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Comics Column #3 A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

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Comics Column #3: A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

“This is what you get when you emotionally invest yourself in a company-owned product that has to keep on coming out regardless of who’s writing and drawing it. This is what you get when your lizard compulsion to jerk off over superheroes overrides your forebrain. This is what happens when saying ’I just want X-Men to be good again’ is mistaken for some kind of intelligent comment on the state of the medium. Fuck all of you.”—Warren Ellis

XII. “I want the whole picture!”

It’s almost funny now, to think: it wasn’t that long ago that movie aficionados had to explain to people the difference between full-screen and widescreen. When DVDs first started shipping to stores and people had to make a conscious choice, many did not know which option offered a more complete visual experience and the director’s original vision. To this day, full-screen versions of many films are offered separately because some people are more comfortable with an image that fills their television.

For a period in the late 90’s, comics had what they called a “widescreen” movement. If film uses the term “comic book movie” to refer to overblown superhero blockbusters that rely upon recognition more than they do consistent narrative or emotional depth, there’s some small level of irony to the idea that comics use the term “widescreen” to refer to books that are all bombastic, over-the-top action to the detriment of everything else; cool explosion visuals in place of the moralism of Golden Age DC Comics or the tortured family stories of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. If all comic books are going to be Chris Claremont’s “X-Men” books, then all films will be Michael Bay’s action movies.

This is probably not the basis for a very mature dialog.

The “widescreen comics” movement, if we can call it a movement at all, was largely the brainchild of author Warren Ellis. Ellis has written hundreds of comics, his novel Crooked Little Vein has just recently been re-released in softcover, he’s provided writing assistance on a couple of video games, had a failed television pilot, and is currently scripting at least two animated films for other people’s major franchises (Castlevania and G.I. Joe)—but Ellis is largely known for his cult of personality. Ellis began using the Internet early on and has used it to build up his significant fanbase and launch the careers of a number of other writers and artists over the years (one such writer, Matt “Casanova” Fraction, is consulting on Iron Man 2—the first film was somewhat based on Ellis’s own take on the character).

Ellis’s wildly uneven creative career is almost secondary to the Internet communities that he has run over the years, and often proves instructive on the moods of the comics-reading audience as a whole. And the relationship between the work and the fans drives comics perhaps more than it does any other media.

XIII. “...learning the alphabet all over again.”

One of the works that has dominated video game criticism in the last few months has been Braid, created by Jonathan Blow and featuring the artwork of David Hellman, the artist behind the well-respected webcomic “A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible”—a story about time and memory is disguised as a “Mario”-like platformer (“Calvino’s Invisible Cities meets ’Mario’,” is how Blow puts it), and its use of unique game mechanics in service of a subtle and rarely-explicated story has prompted a lot of criticism from people on both sides of the Braid argument. What’s notable, however, is that the “Is it art?” argument that certain media (like games, and more notably for this column, comics) still bat around with has been eschewed almost entirely. The question instead appears to be “Is it good art?” or “Is it bad art?”—which is a lot more interesting, I find.

Braid is one of a number of recent games that has prompted a lot of discussion with regards to how narrative works in video games and what succeeds artistically. Blow himself recently gave a lecture on the subject that has provoked further discussion. In my previous installment, I mentioned Stuart Moulthrop’s essay connecting comics and games in the way the narrative is experienced, with a level of interactivity. This idea is what has led to so much writing and discussion. In these media, unlike in film, the narrative must be somewhat tempered with other elements in order to provide the full issue—a more complicated arrangement than simple pacing.

In games, narrative is oftentimes used between moments of play as a reward for success (or, alternatively, an obstacle to get past) rather than part of the overall experience. This is what has led to the perception that story is deemed secondary, and it’s only now beginning to change. The first installment of the first-person-shooter series Half-Life, for instance, featured no “cutscenes” or other extraneous material—the story unfurled through actual play, making it easier to inhabit the in-game avatar. In comics, the motion and change between two panels are elided in order to not only maintain the proper pace, but to enable the reader to engage with the work. This creates a high level of identification with the work, which is part of the reason comic fandom is so often overly vehement—though there are others, as we’ll see below.

Discussion of Braid and narrative choices, however, led on at least one critic’s website to a more fundamental issue: Mitch Krpata of the Boston Phoenix wrote on what non-gamers had to say about Braid, and moved the conversation to an even more relevant subject: accessibility. In defending a post on another site, Krpata noted:

“I’d first say that, at bottom, accessibility is irrelevant to questions of quality. I say this as a vigorous defender of Michael Bay, clearly the most skillful filmmaker of his type working today. Great art shouldn’t pander to the masses, but there’s no reason the snootiest, most discerning critic can’t also appreciate great trash. [...] when a game like Braid comes along—a game that seems unique and maybe even important—it still alienates non-gamers. If you’ve played it, then you know how hard Braid is. The problems it poses, and the solutions to those problems, all take advantage of the player’s numerous built-in assumptions about how games work. Without those assumptions, you’re sunk.”

