Shutter, from what I’ve been able to see, has been a very popular comic and well-received among the creative-minded and those whose taste I value particularly. It’s a fascinating comic, an unrelentingly lively one, that keeps the pace about as breathless as is possible while still maintaining separate beats. In an era, knock on wood, when the comics we see arriving in shops are getting more and more experimental in what the publishers are giving a green light to promote, taking risks is something of a flag of pride and that kind of esteem is well deserved. It’s brave to come up with stories and art styles that are unusual or go against traditionally accepted methods, do so brilliantly, engage readers, and therefore succeed. Sometimes it feels like we, as readers, are encouraging someone to jump from a burning building and assuring them we have the right nets to catch them and won’t let them down. But maybe the first signs that such a scenario won’t be necessary as much any more are coming to light. Maybe a comic like Shutter doesn’t need our safety nets. It seems more than prepared to be daring.
I say that because Shutter redefines what I’ve been thinking of as risk-taking in comics. Previously, I tended to think of risk in terms of unconventional characters, unusual plot-structuring, or addressing themes which publishers tend to avoid because they are too divisive or a “downer” that might affect the popularity (ie: sales) of a comic. Shutter has many of those elements and I knew that, which is why in particular, I recently caught up by reading the first trade out from Image (Volume One: Wanderlost) and then the three issues that have come out since then. We have a transgender character best friend, a semi-sentient robot cat character, a whole wide world of anthropomorphized animal-human characters, seeming fantasy characters, and presumably all kinds of spectrums and perspectives pertaining to diversity there included.
Plot structure is also interesting. We move around in time somewhat between main character Kate’s memories of her 7th birthday visiting the Moon with her father and the “present” day when a price seems to have been placed on her head and she’s struggling to survive assassination attempts. As she gradually learns there’s a lot more to her past than she thought, we also learn of her resistance to memories that don’t sit right with her, or information she doesn’t want to know. Kate is part of creating a resistant text for the reader. There are considerable dead zones in information that create the tension of the plot since her family relationships are clearly murderous and dangerous to she and the younger brother she discovers exists.
I could get quite stuck in talking about the plot of Shutter, and why its wild and unpredictable unrolling of settings, characters, bloody fights, amid Kate’s building rage, is amusing and is keeping fans on board, but why does all that mean risk-taking comics may have begun to find wings? The big signal for me is the plot structure of the 9 issues of Shutter so far. I’ve actually debated this idea out loud to a couple of friends and I’m willing to admit other explanations for my findings, but it seems to me that the big “reveal” in issues 8 and 9 about why Kate’s family are horrible murderous people (kind of) is left shockingly late in the progress of the comic, with the introduction of “Prospero”. In fact, I’m in awe that a relatively mainstream comic (as Image Comics have become in their fashion) had the moxie to do something like that in terms of structure.
What I’m referring to is the gradual pace development in the comic in which we follow Kate, on her birthday, to the grave of her father, through her memories, and so forth, finally to her family home, meeting her kid brother, etc. And all of that happens without explanation *for 8 or 9 whole issues*. To clarify, I’m not criticizing the creators behind Shutter for doing this, I’m just noting that they have not only done this, they’ve gotten away with it, and it all seemed very natural. Just to make a point, I’ll comment that when aspiring comic writers read “how to” books or take courses, they are usually told that an internal structure needs to exist so that if a run of comics is cut short, it still holds some value and a story to tell. If Shutter for some unthinkable reason had halted at issue #5, what then?
The exception to this rule is for the most part, long-running superhero comics. Or, and this is probably the most telling thing, long-running Underground Comix. If a superhero line has been running long enough, spreading the revelations of an arc out be damned—they’ll sort it out somehow since the publisher has a vested interest in the character. In Underground Comix tradition, a long-running series exists as such by the will of the creator and they might continue it for decades in their spare time. They have time at their disposal if they want to have time at their disposal, so plots can play out over vast spaces of time and “find” themselves as the creator discovers new possibilities in the work. The major examples of this that come to mind for me are From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which took 9 years to complete, and was very much a personal project that was serialized in Underground tradition and was only hailed as “mainstream” once completed and collected, and, of course, Dave Sim’s Cerebus. As many will attest, Cerebus is a prime example of a story which finds its way organically over time and doesn’t fuss over anything like quick revelations.
Where does that leave Shutter? Shutter is a work of immense artistic accomplishment in the hands of Leila Del Duca with a seemingly endless procession of the fantastic, phantasmagoric, touching, and strange, in her creatures and her settings. The way in which she renders Kate’s jumping up and down anger differently in every panel is quite a marvel. You wait for each page turn to see what she’ll do next time. Shutter is also a work of immense faith. While I’m sure the entire creative team have a great deal of faith in the book, including excellent colorist Owen Gieni who creates such a signature mood for the comic, and letterer Ed Brisson, I’ll mention that writer Joe Keatinge makes a particularly compelling demonstration of faith in the comic. It’s as if he constructs the narrative in a vacuum totally untouched by concern of whether there’s a net. Of course, that’s immensely to Keatinge’s credit. He has a particular vision of where this story needs to go and places more extra weight on *how* it gets there than we might expect, but he’s also setting an example and perhaps suggesting a slight change in what we’re going to see in comics in the next couple of years.
Because great comic creators of “indie” works have made so many leaps of faith in recent years to bring us comics like we’ve never seen before, comic creators are beginning to correctly believe that their readership exists, is waiting, and watching. So comics like Shutter, if the creators have the nerve, don’t have to look down anymore to see what’s going to happen if they fall, but can instead look up at the possibilities. They may be able to stop thinking about how a comic “should be” in order to succeed and find readers, and instead think of how their comic needs to be to succeed creatively. And those first steps, those first comics to be created in the midst of wider public attention under that premise are facing some risks by doing so. But as in any endeavor, someone has to go first to start the trend. And that’s daring.
Shutter #9 arrived on February 11th. Shutter #10 arrives March 11th from Image Comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter