“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.
Most of these writers now vacillate between creator-owned work (frequently still at Vertigo) and runs on mainstream superhero titles, but their initial breakout titles—Sandman, Swamp Thing, The Invisibles, etc.—are still viewed as classics today, and many of them drew in new, hip audiences at a time when Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was making a splash with the “outside world” and Art Spiegelman’s Maus was finding widespread acclaim. The late 80s were considered a renaissance in comics on par with the 70s in cinema—these were our maverick auteurs, our Coppolas and Altmans. And much like in cinema, the bubble broke, though it was largely the fault of superhero publishers, who were busy advocating speculation—the mass-purchase of “number one issues” and titles with gimmick covers in a misguided belief that these overprinted books would gain value over time (the nadir of which was perhaps the well-known “Death of Superman,” where people who hadn’t known “Superman” comics were still being printed were on the eleven o’clock news punching each other out over copies of the book where he was pummeled by a paper-thin beast-like character introduced for the event).
One of Ellis’s defining features is how prolific he’s been; my mind goes instantly to Takashi Miike, a director who has produced so much work that is similar (much of it exploring darkness) that some of it was bound to stick. For every Audition or Dead or Alive or Ichi the Killer, he has a dozen films languishing on video. So, too, for every Transmetropolitan or Planetary, Ellis has a pile of short works that never particularly stick. Or perhaps a better analogy would be the science-fiction author in prose, who produces books of various quality, but only draws attention when he throws in with a pop culture series: a Star Wars novel, or a role-playing game book. Ellis is a very popular writer, but far more than half of his audience only shows up when he’s writing books for John Constantine, Iron Man, or the X-Men.
Ellis’s breakout book was Transmetropolitan, a prescient science-fiction political tale about a gonzo reporter who was based largely on Hunter S. Thompson and which incorporated elements of Ellis’s own public persona. “Transmet” is a good book that sadly feels more relevant every year in America’s current political climate—the story concerns said reporter, Spider Jerusalem, desperately trying to wake up his city’s populace to the corrupt presidential administration. The real success of the book, however, is how Ellis’s slapdash world-building, aided by artist Darick Robinson’s superlative sense of detail, provides a very frighteningly believable sense of the future: that is, that things will be horribly different in all sorts of grotesque ways, but also very much the same as today in the most banal and laborious fashions. Eating of caribou eyes and cloned human bodies will be normal—but as drive-thru fast food. The best story told in the series is a single issue about a photojournalist who is cryogenically frozen and thawed out in Jerusalem’s future—a bright, noble woman who is a victim of bureacracy, casual cruelty, a nation’s deep-seated apathy—and experiences a horrible and profound culture shock.
The character of Spider Jerusalem is, as might be expected, completely over-the-top in every fashion: gobbling drugs by the bucketful, committing random acts of violence, and single-mindedly searching for Capital-T “Truth” at the expense of all else. It’s a standard trope of repression vs. irrepressibility, and it works fine in the piece—however, Ellis’s “angry old bastard” character carries over into virtually every other book that he’s worked on. Even when working on an “X-Men” title, Ellis added a cranky secret agent from the UK to smoke and grouse off to one side. This through-line, and the conflation with the persona Ellis puts on as an Internet fixture, is a significant factor in the popularity of his various online communities.
That said, the addition of such characters to books like the “X-Men” title Excalibur speaks to another point—Ellis’s awkward relationship with the superhero genre, which manifests not only in his work, but in those selfsame communities as well. However, the audience for superhero comics are similarly uncomfortable in their feelings for the genre that they obsess over, which speaks to larger concerns.
XV. “Why so serious?”
It’s very hard to argue in favor of superhero comics in 2008; and it’s hard to explain the Gordian knot that is superhero fandom, and how it’s shaped the industry as a whole, without the digression wearing out its welcome in a series of critical essays. In the last week alone, comic book websites have been ablaze over a single, embarassingly-ugly comic book in the “Batman” family; its gratutious cruelty, over-the-top violence without rating, and (frankly) mediocre-at-best writing has invited all sorts of arguments both tame and hostile over elitism, criticism, standards in entertainment (both in quality and in “moral” standings), and the antagonism between comic fans who largely read superhero books, and comic fans who largely read other genres. Someone points out amidst the shouting and circular reasoning that this happens every week over some book or another, and that bears out. Last week it was, I believe, also over a “Batman” title—in which Frank Miller, popular comic author and director of the upcoming film adaptation of “The Spirit,” had filled the book with unnecessarily vulgar curse words which DC Comics accidentally left uncensored.
Much of this, I think, would be easier to ignore if DC Comics would admit that “Batman” titles aren’t really for children anymore—but that’s an argument for another column.
[Aside: For those masochists who wish to perform their sociological study on the changing whims of superhero fandom, I’d recommend the late, lamented “Fanboy Rampage,” which culled the daily fights and summed up the bile to save you the energy.]
Folks visiting this site are likely most familiar with “The Case of The Dark Knight.” Hundreds of commenters came to this site to protest a negative review of the film by our esteemed Keith Uhlich, some of whom were “professional” comic creators. While some were willing to reason, many were downright vile in their responses. There was a logic loop that was happening across the Internet—if you picked at the film, you were taking a “comic movie” seriously, but the film was being held in high esteem because “it was a great film, not just a ’great comic film’.” Regardless of how you feel about the film in particular, mediocre or masterpiece, the fallacy of this particular argument seems pretty clear from the outside of it.
I wrote in response, at the time:
”…it’s comics, superhero comics. There’s a collective Stockholm Syndrome going on here, where fans want comics (by which they mean superheroes) to be taken seriously when comics (as in, other comics) are largely taken seriously in most critical forums, and accepted in most places of serious discourse (or just on an L train, for that matter). The ’outsider’ mentality of superhero fans now relies upon that sense of being an outsider for validation, so even while most fans believe that ’if they like these books they’ll like me,’ there’s a persistent feeling of ’I’m smarter than them because I understand these books are great.’”
[Aside: For the aforementioned masochists in the audience, my review of The Dark Knight—specifically written in the context of adaptations of such contentious source material—is on my own site here.]
I’m not the first to use the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome,” and I doubt that I’ll be the last. I should, however, be more specific in my statements, as they were a little reactionary during a heated period. I am blessed enough to live in Chicago, a city that is rather fond of comics, and one that’s produced a higher-than-average number of well-respected cartoonists. So my informal census may be skewed; but I see people of varied ages and both genders reading graphic novels on L trains, I see the staff at the downtown bookstore chain talking and recommending comics from America and Japan in equal quantities … at a former job working at a call center, a co-worker, a middle-aged African-American mother of three, tried out and laughed uproariously at my copy of the hipster masterpiece Scott Pilgrim, which will shortly be on movie screens attached to the Michael Cera famewave. Graphic novels are winning literature awards, appearing on gallery walls, are the subject of hip magazine coverage and insightful critical review. So I roll my eyes at the comic fandom cries of oppression, of lack of respect. The newspaper articles headlining “Bow! Pof! Comics Not For Kids?!” or television news blaming a school shooting on their comic reading habits—it’s not the culture thermometer, it’s lazy journalism.
The thing is, these people reading comics in Chicago, they’re not reading superhero comics. They’re reading Gene Yang’s insightful and funny American Born Chinese, they’re reading Achewood with its masterful play with language, they’re reading manga juggernaut Death Note. The “Big Two” comic publishers, the primary superhero purveyors, Marvel and DC Comics—their books have largely been tied up for years now in impenetrable snarls, about which more below. So superheroes are not of interest, not even when major blockbuster motion pictures put their characters up in front of millions upon millions.
The superhero fan (fan, I say, rather than reader—the terminology will cause ire no matter what word I use, and terms like “fanboy” are too laughable to even bother with) usually understands this on some level. But that knowledge only empowers them on one socially awkward level. In a column here at THND, John Lichman noted how the word “otaku” is a derisive, ugly term that American fans have appropriated to laud their own fan pursuits and obsessions. This is a phenomenon that is emblematic of a wider fan psychology: that being “in” a fan group is a sign of pride in part because it encourages feelings of being an outsider—they require an exclusion that subsequently makes them feel lonely, and sometimes bitter and angry (as “The Case of The Dark Knight” certainly proved). While comic fans in general have exhibited extreme behavior, it’s largely been (a small subsection of) superhero fans who have prompted the most aggression.
But why is the superhero genre so contentious? Indeed, why so serious at all? And why are comics in general so often unapproachable to non-readers?
XVI. “Grim, fin-headed rape.”
In the game BioShock, the player is given a moral choice: the “Little Sisters,” mutated slave girls who are found in the game’s underwater city setting, can be killed in order to harvest their power. This moral choice has been the impetus for a great deal of acclaim—forcing the player to choose between a reprehensible act that will aid them in fighting a greater evil, and taking a moral high road. Unfortunately, what works in theory does not work in practice: the choice is fundamentally broken. The game provides compensation for those who “take the high road”; and aside from a different ending sequence, divorced largely from your actions, there are no consequences to being selfish. What is lauded as a complex moral problem and an elevation of a derided genre is really an ethics 101 discussion question, with the deck stacked so that nobody really has to think about it at all.
Superhero stories share low expectations in common with first-person shooter video games. The illusion of complexity is usually enough. Unfortunately, “good for a ____” statements replace just “good.” In The Dark Knight, a group of Gotham City citizens are presented with a similar shorthand scenario, in which a boatload of ostensibly innocent people could blow up a boatload of convicts, or vice versa. I can almost hear the voice of the stoner from my college dorm, giggling in the back row and asking, “What if one of the kids on the ’good guy boat’ grows up to be the next Hitler?” It’s not fair to ask for a lofty “political responsibility” criteria for popcorn entertainment, for fantasy. And yet, these failed “philosophical” stories are being pitched to a wider, mainstream audience that does not have to swallow it.
Marvel Comics recently ran an “event book,” a title which featured a crossover of a number of their superhero titles, called Civil War. Heavily marketed, the book found attention on CNN, The New York Times, and NPR for its novel premise—Marvel superheroes “getting political,” a storyline that would address the issues raised by 9/11, the Iraq War, and the encroachment upon U.S. civil liberties. What a curious outsider found, upon flipping through the comics in question, was a disastrous mess. With Jon Favreau’s Iron Man about to hit theaters, the armored Avenger was portrayed in the series as a fascist and government stooge who employed supervillains to hunt his friends. Mr. Fantastic, member of Marvel’s “first family” The Fantastic Four, was imprisoning innocent people in another dimension. Spider-Man was wearing armor, living in a mansion, and revealed his identity to the press. All very shocking, and frequently out of character. Marvel has since made it plain in subsequent comic stories that many of the events were caused or escalated by shape-shifting aliens. Marvel’s political sensibilities are unassailable, as currently it is “in canon” that Stephen Colbert is running for President in a world that contains a Captain America.
The larger question, however, was one of accessibility. Not only were familiar characters acting strangely—a conceit which, if skillfully played, could speak to how rational people can be changed by horrific events—but whole sequences hinged upon obscure characters or prior plot developments that are never appropriately explained. And much as in the case of The Dark Knight, violence and unrepentant gloom serve for “serious elements.”
One subplot that takes up a disproportionate amount of pagetime in Civil War is the story of Speedball. Speedball was a goofy, wisecracking teen superhero with bouncing powers; one of the last superhero creations of Steve Ditko, the artist who designed Spider-Man. During the events of Civil War, this obscure character blames himself for the massacre of school children that sets off the plot, and henceforth wears an iron maiden-like suit which constantly cuts him. This immature display does not in any way resolve itself in the series—this is the new direction in which they’ve decided to take the character, and they felt that the “politically aware” title hyped to the mainstream media was the place for such a development.
The sort of violence-as-maturity motif of modern superhero comics has prompted Ellis to call recent books “grim, fin-headed rape.” This is not as over-the-top as it sounds, actually, as rape has been an uncomfortably frequent trope in recent corporate-owned superhero titles. While just recently an episode of Mad Men proved how worthwhile the issue of rape can be to a narrative when it belongs, when it’s handled with a deserved level of import (as Noel Murray of the Onion A.V. Club recently put it, “the juxtaposition of her dead eyes and what she sees speaks volumes”), and Edward Blake’s actions in Watchmen are vile but also emotionally complicated and relevant to character growth (or lack thereof), most superhero comics are not proving quite so adept—in fact, rape has become a sort of go-to crime when the stakes need to be raised.
Wanton cruelty towards female characters is not a new phenomenon, to be sure. And when it comes to violence, DC Comics is the expert. The sadist Joker as played by Heath Ledger is emblematic as much as it is imitated. In fact, it might have been the Joker who started the (forgive this term) “rape fad” at DC. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke features the character assaulting, crippling, and, it’s implied, raping Batgirl. While the Joker’s actions are supposed to be overly dark in order to push Batman to the brink, the story isn’t very deep, and Alan Moore has since regretted the story’s publication entirely. DC, on the other hand, recently released an action figure of the Joker in the specific outfit he wears when he performs the act. They perhaps reached a nadir, however, with a book titled Identity Crisis, written by novelist Brad Meltzer (The Book of Fate) and a lynchpin for the company’s seemingly never-ending chain of universe-altering event books which consistently promise to clean up their universe’s confusing continuity.
The plot of Identity Crisis is more convoluted than is worth the summary for this column, but the long and short of it is that a group of our greatest superheroes (including well-known figures like the Flash and Green Lantern) agree to erase the memory of a minor villain for committing the rape of a hero’s wife. They even erase Batman’s memory so that he won’t prevent their actions. The villain later regains his memory and goes on a murderous rampage. Similar to BioShock, the moral question is handicapped by how the rest of the narrative plays out.
The rape of the hero’s wife, however, Sue Dibny, is a minor plot point, a casual decision. “What can the villain do that’s horrible?” She has no superpowers and is only associated with the other characters by a few degrees of separation. What’s troubling is that the character hadn’t been used much in some time, and even then was a bit player. The casual cruel act had little import to the books currently being published, and there was no chance to deal with consequences of the act because she was also killed off in the same story. The whole thing comes off as pointless and, well, mean—and if we’re to feel anything when it comes to this shocking bit of business, it requires foreknowledge of a number of obscure characters who had never held their own books for very long.
What Identity Crisis and Civil War have in common is a deliberate design to appear “mature” in order to gain adult readers who are new to the world of superhero comics, hamstrung particularly by their reliance upon each company’s prohibitively long histories and gargantuan casts of characters. These elements get in the way of any statements that they are trying to make: the books are largely impenetrable. Despite being marketed as books for new readers, an unfamiliar audience would not know the rules, and they’re not really being invited to play. As in the earlier criticism of more literate games, the argument is hamstrung right out of the gate. Despite statements to the contrary, it’s not clear that anyone in mainstream comics wants “outsiders” to come play at all. Superhero titles have, if not contempt, then certainly ambivalence towards their audience. It’s no wonder that some creators have begun to have ambivalence towards superheroes as well.
XVII. “Face front, true believers!”
In the 1960’s, Stan Lee changed superhero comics in so many ways that I would have to devote a separate essay to the subject—and I’d largely find that essay less than interesting. While the extent to which the Marvel comics creations can be attributed to his designs and ideas is always a subject for debate (and personally, I’d err towards the artists here—Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others created the icons before Stan breathed life into them), one aspect of the “Marvel Method” for which Stan can be held solely responsible is the way that Marvel Comics created a different atmosphere for its audience. The “Smilin’ Stan” huckster persona let young readers feel like they were in on a joke that non-readers wouldn’t understand. They were subject not only to Lee’s invented “shared universe”—not so much a new idea as a better-marketed one—but to editorials and letters pages full of catch phrases like “Excelsior!” and “Face front, true believers!” to let them know that they were part of the club.
The “Merry Marvel Marching Society” later became “Marvel Zombies,” a loaded term used by both sides of a two-company rivalry that was as important to young comic readers as a Boston kid would find the antipathy toward the Yankees. People rarely jumped the fence; it’s a strange business, in which the publishing companies are as well-known and identifiable, have such loyalty … it’s Apple versus Windows, not Random House versus Penguin or—I don’t know—New Line versus Miramax. Readers followed characters—grabbing books based on Wolverine appearances—rather than creative teams. With notable exceptions, this has only been changing in the last couple of decades—the “superstar” model didn’t really hit superhero comics until the 90’s, when those same superstars left Marvel to form Image Comics. The “British Invasion” was another major factor in this transition.
Warren Ellis, in his own way, has adopted the Stan Lee model with his books. Where “Smilin’ Stan” Lee was the huckster, the carnival barker inviting everyone to see the biggest show in town, however, Ellis has relied upon the “overlord with deeply hidden heart” persona that informs his characters. [Note: I have never met Ellis personally, and claim only as far as his Internet persona behaves.] Ellis behaves as though he’s above the readership and bestows his “love” the way a dictator does—at this point, I can’t be sure myself whether the nicknames “Internet Jesus” and “Ming the Merciless” came from his fans or from himself. What makes this interesting, however, is that he’s been able to use his influence to, if not shape the direction of comics, at least inspire other people to do so. In 2000, his column “Come In Alone,” particularly the (now-dated) “Old Bastard’s Manifesto,” was a brief spurring-to-action of a number of modern comic creators:
“So give up. Quit it. Work on making comics stores places that adults will go into. Adults are good. Many of them have jobs, and therefore have money to spend. Give them adult works to buy, the equivalent of novels and cinema. Understand that when you write CAPE GIRL or ZAP BOY, you are not writing for your fondly imagined child audience. It doesn’t exist. You are writing for a forty-five-year-old unmarried man living in a one-room apartment who listens to Madonna and is probably masturbating over your work. I want you to hold that image in your head the next time you sit down to create one of these works. Your worst convention-nightmare fan, glopping away as he peers through thick glasses at your drawing of Zoom Woman.”
Obviously, only a certain audience was interested. Ellis’s collective has largely circled around a progressive series of Internet message boards, some of which he’s ruled with an iron fist. The original “Warren Ellis Forum” was the origin of a number of positive acts for the comics industry as a whole, including a sales push that saved the independent publisher Top Shelf. They were known as arrogant and elitist; but discourse at many comic sites, often similar to the sort prompted by negative reviews of The Dark Knight, gave some cause for the attitude. On one message board, Ellis banned all discussion of superhero comics entirely, including his own superhero books. There were plenty of places to talk capes, he asserted. This place will be for other things. And for a long while, people got each other hooked on smaller, lesser-known works and worked up new ideas together.
Ellis has never claimed to be specifically anti-superhero; his problem, which is largely the problem that has twisted perception of comic books in general for years, is two-fold. First, superheroes, as the main product for the two major publishers that dominate specialty retailers, have consistently pushed other books out of the market (the more recent prevalence of graphic novels in mainstream chain booksellers has changed this situation, but only to a degree, and usually only for specific, already-known creators). As Ellis writes in his manifesto:
“Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It’s like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else. It’s been the hip and trendy thing to do, recently, to say that superheroes are, you know, all right. And, if they’re well done, I agree with you. There’s room for any kind of good work, no matter what genre it’s in.”
Second, as most superheroes come from the two main publishers, they are a genre that comes attached to archaic work-for-hire contracts that take the ownership of a created property away from the writer and/or artist and place them solely in the publisher’s hands. While some “star” creators have since negotiated certain deals, this remains steadfastly true for incoming new professionals. And when it comes to the company-owned properties for which that one is writing or contributing artwork, they have been company-owned for decades and no part of them will ever be yours. This is a subject worth its own column, but in the years that Ellis was silencing superhero talk in his personal community, this reason was the most important. Why shouldn’t you own your own work, he and other creators asked—why create for a company’s characters when you can make your own?
The backlash, when it came, was particularly harsh. Many fans felt invalidated, particularly when Ellis worked on superhero books of his own—largely to subsidize his creator-owned work (much of which is frustratingly mediocre). Where did Ellis get off? And more importantly, what the Hell was wrong with wanting to get into the comic business just to write or draw Daredevil or Green Lantern or the X-Men? At the first sign of exclusion, the diehard superhero-only contingent raised its hackles. “Why are we always insulted because we like superheroes?” followed by “You’re such a hypocrite anyway!” followed by “Maybe I just don’t like reading boring crap anyway!” followed by, followed by, etc. Alan Sepinwall was recently talking about the continuation of the increasingly limp show Dexter, and comments came up about people who watch a television show after they’ve stopped enjoying it; while not all superhero fans pay for and read their books out of inertia, many admit readily to it, sometimes with shame and sometimes without. [Frequently, this is a holdover from the days of collectible and speculative hoarding.] It’s only when they are called out for it that the bile rises.
But bannable Internet posters tossing invectives are easily forgettable when the community is engaged in more thoughtful pursuits … unfortunately, at about the same time, the blowback started to become financial. Strong books by independent creators passed by without a blip on the sales radar, and creators gave up and worked on Batman titles if they worked at all. After yet another title’s cancellation because it was crowded out of stores by superhero titles, Ellis finally snapped, cursed out his readership, and (not so long after) closed down the forum—though another eventually rose in its place.
A long-running gag on Ellis’s old Internet community was an occasional picture thread in which people would put up shots of explosions or violent battling—“Kick! ’Splode!” It was satirical to a point, a distillation of a certain aesthetic for comics, but also pretty clearly celebrating that aesthetic. Not long before he shut down that community, he ran one final “Kick! ’Splode!” thread entitled This is what you want. Many did not get the joke. The trouble comes in, I think, with Ellis’s own treatment of superheroes in his work—regardless of the work’s tone, he has a hard time not taking the piss out of them. His response to the fan blowback and readoption of superheroes as a primary interest was a single-year title that was a creative high point and a discourse low point.
The tagline for Nextwave was “This is what you want.” A handful of obscure Z-list Marvel superheroes who are damaged and largely incompetent versus evil forces both hideous and stupid. It’s not, strictly speaking, a very original idea, but Ellis makes it his own. It’s very funny, if you like misanthropic humor (which I personally do, for the most part). That said, it’s very much a “laugh at” rather than a “laugh with.” This was Ellis’s point—jokes and violence, that’s all his audience wanted. The characters in Nextwave are to a person pathetic, but lacking in the pathos of the sad sacks in Moore’s Watchmen. Ironically, one of the members of his community winds up doing him one better—Matt Fraction’s Casanova begins as a similar humorous pastiche, only to gaze deeper at the characters bit by bit as the story rolls on, finding a “just-right” level of depth while maintaing its fun atmosphere.
XVIII. “…and novel in American super-hero comic-books…”
Wunderkind comic artist Paul Pope recently said that “The extended cinematic sequence is one of the best gifts we’ve inherited from manga.” And as Eddie Campbell recently pointed out, the morality of the superhero genre is typically painted in very broad strokes. It’s a variation of these two ideas that combined in Warren Ellis’s defining run on the superhero title The Authority.
The Authority was the title that birthed the “widescreen” comics movement. Taking the idea of a superhero team that is the “best of the best” to its absolute limit, Ellis’s Authority team were all but omnipotent; brilliant and unstoppable, they took on threats that grew larger and more over-the-top until finally taking on “God”—their credo was “by any means necessary,” and were portrayed for the most part as callous and arrogant. They were all but world-conquerors themselves.
Wikipedia sums up succinctly the technique that Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch used to show the scale of the Authority’s property-destroying battles: “The usage of a narrative tool called decompression, taken mainly from manga and novel in American super-hero comic-books, was distinctive: big, panoramic panels were used to examine action in deep detail, with a slower rhythm and lighter plotting per issue.”
It’s an interesting thing: superhero books are, largely, thought of as being empty spectacle, with thin plots and undeveloped characters pushing the heroes and villains together for punch’em’ups; really, most superhero comics, traditionally, haven’t had very good fight sequences. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but conflicts have often been kept to a bare few pages (in anything before the early 90s, the sequences tended to have each hero take out a villain, or vice versa, while announcing their name and how their ability worked). While comic books have a luxury that film does not—an inexhaustible effects budget, limited only by the skill of the artist—fight choreography is just as complicated to devise, even if a real life actor will not have to perform the actions. Full-length all-out wars and battles were uncommon, and so the initial run of The Authority proved to be somewhat revolutionary when it came to action.
Typically, when any medium has a breakthrough, the industry that supports that medium will rush in a flood of inferior copies, usually unclear entirely on what caused the success of the initial work. Whether it’s a glut of (say) J-Horror remakes or the “grim-’n’-gritty” fad that followed the release of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, breaking new ground is all but asking to damage the genre that you’re trying to reinvent. Most work out of Marvel Comics since the release of The Authority, and some of the work out of DC Comics, has been “decompressed” (a bastardization of Manga’s unique pacing, and a subject for later discussion) and full of bombastic, full-page sequences of violence with frayed and miscommunicated plot threads holding them together. [Books of this stripe include the “event book” Civil War, mentioned above—in fact, some critics have argued that nothing of consequence happens in its entire middle act!]
What Ellis tried to do in his ambiguous casting of superhero morality, however, did not readily translate over. The Authority team of heroes weren’t particularly admirable in the vein of Superman or Captain America, but rather lawless gods who inflicted their will for questionable gain. The superhero comics to follow in style did not follow in message.
XIX. “You inspired it, Superman, all of this…”
Douglas Wolk, in his noble failure of a text Reading Comics, writes:
“What matters most in superhero comics is what happens to whom and what it looks like—the actual plot and dialogue, and the content of the images, are what provoke the immediate reaction from their readers … [they] default to a narrow range of style that’s meant to make them immediately engaging … [and] make them fit into the context of those grand corporate narratives … If superhero comics don’t speak to the realities of their readers, that’s not a problem with the genre but a demand to improve its execution.”
