here. If anything, Yu seems constrained by the page format here, and looking for a way to fit the story into the space he has left to him after drawing each panel.
Page 11: The half-page splash of Domino dropping down the shaft is very nice, but I think it would work even better if it stretched out across the bottom half of the page. Move the other panels leading into it into one solid row across the top. You get two neat tiers of storytelling that way, while still using the dramatic big image.
Page 12: The panels are generally vertical here again, and read from left to right. There’s no real sense of overall design to this page, but it’s not hard to follow. However, it doesn’t use the Marvelscope format to its advantage. While it’s understandable that not every page will include a huge establishing wide shot, it’s also unfortunate that so many pages are drawn almost interchangeably with a regularly formatted book.
Page 13: Lettering is essential to drawing the eye in the right directions across this page. Again, no real design sense and no extra special use of the horizontal page.
Page 15: Finally, a page which looks like it was designed ahead of time and some real discipline was used in laying it out. Nice use of vertical and horizontal panels in combination. The first panel closely resembles the size and shape of the panel that ended the previous page across the spread. Bonus points for that. Since the gutters aren’t filled in with black, though, it’s not as strong a carry-over as it could have been.
Page 16: This page is something more like what I was talking about for page 14. This has a gorgeous shot of Wolverine with arms wide spread across the bottom half, and three nicely squared-up panels above it.
Page 17: Nice use of the horizontal layout here, with the stockpile of monsters spreading out across the page and under the inset panels. I even like the one monster’s hand overlapping the last inset panel. Really pops the image out of the page without looking to obvious.
Pages 18-19: More of the same. Not bad art, but the storytelling isn’t working as hard as it should to take advantage of the new page dimensions. Even worse is that the storytelling doesn’t flow smoothly from the left page to the right page. It’s two different layouts next to each other that will jar your eye moving across.
It’s really bad because the next page is the best page of the issue.
Page 21: Full page splash. Beautiful angle of Wolverine and Domino jumping out the window towards the pool below. The shot uses the entire page, taking a slight bird’s eye view. But it could have been so much more powerful had the previous page kept with the two characters running left to right, effectively towards this big splash page. Picture three horizontal panels on page 20 (all from the same position capturing the same background) with the two active characters getting progressively closer to the right side of the page, where a window is present. Then they break through the window in the next page and the eye carries right through to the splash.
The story carries on for another 21 pages. To go through them all would be approaching tedium. A lot of the pages are going to repeat the same mistakes. So let me just highlight a few of the pages I thought Yu approached right.
Page 25: It’s a nice series of vertical panels that flow nicely from the facing page. Panels have jagged edges, but are uniform in area, roughly speaking. It’s not distracting at all, and fits in well with the story.
Page 32-33: Double page money shot with an X-Men bombing run. The action carries across the two pages nicely. The three panels on the right are laid out most orderly.
Pages 34-35: Keeps a nice steady flow of panels. One tier, larger horizontal panels. Easy to follow storytelling. Simple but effective.
Page 40-41: The one true double page splash. One panel across two pages. It’s effectively done and fits in well with the story and the dialogue coming from the character’s mouth.
In the end, this isn’t a bad debut for the format. Grant Morrison’s story is engaging enough to the reader. Leinil Francis Yu’s art is nice to look at, no matter what the storytelling format is. The Marvelscope formatting offers new areas of artistic exploration. Yu does an admirable job in being the first at Marvel to utilize this format, but is not without choices that confuse or bewilder me. I hope that Marvel continues to experiment with this format, and that Salvador Larroca and Ashley Wood looked at this issue very carefully in preparing their Marvelscope annuals.
What the format needs right now to catch on is a bravura performance by an artist. We need someone with the storytelling eye of Will Eisner and the popular style of a Kubert Brother or an Ed McGuinness to truly popularize this. With enough dedication on Marvel’s part to it, I’m sure something might happen like that.
Coming up on Tuesday: Some more stockpiled reviews, thoughts on news of the day, and the same boilerplate at the bottom of the column as you’ll see here next.
More than 250 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.