The Issue: Double Exposure In ‘Shutter’ #23 [Fantasy Week]
Welcome to The Issue, where we look at some of the strangest, most interesting and most distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium.
Throughout its run, Shutter has delighted in pushing the boundaries of comics. Leila Del Duca turned her pen to pastiches of everyone from Hergé to Winsor McCay to Richard Scarry. Owen Gieni separated his colors out into cyan, magenta and yellow to tell three stories on a single page. One memorable sequence depicted the creation of a single panel of the comic itself, from Joe Keatinge's script to final lettered product, before being printed, delivered, and finally read by someone in a coffee shop.
By those standards, the storytelling in issue #23 is almost disappointingly conventional. It's the most straightforward the comic has been since it debuted. Since the very first issue, in fact. Come to think of it, doesn't that cover look a little familiar?
The issue is completely conventional, until you put it next to issue #1, and realise... this is the same comic.
Both issues open on a double-page spread of characters sprinting across the moon. Both then switch to a three-panel layout of Kate Kristopher, the book's star, being mentored by an older man, before jumping back to the surface of the moon for another double-pager.
This kind of repetition is a trick the series has used throughout its run. Issue #10 remixed the same opening scene, adding various effects --- inverting the colours of the starry background, breaking up Kate into her component CMYK parts, even peeling back the scenery to show a grid underneath --- to reflect the bending of reality as Kate entered the Dreamscape for the first time.
The difference with #23, though, is that it keeps this going throughout the issue, matching its predecessor beat-for-beat. As the story revisits the same locations and characters, each page matches the panel count and layout in perfect time. People talk about Watchmen's “Fearful Symmetry,” but these pages manage much more of a direct 1:1 mirroring, across nearly three years and a couple of dozen issues.
Take the two versions of page 14 for example, which show Kate getting off the metro and heading to the graveyard while having a phone conversation with her best friend Alain.
Characters occupy the same space in the composition of each panel, from our leads all the way to the background characters. This provides a great chance for cameos, as we get to see how their lives have developed off panel; the minotaur businessman has a young child, the lonely musician is apparently dating some kind of violin-person; it seem everyone has their life together but Kate. Look further still, and you'll notice a mysterious cloaked figure following Kate, setting up their reveal a few pages later.
Lines of dialogue are directly repeated (“Tell him I say hello”) or inverted (“But I'm not alone”/“This is something I've got to face alone”). The conversations have the same rhythm, even down to the spacing of the speech bubbles. The coloring is in sync, too. While Kate makes her way through the greyish blues of the city to the greens of the cemetery, Alain's panels retain their distinctive pink tone.
All of which would make for an impressive parlour trick, but it serves a purpose within the story. A few purposes, in fact.
On one hand, the repetition is soothing. Issue #23 picks up from a four-month hiatus, so it's a good way of easing readers back into the comic. As the opening informs us, with a big wink at the audience: “We're nearly home now!” It's the first time Shutter has returned to New York since its early chapters, and we're in the final stretch --- the issue is explicitly billed as the start of the book's third and final act.
On the other hand, it only serves to highlight the differences. Shutter #23 picks up from the events of last issue, which Red Wedding-ed half the cast. The opening winks at this too: “Knock 'em out when they're not looking”, “a completely unexpected turn of events.” Shutter is accelerating towards its end --- and it's clear that, as superhero comics are often fond of proclaiming, nothing will ever be the same again.
These two effects push and pull at one another, creating an effect of momentum. You can tell roughly which direction the comic's headed in just by looking at a single panel, as long as you're able to keep its twin in mind at the same time. Probably the best example is the two-page sequence where Kate is woken up by her companion, Alarm Cat.
The image of Kate passed out on the sofa comes with all the baggage of the last time. At the start of the series, she was still recovering from the death of her father and the breakdown of her relationship. In issue #23, with another major tragedy right in her rear-view mirror, the repeated pose tells us that Kate has given up again.
In fact, things look much worse for her.
Every aspect of the art points in the same direction. The character designs show Kate's waist-length hair razored back to stubble, and Alarm Cat's cutesy head gone entirely, replaced with a black hole. In the composition, rather than having to pick out the characters amid the busy clutter of the apartment, they're practically the only things in the frame. The colors show dark blues replacing warm yellows and reds, reflecting the colder relationship the two characters share. Even the lettering is indicative; Alarm Cat's rounded speech bubbles, with the pun picked out in red and a surplus of exclamation marks, are gone, replaced with the flat square speech of Cassius, his new identity.
Those decisions all work on their own, but they're bolstered by the memory of the earlier version.
Turning the page, though, there's the first hint that things might not be as bad as they seem. When she opens the curtains, the Kate of issue #1 is blinded by the world outside --- understandably, given that it's full of pterodactyls and lizard people and a whole host of fantastical creatures who want her dead.
In #23, however, Kate meets that world's gaze without blinking, and it's a sign of what's to come. Last time, Kate was pulled forcibly into adventure by forces out of her control. For this final adventure, she will be facing by choice. It's a really subtle way of highlighting the character's increased agency, a method that only works by contrasting the two images.
On its own, Shutter #23 is a fairly straightforward read. But that's necessary, leaving you with just enough space to hold both issues in your head at once. If you can do that, the mirroring not only enriches your reading of this issue, but retroactively enriches a comic that came out nearly three years ago.