Action Comics #3: How to read Grant Morrison hyper-compression!

Morrisonian hyper-compression at its very best, my favourite comic that I’ve read since Batman Incorporated #7, and everything I’ve been waiting for this series to be! The best part: after the first two issues I didn’t expect to be this excited about Action Comics until at least the end of the first year.  So
good and so much to chew on.

My concern is that I expect this issue may cause frustration for some readers because “it felt like there were panels missing.”

Here’s the thing though: there were.

(Minor spoilers and a lot more text after the break.)

This issue, like Batman Incorporated #6, All-Star Superman #10, and most of Final Crisis, is told in a mode of storytelling that has been referred to as “hyper-compression.”  It makes particular use of the cinematic technique of jump cuts to rapidly transition from scene to scene and even inside of scenes. There’s some commentators who have likened Morrison’s application of this technique to Pointillism: multiple discrete story elements that aggregate into one narrative in the readers imagination.  In Action Comics #3 the effect is used to compress the narrative and in this case to create a sensation of escalating tension and disorientation. That’s another classic Morrison gimmick: the impact of the story on the reader mirroring the impact the events of the story have on its protagonists. Recent events in Metropolis have disoriented an immature, headstrong, and naive Clark Kent; rapid escalating jump cuts and (seeming) non-sequiturs will cause potential disorientation for the reader!

Unfortunately, some people who aren’t used to Morrison’s style (when he’s writing in this mode) will occasionally accuse him of “lazy storytelling” or “being intentionally obscure”. I actually have a lot of sympathy with that point of view because I can remember when I used to find it difficult to interpret, on a basic level, some of the grammar of his panel transitions. As readers we’ve often been trained by mediocre comic books to be lazy and have all the work done for us and until Morrison “clicks” for you it can be legitimately frustrating to read many of his comics. There’s two critical things that readers should do who may have had trouble with the jump cuts in this issue. It sounds horribly patronizing and obvious but it’s basically a case of:

SLOW DOWN

and

LOOK AT THE PICTURES

There’s a certain irony to the first piece of advice. Because the hyper-compression style that Action Comics #3 adopts is so fast paced the tendency amongst some readers can
often be to read faster. This is, in my experience, the single greatest cause of confusion. Quick surface reading that doesn’t take time to consider each discrete element and form a narrative between them WILL feel “choppy” or “scattered.” The key thing is to do exactly the opposite: take your time, linger, and fill in the gaps yourself! Morrison loves to make extensive use of the reader in the creation of bridging narrative. He knows, in most cases, that we’ve all read hundreds or even thousands of comics and consumed hours of fiction in the form of movies, television, books, and even simple stories. From that shared library of experiences he expects YOU to flex your own creative muscles and imagine what has happened between panels. This is typically where the “lazy writing” accusation appears but the key point is that Morrison is specifically choosing to write in such a way as to leave space for the reader to engage with the text. Furthermore, it’s a particularly apt device in comics because you always create story between panels! It’s the whole Scott McCloud thesis from Understanding Comics of comics as “the invisible art” amplified by an order of magnitude. When it works, and it’s true that doesn’t always, it provides a more active reading experience than the simple passive consumption of story and is part of what excites Morrison’s fans about his work.

The key thing to looking at the pictures is to notice the scene transitions and jump cuts as cues! When using this style Morrison doesn’t typically slow down to add establishing captions: scene transitions are purely visual and it’s your job to keep up. We join
conversations midway through and leave them before other participants have an
opportunity to respond. Sometimes even parts of scenes are cleverly cut in such
way that you don’t actually read every piece of dialogue. I’ve described this
technique before rendering away the fat or simmering off the excess moisture: what’s left is an extra flavourful reduction of the tastiest bits! Notice the cut from inside Clark’s
apartment to the moment where he’s outside on his balcony yelling at the police as they get in their cars: because of the way the dialogue flows it doesn’t feel like too much is missing but a careful reader will have to assume that some time has elapsed as the police walked down the stairs. So Clark isn’t actually responding to the last line that Inspector Blake said in the apartment. I imagine that Blake accused him of working with Superman either as he walked down the stairs or yelled it up at him from the street. The specifics aren’t important though; Morrison just wants you to flex your comic reading muscles a
little bit and fill in the blanks.  The key thing, even if you don’t actively imagine the line taking place, is to recognize that we never actually saw or read Inspector Blake’s accusation.  It’s one of the “missing” panels I talked about at the start.

Likewise with the scene transition from the diner to the park bench. I know a lot of people are going to have problems with that particular sequence. Notice the visual cues though: Lois is only about to sit down and begin her conversation with Clark. We don’t actually see any of that beyond their first initial exchange before rapidly moving to a completely different location where a lonely and adrift looking Clark – implying introspection and self doubt? – is given a cryptic message from a random passer by.  Again, the information about the scene transition is only handled on a visual level. If you’re reading quickly and not looking at the pictures you’ll probably feel thrown because it happened so quickly but everything you need to interpret the transition is there on the page.

What’s interesting is how this allows Morrison to play with time inside the issue. Ask yourself: how much time passes in this issue? A couple days? Three? Four? Maybe even an outside chance at week or two? It’s all left intentionally ambiguous to keep the pace the story moves at accelerating while not slowing down the reader in “and then later and then later and then later” pedantry. It lets the reader imagine a whole life for Clark Kent outside
of the action we explicitly see without worrying about what he ate for breakfast. Even the GBS newscast that intersperses Clark’s story is cleverly left ambiguous. It seems to be one continuous newscast but the points that it’s interspersed into the narrative are across a few different scenes and are designed to set up the action in each of them. So are we flashing back and forward in time between panels or are those all separate newscasts? Is Clark
remembering different parts of the newscast after he leaves the diner where he had lunch with Jimmy and Lois? The specific answer you come up with isn’t as important as the effect: modern Metropolis is a media saturated environment where the influence of Glen Glenmorgan is felt at all times.  None of this is groundbreaking comics technique but the application is particularly effective in this case.

The last thing about looking at the pictures is that there’s a lot of dense visual information in this book: locations, body posture, facial expressions, and even action. If you’re not paying attention to the visual narrative and only concentrating on the words you’ll miss Clark frantically stuffing his cape, which started as a blanket (twice!), into his bag before Mrs. N discreetly removes it to hide it from the police behind her back before revealing her discovery to Clark in the cliffhanger of the scene.  You probably won’t have the same emotional response I had to Clark’s perception of his failure in the panel where he
apologizes to his parents. Yes, Morales’ faces are inconsistent and occasionally ugly to look at but he’s really succeeding in a lot of ways that more than make up for that. Comics art is about much more than just being pretty pictures in the background behind the words and while I can’t rate Morales among my personal A-list he’s doing a lot of great stuff in keeping up with Morrison’s script and making sure to include all the important information a reader needs.  This sort of storytelling only works when Morrison is working with a highly competent comic artist; that’s why his collaborations with Frank Quitely tend to be the best things both of them have produced.

That’s a lot to digest and I hope some folks got this far but keep in mind: I really just want people to enjoy this comic as much as I did!

Parting thoughts: I don’t think I’ve ever felt this bad for Superman before. That’s got to be some sort of achievement! And who’s up for a re-read of numbers 1 and 2 already?  Counting down the days to #4 already…