Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What has had the greatest leap in quality from its first to its last page? Good or bad. Up or down.
There’s a not so subtle undercurrent to this question that’s saying: Tell me about a comic you really love or really hate. I’m going to opt for the former and throw in a dash of the latter.
When I think of a comic that I expect a lot of people would both underestimate and consider even quitting after its first page, I think of Jason Shiga’s Demon. It landed in the very top echelon of my favorite comics of 2016 and our very own Jason Sacks just did a great interview with Shiga himself. It’s a comic I love a whole lot, but it’s also one where its strengths are not obvious based on a one page review.
Just take a look at the first page of Demon:
There’s nothing wrong with this page. It’s actually a pretty effective gag taken by itself. Lots of building tension around the question of what the man is writing that is suddenly released with the sudden reveal of it being a suicide note. 8 panels of the same thing repeated and then 1 change to the character that offers a new meaning to everything that comes before it. On its own this is the sort of bit that might be called passingly clever.
The art itself is unlikely to cause much of a reaction. Shiga’s style is minimalist. He questions exactly what might be needed in order to effectively tell his story and offers nothing more. Demon does not evolve in style as it continues, but maintains a sparse use of lines and colors offering only the necessary information in the least flashy manner.
Unless you’re one of those goofs at DC Comics who spank it to the very existence of a nine-panel grid, then there’s probably nothing about this that screams at you to continue. Unless you’re really interested in watching a dude’s feet dangle for another page while flies begin to attract, there’s not a huge calling. And that is exactly what happens on page two, but those first couple of pages are all part of a build towards the magic that is Demon.
I don’t believe it’s hyperbolic to call Demon genius. Once you finish the first chapter it has established a series of mysteries that are irresistible. Each new page adds information, raising immediate and long-lasting questions. Character is compiled in a similar way as each new action or reaction offer new information on the lead character who you just saw hanging from a motel ceiling. The trick with writing about Demon is to not give too much away because the act of discovery is one of its great joys. That discovery comes in each new page and panel as the story blossoms from a small bit of magical fantasy to one of the most bizarre, violent, and hilarious comics of the past decade.
What Shiga accomplishes in these pages is to emphasize comics storytelling above all else. There is no choice of panel or facet of a panel (e.g. layout, dialogue, poses) that is not purposeful in nature. The same elements that make the first page an effective gag turn this entire work into a masterpiece. What you learn as you continue is that comics are a cumulative medium. Every additional page and panel have the ability to add new meaning to what comes before. They function like levels of a tower rather than units in a housing complex. The more you add, the more impressive the entire structure becomes. Even if the individual component is utilitarian and grey, when you effectively stack enough meaning and creativity the whole is transformed into an incredible feat.
That’s how something so stylistically unimpressive as the first page of Demon builds to become what readers of the series admire so much. The growth that occurs along the way is not an accident or an unfortunate period of waiting, it’s a function of the comics medium.
Let’s leave Shiga for a moment and look at a well known comics artist whose style is generally considered to be impressive. Let’s take a look at Alex Ross.
Open up Kingdom Come and you see an eagle streaking across a red lit sky with the American flag trailing from its wings as it attacks a massive black bat with demonic eyes. It’s an impressive image, the sort of thing you’d have expected Tim LaHaye to commission for one of his apocalyptic, white supremacist screeds. No matter what you might think of the themes contained within the image though, there’s a certain level of draftsmanship that is undeniable. It’s an impressive looking first page, especially when set against the societal expectations of comics.
But, y’know, it’s still the first page of Kingdom Come, so we can all see how far that first impression of style gets. You can insert a shrug emoji here if you want, Mark.
I think the point is clear. The first page of a comic is not the comic. The style and draftsmanship found within a single panel or even a few panels does not normally represent what makes this medium great or mediocre. That’s because the goal of comics is not to be displayed in individual elements in a museum; panels are not designed to exist as individual units to be cherished in solitude. Comics is a storytelling medium and its value is discovered in the juxtaposition of these images. You can only begin to fairly evaluate a comic once you have a few pages read, at the very least.
That creates a slippery slope. You shouldn’t need to read almost 40 issues of comics to evaluate Steve Ditko’s work on Amazing Spider-Man or more than 100 to assess Jack Kirby’s on Fantastic Four. But to take a quick glimpse at the first page of Amazing Fantasy #15 or Fantastic Four #1 and make a judgement call would be downright foolish. It’s the difference about making up your mind on a television show between the first minute and the first episode. All storytelling mediums require some amount of time to work and for most comics that period is more than a single page.
What the first page delivers is a superficial impression. It’s style without substance, with some notable exceptions like newspaper strips. What you find in page one is an establishment of how a story might be told, at most, but not the quality of the story or its telling.
So while the advice in literature is to not judge a book by its cover, I think in comics it ought to be not to judge one by its first page. Or, more precisely, don’t judge a comic by the artist’s style. Going that route will lead you to miss out on what the artist is actually trying to tell you.