Jonathan Hickman (Red Mass for Mars, Nightly News, Red Wing, Fantastic Four) and Ryan Bodenheim (Red Mass for Mars, Fear Itself: Fearsome Four) have crafted a comic book with “Secret.” Nothing is wasted, not pages not panels not gutters, it’s all there for H&B to play with, and they do it really well.
Look at the pages above. We see this masked man, brass-knuckled, fist cocked back mid-air, about to punch the living shit out of some guy he’s holding down. Michael Garland did the coloring for this book and “Red Mass for Mars.” The red pages above are the published pages, the image where the masked man is in black is from a promo preview page of the issue. The red duotone is a marked improvement. It sets the mood for this scary, violent encounter. The palette changes as the book progresses but the duotone persists in setting tone scene after scene.
I want to take this chance to mention here, one of the reasons this comic book is really good is because it looks and reads like a comic book, and not a screenplay storyboard. It does what only a comic book can do (and should do) in that it tweaks our visual filter into a unique but forced perspective. It is more than a suspension of disbelief that is essential in any fiction, it requires us to participate in a suspension of our default perception and surrender to that of the artist and writer. Unlike a movie that dictates sight and sound, the comic panel has only the visual impact of its color, shape, and dialog. It demands just a little more than the typical matinee, it requires our imagination. We all have an internal voice when we read, and what we see influences how we read. Can you say “WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, WE GOT FUN AND GAMES!” without hearing Axl in your mind’s ear? The panel doesn’t dictate all, it requires us to fulfill the other half of the visual narrative equation with our mind, even if it’s happening on a subconscious level. And this is why I will always love comics more than movies.
S says to me, without knowing anything about the comic or its author after I show her the first few pages, he knows how to manipulate type and image to his advantage. Hickman if I remember correctly came from a world of graphic design, but I’ve been unable to confirm that anywhere. The 5th panel at the bottom of the page with the black ski-mask doesn’t hold the same dramatic weight as the same panel with the red ski-mask. The black is what’s expected, almost safe(?) but the red screams. The red is there unflinchingly. The red is a visual representation for the simmering violence until it explodes through the panel.
Do you see how the masked man’s body rises out of the bottom bleed panel on page 1? His violence overflows the panel, body winding up, the punch frozen in that moment where all his kinetic energy contracts the shoulder and bicep. It is a visual comment on this character, his violence can not be contained. It commands our attention as readers drawing us to the action on the page before we even know what’s going on. We see it again on page 2, panel 2. Our masked man’s head protrudes into panel 1, his dialog confirming what we’ve already come to suspect, “I am simply a man that cannot be kept out.”
“Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments,” according to Scott McCloud in "Understanding Comics," and “closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.” But what does the overflowing panel do to the narrative? What is the effect on closure? On a subconscious level the reader is introduced to a character without physical constraints. He goes where, and does what, he pleases. He exists in a space outside his normal two dimensional physical, and here arguably moral, planes of his reality. His presence in the panel gutters interferes with our sense of closure, he doesn’t allow us to imagine the transition from panel to panel. HE is the transition. In our immediate consciousness there is a sense of the overwhelming, much like he has overwhelmed his captive. The reader is just as bound to, and broken by, the masked man as is his prisoner, who we see again later on page 9 in a panel that’s literally drawn like the corner is broken off and detached. It’s all just really great. I love it, I really do.
Page 4 is a full splash page of what looks like solid black panes breaking, exposing a quote credited to an anonymous member of the East German secret police, the Stasi. “We climb the wall to see the world we rule with secrets, lies, and half-truths. We climb down to do murder.” Page 5 and 6 continue with a double splash page, “Chapter One: Teeth with Which to Eat,” the cover image doubled along side the text. The broken glass runs over to page 7 but only covers the top left corner, about 20% of the page leaving the rest white. It’s the equivalent of a title sequence fade in/out and it sets up the visual “silence” that precedes our home invasion victim’s broken panel beautifully. How the quote foreshadows the narrative has yet to be seen, but the chapter title is aptly named.
I’m not going to tell you any more of the story. I think it’s worth your $3.50 to find out on your own. This book reminds me more of Hickman’s “Nightly News” than say “Transhuman” or any of his Marvel work. Its design consciousness is both narrative and visual and it excels in both. At its least maybe it’s a hyper-corporate-government-espionage-extortion-story, but there is more going on here. It’s just a delight to read and look at it and we shouldn’t take that for granted, go buy it.