Anka Was Right

 

 

Cover art by Chris Bachalo from Uncanny X-Men #26.

Cover art by Chris Bachalo from Uncanny X-Men #26.

A couple weeks ago, I spent some time breaking down my favorite panel from Uncanny X-Men #25, and why it’s both a great Cyclops character beat* and a great illustration (ha!) of how visual storytelling can and should work.

Right now, Uncanny is a semimonthly series, which means it’s alternating between two artists, Chris Bachalo and Kris Anka. That kind of switching off can be risky business: making it work takes a very carefully matched pair of artists, and which commonalities matter most in a given series isn’t always obvious going in.

Bachalo and Anka overlap a lot superficially: they’re both stylish and angular, with clean line art and similar enough visual language to keep the transitions from being too jarring. More significantly, though–and critical to this series in particular–they’re both exceptionally good at conveying emotion through body language.

That’s particularly important here because Uncanny X-Men is currently in large part a book about Cyclops’s personal reckoning with the death of Charles Xavier–the mentor and surrogate father Cyclops killed while possessed by the Phoenix Force. That means it’s a story driven largely by emotional beats–something to which Cyclops is singularly poorly suited on fronts both visual and canonical.

Cyclops is kind of a block of wood. He’s uptight and very guarded–dude’s mantra is “I’m fine,” growled through gritted teeth. There’s nothing fluid about his body language–he’s all stiffness and angles, even in combat but especially in conversation. If you want to make Cyclops emotionally expressive and stay true to the character, you don’t get to use expository dialogue, and you definitely don’t get to use exaggerated expressions. You’re pretty much limited to subtle details.

Now, as it happens, superhero comics have a standard visual shorthand for exactly that scenario. The catch? It usually involves subtle variation in the way you draw their–you guessed it–eyes.

Not really an option here.

That’s where Anka and Bachalo–particularly Anka–come in. Kris Anka isn’t someone I go to when I’m thinking of artists who are masters of facial expressions. He doesn’t have the expressive fluidity of, say, Sara Pichelli or Russell Dauterman, nor the explosive intensity of Bill Sienkiewicz. Anka is all about lines and angles, stylized and sometimes even a little rigid. With Pichelli, you look to eyes and hands; with Dauterman, mouths. With Anka, the emotional beats are all about exaggerated or broken angles: clenched jawlines, sagging shoulders, stances knocked slightly off-kilter. Kris Anka can do a lot with body language.

So: In Uncanny X-Men #26, Cyclops starts out front and center, all false front and righteous indignation:

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Page one, and the only time I’m going to show you a panel with Cyclops talking. Note that even here, you can’t see a lot of his face. He doesn’t have his mask on, but he’s still mostly silhouette, aside from the clenched teeth.

 

In fact, Cyclops only talks on one page of <em>Uncanny X-Men</em> #26. After the panel above, he says one more word. And then, over the rest of the issue, he just crumbles.

Watch:

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This is the first and only close-up we’re going to get of Cyclops’s face in Uncanny X-Men #26.

 

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Again, even when it’s not covered by the mask, his face is pretty much in shadow–in this case, shadow that includes a pretty direct reference *to* the mask. Anka’s also keyed in on something really critical here: Cyclops’s face doesn’t tighten when he falls apart. It relaxes.

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This is the last time in the issue that you’ll see Cyclops in the foreground of a panel with other characters: slightly off-kilter. Reaction shots from the back are hard; this is a good one. Notice the stiffness that’s still there, because that’s about to change.

 

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This panel originally contained narration about Cyclops, which I cut, because you don’t need it. I mean, you do in context of the issue, because it’s relevant to how the other characters currently see him; but what we’re talking about is how the reader does. Face is totally obscured at this point. This is almost a classic brooding-villain pose, but it’s not quite, because of two things: the angle of his head, and his hands. His face isn’t obscured by artful shadow; it’s obscured because his head’s hanging so far down. And his hands aren’t clenched or open–they’re loosely interlocked, like he’s not sure what to do with them. Cyclops is a character built–conceptually and personally–around tight control. There are two ways you can break that frame. One is explosive; you saw it in the early issues of this series, when his powers were broken and became wild, splaying hoops of energy instead of the normal neatly contained lines. The other is much quieter and more personal, and that’s what you’re watching happen here.

 

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Remember what I said earlier about clenched jawlines? What’s the other end of the spectrum? Softening Cyclops’s face is almost jarring. He looks like a kid–actually, if I had to choose a single word for the way he’s drawn here and in surrounding panels, I’d probably go with “childlike.” This isn’t how adult Cyclops sits or an expression we see on his face–both belong more to his 16-year-old counterpart. Meanwhile, the action continues around and in front of him–and again, since this is usually the guy barking out orders, having him literally recede into the background while other characters continue to work and talk past him is incredibly effective.

