Ask Chris #190: The Best First Three Comic Pages Ever
Q: Supposedly it takes three pages to hook a reader before they drop off, so what are the best opening three pages in a comic? -- @shutupadiran
A: Huh. I don't think it's going to surprise anyone to find out that I'm a dude who thinks a lot about how comic books are structured and what you can do within that structure, but I've never heard that bit about the first three pages being where you have to hook the reader. It makes sense, though -- when you look at it, those first three pages, along with the cover, form a distinct storytelling unit, and it's the first thing you see when you pick up and pop open a comic.
Thinking back on comics that I love, there's a really distinct pattern there. I like stuff that builds to a big last page just fine, but the ones that I tend to rave about when those first issues hit always open up strong. It's like the first five seconds of a song. Some of them might build to a crescendo as they go along, but when you have something like the famous beat from "Be My Baby" or the opening harmonics from "I Get Around," you know instantly that you've got something.
The reason that it's the first three pages and not just page one (or even just the cover, really) comes from the way that comics are built. They offer a lot of interesting ways to structure a story, and the three-page opening sequence is one that's completely unique to the medium. When you open one up -- assuming, of course, that your story doesn't begin on the inside front cover and that you're not dealing with a recap page -- then page one exists on its own. It's a right-hand page, which means that it's a distinct unit unto itself, but when you turn, you're given an entirely new storytelling unit: Two pages side by side. That might not seem like much, but it opens up an entire world of possibilities, from double-page splashes to symmetrical layouts to creating patterns or even just ignoring it and treating the panels as distinct units.
There's a lot going on there, and it's something that really only comes from print comics. With webcomics, there are other things you can do, whether it's animated gifs or hidden alt text or using Scott McCloud's idea of the "infinite page," and with digital comics like you get from a CBR file or Comixology, it's another whole new ball game. Those are only designed to show one page at a time -- one panel, if you're reading on a phone, which is why Roberson and Culver's Edison Rex is built on a rigid grid -- and so you get an entirely different set of possibilities and limitations. iPads aren't meant to show double-page spreads, but they can show transitions and changes from panel-to-panel like you get from the digital versions of Batman '66, Marvel's Infinite Comics or the Thrillbent books. There's a different structure from each, but it's worth noting that they all rely on the act of turning a page (or clicking a button to advance the story), an action on the part of the reader, to control the pacing and form what makes a "unit" of the story.
Listen. I told you I think about this stuff a lot.
That's one of the reasons that I'm really surprised I haven't encountered the three-pages rule before, actually. Not to get too self-promotional here in this column that already has my name in big purple letters up at the top, but this is something that I've run into a lot when it comes to writing my own comics. It was particularly tough with Dracula the Unconquered, the (very) irregular series that I do with Steve Downer and Josh Krach, because there were so many ways I wanted that story to be able to break down. I wanted it to be a 24-page complete story in each issue, so that's one unit, and I wanted to do a classic three-act structure with three eight-page acts, so that's another, and within that, I wanted to make sure that the first six pages, which I planned to put up as a free preview, had enough to grab the reader and get that sweet, sweet dollar. Juggling all that and making it fit into a single issue was pretty complicated, and I remember being really frustrated trying to make it work in that first issue.
My initial plan was to open with an ominous speech from the villain as they dug up Dracula's coffin and broke through all the protective spells and such, but it was throwing off everything else. It was cliché, and worse, it was boring. In the end, I just decided to throw it all out and open with the part that was exciting, which was Dracula just sitting up in the coffin with the stake pulled free from his heart and just go from there. Dracula's alive again, and that's where we're starting. Explaining stuff is for nerds.
Anyway, that's enough about my comics for now (ha ha, j/k, it will never be enough).
Historically speaking, I'd guess that the whole "first three pages" thing only really became the standard in the '70s. Before that, in the Golden and Silver Ages, three pages was almost half of your story, so the idea was to hook them with the cover and the opening splash, which is why they were doing stuff like putting gorillas on as many comics as they possibly could. But as the single issue became the dominant unit, that opening became much more important. And, conversely, as the preferred structure moved towards the paperback/hardcover market, the first three pages lost importance, instead moving to having a compelling last page at the end of your first issue/"chapter" to bring people back for the rest of the book, which was really frustrating if you were still reading those stories as individual issues. Which, you know, is how they were still being published.
As for who does it best, well, I hate to stick with the usual suspects when it comes to this sort of thing, but when I think about comics that have a strong opening -- particularly a strong opening in the first issue of a run, because that's when it's really important -- it's not exactly surprising which names start coming up. The first one that popped into my mind was, of course, Walter Simonson, who, alongside letterer John Workman, kicks off Thor #337 with one of the most amazing openings ever:
Without even mentioning Thor, the Gods, or even really what's happening and what it's going to set up, Simonson takes things into an astonishingly epic direction from the first sentence. Seriously. "The core of an ancient galaxy explodes!" That's the first thing that happens in this run. And as it progresses, as you turn the page, it just keeps building, with this towering figure looming in space, ominously swinging around pieces of stars before bringing it down on some cosmic anvil with a resounding "DOOM!"
I love that "DOOM!", by the way. It's the best. It's a sound effect, a premonition, and a story title all in one, and it caps off this sort of cold open before we shift to Don Blake on the next page. It's a great opening.
