In Cell by Cell, I look deeply into the panels of an issue, appreciating and analyzing the story and artistic composition.
Pages 23-25 Overview
The final three pages drop the symmetrical structure because the power balance has been thrown so far askew that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the game is entirely rigged. The double-page spread of 23-24 has no symmetry at all, instead having four panels each in entirely different sizes and layouts.
As the narrative of the final violent event plays out, the panels become more regular and more cinematic, mimicking the ratio of a theatrical widescreen. The chaotic action of the previous pages gets stripped down to reveal the horrifying realization of Meiko’s death. Once the guard does his evil deed, the story becomes entirely about the women’s responses.
Cell 1 gives us the reverse over-the-shoulder shot of the final panel from the last page where Penny looked for Meiko. Penny’s role in this moment is so crucial, she takes up more than half the panel even though her back is turned. Meiko was dear to her, and Meiko’s death comes in part because Penny wasn’t there to protect her. At least, I predict that’s what Penny will think, blaming herself for the tragedy.
Cell 2 gives us the next moment, cutting Penny out of the frame to emphasize she’s not close enough to act, and instead showing Meiko’s sassy score celebration over-the-shoulder of the closest guard. He calls her a “little girl” to insult and disempower her. But that’s just a prelude to the physical assault that starts in cell 3. This panel is short but wide, honing in on the arm which grabs her by the hair, pulling the reader’s eye to the squint of Meiko’s eyes as she painfully grimaces.
Cell 4 gives us the biggest panel of the three pages because this is the big moment. The guard’s violent act of grabbing Meiko’s hair and slamming her head on the floor kills her. As the narrative unfolds, the reader doesn’t know that yet. She may just be injured. The dialogue makes the moment, in retrospect, too cruel, but when first reading the panel, it creates an expectation that she is not dead, only injured. “Who’s laughing now?” the guard taunts while the announcer completely misreports it: “And it looks like Maki lost her footing!” The mediation of this violent act echoes contemporary acts of police brutality captured on dash cams and witnesses’ phones. In the aftermath of a death, like that of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, people look at the footage knowingly, seeing the casual violence our “guardians” wield and their disregard for the personhood of their victim. There is a mixture of disbelief and horror. That is what this panel brings in retrospect.
Cell 1 uses lines on the floor, Lizzie’s running direction, and Penny’s pointing arm to draw the eye to the unnatural posture of Meiko’s body on the floor. This starts the cinematic finale to the issue with the first of eight relatively regular widescreen-style panels. Lizzie yells first to not move her, that she’s a doctor. Penny demands to know which guard did it, looking for quick, violent revenge. The guards are scarce now, wisely getting away from the N.C.’s for the moment. From now until the end of the comic, only women are depicted in the panels, with one exception. Lizzie’s quick response begs the question of why the prison didn’t have a doctor on the field considering the potential for injury. All signs point to Whitney deliberately setting up a situation where she could take out any players she desired, either temporarily or permanently.
Cell 2 is the largest on this page because it tells a foreground and background store. In the foreground, Lizzie begins to administer to Meiko, telling her to try not to move, asking if Meiko can hear her. It is the immediate concern–what state is Meiko in. In the background, Kam looks at Whitney, not Meiko. Whitney is up on her platform, looking over the proceedings, flanked by two faceless guards. Kam understands this is Whitney’s doing. Like before, the crisscrossing diagonals of the fencing and the platform add a subtle source of tension and unease.
In cell 3, Whitney calls the game, indicating a forfeit and giving the win to the guards, and calls for preparation of the medical bay. She looks somber in the close-up, maybe even a little sympathetic, no longer smirking at the previous chaos of the play. She knows Meiko is dead. Her platform would have given her a clear view of how her head struck the floor. In cell 4, Kam offers witness to the wrong that has been perpetrated and blames Whitney for allowing it, if not directing, it to happen. “I see you. I see what you do,” she says to her in a matching close-up. She may not have the power to stop Whitney from abusing the N.C. women, but she can act as a witness to hold her accountable morally.
Having witnessed Whitney, Kamau turns to Lizzie in cell 1 asking if they can help. The pitch of the composition goes askew, giving the canted/dutch angle effect of disorientation. Lizzie’s response of “No…” begins to explain the heightened unease. Shadow black is taking over Meiko and Lizzie, showing the darkness of death and sorrow that isn’t yet clear to Kam.
Lizzie explains in cell 2 that Meiko’s neck is broken. This panel is the reverse shot of the last. Now Kam appears in shadow with the placement of the “camera” at the floor. Lizzie hasn’t yet laid bare the truth, but this panel, by giving a floor-bound composition, properly reinforces the stomach drop of realization.
In cell 3, Lizzie removes all doubt. “She’s dead, Kam. Meiko’s dead.” Lizzie’s hand appears over Meiko’s forehead, perhaps closing her eyelids. The other women on the team have gathered behind Lizzie, crouching on the floor to see for themselves and to say good-bye. Behind them stands one lone guard, reminding us of the killer and the hierarchy that enabled murder, even if he is not the exact man who did this. Penny stands removed to the right side, her head cut off by the frame, her posture neutral, indicating her momentary denial.
The final two panels are engineered to allow the audience to have their own emotional reaction. We only get the reactions of the characters at a distance, even though this would be a moment of extreme emotion; De Landro doesn’t give us the close-ups. There will be time later for their emotional responses. These panels are for the readers. That’s not to say we don’t get indications in cell 4 of how Penny and Kam emotionally respond.
Penny drops to her hands and knees next to Meiko on the floor. She has been overcome by the emotional shock, made weak by the sudden surge of anguish. Seeing Penny, who is strong as an oak, remember, felled by the loss of her good friend is heart-breaking. Kam folds one arm around her own waist, a sort-of half hug to indicate her sadness. The other hand holds her hair, showing her feeling of helplessness and anxiety. Whitney overlooks the scene on the left side of the composition, heavily shadowed to show her antagonism.
Meiko’s body is illustrated as a white silhouette, making her starkly stand out in the long shot but also to indicate she’s now ghostly, gone to another world. She’s absent. White space. RIP, Meiko.