It’s true that, as Blow himself points out, we don’t start someone’s acculturation in other media with “the masterworks”—For someone looking to “get into reading,” you don’t hand them Finnegan’s Wake. We can all draw up our own list of films that we’d hold as inimitable classics that a new filmgoer would not necessarily be ready for. When I was younger, for instance, Kubrick escaped me, John Ford bored me, and David Lynch would have been too much for me. It’s not an indictment of someone’s intelligence, but rather the idea that some works require a wider vocabulary that comes from experience. It’s why I’ve waved some of my co-workers away from Watchmen, and why I’ve a bookshelf full of comics that I rarely recommend to new readers—Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus, Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s The Filth—really, David Mack’s Kabuki, which I mentioned in my previous installment, would be very taxing to new readers for many of the reasons that I highlighted in that article.

Mike Musgrove at the Washington Post introduced Pulitzer-winning columnist Michael Dirda to the highly-rated objectivist shooter game BioShock—a game set to be a film by Gore Verbinski in 2010—as a sort of experiment. Would Dirda get into the game, appreciate the narrative, view the game as art? The experiment stalled fairly quickly when, despite Dirda’s willingness to play along and desire to experience the game on its own terms, he was unable to perform simple game actions—they were not intuitive to him, but rather arbitrary rules that he had never received instruction for. He was unable to apply a health pack to his injured character, let alone traverse the giant underwater city in which the game is set. The basic tropes and very construction of games are taken for granted within the gaming community—creator and audience both—and leave the medium inaccessible to outsiders. It’s a point of fact that the Nintendo Wii, which relies on natural motions—swing a tennis racket or a golf club to hit a ball—is experiencing the runaway success now expected of gaming consoles.

As Krpata points out:

“I missed something important, however. For a non-gamer, understanding the temporal mechanics of Braid isn’t the equivalent of learning how the pieces move in chess. A better analogy is learning to push the A button to make your character jump. Or that jumping on an enemy will kill it. Or that jumping on an enemy will bounce you as though you’d landed on a trampoline. The more you think about it, the more you start to notice all of the ingrained assumptions we have as gamers. It’s even more basic than chess: for non-gamers, this is like learning the alphabet all over again.”

[Aside: This is neither here nor there, really, but ... in the article, Dirda claims that the medium will catch up as an art form when “there’s a video game that makes the player depressed.” I’d point to the gorgeous and haunting Shadow of the Colossus, a game which is perhaps best known as the fixation of Adam Sandler’s character in Reign Over Me. The game is terribly lonely, and the sad and beautiful creatures that you hunt down are largely passive—you revel in completing a task, but can’t help but feel guilty for it afterwards. Every aspect of the game through to its conclusion is something of a lead weight in the throat. Similarly, the “art game” Passage, while sometimes written off as an experiment more than a game, is nonetheless a short and brilliant example of how a game can speak to the human experience. Less a poem than a single stanza, you follow an Atari-style sprite character across the width of your screen as he lives out his entire life in metaphor. You can try to collect a high score, but the treasures are useless to the game. In the end, the only reward of note is to find a companion to share your journey, despite the “limitations” that come with the arrangement. Nobody wants to go it alone, all we have are each other.]

Comics, like games, will remain inaccessible to mainstream audiences as long as the very nature of their construction “keeps out the riff-raff.” Superhero comics are the worst offenders of this principle, as they have two levels of obfuscation: the comic medium itself—and often a jumbled use thereof—and the years of tangled narrative continuity. What’s troubling, however, is how reticent a great deal of the comic community is in breaking these elements back down.

XIV. “...Human reaction and criminal enterprise.”

Comics had its own “British Invasion” that changed everything. They came from all over the UK, actually, and they began popping up in American comics in the late eighties, though they didn’t reach all their heights of popularity or influence at the same time. Some of the names are familiar to non-comics readers. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are not especially obscure pop culture names. Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison are well-enough known counterculture figures, as well, who occasionally cause a blip on the radar of magazines like Wired, Rolling Stone, or Entertainment Weekly. There are others, too, less familiar: Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Jaime Delano, and a host of others. There were just as many artists that crossed the pond at this time, but I highlight the authors because it was their influence that impacted mainstream comics so significantly. Most of them had gotten their start in UK mags, with comics like “2000 AD” and “Judge Dredd,” and brought those sensibilities to their US work, which were darker, more violent, featured more sex and more drug use, were more aware of current music, television, and films ... the “mature readers” work by these writers at DC Comics prompted the creation of a new imprint, Vertigo, which continues to this day. Many titles, particularly from Moore and Morrison, also featured themes related to real belief in magic.

 

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