Back in 1983, somebody at the Marvel Comics offices had a good idea at last. A decision was made: the assistant editors would take charge of Marvel’s most popular titles for one month while their bosses attended San Diego Comic-Con. The assistant editors took advantage of the fact that fanboys were prepared for all weird things in this one-month lapse in continuity and gave free rein to the artists. The results were uneven, of course, but Assistant Editors’ Month produced some of the most untypical stories Marvel has ever published (for instance: Amazing Spiderman, #248, cover date January 1984, where Roger Stern penned a bittersweet tale about an obsessive kid that collects every memento related with his hero). But it also produced some of the most innovative ones in formal terms.
We should credit John Byrne as the champion in this last category, especially if we take into account Alpha Flight #6, one of the two titles he wrote, drew and inked that month (cover date January 1984). The other title was Fantastic Four #262, (cover date January 1984) in which Mr. Byrne himself shows up in a trial against Reed Richards, acting as a witness for the defendant. The readers would eventually get used to Byrne’s metafictional whims when, some years later, maybe inspired by Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, he turned She-Hulk into (as far as I know) the first superhero character that was totally aware of the presence of the reader. In 1983, however, this kind of gimmicks were quite unsusual.
Byrne went as far as to print five blank pages in Alpha Flight #6, an issue that was very conveniently titled “Snowblind” (he would repeat the same proposal in Sensational She-Hulk #37 (cover date March 1992), with the result of She-Hulk yelling at Byrne and warning him it was not the first time he did the same thing) . In the case of “Snowblind”, the pages are not completely blank; they have panels, captions, thought balloons and onomatopoeias. Byrne just didn’t take the trouble to draw the content of the panels.
But the fact that the panels don’t contain drawings does not mean they don’t contain an image. The reason they are blank is easy to explain: in the previous page, the ancient monster Kolomaq summoned a snowstorm to avoid the attack of Snowbird, a member of Alpha Flight, Canada’s foremost superhero ensemble. The blank content of the panels are an image of the storm; its thickness and Snowbird’s blindness being represented by the use of pure white. It’s impossible not to think about Kasimir Malevich, here; but Byrne’s use of white is quite different from the Russian suprematist painter’s, since there’s no abstraction in Byrne’s page: the representational properties of the color remain intact, as they are used in a very effective manner for the sake of narration.
In a common comic page, composition is a key element, but not the only one, to manipulate rhythm and produce an impression of movement, since it affects the way the reader perceives the graphic content of the panels. However, movement is completely dependent on composition and panel shapes in this particular page, since these are the only graphic devices Byrne uses to suggest what’s happening behind the snow. We know from the previous page that Snowbird is flying. She is a shape-shifter and the fourth panel’s caption informs us that she is changing into bear form to attack the monster Kolomaq. Her progressive body change takes place in panels two, three and four, which are arranged along a diagonal downward direction, as if they were following Snowbird’s descent. They tell us what the text does not: that Snowbird is flying back to the ground, something she must definitely do if she wants to avoid falling, since bears cannot usually sustain themselves in the air (at least in Canada).
Byrne’s gimmick in Alpha Flight for Assistant Editors’ Month is certainly mischievous; he was probably thinking not so much about pushing the language of comics into a new direction, but about saving himself a lot of work without being paid one penny less: a cheeky but ingenious answer to the chain-production system he was into. That is the reason why it is so easy to feel a lot of sympathy for Byrne’s gimmick. If Malevich had ever recognized that even in the field of the abstraction every formal decision may also have simple pragmatic purposes, it would be much easier to feel sympathy for him too. At least if he recognized that laziness is a pragmatic purpose too.
Byrne, J. (1984) Alpha Flight #6 (New York: Marvel Comics)
Byrne, J. (1984)Fantastic Four #262 (New York: Marvel Comics)
Byrne, J. (1994) Sensational She-Hulk #37 (New York: Marvel Comics)
Stern, R., Romita, Jr., J. and Frenz, R. (1984) Amazing Spiderman #248 (New York: Marvel Comics)
This text is dedicated to Juanfer “Scari Wo” García, master of comics, who revealed to me John Byrne’s suprematist aspirations.