Friday, November 9, 2012

You Will Believe A Hammer Can Fly


The cover of a comic book is what's meant to both draw your attention to the issue in a store, as well as to entice you to purchase it and take it with you to read. It's the comic's best foot forward--so usually it will try to give you a visual representation of the main thrust of the story. It stands to reason, then, that the issue's first page--its "splash" page--may focus more on leading up to that story, rather than mimic the action that the cover presents. There are exceptions, of course--but that's generally how you'll find a comic book to be laid out. The cover cuts to the chase--the splash page puts you at the starting gate.

For instance, take this particular issue of Fantastic Four:



On its cover, we see the looming figure of Dr. Doom, seemingly having the FF at a disadvantage and on the verge of attacking them while they're apparently following the lead of Daredevil to meet the threat. But what the hell led to this kind of scenario? The issue's splash page--that of a Navy sub fishing an unconscious FF out of the ocean--indicates something happened to the team in a prior issue (a near-fatal trap set by the Frightful Four), but gives no clue whatsoever as to how either Doom or Daredevil fit into the issue's story.

The splash page is the sort of unsung hero of a comic book. A story's introduction, it's more of a formality to quickly skim, a page to turn in order to really begin reading the issue. It "presents" the issue while only giving lip service to its story, cramming so many other elements into its one-page space--the credits listing the writing/art/editing team, the story's title, any introductory wording the writer may choose to include, and at times even the book's small-print publication specifics. The art and style of the splash page have been revised in recent times, jettisoned in favor of a more formal look that includes a lot of catch-up information from prior issues as well as a more lengthy and prominent listing of everyone involved with producing the issue--perhaps with the intent of more easily bringing up to speed (and thereby retaining) new readers. But in rendering the page so stark with bland data and little else, a piece of comics history has been lost.

To give you an idea of the impact a splash page can have, I thought I'd give you a sampling of a few that stood out for me in one way or another. Just click on any image to enlarge it in order to get a good look at it (and I encourage you to do so, as it's really enjoyable art).

So, in no particular order:


Silver Surfer #2

When the Surfer was still imprisoned on Earth by edict of Galactus, there were many images we were presented with that displayed his anguish and his desire to be free--slamming against the barrier which prevented his leaving, or decrying his circumstances to the empty air, or knelt over in hopeless despair, or simply flying over the planet in absent-minded and depressed wandering. But this image is one of my favorites--in one picture it completely displays the Surfer's hapless feeling and elicits our pity. High in Earth orbit in the complete and utter silence and emptiness of the void, so close to the freedom of the stars that beckon to him but virtually leashed to a planet where he's shunned and unwelcome. There were those who had misgivings about John Buscema being assigned the artwork to the Surfer's first series--but in these early issues, he helped to make this character larger than life.

Avengers #95

Artist Neal Adams, of course, did an amazing story arc in Avengers with the Kree-Skrull war (though concluded by John Buscema), but he also started the ball rolling a few issues earlier. In this one, Triton of the Inhumans enlists the Avengers' aid to find the missing Black Bolt, and in so doing reveals a connection between his mad brother Maximus and the Kree. But the dramatic splash page is what catches your attention, as it deviates so surprisingly from the story that came before--so naturally we have to wonder how it all ties in. Triton has never been a character, or an Inhuman, readers have been drawn to, whether here or in the pages of Fantastic Four--but Adams and inker Tom Palmer give us a marvelous rendering of him here, and certainly grab our attention.

Iron Man #128

This page is from the famous issue where Tony Stark first comes to terms with his alcoholism--and appropriately, with the exception of Stark's overall mood and tone, the page doesn't start the issue on a sober note. Stark is soused with liquor, both lamenting his role as Iron Man yet feeling unable to escape it. He's reached rock bottom; and when you reach rock bottom while you're drunk and wearing a suit of technologically superior armor, the dismal nature of this page gives you a taste of the story to come. Artists John Romita and Bob Layton lay out the page beautifully--Stark, the executive, in his office and dressed not in a business suit but in his greatest achievement; his resigned posture and dependence on so much liquor, despite that achievement and so many more; a newspaper giving an indication of the burdensome circumstances of his life; and the irony of looking at the famous visage of Iron Man and considering its merit.

