And so another Image number one ends up in my hands; how is it that one company can continually launch so many new titles? It seems these days as if there is one every week, it’s almost a wonder that I don’t forget what I’m reading each month. I’m not complaining though and I could always skip them but of course, being that it is an Image book I have to at least give the title a taste. The opening mouthful of Dancer is certainly potent on the palette, introducing us to its world by way of a slow-motion massacre; a non-sequential sequence told in complete silence bar the sounds of some Spanish record that spins softly in the background and the screams that surely shoved their way into the fore.
As far as cold opens go it is certainly a catchy one, you aren’t likely to flick through those three pages and then place the book back down; my own reaction to it however was mooted somewhat by the fact that it played out so similarly to the silent maritime slaughter that recently opened one of the Big Two’s best number one’s, Greg Rucka’s The Punisher. Which is not to even suggest that Edmondson plagiarized or stole the idea, had he read the book before writing this – which given publishing schedules is rather unlikely – he would probably moved his book away from its competitor, not closer to.
The only reason that I bring it up – besides my unfortunate policy of complete honesty; i could never lie to you dear reader – is because it is only the first of many moments in the book that made me reminisce and recall: the cafe that the couple sits at seems so similar to the one early on in Tinker, Tailor, catching a train after avoiding European police is trademark Bourne and the ballerina/hitman relationship evokes images of Natalie Portman (by way of Black Swan) and Jean Reno and i know, that last one seems something of a stretch, but subconciously I thought it nevertheless.
Now in this day and age it is probably just as impossible for a writer to tell a story free of homage as it is for an audience to read one without imbuing in it past pop-culture experiences and so these similarities are both unavoidable and to be expected, which is why Edmondson was so smart to embrace their existence as skillfully as he does. His script never winks, nudges and nor does it lay any obvious eggs of the Easter variety, it isn’t as specific as any of that; instead it simply sets itself up on that same almost unconscious level as being a part of a well established genre and it is up to us to understand all that this entails. The real trick of the book is that it has chosen a genre that I am familiar with as a film fan but feels utterly alien to me as a comics reader; that of European Espionage.
I’ve talked enough I think about things that aren’t Dancer, so I won’t go into exactly what that genre consists but the titles above are probably a good place to start. Though this is clearly Edmondson’s story – Jake Ellis and The Activity are also two titles that came to mind while reading – it is really up to Nic Klein to sell us on its setting, in both the literal and literary senses of the word, and he does just that. The cafe seemed so familiar to me because it looks exactly like an Italian mall would in real life or on a movie screen, similarly the exterior scenes with their grand Gothic architecture are both accurate and the kind of dramatized location scouting that a big-budget picture would utilise. Not only do Klein’s drawings seem to put you smack bang in the streets of Europe, but he exaggerates them just enough that they then start to become larger than life, exacerbating the drama that occurs within them.
There isn’t much point though in simply adapting a successful style from the screen to the page, even as a tribute, and so to make this book worth buying both Edmondson and Klein needed to make this genre their own. Klein approaches this task in a number of different ways: his style employs a strong realism but balances this with a more expressionistic use of shadows, particularly on and around the protagonists face and as well as composing them cleverly he also employs in some panels a pointillism (evoking the title font, if indeed that is the egg and not the chicken) that I found really powerful and strangely provocative; so much so that i re-read the book with my eye peeled for them, so much so that I then developed a theory based around them*. So yeah.
Something simple that this story does that is specific to the medium is its pacing. Now usually panel based pacing is a hindrance and not a help when it comes to a comic as action centric as this one is, but the pair behind the book have found a way to exploit this stuttering style to their advantage. See the book isn’t just about a guy with a gun, it’s about a sniper (sort of, but SPOILERS if I say any more) and the difference between the two is immense. That opening sequence for example isn’t frenetic, there is no running or jumping; instead this man slowly sets up his shot, readies himself and pulls the trigger; all of this occurring off screen, the actual action over in around a second. The way that they show this then is through -of course- a series of still images: the bullet breaking a stream of wine mid-pour, shattering a vase and then entering its target. Similarly in a later scene the sniper covers an open courtyard; again we don’t see him, instead we are just given these sudden shocking sequences where a character goes from alive to dead in the grey space between panels, this transition is totally comic specific.
As a writer though this distinguishing is something that Edmondson seemingly struggles to do for the majority of his script, turning in twenty pages of strongly written but ultimately derivative drama; only to then turn everything on its head with an amazing twist in the last two. I really never suspected it but I did have some suspicions SORT OF SPOILERY and I kept thinking to myself “Who is the main character?”, “Is this guy going to die and another replace him”, “Will it be the sniper? Since we see him first isn’t he the lead?” All circling the truth but none of them close to it. Edmondson was selfless with this issue I think, there are so many silent scenes that allow Klein to shine but very few where the script stops things to sell itself and so while he does come across as second best here I have a feeling that future issues will even the playing field. There is at least thirteen pages of exposition owed to explain that twist of his, so we can look forward to that.
When an action comic is well made the cliche response is to tag it with the badge of being ‘cinematic’; though while there are few action comics as well told as this one and fewer still that are as akin an experience to seeing something shot out before you on the big screen calling Dancer cinematic simply seems reductive to me. Most modern action cinema wishes that it could be as comely, as clever and as compelling as this issue proves comics can be. All that and there’s barely any ballet, what are you waiting for? Dig in.
* (My hair-brained theory on the dots stems from their inconsistent useage. An artist may be able to explain to me why they are used as they are and where they are but from a writer and amateur conspiracy theorist’s perspective they seemed to be a sign of something, perhaps perspective. The dots seem only to appear on objects that Alan ( SPOILER both of him) is or could be looking at and whenever we reverse the shot to see him the shades are clean. It’s almost like an ingrained reticule or targeting system, it could be a grid to help align longer shots or some-such. Though this is all probably far too Bioshock for its own good. The book stands strong without such strange theories, i’m just tired and my mind went there.)