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Comics Column #1: Windows on the Other Art

The old saw about how many words an image speaks—do you add or multiply when there’s a few of them in a row?

Comics Column #1: Windows on the Other Art
Photo: Jason Lutes

The old saw about how many words an image speaks—do you add or multiply when there’s a few of them in a row?

Keith has been gracious enough to invite me to crash the party every two weeks and talk about the comic medium. I don’t know, I guess maybe it’s come up here once or twice lately. In the last few years, the relationship between movies and comics—graphic novels, sequential art, choose your buzzwords and tap gloves—has gotten pretty complicated, at least in comparison to what it had been. And while I’ve been for many years a vocal advocate for the argument that comics have won the “fight” that many fans seem to think they’re having with the rest of polite society, there’s still some critical discussion regarding what is and is not possible with comics, and its nature as an occasional (or, as it seems these days, very frequent) source material for other media.

I study comics, and I have for over ten years. This is not the same as being a comic fan, although I most certainly am that as well—I’ve been reading comics since before I could walk; I study comics, or at least I try to, the way that many people here at The House Next Door study film (something that, obviously, I also do, though I’m still more of an exuberant freshman in that particular curriculum). This is an ongoing column about comics of all kinds, how they work, their relationship to their audiences, and other subjects. In keeping with the primary nature of this site, oftentimes it will be about comics and their relationship to film, though the link will wax and wane as the subject dictates. But I hope I’ll keep things interesting.

I. “Who Are These People? Where Do They Come From? What Do They Do?”

For my money, the greatest film adaptation of a comic book is not only not a superhero film, it’s not even really a work of fiction. American Splendor, the story of underground comic writer and pioneering autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar, captured everything that the original work was about, everything that it meant, its historical context, and its unique style—and yet it changed everything in terms of presentation; right down to the chronology, as the first story is moved to close to the end of the film, where it’s given a resonance that it didn’t once have.

There are a lot of sequences in the film that could be used to illustrate how the language of comics was adapted for the very different medium of cinema—the opening Halloween costume gag, or the scene when Joyce awaits her first meeting with Harvey and envisions him in the different styles of the underground cartoonists who had drawn his book—but perhaps the clearest is the one mentioned above: Harvey is on the edge of life and death, battling cancer, and we cut to his musings on the other “Harvey Pekars” that he’d seen in the phone book, the other lives they must have led. In actuality, this is the first “American Splendor” comic story, the Robert Crumb-drawn monologue that began his frustrating comics career. Here, it is used as a meditation both on Harvey’s life slipping away, but also the many forms that his story has taken over the course of the film. We’ve seen him as drawings, as portrayed by Paul Giamatti, as re-enacted on stage, and as Pekar himself, begrudgingly appearing in his own film. “Who is Harvey Pekar?” he asks, and he might as well be asking the film itself. As Giamatti delivers the monologue, transitioning back and forth from re-creations of Crumb’s linework and a real world exterior, he actually steps through a window towards the audience. A more potent metaphor would be difficult to find.

II. “The vanishing point moves in relation to the observer.”

There have been so many attempts to define the term “comics” that most of the creators who are innovating the medium have largely bowed out of the subject entirely. Visionaries like Eddie (“From Hell,” “Alec,” “Bacchus”) Campbell and Dylan (“Hicksville,” “Atlas”) Horrocks once rushed in with swords drawn and now largely rub at their brows and get back to work. Even independent of content entirely, there are as many frameworks for discussing the medium as there are people studying it. Comics as language, comics as history, comics as storyboard, comics as art object, comics as collectible, comics as map (a personal favorite line of inquiry), comics as illustrated prose, as pictorial poetry, as unmoving film. Of course, it’s all of these and none of them. Film can be viewed through its static images, its sound, its screenplay, its acting, etc, and each of these views can help expand the understanding of that medium and its works, but the final product is a synthesis, just as in comics it is not only the words and the images, but the sequence of those elements, how they relate to each other on the page (or on a screen), as well as the elements deliberately absent, working fully in conjunction with one another.

