Thursday, December 13, 2007

Splash Panel Magic

There is a moment most regular comic book readers encounter from time to time that is pretty much unique to that storytelling medium. It comes when you are engrossed in a good story, turn the page and catch your breath at the sight of a particularly beautiful panel of art. It’s when we’ve encountered a piece of visual perfection that both moves the story along and just plain looks cool on its own.

Such a moment is what Batman #237 (December 1971) and Our Army at War #255 (May 1973) have in common. In most other ways, the two comics don’t share many communal traits. One is telling a superhero story; the other is telling a war story. One is a mystery; the other is an action tale. One has a strong plot running through the entire story; the other is episodic, involving several different incidents linked together thematically.

The Batman tale, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neil Adams, involves a killer called the Reaper. Dressed in the traditional garb of Death and armed with a scythe, he has committed several murders. Batman and Robin investigate, discovering that the Reaper is a World War II death camp survivor whose primary target is the former commander of that camp. It’s a wonderful, tightly-plotted mystery with tragic ending that deals with the futility of revenge.

It would have been a great story anyways, but the “catch your breath” moment adds to its greatness exponentially. It comes about a third of the way through the tale, when Robin is looking for clues in the woods after finding a murder victim. He notices a shadow spreading over him and looks up in shock. We turn the page and there it is—our first look at the Reaper in a full page splash panel as he swings his scythe at the Boy Wonder. There’s no dialogue—just Adams’ perfect imagery. It’s a moment that’s important to the story as a whole. But it’s also by itself worth the price of admission.

Our Army at War, featuring Sgt. Rock in a story by Bob Kanigher and art by the great Russ Heath, begins with Rock reporting to bespectacled clerk Sgt. Egbert to get his latest orders. Egbert is constantly talking about how boring it is at headquarters and how lucky the front line troops are to be in on all the action.

Easy Company is ordered to march to a nearby river and help a lieutenant pull his jeep out of the mud. But once at the river, they’re ambushed. Several men are killed before the Germans are driven off. After the fight, they find the lieutenant is already dead—it’s all been for nothing. Later, Egbert sends them out to fix some road signs that have been turned the wrong way. A stray bomb kills two of Rock’s men before this job is done.

Finally, Egbert gives Rock orders to find a lost dog—the mutt is a general’s mascot and has to be found. Rock goes out on this job alone, running into some Germans along the way. He brings back the dog along with several bullet wounds.

The “catch your breath” moment in this story comes in the very last panel. Another Easy Company trooper stops by headquarters to tell Egbert the job is done. Egbert is wiping his glasses clean and he holds them up to see if he’s missed a spot, all the while commenting that Rock is probably picking up donuts and coffee at the PX.

The last panel, taking up half the page, is the view through Egbert’s glasses as he holds them up, looking out through a window into the street—where Rock is being carried along in a stretcher, bandaged and bloody. Heath’s strong art had held the story together—now it provided it with a jarring, effective conclusion. Once again, it was a single image that is both a necessary part of the story and a masterpiece of comic art all on its own.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...