Saturday, January 6, 2018

Review: Jessica Jones #15 (2017)

JESSICA JONES #15 (201) — Regular
cover by David Mack. ©Marvel
Marvel Comics, $3.99, 28pgs.
On-sale December 27, 2017

“[no title]”
20 pages, Read Time – 8:20

by Brian Michael Bendis (story), Michael Gaydos (art), Matt Hollingsworth (colors), VC’s Clayton Cowles (letters). Edited by Tom Brevoort.

 BOTTOM LINE: Starts out compelling, but soon becomes Exhibit A for the excesses of decompressed storytelling until, by issue’s end, we’ve accomplished basically nothing.

Well, first off, I thought the cover for this issue was kind of a bait-and-switch. After The Purple Man briefly possessed Jessica’s daughter in the previous issue — or the issue before that, maybe. This plot is moving so slow it’s hard to tell — and him being backed off, one look at this cover induced a bone-chilling, “Awww, NOW he’s done it,” reaction in me. But, as it turns out, Baby Cage — I forget her name. If fact, I’m not entirely sure she has one — does not appear at all in this issue.

Instead, we start off with six pages of Jessica and Purple talking. Now, six pages is a LONG time in comic book terms. It’s almost one-third of an issue! And what I think a lot of modern comic book writers and editors lose sight of is that comic books are a form of “sudden fiction.” That, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is a genre of fiction in which a story is told in as few words as possible. Like, super-short stories — 100 words of less.

That means you have to choose every word purposefully, and with precision. Comics, poetry, and journalism are all the same way. There should be no unnecessary words. As the creator of work in any of those forms, you want just enough to communicate your idea, or to make your point, and no more.

So, we have to ask ourselves, even as well as they’re written here, are these opening six pages really what’s appropriate to communicate what is taking place? Even as expertly crafted and compelling as the dialogue is, does what we learn really require a six-page sequence, especially at the start of an issue, and even more especially, when that six-page conversation really does not cover any new emotional or narrative ground — when it advances the plot not one whit?

Sure, Purple admits he’s grown a little obsessed with Jessica, but as readers, we’ve really sort of already figured that out, haven’t we? One counter-argument might be the old chestnut that “every issue is somebody’s first.” Thus, while anyone who’s read recent issue of JESSECA JONES would realize most of what is on these six pages amounts to Lex Luthor monologueing to the captured Superman for the millionth time just why he resents him so, all of this could be brand-new information for a first-time reader.

But then we have to ask ourselves, again, is a six-page conversation really the best way to draw in that new reader?

Stan Lee used to have a rule, that in good comics, by Page 3, somebody has to get punched. Well, rules are made to be broken, right? And I’ll grant you, when Purple [SPOILER] gets shot dead by a S.H.I.E.L.S sniper, we are genuinely shocked, in part because we’ve been almost lulled into a stupor by the previous six pages of talking heads. Imagine if you were watching MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. on tv — not that anyone is, anymore, but just for the sake of argument — and the first segment is a couple of characters talking, very intently, barely moving, and then just before the commercial break, BANG, one gets shot dead.

Yeah, that’s’ pretty dramatic stuff. So, you can see why Bendis did what he did, to build tension in order to really shock the reader. He’s not an amateur just banging out words. I’m certain he knew what he was doing and did everything on purpose. And it’s well crafted. With the kill shot, it’s a very impactful sequence. Especially for television.

But is that good comics?

And keep in mind the visuals on this opening sequence. It’s like we’re breaking rules on purpose again. Gaydos gives us a lot of straight-on medium length panels, and a bunch of headshots. It’s almost like he’s screaming, “Screw you, HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY.” Now, Gaydos is not exactly one for dramatic Buscema-posed conversations anyway. Still, I’m certain this was a choice, to create a slow burn to the BANG moment.

And there are other techniques at play as well which argue for a metatextual intent to communicate ideas through the art that Bendis does not explicitly provide in the dialogue — because he trusts his reader, to avoid needless exposition, or for whatever reason. For example, in the opening two-pages (of 13 panels) all seven shots of Jessica are basically the same pose. Four of them are exact enough that they might has well have been one panel photocopied and pasted in three more times. Maybe they were.

