Sunday, 18 June 2017

Splashing and Reversing Time

Slide 31

The detail of a Kirby splash page has been frequently described (Charles Hatfield demonstrates how a single page can follow the progress of an entire battle, revealing both the order of attack and the subsequent chaos). However, this panel from The Demon (a minor DC character) highlights the complex chronotope that Kirby could invoke to express the movement of time.

Reading from page left to right, Kirby draws the eye towards the moment of action: the 'draaga' assault the protagonist. Threat and terror are literally foregrounded, while the speech bubbles lead the reader back to the 'warlock' on page right, who is directing the action.

This movement, however, works in contradiction to the time of the panel: the warlock's invocation happens before the draaga attacks. The reader experiences the diegetic time of the comic book in reverse. The traditional movement of time - as per the panels of a comic book - from left to right is rendered uncanny: the impact of the combat distorts and disorientates time itself.

The splash page to Fantastic Four (slides 32 - 36) plays with the chronotope in an even more radical manner. At first glance, the scene is simple enough: the heroes are entertained by a tribal dance. 

In this single page, Kirby’s art (and Stan Lee’s dialogue) simultaneously celebrate and subvert the trope of the African primitive. The exotic costumes, and the podium on which the Fantastic Four are seated, suggest the hierarchy of traditional jungle adventures, such as Tarzan, in which the white colonials are elevated above the ‘natives’ – the conversation between The Thing and The Human Torch bristles with racial anxiety.

Yet a black king sits above the protagonists, and both Mr Fantastic and Wyatt Wingfoot (a native American, in another subversion of the racial stereotypes) recognise a complexity. There is even a hint, in the Black Panther’s statement, that this tribal dance is a commodification of traditional dance for the benefit of outsiders, mirroring the adaptation of culture for tourists. 

Without Kirby’s visuals, the full impact of this subversion is missed. A subtle detail at the foot of the page – an advanced weapon held by a tribal warrior – or the hierarchy on the podium draws out the subtext that a simplistic reading of Wakandan culture, as offered by The Thing, fails to engage with its tensions. 

Even the paratext of Kirby’s note (‘They’re nice people!’) and the details of the credits (‘The Ballet Forbush’) complicate the racial tropes: ‘ballet’ being a high art form in contrast to the alleged primitivism of folk dance. While ‘Terpsichorean troupe’ may be an ironic comment on the dance, it is well within the range of Stan Lee’s love of extravagant language rather than a mockery of Wakandan pretensions.

Of course, a splash page is not enough to prove that Kirby has mastered the comic book. 

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