 

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Last one. Again, there’s that background trick. The sharp lines of his costume, the glowing X, underline the slump. Instead of tense and squared, his shoulders are hunched (and again, this is such kid body language, subtly amplified by those high Blackbird seats). This is someone who’s totally beaten, and has given up all pretense otherwise. There’s none of the usual veneer of anger. There’s none of the defiance. He’s not reaching for control of the situation. He’s just gone.

Daaaaaaaaamn, Anka.

*You may have noted that a lot of the more craft-specific posts here have focused on portrayals of Cyclops. There are a couple reasons for that. Cyclops is one of my favorite X-Men characters, but he’s also one it’s really easy to handle poorly, and how well he’s done is–at least for me–a pretty good bar for the general quality of any given series in which he’s part of the main cast. And when Cyclops is done right, he tends to become a locus of interesting visual storytelling, because you’re taking a character who’s by definition not visually demonstrative and dropping them into a static visual medium that’s generally all about exaggerated expression.

Go X-Men, Go!

speedracerposterThe 2008 live-action Speed Racer movie is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ve seen it easily a dozen times, and I still think it should have won every single possible award, including the ones for which it doesn’t technically qualify and a special new award made specifically to recognize Emile Hirsch’s perfect delivery of the perfect line “Inspector Detector suspected foul play.”

God, I love that movie.

ANYWAY, last night, a conversation on Twitter–specifically pursuant to James F. Wright and Josh Eckert’s pretty damn brilliant Children of the Engine concept–reminded me of the fact that it contains what I keep thinking should be pieces of an awesome Speed Racer / X-Men conspiracy theory.

Consider: Comics Cyclops is basically cosplaying Racer X at this point. Scott Porter, who played pre-Racer X Rex Racer in the 2008 film, voiced Cyclops in both the X-Men anime and the Marvel Heroes MMO; and Racer X’s movie costume is pretty much exactly Cyclops’s old X-Factor uniform, down to the color scheme.

I realize that that these things totally fail to resolve into anything resembling a respectable conspiracy theory. But I still feel vaguely that there should be something there, if only because finding a way to neatly streamline my pop-culture obsessions would probably save a lot of time and action-figure shelf space.

 

And Away We Go!

xmfcvol3no3

X-Men: First Class vol. 2 #4; Parker/Bax/Justice/Staples/Piekos

Rachel and Miles are on vacation this week! We’ll be back on September 14, but if you need a fix before then, click over to Don’t F with the Original to hear us talking with Dimitri about cross-media adaptation and Days of Future Past!

As Mentioned in Episode 22 – Through Death and Through Life

Listen to the episode here!


Links:


NEXT WEEK: Rachel and Miles are going on vacation. Read a book. WEEK AFTER NEXT: The New Mutants!

22 – Through Death and Through Life

scottandjeanv3_cropped

Art by David Wynne

Episode 22 – Through Death and Through Life

In which Rachel and Miles celebrate an anniversary with a retrospective of one of the great romances of the Marvel universe; the Summers/Grey family tree is more of a transdimensional strawberry patch; the X-Men play some football; Professor Xavier is not a jerk; and Scott Summers and Jean Grey are the power couple of existentialism.

X-Plained

  • Summers kids
  • Scott and Jean
  • Feelings
  • X-Men #32
  • The worst date ever
  • Madelyne Pryor
  • Plot-relevant prosopagnosia
  • Three proposals
  • X-Factor #53
  • Uncanny X-Men #308
  • “Fatal Attractions”
  • That one panel that gets us every time
  • X-Men vol. 2 #30
  • Some really excellent wedding vows
  • The best kiss in X-Men
  • Cats Laughing
  • Why “One” is actually a pretty decent first dance
  • Existential ramifications of fictional romance

Next week: Rachel and Miles take a much-needed vacation.

Week after next: The New Mutants!


You can find a visual companion to the episode – and links to recommended reading – on our blog.

Find us on iTunes or Stitcher!

Support us on Patreon!

Video Review Redux – Rachel’s Favorite Panel

Hi. Rachel here.

I talked some about our panel of the week in this week’s video reviews, but I think it’s a panel whose effectiveness is much better illustrated via static images, so I’m posting this here as a supplement.

This is a panel that grabbed me immediately. It’s the kind of beat I look for in comics–the stillness where you often find the most powerful and subtly significant moments in a story.

Here’s the panel, in isolation. It doesn’t look like much on its own, right?

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Here’s the full spread it’s part of. Pay attention to how people are standing: this moment is all about body language.

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Can you see it yet? If you’re still having trouble, here’s a hint: Follow the hands–Cyclops’s, in particular.

See what I mean? Is your heart breaking a little right now? It should be.

I would love to see the script for this spread–whether that moment was written, or if Bachalo improvised it; and how it was described relative to how it was drawn. As is, it’s one of the most powerful emotional beats of the story–if you know what to look for.