It’s an effective technique. Primarily, it can be used to draw out a moment. Which seems the point here. But it also can tell us something about character. If you are even passably familiar with Jessica Jones — particularly with the performance of my future second ex-wife Krysten Ritter when playing the character on Netflix — you know she is an angry and frustrated person prone to fits of rage. So, you can sense here that she must be trying with all she has to not totally lose her sh*t. These repeated panels tell us this in a way Bendis narrating Jessica’s internal struggle, or Gaydos drawing it, never could. And lastly, we later realize from subsequent events that Jessica must have been keeping very still at least in part to cause Purple (or Killgrave, whatever you want to call him) to do the same, thereby keeping him in position for the sniper outside.

So, it’s all good stuff. It’s really, really good stuff. But again I ask you, is it good comics?

Had this opening sequence been the script and storyboards for a tv show or movie — oh, yeah, brother, boffo maximus! But too many people in comics today think that’s exactly what they are doing, creating stories just as they’d be done for tv or the movies. And maybe that’s because one of the masters of the medium, Will Eisner, continually spoke in his books and classes about his pioneering use of cinematic tricks. But comics are not cinema. Comics are their own medium, with their own language — as Eisner well knew, but which many modern comics creators sometimes forget in their rush to ascribe to, and eventually apply to, the producers of comics’ better-paying cousin.

So, had I been editor Tom Brevoort, I would have told Bendis, “Look, Brian,” or, “Look, Michael,” or, “Look Brian-Michael,” or, “Look, whatever it is you like to be called — this opening section is great. Marvelous stuff! But it needs to be about half the length.”

And, I hear you saying, “How the hell?!” How do you cut down a character interaction that is crafted with such obvious expertise?

Well, for one thing, there’s the opening page. Basically, all it does is establish that Jessica and Killgrave start out in a bit of an emotional standoff, until Killgrave decides, “Okay, looks like it’s up to him to start the conversation” — as he knew it would be, he just kind of wanted to know what, if anything, Jessica would lead with, if given the chance to speak first. And while he’s kind of addicted to telling others what to do, and not caring about them as anything other than his animatrons, Killgrave genuinely wants to know how Jessica feels, and he actually respects her enough to let her have the first word, absent any inadvertent forced-leading he might create via his powers when taking of the conversational joystick as Player 1.

But most of that is kind of what one gleans from the subsequent dialogue. It’s not all spelled out here, and the five panel opening standoff that takes up an entire page could have been done just as well as a series of four silent panels across the top tier of the page, with Killgrave deciding to go first being the opening panel of the second tier. Thus, we reduce one full page to a little more than a third of the page, while communicating the exact same information, losing nothing. And given that we are going to have at least two more pages of dialogue we don’t need these opening panels to establish that Jessica is standing well away from a window, while Killgrave is inadvertently leaving himself wide open in the center of the sniper’s scope. That can come during the build to BANG.

And, what’s more, if we can reduce this opening six pages to three, or even two, we arrive at more-or-less the exact spot where Stan Lee insists we ought to have some action anyway. I mean, imagine if this was a 1960s FANTASTIC FOUR story, one that opened with the FF in a standoff with the Sub-Mariner. Do you really think Stan (or Jack, if you believe he did all the word and Stan was just filling in word balloons) would have had that conversation go SIX PAGES?! No. Two, maybe three, would have been the absolute maximum, and probably not even that long before Subby, or The Thing, or somebody started tossing out haymakers like Easter candy.

“Yahbut,” you say, “this isn’t the 1960s anymore. Those kinds of comics are old-fashioned. That’s not how it’s done anymore.” Well, I say, those kinds of comics work. Because that’s good comics. And like the newspaper publisher who wants to blame plummeting circulation on the economy, or the internet, those in the comics field have to start accepting some responsibility. After all, I write for two weekly newspapers that serve four communities in Maine with about 45,000 people. Considering these papers are direct-mailed to all homes in the coverage area, I have as many readers each week as Bendis in his nationally distributed comic book. Me!! So, those in comics have to start accepting that at least some of the reason why comic book sales are so pitifully low is not just the distribution model. It’s not the economy. It’s not competition from other media, or video games. Those all contribute to the problem, sure, but some part of the reason kids don’t buy comic books these days has to be because of the comic books themselves.

Okay, so I’ve beat up the first six pages pretty well. Moving on, let’s address the page on which Killgrave is killed.