Recent superhero books worth attention, from either company, have been very deliberately so. Completely accessible and modern—all of their cross-title continuity and obscure fan service references have been reduced to the slightest of offhand comments and visual clues, choosing instead to use their caped heroes as metaphors and myths—literary tools, rather than pale imitations of cinema.
All-Star Superman is lyrical. Collected in two volumes, it’s a twelve-issue self-contained story written by counterculture legend Grant Morrison and lavishly drawn by Frank Quitely and Jaime Grant, the latest and far-and-away best in a series of works that Morrison has produced through the “work-for-hire” licensed superhero system: a sort of set of “The only _____ story that you ever need to read.” Not only for quality’s sake, but for its all-inclusive approach to each property—unlike Ellis, who derides his characters even as he writes them, Morrison revels in the strengths of the genre. His “New X-Men” storyline, as another example, was a definitive and deconstructionist look at the mutant team that also included each of the fan-favorite tropes that the title is known for. With All-Star Superman, however, he refined his work to a laser-focus. It is elegantly constructed and rich with hidden layers, but unlike some of Morrison’s other work it can be read very simply. The plot is “Superman is dying, and he will perform twelve impossible labors before he passes on.” Morrison makes the superhero-to-myth link explicit here (as he’d previously done for the team book “JLA”), and even has Samson and Atlas appear to spur him on his deliberately Herculean quest.
Each chapter of the book’s first half takes a look at one aspect of the Superman story that is familiar to us all (Jimmy Olsen’s adventures, the Clark/Lois romance, Smallville) and defines the message that each of them contains. In the second half, Superman meets increasingly varied mirror images of himself (among them Bizarro, a fellow Kryptonian) to show what each of them lacks in the comparison to the world’s greatest superhero. Superman’s status as an inspiration is not made light of, not dismissed as out of touch. The book’s moral message is something akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” And it’s only appropriate that the lesson is given by the villain Lex Luthor, who spends a day in Superman’s shoes and discovers, similar to the idea behind the game Passage, that “It’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”
The other recent hardcover strongly deserving of a recommendation is from Marvel rather than DC, based on an old forgotten 70s hero created by Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber. Omega the Unknown was penned by novelist Jonathan Lethem, and is a work of great thematic complexity. You can view the book as being about dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome or as a sly metafiction, but on its surface level the book is about alienation of all kinds—racial, consumerist, even dietary—with the stumbling, out-of-place superhero Omega serving as the catch-all representation of what it means to be truly alien. Lethem’s first and only comic book works surprisingly well, due in no small part to artwork by independent cartoonists Farel Dalrymple, Paul Hornschemeier, and Gary Panter. These men are not traditional superhero artists, and the book reads more like a biographical, slice-of-life title that happens to feature giant mutant hands, telepathic statuary, and killer robots. In many ways it’s a sort of alternate telling of Lethem’s award-winning novel The Fortress of Solitude, a novel which itself used superpowers as metaphor and comic books as totems.
There is a long line of well-respected deconstructionist works, but many of them crumple quickly under the critical view, relying too much on knowledge of the characters and their world. Earth-X, by Jim Kreuger, Alex Ross, and John Paul Leon, is an epic end-of-days adventure that ties together scraps of abandoned plot from the forties onward, mining the smallest details of the Marvel comic universe for gold nuggets. The book concerns a “plague” that has turned every human on earth into a mutant like the X-Men, and the washed-up superheroes are obsolete and disconsolate even before a young antichrist-like child rises up to doom the planet. There is a strong binding thread that asks what it means to be human, and many familiar heroes—Professor X, Iron Man, Captain America—are looked at in a new light, offering fuller understandings of what drive them. The story, however, is utterly incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with decades of obscure Marvel history under their belt. If anything, Earth-X, like Morrison’s books, should serve as a last story for these characters. Every time a hero is deconstructed, it becomes harder to justify telling more tales with them—with all of their layers peeled back, how do you go back to standard pulp adventuring?
When it comes to superhero stories worth their salt, though, these books are the exceptions that prove a rule: that the memorable tales, the classics and the masterpieces, are the origin stories. Origin stories carry a very simple and translatable potency, an element that people can largely agree on. When we talk about superheroes as the modern day mythology, we’re rarely thinking of Superman’s battle with the Toyman or Spider-Man’s run-in with the Prowler. We think of a doomed planet sending its son as an immigrant fable, an act of hubris taking away a teen’s father figure, or a man who never lost the scared boy inside of him who misses his murdered parents. Origin stories are so often retold that they’re understood and can be mined for symbolism (the Fantastic Four as an emblem for the space race, the Hulk as one of the atomic age)—in All-Star Superman, Kal-El’s origin is told in the first four panels, boiled down to its core beats: “Doomed planet, Desperate Scientists, Last Hope, Kindly Couple.” Even summarized so briefly, it maintains its iconic power.
Film adaptations of superhero books are rarely adaptations of the actual comics. A film audience doesn’t want a Batman story, they want the Batman story. To this day, one of the most popular superhero films of all time, Richard Donner’s first Superman: The Movie, endures because it tells the myth at a large enough scale to awe the audience. When a director sticks to the origin story, to the myth, all they need to do is stick to the emotional truth of that myth and provide a consistent viewpoint for the audience to engage with it. It’s the sequels that cause trouble—all you can do is go bigger, and going bigger than a myth falls flat unless you can come up with a myth yourself (in comics, an example might be Chris Claremont and John Byrne, creators who worked on the various X-Men titles of the 70s and 80s; nothing had really stuck with the characters at that point, and it was first and foremost their “larger myth”—the transformation of Jean Grey to the Phoenix—which has left their work as memorable). The third option, of course, is to shunt your superheroes off to the side, a storytelling technique that has seen a lot of use in the last ten years—creating a high concept of “It’s like _____ but with superheroes,” which undercuts even quality work (Brian K. Vaughn’s political Ex Machina; Alan Moore’s police procedural Top 10).
[Aside: These reasons are why I’d consider Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One—the inspiration for much of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins—to be a much stronger work than his well-known and supposedly groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns. Its focus on Gordon, rather than Batman, and its mythical quality—“the making of a legend”—have much more weight to them than the slight satire and wanton crudeness of Miller’s latter book.]
It’s a catch-22, however: for superheroes to reach their full mythic potential, the years of stories need to be there, the details need to be filled in—but those are the stories that are often lackluster, mediocre. The pit stops between origin myth and inevitable deconstruction. It’s the peril of such long-running serialization, and one of the dividing lines for people who take futile endeavors like defining terms such as “graphic novel” so seriously.
My favorite superhero film out of the current deluge is Iron Man, a film which is 100% origin, but reads very differently with foreknowledge of the character. It was fun from beginning to end, and always true to the spirit even when the details were off by this margin or that margin. It worked as a film, even for people who didn’t really know who Iron Man was, or what he was about. Screenwriter Todd Alcott noted that when he was briefly on the project, nobody could tell him a thing about the character, except that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.
Unfortunately, I have to operate from foreknowledge that I can’t erase—for me, Iron Man plays as a tragedy. Stark is addicted to not only alcohol, but himself. This is why, in Civil War, he is capable of sliding into fascist tendencies—he always thinks he’s the smartest man in the room. For someone already familiar with the character and his story beats, each moment seemed to lead into a second film where Stark would succumb to the drink, would find the plans for his suit on the black market, would cede superheroing to his friend Rhodey. It’s also why Downey, Jr. was the only actor I could have ever seen in the role. You could tell which film critics, upon the movie’s release, were not familiar with the character of Iron Man—they were the ones surprised at Downey, Jr.’s performance. Even the actor himself has said that this was the part that his life had built to.
Having already all but quoted verbatim the entire scene from season one of The Wire, where Sgt. Jay Landsman describes Jimmy McNulty, I should point out that the film’s ending echoes—very faintly, of course—that show’s fourth season finale, when audiences were pleased to see McNulty return to Major Crimes (unless they’d followed the show from the beginning, in which case it was clear that he was damning himself). Similarly, Stark’s full assumption of his title in the final scene press conference signals that his fate is sealed—he’s destined for the same fate as his comic equivalent, a victim of hubris. His one-man assault on Afghanistan, the most politically questionable scene in the film, makes more sense when you realize that the character’s arrogance in even traveling there will not be celebrated in the long run. The film is fully accessible on one level, and on another for fans—which is also to say, it will reward a revisit if the planned sequel manages to execute these ideas properly (and Favreau and Downey, Jr. have both insisted that this is, in fact, the road that they want to take).
XX. “This is holy.”
The question of accessibility haunts Warren Ellis’s strongest book, in part because Planetary is his one metafictional work. Metafiction is downright common in superhero comics: Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Flex Mentallo; Lethem’s Omega the Unknown; Steven Seagle’s It’s A Bird…; Jim Starlin’s Warlock; fourth wall-breaking humor books like She-Hulk and Deadpool … in DC’s “silver age,” an alternate universe was visited from time to time populated by the superhero writers and artists, called “Earth-Prime.” [That Earth-Prime eventually acquired its own Superboy, and said Superboy later became a universe-destroying psychopath … it’s something of an existential nightmare.]
When dealing with characters who often serve as metaphors, it’s almost harder to steer clear of using them to comment on the genre itself. Ellis’s title never really feels comfortable being a superhero book—its characters wear costumes of a sort and have powers, but they are leaders of an organization, explorers, and archaeologists. That the mysteries they uncover are based on our modern mythologies means that superheroes are brought up constantly, but usually approached with tweezers.
Elijah Snow, another of Ellis’s “Old Bastard” variations, is brought into the fold in the first chapter, meeting super-perfect Jakita Wagner and spastic technomage “The Drummer.” He is invited to join them in uncovering the strangeness buried by the twentieth century. While the plot of the book’s first half involves a central mystery (Snow is “The Third Man” in a team that always numbers four—the identity of The Fourth Man is not so much shocking as the inevitable result of a steel trap narrative), it’s their discoveries that propel the book and leave an impression on its audience: it’s not that Snow and his comrades discover the remains of famous (and not-so) stories so much that they discover what was once beautiful and powerful about them.
