Saturday, October 18, 2014

Copperhead #1: Layout, Style, and Colour in a Space Western Comic

Page 1 of Copperhead, Issue #1, Image Comics.
Writer: Jay Faerber     Artist: Scott Godlewski
Colorist: Ron Riley     Letterer: Thomas Maurer
The first issue of Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski’s Copperhead begins with a combination of haste and patience: a levitating train speeding through a the panoramic of an alien desert, with gloomy passengers sitting still beside empty seats, motion lines capturing the outdoors that whizzes past beyond the windows. Wide panels mimic the wide angles of old Western films, and a pastel colour pallet which alternates between gloomy, indoor blues and scorching, sunny oranges immediately suggests an atmosphere which is at once melancholy and brimming with the potential to burst into action. This contrast is weaved throughout the issue as the images which signify it - the whizzing motion lines next to still passengers, the alternating indoor/outdoor colour palettes, etc. - are repeated.

Any good space Western acknowledges the themes and devices that signify the western genre. The most obvious of these in Copperhead is the relation between the characters and their environment: artistic choices help to convey a sense of the frontier, capturing the characters inside of it and pinning them against it. The backgrounds - whether they are sunny desert landscapes or gloomy sci-fi interiors - have a rich watercolour texture, using colour to convey grainy, rocky, and cloudy details in the ground, buildings, and sky. The characters, however, are more simplified - with mostly solid colours and the occasional shadow or subtle gradient. This adheres to Scott McCloud’s concept of amplification through simplification; simple, iconic faces create relatable, identifiable characters. Placing these characters in a world more rich in detail, as McCloud indicates: “allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (43). In Copperhead this is especially significant, as Sheriff Bronson and her son are also entering a foreign new environment, full of dangerous potential. Off-kilter shots, wide, empty skies, and sharply-angled shadows (as seen on pages 6 and 7, for instance) add to the feeling of confusion and fear which accompany entering an alien environment.

Page 5
The first issue of Copperhead makes extensive use of wide establishing shots which bleed to the edges of the page, gradually fading behind a grid of closed panels. This allows us to get a sense of the environment before narrowing in on closer panels which reveal the action of each scene. These larger shots also convey a stillness which contrasts the smaller panels. To use McCloud’s language again, the larger panels serve for most scene-to-scene transitions, while the smaller panels contain more action and move at a faster pace, conveyed through action-to-action and moment-to-moment transitions.

This particular layout of the page is used throughout the issue. It provides a structure which the reader can identify as demarcating a particular scene, and it turns the desert landscape into almost an icon of its own, or at least a set of icons (i.e. the moons in the sky, the billowing clouds of dust, the alien birds) which is, to use Theirry Groensteen’s term, braided throughout the text. This repetition of both the page layouts and specific images in the scene solidify the atmosphere and setting of the text, and force a certain level of unilateral reading - considering each scene as it relates to the others, and as it references previous pages.

Pages 6 and 7

On page 23, we see what Groensteen might describe as a tension between synchronic and diachronic elements on the page - between the co-presence of panels spatially and the reading of the story sequentially. At first, we see a repetition of the gridding provided on previous pages: an establishing shot which bleeds to the edge of the page, with closed panels on top of it as it fades in a gradient toward the bottom. Yet, when we reach the bottom of the page this pattern is disrupted, as we see that the establishing shot continues past the closed panels, and in fact reveals a scene which occurs - in the story - after those panels. Here chronology in the story and spatial order are disrupted, as what was originally taken to be an establishing shot taking place prior to the enclosed panels is actually part of a larger panel which takes place afterwards. In this case, that tension between spatial and temporal order forces the reader to take in the page as a whole; it makes the environment of the establishing shot seem much larger than it was on first impression, and it slows down the pace of the story even more than a separate, wide establishing panel would. Instead of seeing five panels in order, we see three panels overtop of a larger panel, such that the inner panels become almost an afterthought or a flashback, indicating the events which led to the scene depicted in the larger one. The layout places the events of the scene clearly within an environment, so that they are diachronically and literally enclosed and surrounded by it. This lends itself beautifully to the western trope of vast, powerful environments, spaces whose impressive size provide space for action, and whose oppressive natural elements determine the conditions which those characters are subjected to.

Page 23

Copperhead’s first issue demonstrates clearly how the spatial layout of the page in combination with iconography and artistic style immerse the reader in a particular environment. If this attention to structural detail continues in future issues, it will prove to be an engrossing addition to the space western genre.

Works Cited:
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 2007.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial. 1994.

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