Saturday, January 21, 2006

Deep Focus

I was impressed with Grant Morrison and Ryan Sook's Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna #2 when I first read it. Upon subsequent re-readings, I've come to appreciate the book even more. Not only is it my favorite issue in Zatanna's portion of the larger maxi-series, it's one of my favorite comics, ever.

First of all, how can you not like a comic that opens with a splash page like this one? (Check out the progression from raindrops, the sea, the fish, to the stone!)

The issue centers upon Zatanna, her "apprentice" Misty Kilgore, and Gwydion (a malevolent spirit who is pursuing them); most of the action takes place in Casandra Craft's cramped magic shop in San Francisco.

It's been commonplace for some time to speak of the extent to which movies have influenced comic books. Splash pages, compression/de-compression, and hyper-violence are the elements most frequently mentioned. Here, I'd like to discuss the layout of several indicative panels that are illustrative of the richness of this book in particular and the mini-series in general. Most of the Craft shop scenes provide the viewer with both extraordinary lines of perspective and stunning depth of focus, two cinematic effects.

Two movies expertly deploy the formal elements that I'm talking about: Citizen Kane and Popeye. There are myriad scenes in Citizen Kane that make use of an extraordinary depth of field; the film's cinematographer Gregg Toland modified several cameras in order to get the depth-effects that he wanted. Most frequently mentioned are scenes in which all of the people in a scene are in focus (while some of them are in motion), while structural elements in the room (particularly the ceiling) are in view, too.

Here's a panel from SS:Z #2 that incorporates a particularly cinematic perspective. We survey the room, the things in it; it's shot from above, enabling us to see from the point of view of someone who has the drop on the people below. The vulnerability of the females is played up (they're preoccupied; we watch them; they aren't aware of us). Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock made frequent use of this camera angle.

Misty Kilgore's cough also "reminds" the reader that she's there, even though the two adults are speaking and appear to be the main figures of attention.

The scene in Citizen Kane that most gets at what I'm talking about is one in which the newly rich Charles Kane's mother is in the front room of her modest house arranging for her son to leave home and be raised apart from her. (This is the foreground scene.) Outside, the boy Kane is playing in the snow, and we can see him through the room's wondow. Though this is the background scene, and we see it through a window, it's entirely in focus, and the boy's cries of glee from outside are intermingled with the words of his mother's conversation.

These two panels get across how Morrison/Sook provide an equally rich depth of field. In the one on the right, Cassandra Craft provides crucial information on the demon who's been stalking Zatanna and Misty. She's in the foreground, right up against our noses; (you can almost see what's reflected off of her medallion). Cassandra's face obscures our view of Zatanna's own. However, the layout of the panel also draws our eyes to Misty, due to where she's placed in the frame. (The speech balloons, the lamp shade, and crystal ball are in a verticle line that leads our eyes down to MK.) Misty's as interested as we are in the magical objects crammed into the room. And since she's darting about and is so much smaller than the other two figures, the art in these pages prompts your brain to play the "where is Misty Kilgore?" game as you view each panel. The second panel here (on the left) foregrounds a talking cat, centers on Misty's reaction to it, provides information through Cassandra and Zatanna's speech balloons, and shows us Zatanna's face reflected in the mirror. (Now that's what I call depth!)

What's also nice is that Misty serves as the pivot-point for the changed perspective between the two panels.

Altman's Popeye came to mind as I was thinking about all of this, because almost every scene in that movie has multiple focus points, with action taking place all across the viewer's field of vision. Even when one or two characters are the center of attention, at least one other person is moving, speaking, or doing something of interest somewhere onscreen. When I first saw it in the theater (yeah, I'm that old), it was pretty disorienting. (This was eons before the advent of split screens and multiple data crawls and all that we experience now.) But what's interesting to think about is that that Popeye's sensory clutter replicated what our perceptions of the real world are sometimes (or often) like.

Seven Soldiers: Zatanna #2 was a feast for my eyes and brain that's stood up to multiple readings and viewings. The panels I've put up here are just a few of the many complex ones in the book. (I've migrated over to Marvel's X-Factor, since it's being pencilled by Sook.) Finally, SS:Z #2 delivers one of the most interesting three person exchanges I've ever come across in comics. I chortled out loud when I read this:


I think I'll be following where Ryan Sook leads, too.
Yeah, I was really looking forward to a long Sook run on X-Factor as well, it's too bad that won't be the case.

And I saw Popeye in the theatre as well, although I think I was about six. God, that movie was weird.
Thanks for your comments, Ragnell and jhunt.

Man, after I posted this I learned from jhunt's blog that Sook's actually leaving X-Factor. (And I silently edited-in a link to his post.) We'll have to keep our eyes open to see where he works, next.

I'm wondering whether Morrison contributed to the layouts of the Zatanna mini, because I don't recall Sook's art in X-F #1 having the same complexity. (It may be all Sook, though; perhaps X-F's publishing schedule has something to do with this.)

I'd really like to see GM's SS:Z scripts, and RS's (un-inked) pencils, too.
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