One lens through which both comics and film can be viewed is the concept of the “window.” Both the field of view of the camera and the framing of the comic panel are deliberate choices that the creators use to relate messages to their audiences.

I’m reminded, a little absurdly, of an obscure program from my youth: Joel Hodgson, creator of the cult classic Mystery Science Theatre 3000, briefly aired a pilot for a bizarre experimental program that he called The TV Wheel. It was a sketch comedy program, but the concept was that all of the sets were on a giant wheel that rotated around a motionless camera and was filmed live, providing a strangely fascinating look at what was largely an unremarkable group of sketches, lending it a carnival game atmosphere and evoking a vaudeville spirit rarely found in on-screen performance. It’s a strange animal to describe, really, but watching that pilot in the age when I was still very much a “comic fanboy” in the traditional sense changed a bit of how I watched film and read comics both…

As regards the concept of the “window,” the best example is a very literal one. In the first volume of Jason Lutes’s monumental “Berlin” trilogy, an art professor is explaining perspective to his students and motions to three windows, each captured in a separate comic panel. The windows are individually different views of the same subject. It’s easy to compare this to separate frames of film, but film is not to be viewed frame by frame, but rather in motion, so fast that only a single image exists at a time. This one window pans over that subject and gives us a typically “naturalistic” view—that is, how we would view this subject in person, moving ourselves around to see its sides. However, when the camera has panned right in film, you can no longer see what was to the left. In comics, all panels on a page exist simultaneously—while you may still focus on one window at a time, those moments before and after, those various views of the same subject, still exist.

III. “Less eloquent in my language of choice, however.”

This is a relevant difference, and the seemingly superfluous scene described above stands as the thesis statement for all of “Berlin,” the second volume of which was just released last month. “Berlin” is the story of the German city and its people in the time between the two world wars, an ambitious project with the goal of viewing the time period and a city trapped in the midst of change through every conceivable eye at once, through points of view in every culture and strata. As the art professor continues his lecture, he states:

“Perhaps the most interesting feature of perspectival drawing for the artist involves a sort of reverse vanishing point—an ‘appearing point,’ if you will—which is fixed in the eye of the observer … a thread taut between various edge points of an object and a fixed point on the wall, which represents the artist’s eye. And the end result, when the intersection points are connected to one another, is a perfect perspectival representation of [the subject]!”

The professor is trying to convey his excitement at applying scientific principles to art in the modern era, but Lutes is laying out his plan, to take each individual he portrays in Berlin and add them together to make a full portrait of the city itself. The story captures not only dozens of major characters of various complexity, but also pauses to look into the ephemeral thoughts of people on the street, in the trains, and on the march. In an early sequence, the window pulls back one frame at a time from two major characters to listen to a lonely man operating the traffic lights, anxious for the lunch his wife packed for him.

Anticipating his critics, Lutes has the cynical art students argue over the lecture, with one student saying the technique “presumes a one-eyed view of the world” (Lutes’s own) and another stating that “you have to work within the limitations of the discipline to reproduce what you see”—only for a third to rebut that if faithful reproduction is the goal, perhaps a better medium might be in order. But Lutes clearly has no entrenched doubts about his chosen medium, as evidenced by his choice of protagonists—a writer (a journalist, no less!) and an artist (who draws in her notebooks and writes in her sketchbooks!) whose relationship waxes and wanes over the course of the story. They introduce themselves to each other on a moving train—behind them is a window, showing only the barest motion, because for these two people time has slowed to a near stop.

IV. “Confused?” “Blind!”

An individual comic panel is static only when viewed on its own—comics, by nature, are to be read panel to panel. It is what the reader’s mind creates between those panels, what creator and theorist Scott (“Zot!,” “Understanding Comics”) McCloud calls “Closure,” that provides the movement. Similarly, characterization in comics relies as much upon what isn’t shown as what is. While, as McCloud explains in his formative text on the medium, abstractions lend themselves to audience identification (and as he doesn’t say which follows as corollary, they lend themselves to archetypes), similarly, the decisions on what to show and not to show—not only in the window of the comic panel, but in the level of detail from image to image—can flesh out a character and make them real.

