Panels on Panels is an ongoing series where the writers of Panels tackle the most basic and complicated part of comics storytelling. Too often, comics criticism and analysis focus solely on story and words. Panels on Panels strives to pick apart what works, what doesn’t work, and what excites us about the collaborative art of sequential storytelling.
This week, we’re going to talk about Ninjas.
Ninjas are a comics staple, whether they’re swarming Wolverine or are anthropomorphic turtles named after renaissance masters. They’re woven into comics’ DNA but are often reduced to waves of cannon fodder to make heroes look tough. Not Ninjak. Definitely not in The Valiant #2, co-written by Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt with art by Paolo Rivera and his father Joe Rivera and letters by Dave Lanphear.
Heads up for the squeamish, this one gets a little gnarly.
I’m just going to let you take a second and breath this page in. It’s so nice to see Paolo Rivera back and tearing it up. Feels like it’s been far too long since I’ve read a comic he’s drawn. You can taste the crisp, arctic air. You can hear the rustle and crunch of the snow… well, not from Ninjak, but definitely from the two guards. Rivera nails silence in a way that is just bizarre and creepy. I wish I knew what part of his art made it work. Is it the negative space? The distance to the figures? I’m honestly not sure.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, though. The money shot is that third panel. It took my breath away, right before Ninjak makes sure those dudes are done breathing. It says so much with so little. If you’re just kind of glossing over the page, you miss the kicker in the second panel, the tiny little lift in the snow. It’s a subtle set-up for a stunner of a moment. He’s so still. So in control. The indent he leaves is like a repurposed version of the hole that Wil E. Coyote leaves at the bottom of a cliff. It’s just gorgeous. The stillness of the rest of the snow around Ninjak’s body speaks volumes to the way he’s moving.
I love how much that third panel says with so little. Ninjak has clearly been there for ages. We aren’t shown how he survived, how he got into position, or why he’s there. It’s not important. It would ruin the mystique of the moment and take away from the hell that’s coming for the two guards.
There’re two bits in the final panel that just sing. We see the move. We see the violence. We don’t see anything come of it just yet. Ninjak is fast enough to finish and end his slash in one panel’s worth of time. It’s a technique cribbed from samurai manga and anime that I’m particularly fond of. The other detail that drives home how much of a professional we’re dealing with here is the amount of snow still left on Ninjak’s body. He’s preturnaturally fast and in control of his body, to the point where the snow hasn’t even finished falling off of him. If you’re brand new to the Valiant universe or even specifically this character, you get his deal in one page. And you want to see more.
After the page turn, we still don’t see the aftermath right away. We cut to what could be minutes later, with Ninjak’s next two targets starting to catch on that something might not be right. Then we get to see what they can’t. The tiny wind lines drive home the silence and the stillness of the moment. The cigarettes are still smoking.
We don’t see the connecting moment. We don’t see Ninjak scaling the watch tower or getting into position behind the other two guards. We just see the violence, with the background flashing red. The other thing we don’t see? Ninjak in those moments of violence. He exists as his tools only in these moments. He exists as his hands and his blade. Nothing more.
This two page sequence is as efficient and brutal as the character it’s spotlighting. What we don’t see and the moments that are left out are just as vital to its strength as the things we are allowed to see. By the end of it, there’s no doubt of Ninjak’s skills or effectiveness. This scene could have been presented in a standard, boring way. Sneaky dude dispatches guards has been done. There’s an entire genre of video games that’s built on this one moment. Rivera and crew flip it on its head and keep just enough of it away from you that you need more.