Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 311: 4 #2
Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from 4 #2, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 2004 (in the indicia, it’s called “Knights 4,” but I like the simplicity of the number, man!). Enjoy!
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Steve McNiven’s 4 came out at the height of the “decompressed” era, and boy howdy, did they take a two-issue idea and stretch it to four issues! And so we get this pretty and well designed page, in which Sue, Johnny, and Ben … check out apartments. I hope you’re sitting down when you read this!!!!! The idea of this first arc is that the Fantastic Four have suddenly become destitute, and they need a place to live. So … yeah.
The idea of the page – that each panel shows the three of them at a different apartment, while the landlords basically say the same thing – is pretty clever. Aguirre-Sacasa does a good job with the dialogue, as Ben whines about the apartments for different reasons than Johnny does, and Aguirre-Sacasa captures their voices pretty well. Sue, as the mother hen, doesn’t speak much, but when she does, she’s practical (and a bit plaintive, but that’s understandable). The landlords make good points, and it’s to Aguirre-Sacasa’s credit that he doesn’t paint them as big jerks – they’re just dudes trying to make a buck and they don’t want their livelihood getting destroyed. I buy that!
McNiven is one of those artists who’s good enough that he can get away with this kind of art, which looks traced in some way but doesn’t look too blatant. I don’t know how McNiven draws this – I imagine it’s all digital, because it just looks digital – but unlike someone like Greg Land, his work always seems to fit in the story, so if he’s tracing photographs from the Internet, it doesn’t look like he is. McNiven has gotten slightly less stylized over the years – I haven’t bought many of his comics, because he hasn’t drawn much that I’m interested in, but I don’t know if he’s still paired with colorist Morry Hollowell, who really plays up the earth tones and the soft lighting – McNiven’s style is clean enough, but the coloring airbrushes out any imperfection. When the Thing looks nice and smooth, you’ve gone too far! From what I’ve seen recently, either McNiven is being colored by someone different or Hollowell’s gotten better, because it looks the tiniest bit rougher. (Oddly enough, to my eyes, this page looks better on the computer screen than when it’s printed – it’s not as shiny on the screen. Maybe that’s because it was created on computer and is meant to be “read” that way?) But that’s not important here! What’s important is how McNiven lays out the page, right?
Well, he does a nice job with getting us across the page. In Panel 1, the landlord is in the foreground, directing our eyes back to Ben, then Sue, then Johnny. Ben is bracketed by the word balloons so we don’t miss him, and Sue stands underneath Johnny’s so we don’t miss her (how could we, though, right – va-voom, Sue!). In Panel 2, McNiven changes the point of view so that we’re outside the apartment and Sue and the landlord are in the background, but the principle is the same – the word balloons move our eyes back to them and then toward Johnny, who’s in the foreground. Panel 3 follows the same idea, with Sue and the landlord in the background and everything moving us from them to Ben and Johnny. Finally, in Panel 4 we’re back to the landlord in the foreground, this time joined by Sue, while Johnny and Ben lead us off the page. Functionally, the page works well, but it’s kind of boring. Four panels, each laid out in a similar fashion, with absolutely no action whatsoever. Aguirre-Sacasa’s dialogue is nice, but not that clever, and when it’s basically three people looking for apartments that they can’t afford and which landlords don’t really want to rent them, it gets dull really quickly. When people wonder about decompressed comics, you could show them this page and make them read it. Wouldn’t that be fun?
That’s not to say this is a terrible arc. I haven’t read it in a long time, but I remember liking it for what it was. I’m a bit smarter now, though, so maybe I would hate this if I read it again now. I don’t think this is a particularly good page, because neither creator really does a good job grabbing hold of the reader’s attention and demanding that you read more. I mean, if this was the first page you saw, why would you keep reading? What is promised in this issue? House-hunting? Can’t you just watch HGTV if you want to do that?
Next: The most polarizing creator in comics history? You be the judge! He’s already been featured this year, so find his work in the archives!