HyperAnalysis F4 Page 5 Header Image

How To Introduce Characters By Action

Welcome to the fourth chapter of the Pipeline Hyperanalysis of “Fantastic Four” #60, the original starting issue of the classic Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo/Karl Kesel/Paul Mounts run.

We move on now to the fifth page of the issue. When last we saw our Fantastic Family, they had just jumped out of their interdimensional transport to meet up with whatever it was they had come to see.  We join them now as The Thing lands on top of the asteroid-sized ship thingy.

But, first, a step to the side:


Show vs. Tell

When I first started reading comics, everything was new.  I learned a lot by reading letters columns, magazine articles, and “Previously” text bits in the comics, themselves.

This all proved helpful on titles like “Uncanny X-Men,” which had a rotating cast of dozens of characters. Imagine being dropped cold into one of those issues?  All those names and powers and decades of relationships? It’s overwhelming to a fan of a few years, let along a brand new one.  But we all started somewhere.

These days, I’m guessing you just go to Wikipedia and read up on a new character to discover who they are.

But none of that sticks. Yes, it gets you into the story without feeling hopelessly lost, but it’s not the solution.  It’s a good jumpstart and it gives you an advantage, but it doesn’t stick. How could it?  It’s just a series of random facts and insanely shortened versions of longer stories.

Then you see the character in action. Maybe it’s Wolverine stalking the bad guy, crouched over and staying downwind.  He ferociously attacks, pops his claws, and shows the bad guy no mercy.

In those few panels, you feel like you know Wolverine.  You’ve seen him in action.  You see how those actions happen, in ways that tell you his personality.  You will remember this scene, perhaps for as long as you read Marvel Comics, because this was your first introduction to the character.  It’s natural for that to happen.

All those summaries and descriptions and power ratings from everything else you read never stick.

The best way to learn a character is to see that character in action.

It’s all shades of the same truth:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Listen, don’t just hear.
  • Write, don’t just research.
  • Do, or do not. There is no try.

Earlier in this issue, Mark Waid gave us the background we needed to quickly move on.  A man in the shadows ran through a slideshow describing how the Fantastic Four came to be.  It was strictly the origin tale, stripped down to its barest essentials, without any supporting details or interactions.  A quick look at the art might have given you a clue as to their powers, but you glossed over it.

You heard information about the characters, but I bet you weren’t listening as closely as you gave yourself credit for.  You need something more memorable.  You need a strong visual.

You turn to page 5 in this issue and you get it.

With this page, Waid is introducing the family completely by their actions.  It’s ten times more effective, and Waid pulls it off with economy.


The Writing

Quickly, in three panels, Mark Waid’s script gives each member of the Fantastic Four an action and a couple lines of dialogue that fit in their character.


Panel One Thing Lands with a Boom

Panel One: Thing lands on the alien ship with a blurring thud.  He’s rocky, he’s heavy, and he’s strong.  He shakes the whole ship just by landing on it.  That was not a small ship, either.

In his dialogue, we hear his voice.  There’s just enough there to sense the street-level accent.  “What’dja” and “Stretcho” and the repeated “Git” signal a bit of the character’s personality and background.  That “git” is part of his humor in the face of crazy alien weirdness.


Panel Two Reed Richards explains everything

Panel Two: This is Reed’s panel.  First, you can see his body stretching across the panel, similar to the way it did at the bottom of the previous page.  He doesn’t stretch out in one direction. He goes back and forth a bit  Mike Wieringa’s art gives Reed’s physical presence a greater interest that way.  A straight line — likely from the upper left corner — would have emphasized the sheer stretchiness, but that extra zig and zag give him greater depth and show a man who’s very much in control of his strange powers.

The biggest character moment on the page is Reed’s dialogue balloon here, where he attempts to explain what’s going on to Ben Grimm, of all people, in the most convoluted scientific detail imaginable.  Reed’s explanation is way over Ben’s head, and he ought to know it. He just can’t help himself.  Ben cuts him off, complete with the old overlapped balloon trick we saw two pages earlier.  The overlap covers up the word “and,” which indicates that Reed was nowhere near finished with the explanation that point.  He could have gone on.  And on and on.

The funny thing is, the reader doesn’t need all this explanation, either.  Mike Wieringo and Karl Kesel’s art with Paul Mounts’ coloring explains it all.  There’s some funny looking space insect aliens attacking them, and they’re defending themselves while they attempt to complete whatever their mission is.  It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that the whole set-up is rather “fantastic.” This is a team of explorers and adventurers, and they’ve done it again.


Panels Three and Four Sue loves her husband's big brain

Panels Three and Four: Johnny is the one who comes up the shortest on this page. There’s not much of an indication of his personality here.  We do get to see his powers in action, but his personality isn’t an issue on this page.  When it comes up later, Waid will bang a little harder on it.  Also, we saw plenty of it in his squabbling with Ben on the previous pages.  This page is mostly about showing off his flame powers and how he can shoot them at nasty flying alien bugs.

Sue is the star of the second half of the page. Yes, she gets to show off her powers of invisibility by using them to dodge the bugs as well as an offensive weapons she can push against the baddies.  But her dialogue is the part that might be the most surprising to long time readers.  Sue is a sassy one, making double entendres about how Reed’s big brain “really does it for me.”  Johnny reacts predictably negatively, which just eggs her on to pour more gas on the flame.

There’s also a piece of pure comic book dialogue at the start of this sequence. You might not even notice it at first, but look at Johnny’s first line.

“Your husband sure has some cool hobbies, sis.”

With that, Waid explains the familial relationships between three characters in one line of dialogue. It’s not terribly obtrusive, either.  I think Sue’s playfulness in the very next balloon cut off any reader dissatisfaction before it could manifest itself into a groan for that little bit of exposition.


The Storytelling

Again, we note how the western world sees movement from left to right as the normal course of events, while action from right to left is more adversarial, more obtrusive.  In the second panel, Mike Wieringo uses that to his advantage.  Reed Richards is moving across the wide panel from left to right as he’s being attacked. At the same time, he’s spelling out the reason the Fantastic Four are there.

Ben cuts him off before he can finish talking, but look where Wieringo placed him.  He’s on the far right side of the panel, facing the opposite direction, to the left.  Not only is he stopping Reed from talking, but he’s also physically moving in the other direction.  He’s blocking him.  Reed is the protagonist in this panel, while Ben is the obstacle, as seen by his position facing the opposite direction.  It’s also the end of this two panel sequence, as we move to another moment elsewhere with the next panel.

There’s also a neat little dance going on between the two.  Reed is leaning forwards, right into Ben. Ben is not only facing the opposite way, but also leaning back. That’s because he’s rearing back to punch another creature, but the immediate look and feel is that Reed is crashing into him and Ben is just trying to avoid him coming too far.


The Design

The ship they’re landing on has some organic lines to it, almost like some kind of never-discovered deep ocean fish. Mike Wieringo’s design here echoes some insect and fish life designs. That makes sense — those creatures always seem the most foreign and bizarre to us. Have you ever seen an insect under a microscope or in a close-up photo? They’re aliens.

It also works to his advantage in the next couple of pages, when they act like a swarm.  It’s like a bunch of alien bees, but with spikes and bigger teeth in the front of their cephalothoraxes.  Icky, and effective for the story.

To be continued…

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