Some Scattered Thoughts on Swordplay, Part the Third
This is probably pretty boring for you guys, but it’s been super-fun for me so far, so I guess you can all suck it.
Anyway, last part on this fight from Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. If the mood strikes me, maybe I’ll look at something else, later on. Maybe I’ll do a whole series of talk posts about obscure aspects of western swordplay that no one at all gives a crap about. Maybe I’ll write about why I hate that duel in the Firefly, “Shindig” so much.
6. That corps-a-corps.
“Corps-a-corps” (also with an acute accent over the “a”, which I am too lazy to do, and pronounced “core ah core”) means “body-to-body”, and it’s generally used in two different ways, depending on the nature of the fight.
The first is in a duel. This is when two fencers, having thrust and parried successfully, rather than continuing the action by pulling away and attacking again, “lock up” — they close together in the classic, bodies-close-together-and-swords-making-an-X-in-front-of-each-other-pose. It’s usually considered unseemly or unfair in a duel to just headbutt someone or bite them in the eye, so when two swordsmen get close together like this, it’s the responsibility of the judge and the seconds to pull the duelists apart, or, in a sport bout, for the judge to just stop the round and have them go back to their starting positions — consequently, this kind of corps-a-corps is used when you’re tired, or when you’re afraid the action has gotten away from you and you want to reset. It’s almost exactly the same thing that happens when two boxers start hugging each other in a boxing match.
Unofficially, the reason that you do this is so that you can talk to the other guy. In a movie or a TV show, this is where you say something like, “You’ll never win, Hector! Give up!” And then Hector would say, “Never!’ and you’d push away and keep fighting. In a comic it doesn’t quite matter as much, because at any point in the fight the characters can say exactly as much as there’s room for in the panel, and the audience has to work it out for themselves, which I think is a kind of interesting phenomenon.
In a sport match, talking is against the rules on the strip, so you usually take the opportunity in corps-a-corps — out of earshot of the judge — to just whisper something really filthy about the other guy’s mother.
The other time that you’d go corps-a-corps is in a fight, and I think you pretty well know when and why you’d do that: FOR THE HEADBUTTS. Alternately, if you’re big and strong enough, you can sometimes just close distance like that and shove someone off-balance.
So, when we look at that last panel in page eight, there are a couple things that jump right out. As I mention in the comments there, the fact that the overlap on the blades is backwards is probably attributable to artist’s error — again, not something worth breaking out the pitchforks for, fights are complicated, &c. and so forth. In the first place it doesn’t make any sense as a “hold” position, where they’d be still enough to talk to each other — since why doesn’t he just turn his sword around and bring it up to her throat? And in the second place, it’s just hard to imagine how they ended up like that — if Hans’ weapon was on the inside of the parry, why would Sabre close in over top of it? It’s one thing if she was pushing his sword back with hers, because then she’s still controlling where it goes, but this just seems like asking for trouble.
However, even if you assume the position of the swords is reversed, there’s still a bit of a problem, and that’s the arrangement of the bodies. Typically when you see a corps-a-corps like this, the bodies are parallel — either chest to chest, or sort of right shoulder to right shoulder. But in this one, Hans’ left shoulder is forward, meaning one of two things: either Lady Sabre committed a very, very long lunge and then, despite being too close to use her weapon, closed distance anyway, or it was actually Hans who closed distance — picking up the parry in tierce (that is, parrying a thrust that’s about chest level and on the outside of his guard), and then stepping forward with his left foot.
This is a pretty good strategy, or it would be if he’d done anything interesting with it. He could bring his left hand around Sabre’s head to grab her, which is what it feels like he ought to be doing there. Or he could just swing around and punch her in the kidneys. She can’t, because the movement of her body is blocked by his, which makes the absence of Hans’ off-hand in the panel particularly conspicuous. Where is it? Why isn’t he doing anything with it?
Now, it’s also possible that I’m misreading the lock, and actually what’s happened is, again, Sabre isn’t trying that hard to actually kill him, so: what she’s done is give him that feint in seconde (in the second panel) then disengaged to tierce (that’s a low thrust and then a high thrust, for people who don’t care about fencing terminology), but the second attack is basically fake. It’s too close and it’s sloppy and it’s a little bit out of the way so that he makes the mistake of reaching for it, so that she can step in and throw her shoulder right into his sternum.
If he’s as off-balance after the parry in the previous panel as he looks, then this is a sound strategy; the blade is a distraction for the sake of a pretty devastating body block. It’d explain why their bodies are perpendicular in that last frame, anyway, and it’d explain why Sabre decided to close distance, despite her short-range disadvantages. However, if it were true the we could expect Hans to be thrown off his feet on the next page, which he’s not.
7. The Hot Pursuit, or Parry Dixieme.
Let’s just take a quick look at page 9.
I think this is a wasted opportunity, the fact that he’s still on his feet. Since he’s not significantly thrown off-balance, or incapacitated in some other way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he’d just let her turn and run off the edge of the ship. I mean, he gives her time to salute and everything, what does he think she’s going to do? She’s telling him that she’s leaving.
They are about as far away as they’ve been for this entire fight — and, incidentally that distance that they’re at on page 9? That’s the actual distance that you’d be expecting them to fight at. They’re going to need room, because no one wants to get into killing distance without giving themselves time to control the opponent’s blade, first. But they aren’t that far away, what’s going on?
There are nine basic parries used in fencing, and they have old-fashioned French names (a lot of schools use a kind of hodgepodge vocabulary, with French names for some things, Italian names for some things, and sometimes English names — that’s why the parries are often referred to as Prime (first), Seconde (second), Tierce (third), Four, Five, and Six). ”Dixieme” is the tenth parry, which is called “run away”.
Running away is harder than it seems in fencing, because the guy is going to come after you and he’s got a sword with a bit of length on it. He doesn’t need to stab you with it, really; if he catches your heel as it kicks up, it could be enough to throw off your balance and knock you to the ground.
If he’s really desperate to stop you, and your success hinges on a daring leap off the side of a space zeppelin — something I’m assuming you have to be pretty precise about — he could just huck his sword at you.
Instead, for some reason Hans has switched his sword to his left hand, I don’t know why. I think we have to assume there’s subtext here; Hans doesn’t want to kill her, obviously. Maybe he wants to sex her up, or something. Maybe he was misreading the social cue of her salute as a kind of affection, and he’s actually reaching out for her out of lust or something.
This is all for now! Anyone who wants to talk about swordplay is welcome, I am pretty much always happy to talk about that.
UPDATE! I’ve added a fifth post, to talk a little bit about the duel in the Firefly episode “Shindig.”