With a book like “Berlin,” which is designed to capture the varied attitudes of an entire city, a certain amount of abstraction and use of stereotypes and archetypes is to be expected. Some characters can be immediately identified in their design as “the traditionally-observant Jew” or “the proletariat worker,” and the protagonists, Kurt Severing (the journalist) and Marthe Muller (the artist), slip back and forth from their prescribed roles to complex portraits, based on context and based on their relationship to each other. Severing is at the height of his jaded journalist archetype when he gives the first volume the title, “City of Stones,” pondering the writer’s role in Berlin’s troubled present as the view pulls back to observe him from outside the window of his apartment, and further out to the city itself. But when Marthe drops by his apartment unexpectedly, his depiction shifts back and forth from the abstraction of a sparse few lines to a more detailed close-up and back as he flounders, as Marthe doesn’t represent something which fits into his then-limited worldview (earlier, the art students laugh about the perspective lecture and exclude him). In a later scene, Marthe removes his hat and glasses and tries them on, as a flirtation. Wearing the trappings of his archetype, Marthe fades to abstraction, and Severing is creased with age lines that had previously gone unseen, a sign of his vulnerability as well as a casting off of what he’s supposed to represent. Moments later, she confesses her love for him and the couple both fade to the abstract, taking new archetype roles—“the lovers”—even as the window separates them from the nature that they’d been enjoying, a setting rich in detail and atmosphere that they are no longer part of.

V. “Bad science, maybe, but personally gratifying.”

Some filmmakers have experimented with different uses of the camera as window in order to convey the feeling of reading a comic book. Two of them are fascinating in how they approach the idea so differently without full success.

In Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan frames nearly every shot with foreground obstructions in an intentional bid to evoke comic panels for his largely-ponderous take on the superhero story. It’s uncomfortable viewing, in this respect—everything feels claustrophobic, as though each image is captured through surveillance, and all of the action feels detached, at arm’s length. Without the surrounding panels, without the audience’s ability to interact with the work and provide that concept of “Closure,” as McCloud termed it, the visuals do seem static. One of the only exceptions is the train station sequence, when Bruce Willis’s character has accepted the hero mantle and the camera drops the pretenses and just follows him into the crowd, intercutting back and forth between his motion past the people and what sins he finds hiding within each of them. That technique of juxtaposition, with each flashback as a single instant of time with an unmoving camera, does feel like a reach toward the superhero books that served as the director’s inspiration and provides some desperately needed energy to the third act.

Ang Lee, in his deeply-flawed but still underrated Hulk, takes almost the complete opposite tack with the idea of panels—scene transitions occur with a computer-created visual of numerous actions occurring simultaneously in a grid, moving from one to another. During the film’s initial run, I heard some peculiar complaints that “Comics don’t really work that way”—I’d argue that it’s exactly how comics work, that all moments are happening simultaneously, a visual map of time’s passing (about which more another time). The problem is that in Ang Lee’s effect, each of these “panels” has the scenes in progress visually. Each of them has independent motion. It degenerates into noise—there is no feeling of focus, but more importantly, to show the panel grid as a unit implies that you can draw the connections between them, which is impossible with this device—there is no particular correlation from one image to the next, and no sequence is there to engage you. If cinema and television went through a period (often derided as “MTV cuts”) where number and speed of visuals dissolved the language of communication that film offers, then Ang Lee’s transitions are the “MTV cuts” of comics, a complete breakdown.

Considering the nature of film itself as separate cels that transition too fast to notice, and the tendency of most filmmakers adapting comics to view the source material as a storyboard to work from, I think it best to avoid the nature of panels altogether. Films like 300 and Sin City, while problematic as films on many levels, feel like more natural adaptations for eschewing techniques like these. And this bodes poorly for the upcoming adaptation of Watchmen, a book which in its original conception relied upon the use of panel transitions and framing for many of its complicated visual metaphors.

If the nature of the comic is important enough to capture in motion, it’s best not to use the tools at all, but to be rather like Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar and step through the window entirely.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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