Posted on Sunday, October 6, 2013
by Paul in x-axis
I could start by talking about the plot. But let’s be honest, the thing that’s really striking about this comic is the format. Japan’s Most Wanted is Marvel’s first venture into long-form digital comics under its Infinite imprint. We’ve had short stories and back-ups before now, but this is the first time a full-length story arc has been produced in the new format.
So depending on how things go, this is either the first of a new breed, or a weird little footnote that will rarely be mentioned again.
If you’ve never seen any of the Infinite stories, it’s basically the same idea as Power Play or DC’s Batman ’66. These aren’t simply stories intended for digital release first, but stories designed to take advantage of the Guided View feature on Comixology and similar platforms. (Comixology’s preferred term for them is “Guided View Native”, which at least has the merits of neutrality.) Guided View seems to have originally been intended to allow you to zoom in on individual panels while reading comics on a phone screen.
Anyone who’s tried reading comics in this form will have quickly realised two things. First, a lot of things don’t work in Guided View. Sometimes the programmers are left with no choice but to zoom around a double page spread in order to render dialogue legible; contrasts are undermined; page backgrounds of the sort seen on Fables are eradicated; panels aren’t shown at a consistent size. But on the other hand, Guided View sometimes produces surprising effects of its own. Repeated panels with slight changes can sometimes work better in this format. Plunges into darkness and rapid cutting can be enhanced. And sometimes it imposes clarity on pages that lacked it to start with.
Infinite comics and their siblings at other publishers are an attempt to do stories in a way that’s designed for the characteristics of guided view. This makes them different from previous generations of digital comics which simply reproduced the printed page on a screen, or threw in clumsy animation and sound effects. We’re not dealing here with an “enhanced” comic, but a genuinely different kind of comic, tailored to a different form of display.
This storyline appeared in 13 weekly episodes – each roughly equivalent to half a regular issue of story content, so we’re talking about a longer-than-usual miniseries. One useful side effect of the story’s length is that over the weeks the novelty does wear off, and you can engage with the format on its own merits. Though chapter 1 opens with some very flashy and gimmicky sequences (an entire scene is gratuitously staged in front of a flashing light so that it can go on and off from panel to panel, which admittedly does work better than it would have done on the regular page), by the end the series is settling into a more conventional rhythm. It is a comic – there are frequently multiple panels per screen – but often they’re repeated so that the effect of tapping is to modify the image, add further dialogue, or have new panels appear over part of the screen.
That shouldn’t be so surprising given that, while most of the story was drawn by Paco Diaz, the storyboards are Yves Bigerel, a pioneer in this field and one of the guys who supposedly sold Marvel on its potential in the first place. He’s been experimenting with this stuff for a while, dating back to his influential manifesto concept piece from 2009. Bigerel is not using this as a gimmick. He’s seriously trying to find new storytelling possibilities in the format, and while the repeated clicking still sometimes wears on me, he makes a largely convincing case for its potential.
What about the actual story? Marvel know that if these books are going to sell, they have to “matter” in some way; but given that they’re going to be a bit of a niche product at first, they’d probably better not “matter” too much. The balance is struck here by making a story that, fundamentally, matters to one character above all – the new Silver Samurai, for whom this is indeed quite an important story.
Aside from demonstrating the technology, the story’s main agenda seems to be to try and rehabilitate the Hand to some degree. The Hand are certainly a problem. Frank Miller’s Daredevil was quite some time ago. The Hand used to be a scary bunch of cultist killers, but these days they’re literally the Marvel Universe’s ultimate redshirts – a bunch of highly trained ninjas whose main strategy is to attack in a horde and get splattered against the wall. Their credibility is a problem. They need a bit of work.
Jason Aaron’s solution, it seems, is to go for a schism and offer several conflicting views of what the Hand can be. Sabretooth, already installed as the leader of the Hand in a previous story, has no interest in their history, traditions, mystical beliefs, or pretty much anything, really. He’s Sabretooth, and he treats them as toys. Sabretooth’s Hand are basically just his point-and-fire henchmen. At the other end of the spectrum is the First Clan of the Hand, a splinter sect who apparently broke off long enough ago to avoid being tainted by association with the Hand’s decline. By the end of the story, they’re led by the Hon, a woman with the Hand’s history tattooed on her body, who literally embodies their tradition.
By implication we’re led to side with the First Clan, who are, after all, being persecuted by Sabretooth, and who have on their side the laudable qualities of integrity and tradition. They’re still a bunch of crazy cultists, of course, but at least they’re in touch with their roots. The Hon’s a nice idea in theory, though I’m not sure it works in a visual medium. The idea of a character tattooed with their sect’s history sounds good, but how do you draw it and make it clear? The art ends up showing her with Japanese characters tattooed at nice even spaces across her skin, which looks good, but plainly can’t amount to more than a few paragraphs of text, which kind of undermines the “living repository of history” idea.
The new Silver Samurai sits somewhere in between – he says he wants to reject history and build something new, embracing technology rather than medieval weapons, but for all that he’s still dressed as a Samurai and carrying a glorified sword. He doesn’t really want a scorched Earth, he wants progress, and to drag the Hand into the 21st century. But he finds himself allied with Sabretooth, who genuinely couldn’t give a toss. That’s a good conflict for him, though it has to be said that he comes across a bit pathetic at the end of the day; the story leaves him in an interesting place, but he’s going to need a bit of rebuilding to make him a credible threat when he shows up next.
At any rate, it’s a genuinely interesting experiment with the format (and if you’re waiting for the printed version, be aware that it’ll inevitably be a heavily compromised adaptation), and rather than just coasting on the novelty value, it has a proper story that tries to do something with the much-maligned Hand. There’s rather a lot of running around and chasing, which gets a bit wearing after a while, and it could stand to be tightened up a bit, but it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Aaron’s regular Wolverine run.