Well this. It’s a review of Joe the Barbarian #1 a new Vertigo comic by Our#1 Squeeze and Sean Murphy (who did that Hellblazer story with Jason Aaron a while back, the one with the bloke fucking a dead dog in it. I knew there was promise in that one.) It’s a funny bit of thing, the CBR review, vintage webstuff. Favourite by Mindless consent are the comments ‘holy shit you are a sad man in the internet’ and ‘Bendis could have done it in ten’.


It came out yesterday, and comics never come my way before Saturday evening. But the interviews with mister words and the terrifically mouthy mister pics have been greedily consumed like soylent green for aging ex-Vertigo kidz, so there is some pre-knowledge on my part – there’s enough around concerning the general concept (Gormenghast as done by Amblin/Dreamworks, interiors animated through the fever dreams of a sick kid) and future issues of JtB to be able to take a good guess at what is going on in the pages that so incensed the CBR reviewer. He hates them because they’re decompressed, because they take too long to tell too little, and because they’re ‘lazy’, but mainly because they are empty. They carry no information. He brandishes Scot McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a book much less read than it is found upon waking, open at page15, on the chest – apologies if the rest of this post is a little boring, by the way) before himself to deflect criticism of the basic chumpishness of his analysis, but…

Looking at the pictures he quotes as an example (quoting pictures – only in comics), it’s interesting to note how dense they, how pregnant with possible meaning and narrative propulsion. How articulate, and how wordless. Ultimately, how poor a choice of material to try to build that complaint around. Say it louder: Only in comics (and only on the internet):


Murphy’s deft use of the visual language of the funnybook is as fluent as it is witty. Start, of course, with the cheekily helpful arrow at the bottom left, which guides the eye up via its dust trails to the departing school bus, which looks like it’s about to be ground up by the town’s teeth before being swallowed by the ominous break between the clouds. The perspective on the elevated cables, even though in-scene they are plunging downwards,  towards the distant convergence point in the centre of the page, actually guides the eye in the opposite direction, back up to the top of the page.  The arm of the street light, an embedded, less obvious but no less effective arrow than the one we began with, slides the gaze neatly across to the left of the page, forming a bridge with the tree branches, that slopes us gently down onto our object.

The house, glowering and alive with camouflaged signifiers, tightens the focus of the eye, via the chimney onto Joe, our hero. Gathered up into the psychic territory of the house by the cradling but heavily insistent arm of the outer brick wall, the panel, even at this close curl of the spiral looks into its own and Joe’s future, showing us with the line of the handrail, the direction he will take along the porch, and on into the house.


Onto the next page and the added element of multiple panels, the open front door starts us on the right hand side of the page and across to the left. Gratuitous manga references here aren’t necessary, but the implication of a phase shift, a destabilisation in the concrete norms of the comic-reading process (form and structure matching theme and plot), are clear.  This simultaneously, and pardoxically, neatly balances a sense of verite, keeping the perspective as Joe would experience it, taking the leftwards turn from the veranda into the house, as we saw from the previous page. As the eye catches up with Joe in panel one, half way across the living room floor, it is guided into the centre of the page, where it will hover for a moment before dropping straight downwards into the stacked tier of panels which forms the rest of the page.

The reader is being told, in quite direct terms, about Joe and his house. Joe has left the door open – he’s not quite with us at the moment. His home is huge, but the furnishings are not modern.

Panel two shows us another room in the house and Joe’s continuing journey onward. The occlusion of his head, and the panels strange POV, is again telling. Joe’s head is somewhere else. So who is the mysterious subject, the bodiless consciousness, who lives in the corner of the kitchen ceiling?

Panel 3, further and further. The message here couldn’t be more simple in expression or implication: there is darkness in the basement. Murk in the subconscious. Joe’s cautious glance toward it suggests his awareness, on some level, of this darkness,  and that it is at least partly generated by Joe’s head. We are learning that the house’s interior, the scene of our rapidly unfolding drama, is ideo-plastic – it responds physically and energetically to the thoughts of those in it.

Count the planes, the dimensional thresholds, occurring simultaneously in panel 4, the panels-in-the-panel. We have (1) the paper boundary of the page itself; (2) the frame of the front door; (3) the second door frame leading into the transitional space of the corridor; (4) the third door frame leading again into another transitional space, this time the stairwell (following the line of which should mean that the reading direction of the next page starts in the upper-left corner, a return to a level of normality which one suspects will not be echoed in the fabric of the issue, and Joe’s poor head, for long. Four separate ontological categories in one handy scene.

Comics is a visual medium. It has them at its disposal of course, but it does not need words to signal its meanings. The image, the picture, the panel, is always everywhere. It’s tempting to try posit the comic-spaces that aren’t visual, that occur in a state that is dominated by the verbal side of the words-and-pictures bilateral equation that we tell ourselves comics are made of. Is even the space inside the captions and dialogue balloons purely verbal space, or does the fact that even the design of the font will carry its own aesthetic charge and semantic implications; and the placement of the bubble in-panel instantly renders it subject to relation via the interior time, space and logic of the image? Examples of comic pages without words are abundant, examples of comics pages without pictures much less so. Because the merest line of panel guttering instantly turns a page into a picture, one has to think of Gull in the bardo becoming god; Dane McGowan seeing his reflection in a blank mirror; Tristram Shandy homages. Even then, the page is subsumed by the language of the  comic, becomes a single, large, panel-less panel, a splash page, bleached by an excess or dimmed by a shortage of light.

Even when they don’t have words in them, comicbook pages still have to be read.

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