Thursday Comics Hangover: The paper chase

For years, film nerds and comics nerds used to get in silly fights over which medium was better. Comics nerds would argue that you could do literally anything on a comics page, while budgets and the constraints of reality meant that movies had some natural restrictions on how far-out they could get. The dawning of CGI simultaneously imploded this argument and proved it correct; as soon as great computer special effects made it possible to put anything onscreen, superhero comics basically started dominating Hollywood’s blockbuster space.

I’ve seen a few of those message-board altercations end with the movie-nerd’s argument that a comic can never successfully portray a car chase with the same intensity and kinetic energy as a cinematic car chase sequence. It’s the kind of thing that comics nerds can’t really fight back against: one of the best aspects of comics — the fact that the reader is in complete control of the passage of time — also makes it difficult to portray breakneck action.

But then a comic book like the first issue of Marvel’s new Black Widow series hits the stands and that whole argument seems moot all over again. The issue is nothing more than a chase sequence — we see the Black Widow being chased by SHIELD agents, for as-yet-obscure reasons — but it’s a dense and rewarding chase sequence, one in which bodies have weight and heft, actions have consequences, and (more or less) real-world physics apply. It’s a breathless fistful of pages, and it won’t even leave you feeling cheated out of the cover price, the way other action-heavy comics often do.

The trick to this, of course, is the creative team. This Black Widow is from writer Mark Waid and artist Chris Samnee, who recently wrapped up a long and refreshing run on Daredevil. In the letters page to the first issue, Waid explains that Samnee has more of a hand in the storytelling on Black Widow than he did on Daredevil; the pair have become co-plotters, with Samnee blocking the pages out on his own, and Waid adding the final dialogue to fit the art. It’s a different kind of collaboration, and it shows on the page. This doesn't feel like a Daredevil do-over; it's a whole new comic.

Samnee doesn’t get overindulgent with splash pages and easy-to-draw sequences, the way some artists do when they take up more of the creative reins. If anything, his gorgeous, simplified linework has become a little more detailed than in previous comics. The choreography of characters has become a little more involved than ever before. He’s challenging himself, and rising to the challenge. Superhero comics haven't seen this kind of a minimalist with a fluid grasp of panel-to-panel action since David Mazzucchelli moved over from Batman to art comics.

That said, a couple of sequences — involving the stealing of a jetpack and that jetpack’s explosion — could use a little more clarification. I’m not entirely sure how the cause-and-effect of those panels play out, though Samnee and Waid’s depiction of the Black Widow as an impossibly confident, competent figure certainly helps the reader make a leap. (“Of course she survived; she’s the Black Widow.”)

This issue provided several opportunities for the Black Widow to display her ability to manipulate even knowing marks into doing her bidding; hopefully future issues will examine the morality behind that skillset a little more closely. While the comic does a better job of portraying the Black Widow’s gifts for action than all her movie appearances combined, I can’t wait to see more of the superspy qualities that the movies gloss over.

This first issue of Black Widow is the kind of memorable comic that future artists will probably identify as a major influence in their work. And that’s fine; this is exactly the kind of superhero comic we want younger generations to try to emulate. Hopefully Samnee and Waid will maintain this frenetic energy throughout the series. If they build up a good long tenure on Black Widow, they’ll coincidentally prove another argument why comics are better than film — a movie has to end within a couple hours or so, while comics have the endurance to keep a character running for years.