(Warning: The images in today’s post contain foul language.) Pigs #1 is old-school cool, a vicious, dark, and funny look at the way the past defines — and harms — the present. The story follows the actions of a second-generation Communist sleeper cell, so right off the bat you know this is a comic about sacrifice and power, espionage and patriotism.
Perhaps appropriately, then, Pigs #1 is a comic made up of zeal and restraint. The creators approach the setup with absolute buy-in for the characters, their histories, their squabbles and hopes, their conflicts. At the same time, the team conveys those elements with a careful, precise use of panels and space. In the first sample page, when a matriarch stands off against police interrogators, the panels follow the conversation visually as well as verbally. This is a technique as old as comics themselves, but its execution is perfect. Each panel focuses on the speaker as a series of action-reaction moments, and the negative space in each panel emphasizes the distance between the two speakers. The characters are on different pages, figuratively if not literally, and the panels frame, but don’t contain, them. The matriarch’s clever disdain and the cop’s frustration make up the two sides of this story on literal, visual, and narrative levels.
In a flashback funeral scene, below, the cell responds to the loss of member Vidlen. The flow of the panels draws the reader’s attention smoothly down the page, and the speech boxes and the panels are structured so well that the split between Viktor (the blond fellow on the right) and the rest of the group seems natural, coincidental, matter-of-fact. As the top panel in the page makes clear, though, the group is certainly close enough to stand together, to be seen together in a single panel. The break here is symbolic, representative of the division between Viktor and the cell, but it’s handled so skillfully that the panel divide seems like a simple point of view choice. Similarly, the way the panels set Mama next to herself, first in the midst of empty pews and then in the single armchair, emphasize both an emotional and a political truth. This character is alone in many ways, set apart by age, experience, authority, and death.
While the art falls on the grittier side of the dirt to Disney spectrum, the book isn’t obsessively realistic. The panel below shows Viktor running at and then leaping at a mysterious figure. The panel-within-a-panel approach is again not new, but it’s used here to nice effect. Viktor moves forward, in time and in space, and his attack is fierce enough to break him out of both panels around him. The color black is also particularly suggestive here, as the black of the panel, the black of the tombstones, and the black of the figure all draw visual comparison. Like the panel, the strange figure seems unmoved by his surroundings, determined to perform his function without any other support. Viktor is a character in motion; this figure seems immutable, much like death itself.
Xombi used magical realism to convey space and time effects, but in Pigs the work of visual communication falls to symbolic realism. The art is literally true — what the reader sees, happens — but the frames for that art, the colors of that art, and the details of that art all tell a story that expands and comments on the realism depicted in the comic’s scenes. The comic is sly, wicked fun, and the only thing missing is the soundtrack with Shirley Bassey.
Pigs #1. Nate Cosby & Ben McCool (writers). Breno Tamura (artist). Christopher Sotomayor (color artist). Image Comics, 2011.