Cliché Comics: Or let’s play Genre ball, you already know the rules

When I reviewed the Shadow Annual a few days ago, I talked a little bit about the use of cliché in the story, and how lazy it felt. So, I’m going to expand a little bit on my thoughts on how a stereotypical story doesn’t necessarily mean a bad comic. So, in that vein, I’m going to compare the first volume (Coward) of Criminal, the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips collaboration with the Shadow Annual by Tom Sniegoski/Dennis Calero. Obviously, spoilers for both.

So, let’s talk about the plot of both comics before we go into much detail. Obviously, some leeway has to be given to the Shadow Annual, seeing as how Brubaker and Phillps had a five issue series with Criminal, while Sniegoski had only 28 pages, but that doesn’t change the relative quality of both of these stories. Still, in that vein, I’ll try to keep my comparison with the first issue of Criminal, rather than the entire miniseries.

In Criminal #1, even with 2 pages less than The Shadow Annual, see the tone of the issue, are given glimpses of the themes and ideas Brubaker and Phillips are playing with, and even if we refused to buy the next issue, we’ve had: three different heists, one large, two small, enough back-story and personality of the main character to sympathize, or at least empathize, with him, enough backstory on the side-characters to know that they have their own agendas that might come into conflict with the huge heist that they’re planning, and finally, a few different threats that seem like they’ll spell trouble for the cast later.

So, in 26 pages (two less than The Shadow), we have the characters introduced and given personality and back-story, both the characters’ skills and the overarching threat established, and hints of the themes Brubaker will be working on in the miniseries. Being able to pack all of this into 26 pages that don’t feel rushed is due primarily to two things: the economical storytelling (the fewest panels on one page is 5), and the moody and distinctive art of Sean Phillips (he’s able to make each character distinct while showcasing their skills and quirks visually through Brubaker’s dialogue). Still, this is, at heart, a comic that’s built on cliché: it’s literally about a master planner thief, who goes in for one last job, to make amends for a past mistake, and also because of a woman. There is nothing about that sentence that sounds new and interesting, but Brubaker and Phillips make it interesting through great dialogue, characters that don’t seem like cardboard cut-outs, and, most importantly, that awareness of prior stories. We know that the job is going to go haywire, even from the first issue, even before the last page. Because it’s always going to go wrong, it’s the “One Last Job”, and our awareness of this story/setting actually makes our connection to the characters stronger. We want them to wise up and realize what they’re doing, even as we see the inevitability of their actions.

The Shadow Annual, however, does none of these things. In fact, it should be easier for Sniegoski, since The Shadow is an established character, and the pressure is less on him to introduce the readers to The Shadow. In fact, all he needs to do is make The Shadow interesting, no introduction necessary. Instead, Sniegoski wastes precious pages introducing characters that don’t matter, and will have absolutely nothing to do for the entirety of the book.

Of the 4 or so characters introduced in the book (The Shadow, Father Pritchard, the corrupt priest possessed by creepy Chinese children, Margot Lane, the Shadow’s girlfriend, who exists only to be dumb, and Mr. Ruzzo, the epitome of a stereotypical gangster), only two get much of a chance to talk, and they’re the already established characters of The Shadow and Margot Lane. There’s no effort to flesh out the other two characters beyond their slogging the plot forward. The villain of the piece, the Children of the Dragon, some sort of cross between Carrie and Firestarter (do you think Sniegoski’s a Stephen King fan?), is devoid of any sort of interesting power or personality. They/she exists only to destroy and corrupt and blah blah blah. The Shadow deals with them as soon as the page count starts to run out, and there’s never any sort of tension about whether he’ll succeed or even have to strive for success. He wins entirely because the plot demands that he win.

Let’s examine one or two more elements of each comic. Both comics use internal narration to flesh out the story, but only one actually succeeds. Here’s a quote from Criminal:

“You learn these rules over time, through hard experience. And you never write them down, but you never forget them. They’re the rules that will keep you out in the world. Safe.”

Throughout this narration, Phillips draws 4 panels, the finale of the opening big heist, that reinforces what Leo is saying, while also adding visual irony. The specific mention of rules is important too, as Leo’s commitment to his own rules is one of the primary themes of Coward. The Shadow Annual, on the other hand, uses internal narration entirely as exposition, seemingly just to keep the characters from talking to one another. Worse, the internal narration does nothing to describe anything of import, it exists solely so that we can watch The Shadow strain metaphors and use “evil” 30 times.

Overall, I’d say that the real difference between the two comics is one of effort from the creative team: Brubaker and Phillips had been collaborating for awhile, and were embarking on their personal creator-owned title, an event that would garner some motivation to succeed and create something good. Sniegoski and Calero’s Shadow issue, however, is a fill-in issue, coming in right between issues of a Garth Ennis scripted main series. It fills like filler, and I’d be surprised if they treated it as anything other than a quick work-for-hire job.

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