Here, we have a set-up panel in which it seems Killgrave is just about to surrender, then a large panel in which he is shot — one that takes up most of the page, is borderless to really open up the scope of the event, and is on a plain white background, to better gross us out with the dramatic spewing of the blood. Then, we have largish panel of the body splayed out. Now, in the era of decompressed storytelling, I imagine the temptation would have been strong to make this a single-panel splash page with just the killshot. But how it’s done here is perfect. It’s exactly how I would have advised it be handled. The BANG gets the space it deserves, but the emotional drama is driven home by the other panels, which act as a sort of prologue and demi-denouement to the dead body. Otherwise, with just one panel, the reader would have registered the kill, but not really lingered over the image much, and, at 8:20, this issue is a short enough read as it is.

Now, if one is arguing, as I am, that one properly needs to compress the storytelling, it might have been a choice to have the first panel of the next page, featuring Killgrave’s cold, dead expression, moved to the kill page, so that we have the shot, the splayed body, and then confirmation of the kill. But I think it works better as it is. This is The Purple Man, after all. Even when seeing the body, there has to be a moment’s doubt that he could actually be not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead, before we start munchkin dancing around the town square.

In fact, if Marvel comics were not already now reduced to an impossibly-thin 28-page package, I’d have worked with production to ensure we didn’t have two facing comics pages here. I’d either want the first page to be an odd-numbered page, or an even one with the facing page being an ad. That way, we have the BANG, we see the body, but we wonder, “Can he really be dead,” but we have to take that moment of turning the page for confirmation before we see, “Holy crap! He is!! He IS dead!”

As presented here, I actually would have had Gaydos reverse the first and last panels on the page after the kill, just to further delay the confirmation. Yes, the reader could still glace over and see Killgrave’s dead expression, but my way, when reading, it would take a moment to get there, having to first go through S.H.I.E.L.D peeps asking, “Did we get him? Did we get him,” and Jessica answering a call from Carol Danvers asking, “Did we get him,” before we get to the panel where it’s confirmed, “Yup, we got him,” as Jessica (and the reader) then has a moment to stand over the body and let that development sink in before turning the page to see, wondering, “Well, what happens now?”

What happens is a four page sequence in which Jessica finally does lose her sh*t and, in mixed parts anger and relief, starts wailing away on Killgrave’s dead body, before his corpse speaks up to say, “Cei-u, stop that.”

Now, I have a problem with this section, and not just with the fact that it goes on four pages when one is really all that’s needed to get across the same narrative info.

After all, consider: While Jessica does end up snapping Killgrave’s neck in her barrage of punches, she still has to be holding back to a significant degree. With her powers, if she really was wailing on Killgrave as shown, his skull would’ve ended up as so much pulpwood.

Maybe what we want here instead is a couple of sliver panels of Jessica letting the death really sink in. Maybe, in a trick to extend the impression of how long she stands there taking it in, we have one panel split by three or four gutters. Then we have her approach the body trepidatiously, linger a moment with her fist raised, as if she wants to pound his skull in, but still isn’t quite sure she can actually, finally lay a hand on him. And then she just sort of slaps him with an open hand, almost as a nervous test. Then we get a reaction shot of no reaction from the corpse, and then an birds-eye shot of the scene, with Jessica saying (in a balloon with words so tiny it’s almost entirely white space) something like, “Tag, you’re it,” or, more on the nose, “There, touched you for a change.”

Then, if we want the sequence to go for two pages, maybe Jessica picks up the body by the lapels, examines it for a moment so we can see the bullet holes in the chest and the lifeless head lolling off all akimbo to the shoulders. And then, after taking a moment, she hurls the corpse out the window and out onto the street.

This last part is important, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but the rest is just an example of some alternatives I might have presented to Bendis if in Brevoort’s shoes. The point is that the sequence, as is, goes on twice as long as it needs to, and also is a betrayal of everything we know about Jessica Jones. We have to believe she would have expressed the full force of her pent up rage, hurt, trauma, motherly instinct, pain, and relief on Killgrave, once able to do so, and if she had hit him repeatedly, as presented in this issue, she basically would have liquefied him.