The fallacy that comics are easy and simple to read is dependent, I think, on the idea that reading is a skill specific to written language. In fact, the language of comics–that integration of visual and verbal, the ways static images can convey and evoke movement and passage of time and a thousand other minute nuances–is incredibly, exquisitely complex and rich. They’re not just illustrated stories. They’re their own discrete medium.

And it’s when creators–and readers–understand those things that comics can really, really get good.

 

Rachel and Miles Review the X-Men – Episode 5

Week of September 3, 2014

In which we actually feel pretty okay about a foil cover.

Reviewed:

  • Death of Wolverine #1*
  • X-Men #19
  • All-New X-Factor #13
  • Uncanny X-Men #25
  • A cat

*Pick of the week (Yes, really.)

Video reviews are made possible by the support of our Patreon subscribers. If you want to help support the podcast–and unlock more cool stuff–you can do that right here!

Edited to add: Rachel wrote a bit more about the panel of the week over here.

Today. Tomorrow. And Every Day for the Rest of My Life.

X-Men #30 cover art by Andy Kubert

X-Men #30 cover art by Andy Kubert

Rachel here.

I don’t usually talk about personal stuff here. But today is special.

In this week’s episode–the one that goes up at Comics Alliance today, and here on Sunday the 7th, Miles and I talk about Scott and Jean and how they are kind of our couple, and I want to write a little bit more about that.

We talk on the podcast about having known each other since forever. For context, that’s well over half our lives: we’re in our early 30s now, and we met when we were 11 or 12, and became friends when we were 13.

I’m not–look, how much I identify with Cyclops should be a pretty good indicator of how socially inclined I’m not. I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school. I was the kid who sat in the back of a class, hiding a book under my desk and hoping that no one would notice me–because if they did, it never, ever went well.

In eighth grade English, I sat in my usual far back corner. Miles was in the row in front of me, and at some point, he decided–out of nowhere–that we should probably be friends. He initially expressed this mostly by whipping around dramatically when no one was looking and whispering bad puns at me during vocab review. It was slightly terrifying and absolutely delightful.

At some point, Miles started asking me about books. We’d both grown up on the Dark Is Rising sequence and the Chronicles of Prydain; he lent me Bored of the Rings and the big collected Hitchhiker’s Guide that had the then-nearly-impossible-to-find “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe”; I lent him More Than Human and The Hero and the Crown. There was an end-of-the-year eighth-grade graduation dance and we danced together once, awkwardly, at arms’ length; and each of us was pretty sure the other was just doing it to be polite.

We dated briefly and awkwardly our freshman year of high school, and then we didn’t really talk for a while, and then we were friends again, and then we were friends who slept together and were looking at colleges together and still staunchly refused to put a label on what we were doing because we did not buy in to that nonsense, even after we moved in together two months into our first semester of college. We spent years aggressively reinventing the wheel, because even if we didn’t entirely know what we were or where we were taking it, we knew it was ours.

So, when we talk about how Scott and Jean are kind of our couple, we’re not just talking about the awkward teenage romance thing. Editorial mandates aside, every step of their relationship was a “fuck you” to fate, a conscious choice to not even find but make their own meaning. They’re not together in most of the Multiverse, and when they are, it’s usually something they have to fight for.

Even without supervillains and cosmic forces, being and staying with someone you’ve known since you were a teenager isn’t always easy. Everyone has hard-wired buttons; when you’re with someone you’ve known for that long, there’s a pretty good chance that they–or at least who they were when you were kids–wired some of them. It’s difficult and painful to grow and figure out who you are and who you’re becoming when you’re with someone who still responds to–and probably always will respond to, to some extent–who you were at sixteen.

And Scott and Jean are our couple for that reason, too: because it’s not always easy, but it never stops being worth it–every day, but especially today, because ten years ago* today, I married the best person I’ve ever met: my partner in crime, my best and truest friend; who still finds me when I’m lost, and coaxes me out when I get stuck in my own head, and holds me so that I can let go.


I love you, Miles Stokes.

Today.

Tomorrow.

And every day for the rest of my life.


 

*According to Miss Manners, the tenth anniversary is–for obvious reasons–the X-Men anniversary.

The Famous Five

Art by David Wynne

Art by David Wynne

Last week, our kickass Patreon subscribers unlocked weekly illustrations as a milestone goal, and we are tremendously pleased to present the second of those, in which David Wynne references Episode 21 to bring us a mash-up shamefully absent from pop culture thus far: the original X-Men as Enid Blyton’s YA-adventure classic Famous Five!

Patreon subscribers get a high-res desktop background version of the image. If you want a larger version you can hold, frame, lick, &c., David will have the original for sale here (alongside a lot of other very rad X-Plain the X-Men-related originals).

Nominally, this is a weekly thing, but we love this one enough that we’re going to keep prints available for the rest of September in our Redbubble shop.

(And if you want the desktop, you can subscribe to the Patreon here!)

As Mentioned in Episode 21 – Kurt Busiek at the Coffee-a-Go-Go

Listen to the episode here!



Links & Further Reading: