Comics Anatomy: Pushing Boundaries in Captain Marvel #1

By Harry Kassen — Hello everyone and welcome back to Comics Anatomy. As you know, Captain Marvel is coming to the big screen today, so I thought it’d be fun to do a special Captain Marvel article going over some of the craft elements at play in January’s Captain Marvel #1, written by Kelly Thompson with art by Carmen Carnero, colors by Tamra Bonvillain, and letters by Clayton Cowles. While establishing a new status quo for Carol—then abruptly throwing that out—this issue also does some more subtle things with craft that enhance the reading experience. I’m going to talk about one of them here today.

What jumped out to me when I read it is the use of special panel borders to signify something about the action in that panel or in panels around it. A great example of this is in the fight scene at the beginning of the book. There is a two-page splash that shows Captain Marvel and Spider-Woman fighting a giant monster.

This spread can be looked at as four panels, the first panel with the thick black outline showing Carol, the large panel that spreads across the pages is the second, the third is the panel to the right with the double border that shows the monster crashing into the building, and the fourth is the one on the far right with the double border showing Carol floating in the air. The thing I want to address is the phenomenon of the double panel border, but this page is a little trickier to understand without first looking at some other examples, so let’s shelve it for now and look at a different one.

Let’s look next at the two page spread near the end of the book that shows Nuclear Man attacking the four Avengers in that scene.

Like the last one, this one can be broken into four panels, though the first two are the ones that matter for our purposes. The first panel is another with a double border, showing Captain America lifting Nuclear Man. The second is the larger panel that shows Nuclear Man attacking the Avengers and launching them across the page. The double border around the first panel serves as a signal that something big is going to shift from that panel to the next. On one side of the border Cap is picking up a defeated Nuclear man, but on the other side of the border Nuclear Man has turned the tables on the Avengers and has gained the upper hand.

On a later page in this same fight the double border pops up again. The page where the Avengers are attempting to follow Carol through Nuclear Man’s portal has three double border panels showing individual Avengers and a large panel showing them being thrown back from the portal.

In both of these examples, the double border serves as an indicator that something is about to change or that something inside the panel is different than in the rest of the page. In the Nuclear Man spread, the double border panel shows the Avengers as winning the fight, then immediately on the other side of that border, in the next panel, the Avengers are losing to Nuclear Man.

In addition, there’s a shift from a vertical, relatively confined panel to a widescreen and very expansive panel. There’s a clear difference between the two and the double border signals that that change is coming.

Likewise in the page with the Avengers and the portal, the border serves to mark a clear shift in action and format.

The three double bordered panels show the three Avengers moving toward the portal but the rest of the splash shows them being thrown back. On a technical level, the three Avengers panels are diagonal and show left-right movement, but the portal panel is vertical and shows right-left movement. Once again, the double border is what signals this shift.

Which brings us back to the first example.

On this page, there are two double bordered panels. In the main spread, there is a large monster getting punched in the face by Captain Marvel. In the first double bordered panel, this monster is crashing into a building in the background. Lastly, in the second double bordered panel, Carol is hovering over the defeated monster. As with before, each of these panels is a distinct moment of the fight. On the level of story, the punch is the beginning of this interaction, the monster crashing into the building is the middle, and then the monster laying defeated on the ground while Carol hovers over it is the end. Looking at the technique, we can see that the first panel shows Carol moving and the monster being moved by her. This panel is the full two page spread and is horizontal. The next panel, which is tilted slightly, shows the monster moving. Carol isn’t in it. Lastly, the final panel shows Carol and the monster, both still. This panel is larger than the last and tilted even more. The double border serves to signal these differences once again.

This goes to show that the creative team of a comic have control over all the elements of the page’s composition. What counts as the art and storytelling isn’t just limited to the contents of the panels but also the way they’re shaped and how they’re framed. The architecture of a comic is important for developing the book’s visual language and guiding how the reader experiences the story, and Captain Marvel #1 is a great example of how to use this power well.

Captain Marvel #1
Kelly Thompson
Artist: Carmen Carnero
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Marvel Comics

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Harry Kassen is a college student and avid comic book reader. When he’s not doing schoolwork or reading comics, he’s probably sleeping. Catch his thoughts on comics, food, and other things on Twitter @leekassen.