Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, which was published by IDW and is cover dated 2010. Enjoy!
Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s novels have been pretty good even though Cooke occasionally lets the prose get away from him. The nice thing about the beginning of the second adaptation is that Cooke realizes that he’s a damned good artist, so he lets the pictures tell the story. The words on this page are the only ones for the first four pages, as Cooke doesn’t describe the action, just shows it to us. It’s not that difficult!
This page is more marvelous than you might think on a first, quick glance. The blackness at the top quickly establishes a noir tone in the book – The Outfit is dark, and we get that right away – but it also works to show the time of day – the sun isn’t up yet to brighten the room. Halfway down the page we get the words: “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.” We get a lot of information from this sentence: Parker has had somewhat anonymous sex – he’s not narrating, but the fact that Cooke doesn’t use a name for the woman tells us a lot (Parker does know her name – it’s Bett – but the lack of it here is significant); it’s probably not late at night but early in the morning; Parker has amazing reflexes, which implies that this sort of thing happens more often to him than it does to, say, us; and the woman was awake for some reason. Perhaps she innocently woke up and saw an intruder, or perhaps she was planning some dire fate for Parker? Her anonymity tells us that Parker doesn’t know her, his reaction to her scream shows that he’s a man who lives in a world where danger is commonplace, so why should she be innocent? It’s a fine sentence, and it would be nice if writers could always imply that much in 11 words.
The drawing underneath the sentence is fascinating, too. I believe (although I can’t prove it) that almost every other creator or creative team would have that sentence and then a drawing of Parker rolling off the bed, which would be redundant. Cooke smartly shows the moment after Parker rolls off the bed – he already told us what Parker did, so why does he need to show us? This way we get a sequence even though the page is technically a splash page. If this were two panels and no words, we’d see Parker rolling in the first panel and the aftermath in the second. Cooke simply uses the terse prose as his “first panel,” so he moves on quickly. Very often in comics, we’ll see words describing exactly what we see, which is, as I mentioned, redundant. Cooke doesn’t do that, and it’s very keen that he realizes that he doesn’t have to.
What do we learn from this page? Well, before the book begins, Cooke lets us know that this is Miami in 1963, but if we didn’t know that, we can see the stylish headboard on the bed, the light on Bett’s side, her hair style, and the hat on Parker’s side of the bed and infer that it’s the 1960s. On Bett’s side, we see the sun streaming in, and Cooke uses fewer holding lines on that side of the drawing, suffusing the scene with hazy morning glow. The fact that it’s on Bett’s side is important – even if she’s a femme fatale, Cooke places her in the light while Parker’s side is a bit darker, visually implying the way his life plays out. Obviously, the page is constructed this way prosaically to lead our eye from left to right, but it’s also a good way to establish the moral murkiness in which Parker lives. Without showing Parker, Cooke gives the page a good sense of movement – with the sentence above, we’re conditioned to expect to see Parker leaping off the bed, but he’s already gone, and the sense of movement comes from the fact that it takes the reader a few seconds to read that first sentence, so in the next few seconds when our eyes move down to the bed, Parker has already absconded and a gun has already been fired. Cooke leads our eye across Bett to Parker’s pillow, which is exploding with feathers from bullet … but Parker is already on the floor. It’s really an excellent way to imply movement without showing it. You’ll also notice that the band of lighter blue between the black of the upper half of the drawing and the white of the sun angles directly to the gun shot on the pillow, as Cooke makes sure we eventually focus on that. Bett looks toward the left, so we know that we’re supposed to look over there, but then Cooke leads us back, over her striped body (which contradicts the sunlight streaming into the room and implys her own moral failings) to Parker’s pillow. The billowing sheets and the diagonal band of blue that led us to the pillow pulls our eyes to the right side of the page, where we’re ready to turn it and see what happens!
This really is a brilliant page, and it’s something that an artist who also writes can see instinctively – obviously, a writer working with an artist could do this too, but I imagine it’s easier for an artist working solo. It’s exciting, kinetic, and anticipatory. Cooke’s drawing skills notwithstanding, the design of the page makes it almost impossible NOT to turn the page. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
As I’ve been doing this month, I need to remind you, if you haven’t done so already, to nominate a writer-artist team you’d like to see featured in August! I’m only going to take nominations for a few more days, and then I hope I’ll have enough to make a decision. It must be a separate writer and artist and they must have worked on at least 25 issues together. Get nominating, people!
Next: Oh, Izzy, whatever are we going to do with you? Don’t forget to check out the archives on a hot summer day!
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