Now, after four pages of this, Killgrave’s corpse tells Jessica to get off of him. We then get an absolutely brilliant two page sequence in which the people outside the building — because apparently S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t bother to cordon off the street for this very dangerous operation, even knowing full well the range of Killgrave’s abilities to make pawns of passers-by — rush in to pull Jessica off his body. Panels of Jessica are interspersed with extreme close ups of the faces in the crowd, all demanding, “Get off of him.” Really, it’s beautiful. Problem is, it’s too long. Why? Well, as wonderfully redered as the various faces are, the reader is not going to linger to examine each one. They’ll just sort of register what the panel represents and moves on to the ones with Jessica where action is taking place. And although there are a lot of words on these two pages, they’re mostly all the same phrase. So, the reader starts to skim, because he or she is not going to actually read, “Get off of him,” 346 times. What we end up doing then is giving the reader two pages they go through pretty quick, when one would have done just as well to accomplish the same task. And would have looked just as nice.

There also is a MAJOR layout problem here that Brevoort should have caught. As you no doubt know without me having to tell you, in comics we read left to right, top to bottom, one page at a time. However, when we have two abutting pages, and a panel on the top tier crosses the centerfold, that’s our cue to read all the way across both pages before moving down to the next tier. And in the top tier of this sequence, we have a panel of faces that spans the centerfold, however slightly. Thus, I read across, saw Jessica and the mob had moved outside the building, them came down and saw they were all back inside, and I was like, “WTF?!” So, that needed a fix.

Of course, the jump to outside was an odd skip anyway. They’re all inside the building, then they’re all out in the street, and the reader is just supposed to have worked out in their own imaginations how that happened. Well, fine. That’s comics. That’s how the gutter works. That’s exactly the way the reading experience is supposed to go. It just sort of surprised me that with as decompressed as the rest of the issue is, and in an era when it takes a page-and-a-damn-half just to show Batman swinging from rooftop to the street below Mssrs. Bendis and Gaydos would suddenly decide to let the reader do the narrative lifting here.

I suppose the intent may have been, given how Jessica’s panels are interspersed with the sea of faces, that a sort of strobe light effect was intended, with the panels just catching bits of Jessica’s action here and there, to better communicate her confusion. Still, if we’d had her out on the street already, as I suggested above, we could have done the same trick for those who get it without confusing those who don’t. Keep in mind, some readers have not been reading comics since before they could read. They need a little hand-holding to learn how to read a comic book.

Now, the reason Jessica needed to be out on the street anyway was for the next bit when, overwhelmed by the crowd, she resort to flying — something she doesn’t often do and isn’t every good at — as a means of escape. As bodies drop off, Carol catches them. This part is good. But then we get three pages of Jessica landing, going back inside the building, seeing Killgrave’s body is gone, and then having a confab with him via the now calmed members of the mob. Then it’s a final full-page splash for the revelation that Killgrave now has control of Carol . . . and he’s done talking. Those four pages could have been two, easy.

Basically, what I am getting at is that the end panel of this issue should have been a scene given somewhere at its midpoint. And, in that case, the obligatory last page teaser could have been a half- or even quarter-page panel with zero loss of detail, or impact.

THEN, we would have proceeded with the fight between Jessica and Purple-Carol, and maybe ending the issue by delivering on the cover — with Killgrave, (or else somebody acting on his behalf, or him in a new body now turned purple as the new host form for his essence) elsewhere from the battle, kidnapping Baby Cage. And that’s where we would have ended the issue.

But in the end, what we get here is $4 spent on an issue that is too quick a read, that captured only a few minutes of narrative time while telling us nothing particularly new about the characters, and not advancing the plot apart from Killgrave getting shot.

And although that last bit may send prices for this issue higher than the rest of the series, we don’t create comics with the back issue market in mind. We created them to tell stories for the reader, not events for the speculator.

And that’s why, while what we have in this issue is all very, very, very good work by the creators, it is, in the final analysis, not a very good comic book.

And sure, you may say, “But Duke, all these decompression points you are talking about, don’t worry, dude, it’ll read fine in the collected edition of this story arc.” Then I say, fine — Marvel, you go out and start putting these story arcs out as original 120-page graphic novels. But as long as you are serializing them in 20 page installments at $4 a pop, you need to provide within the confines of each individual issue a solid entertainment experience at the best value-for-dollar possible.

Because if you don’t do that, readers will melt away.

And when that happens, that’s not the internet’s fault.



COVER: 5.75 | PLOTS: 5.25 | SCRIPTS: 8.75 | LAYOUTS: 8.00 | ART: 8.50 | EDITS: 4.25

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