All the cool literary people are writing comics now. Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing an excellent job with Black Panther, Margaret Atwood’s comic Angel Catbird is coming out sometime this year, and yesterday the very first issue of sci-fi legend William Gibson’s very first comic, Archangel, hit the stands. Co-created with screenwriter Michael St. John Smith and illustrated by comics veteran Butch Guice, Archangel is closer to Gibson's previously published work than, say, Black Panther is to Between the World and Me, but Gibson is definitely marking new territory here; this is not a lazy cash-grab Neuromancer sequel in comic form or anything so crass.
It’s not always easy to discern the long-term plot of a comic from its first issue, of course, but Archangel, as it stands right now, seems to be a time travel story that is largely set during World War II. In short, a dystopian, ruined America from the year 2016 is secretly invading the past and colonizing it.
The first issue of Archangel introduces several complicated concepts with ease: time travel, UFOs, espionage, and international relations during the second World War. In the first five pages, it also evokes that classic time-travel cliché of murdering your own grandfather, just to let you know that Gibson is aware of the tropes of the genre, and to warn you that he’s not messing around.
And neither is the artist. Guice is one of those rare comics professionals whose work is noticeably improving as he ages. The stiff realism of his work in the late 1980s/early 1990s has loosened into something a little simpler. He still pays close attention to the fashions and surroudings of his characters, but the looseness of his work allows the faces on the page to show more unforced emotion. His characters aren’t posing anymore, as they were in the days when Guice worked for Marvel Comics, they’re emoting and moving and interacting. (Some of the credit for this evolution must go to inker Tom Palmer, of course, and Palmer definitely provides some of the Bryan Hitch-like confidence in the finished art. But a few pages of reproduced un-inked pencils in the back of the book prove that Guice’s art is consciously evolving.) He’s packing as many as ten panels on some pages, but the layouts feel unforced and cinematic.
Gibson does have some lessons to learn about writing for comics. Though he trusts Guice to relay information visually, some of the pages are a little too verbose, with word balloons unbalancing and obscuring the art. Writing for comics, particularly in dialogue, has been described by Seattle author G. Willow Wilson as haiku and by Coates as poetry; Gibson occasionally falls back into prose in some of his dialogue. He doesn't desroy any single page with expositional walls of text, but some sequences are remarkably wordy when compared to most modern comics. It would be nice in future issues to see Gibson lean back a bit and allow Guice a few splash pages and widescreen sequences to really show off his genius for creating settings that a reader can practically walk through with her eyes.
These are relatively mild complaints. As a first issue, Archangel is interesting, provocative, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Gibson is clearly having a good time translating his skill set to a new medium, and it’s thrilling to see him take on a couple subgenres of sci-fi that he’s never written before. Part of the appeal of these polished literary talents approaching the serialized storytelling format is getting to watch them learn the rules of the medium in real time. It’s as close an experience as we’ll ever get to sitting behind Gibson at his writing desk, watching him over his shoulder as he writes his newest novel..