Amazing Spider-Man #122

Whatever interesting things are happening in this splash page, it's easy to overlook them because of the things the page gets wrong. It immediately follows the issue where the Green Goblin murders Gwen Stacy, and so seeks to recapture the final page of that issue where Spider-Man is loudly vowing revenge against the Goblin--yet with Spider-Man's almost calm detachment here, you'd think we were looking at two different characters. Is this really the same guy who was raising his fist in the air and yelling in rage at Gwen's murderer? (Though if he really wants to go off the deep end on that subject, all he has to do is look in a mirror.) In essence, the page all but defuses the climax of the last issue. Artist Gil Kane beautifully sets the scene, and the details are exquisite--but in terms of the moment, all we really need to see is a dramatic picture of Spider-Man tensing to lunge toward the Goblin while standing over the body of his dead girlfriend.

Strange Tales #166

Of all the bargain basement threats to send against Dr. Strange--a robot. And that name--"Voltorg"--why isn't Strange doubling over in laughter? (The robot was introduced as "Voltorr" in the prior issue--apparently "Voltorg" was considered a step up.) Believe me, Voltorg's build-up in the prior issue was just as ludicrous: "In his hands, he wields the fateful lightning of the universe that binds or destroys all matter...his is the power to hurl stars from their paths... shrivel vast mountains into dust..." I think the real reason Strange seems rooted to the spot is because he's trying to imagine this wind-up toy hurling stars from their paths. Nevertheless, this page (hell, this story) remains one of my guilty pleasures.

Uncanny X-Men #125

In hindsight, this page is rendered pretty meaningless since we know the character who's pictured here is not actually Jean Grey, but an entity that's copied her form. At the time, though, it was a powerful interlude in the X-Men book, further laying the foundation for the seduction of Jean by the Phoenix force and her eventual tragic demise. But thanks to Marvel's insistence that all five original X-Men comprise the team starring in its new X-Factor title, this turns out not to be the real Jean we see here.  I prefer to remember the story as originally written and intended--so I still appreciate the imagery of this new "Marvel Girl," as host of a power that she eventually lost control of and which destroyed her.

Strange Tales #168

During Jim Steranko's run on the "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." segment of Strange Tales, Fury and his agency were at the forefront of international espionage and world threats. The villains were exotic, the stories as action-packed as you'd expect with a spy organization ready to scramble at a moment's notice. Yet there were moments like these where Steranko showed how even a story of a global threat leading to annihilation could begin with a guy at his desk, sleeves rolled up, setting up what looks to be a tantalizing story. With the right artist and letterer, less can be more.

The Mighty Thor #155

With a dynamic character like Thor, you could probably take your pick of bold splash pages that heralded his newest adventure or battle--but I've always enjoyed artist Jack Kirby's images of Thor soaring over Earth, since the contrast is just so striking. With such depictions featuring Asgard, Thor tends to blend in with the surroundings; but when pictured on Earth, he stands out dramatically. Honestly, I think taking flight by hurling a hammer into the air and letting it yank you behind it would probably look awkward at the least--but just look here at how powerfully and majestically Kirby portrays Thor soaring through the sky, seeking out a new and dangerous threat. It's some of the best artwork of the character that comes to mind.

4 comments:

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

that Adams Triton splash is great- experienced that era only recently, and really enjoyed it. And Kirby's Fantastic Four stuff is almost as new to me- I love his blocky stylization and exaggerated foreshortening-very dynamic. He always made a character his own

Kid said...

Love the FF and Thor pages - and that Dr Strange splash is too funny for words. Stan must've been on vacation.

Comicsfan said...

Perhaps not always. For instance, although I thought he took well to Daredevil, his rendering of Spider-Man always seemed stiff for a character who should be so nimble and lithe. Of course with time, and were he a regular artist of the character and frequently adapting Spidey to new stories and situations, Kirby's penciling of him might have improved remarkably. It would have been interesting to see.

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

i was unfamiliar with any work on Spidey- will have to look that up

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