Unsurprisingly Grant Morrison is another creator who comes to mind. I used the opening to All Star Superman with Frank Quitely above, and it's worth noting that while everyone (myself included) always remembers it for the four-panel, eight-word origin recap, that the final touch to that is seeing Superman himself on the page, flying through the sun's corona to rescue the space capsule. It's a beautiful image that's set up by those four previous panels, but it's also the key to the entire story: That moment is when he's being poisoned by the sun, setting everything else in motion.
Morrison and Andy Kubert pull a similar trick in Batman #655, too, with the pages that launched Morrison into a long tenure shaping the franchise:
Man. That is a crazy couple of pages, but it really does set the tone of the entire run, the idea of playing with identity and what it means to be Batman, impostors and replacements and the Joker weaving through the entire story. It's got everything but "zurr-en-arrh," and even that shows up as graffiti a few pages later. But if you were reading that when it came out? When all you knew was that Grant Morrison, whose most recent work involved launching an X-Men story by blowing up Genosha, was taking over Batman? Then seeing a Joker-poisoned Commissioner Gordon being thrown off a building and then Batman being beaten to death on page three was pretty shocking stuff. It was certainly compelling, even if you couldn't quite wrap your head around what was going on yet.
Plus, the Joker being so ecstatic about killing Batman in front of "a bunch of vulnerable disabled kids" cracks me up every time. Just cartoon evil, that guy.
There are others that are more than solid, too. Mark Waid is, as you may know from the past 20 years of amazing comics, pretty good at writing first issues, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are no slouch either. Their "cold open" to their first issue of Punisher is pretty much a perfect summary of the character:
But if you want to know who did it best, then there's really no question. It's Kirby. Of course it's Kirby.
Kirby had a particular knack for his openings, even more than, you know, everything else about superhero comics. I wouldn't be surprised if he was the one who came up with the whole three-page rule, because that's exactly what he did in his comics and he did it in a very particular way that made the most of the form, especially in the '70s when he was unleashed on comics to do his own thing. Those books were always built with the same format: Page 1: Full page Splash. Pages 2 and 3: Double-page splash. I've always called the technique "Kirbyscope," although I'm not sure where I picked that up, but it is astonishingly effective. In fact, if you go back up, you'll notice that Morrison favors that double-page splash once you turn the page too.
The one that always gets the most attention, maybe the most famous three-page opening in comics history, comes from New Gods #1, and it is a classic:
"THERE CAME A TIME WHEN THE OLD GODS DIED!" is probably the single best sentence that has ever opened a comic book, especially when you consider that this was Kirby debuting a new comic book mythology after leaving Marvel, shots across the bow that let you know that we're done talking about Thor. There's so much text, but it's done with that sweeping, bombastic grandeur of worlds being destroyed and remade and Orion flying closer to the reader that you don't really notice. It's just big.
It's arguably the best opening -- the New Gods were certainly the height of Kirby as capital letters JACK KIRBY -- but that said, it's not my favorite. For that, it's the sheer unrestrained destruction of OMAC #1.
To get the full effect of this one, you really have to see the cover, too, if only to remark about how strange it is. I'm pretty sure that's one of the reasons that OMAC was a relatively obscure Kirby book for so many years, because it just looks so weird right from the start. It's dominated by text, with the central figure being a tiny image of the main character throwing what appears to be a box of dismembered woman at you, the reader. Kirby, incidentally, had a thing for addressing and assaulting the reader on the cover -- there's an issue of The Demon where Etrigan is on the cover pointing at someone in the foreground (and, not coincidentally, the person looking at the comic), shouting "I'M UNLEASHING EVERY HORRIBLE THING YOUR MIND CAN IMAGINE -- CAN YOU TAKE IT?!" which is a pretty difficult challenge for a young reader can resist. But OMAC #1 and its box of lady parts is on a whole other level.
It is, to say the least, slightly off-putting, and when you crack this thing open, it doesn't get any more sane or reasonable on page one. Just a close-up of that same box o' lady, this time with a label identifying her as a talking "BUILD A FRIEND" and dialogue that indicates she's some kind of prefab sex doll. Then, if you're still here, you turn the page, and there's the One Man Army Corps, losing his s**t and getting ready to destroy this whole thing.
And in those three pages, you learn everything you need to know about OMAC.
1: He is OMAC, the One Man Army Corps.
2: He broke in here against impossible odds.
3: He lives in a future that's full of weird and upsetting stuff, the same stuff that's weird and upsetting for you, the reader, and he is here to destroy the hell out of it.
The crazy thing about OMAC -- okay, one of the crazy things about OMAC -- is how prescient it is for 1974, full of nuclear tension and people selling water, battles against the super-rich, weird fetishes and stories of plastic surgery gone awry. It's like the dude had a time machine that brought him TMZ headlines from 40 years later and was filtering it down into sci-fi comics. It's not as grand as New Gods or as fun as Kamandi, but it's my favorite for exactly that reason. And this opening, this crazy sensory overload that Kirby throws at everyone, barreling at them in the same way that time itself is inevitable and passes without letting you catch up, is fantastic.
Although to be fair, OMAC #2's opening might be better, since it involves punching seven people at the same time.