In the book’s second chapter, a Japanese cult leader in search of a safe haven leads his militia to a small island off the nation’s coast, in a territory of disputed ownership with Russia. What they find are the remains of the gods—that is to say, the corpses of hideous animals that were the results of atomic testing. A giant moth, first, and deeper into the island, an eviscerated, hollow bipedal dinosaur.
“This is holy,” says the cult leader, and he ingests some of the infected meat. And of course it’s horrible, and faintly ridiculous, but it’s also true. Godzilla is a story with a palpable power to it, despite how the rubber suit might sometimes look or how various cash-in sequels might dilute the idea. The full-page splash of the humans dwarved by the giant corpse serves as an emblematic image for the series, grandiose and sad. John Cassaday, series artist (and visual inspiration for “The Drummer”), uses his art noveau stylings to capture the existence of the unnatural in a realistic world, cementing every image. The fluidity of motion and careful definition, especially in a sequence with a giant ant in the American southwest, draws a line evenly between the clean, larger-than-life superheroics of the silver age and the awkward posing of the B-movie posters that the concept draws from. These stories are of us and yet beyond us, Ellis is arguing, and the tragedy is how we bury them or toss them aside.
It’s somewhat amazing, then, to see him argue this in favor of the superhero—given his uneasy history with them. The book’s second half posits antagonists for “Planetary” in the form of a mirror image of the Fantastic Four. Sadists with Nazi ties, they have systematically suppressed the past and present discoveries and parceled minor advances to mankind when it amused them. It’s a complex portrayal, not in terms of character—most of “The Four” are fairly thin—but in metaphor. It’s a commentary on the failed promise of the Cold War space race (a concept similarly exploited on the deceptively-sharp animated program The Venture Bros.) and is an extension of the “real” Fantastic Four’s behaviors in their own comic; but also, on how Marvel’s first superhero team signaled a major sea change, introducing “the flawed hero” and trampling over the golden age. This argument is reinforced significantly in a chapter where The Four wipe out the existence of characters based on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. In a spare few pages, Ellis establishes the poetic beauty of each origin story, and then cruelly murders the character before their story has begun.
Ellis employs his varying views on superheroes in Planetary to comment on the genre as a whole, on its origins, and on its schizophrenic nature. In the first chapter, superheroes are world-conquerors that wipe out the noble and naïve pulp heroes like “The Shadow” and “Doc Savage.” In another chapter, one superhero is an explorer of the cosmos, able to go where mankind cannot and bring knowledge and beauty to all. The morality concerns of the superhero genre are played out in the contrast between the mirror images of Planetary and The Four. They could be all but interchangeable, except that The Four are insular, selfish—they want the awe and wonder to themselves, their “secret club”—they are the embittered hardcore fans, the narrow-thinking publishers, the lazy creators.
But it’s a very, very thin line. Ellis used a trio of cash-out crossover stories as an excuse to pare down the subtlety of the story proper: In the first, Planetary and The Authority come into contact briefly, and Planetary notes how close to evil the overpowered team really skates. In the second, an alternate version of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman battle a version of Planetary that has chosen the road of The Four, keeping their discoveries to themselves, mining the DC universe for shallow gain. And in the third, the group comes into contact with over a dozen iterations of Batman—the fascist, the camp icon, the cartoon, the vigilante. The truth, the core, that which doesn’t change, is the heart of the origin story: the boy and the dead parents, the desire for justice. The rest is interpretation, a snarl overly complicated and obfuscating the only messages that matter. Pick a version that works for you and tell your story. It’s the desire to resolve the elements together that is so alienating. The accessible and easily relatable heart of the Batman mythos—of any superhero—is too easily lost.
The most difficult and uneasy chapter of the story is, perhaps, the one entitled “To Be in England in the Summertime.” The Planetary team attends a funeral for a character based on Alan Moore’s “John Constantine” character (the loose inspiration for the Keanu Reeves film). The story is an elegy for the books that were released during the initial “British Invasion”—the books of Morrison, Milligan, Moore, Gaiman, and others. They were strange, they were psychedelic, and they were dark—they changed, at times, what the superhero could be, and their impacts are still being felt. Many of them look pale now, less resilient to scrutiny than perhaps they once did—the revolutionaries now dated and out of place. Swamp Thing, Sandman, Animal Man, and others gather around the burial plot, and Snow points out how sad they look, yes, but what could you expect? What could anyone expect from England in the days of Margaret Thatcher? Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was a call for anarchy, because anarchy seemed a reasonable alternative to the madness that was sweeping the British government at the time.
After a perfect snapshot of what John Constantine was—more charming and fascinating in its spare few pages than Reeves and company managed in a feature-length film—the culprit is revealed to be a superhero, which is to say, superheroes in general. This is their most negative portrayal in Planetary—fat, ugly, corrupted, and murderous. But the hero’s dialogue is interesting. Yes, the hero blames the creators of the British Invasion for bringing darkness and deconstruction, but…
“I wasn’t hip, I wasn’t trendy, I wasn’t edgy, and you know what? That was okay! […] If you didn’t want me, you should have just bloody ignored me!”
The problem isn’t one of a fan wanting things “back the way they used to be”—the problem is creators who don’t know what to do with their creations—or the creations for which they’ve been hired to continue the stories. Destroying the character isn’t character development unless you have something legitimate to say about the process. The continuity is fine for someone, so if it’s not for you, then go write a different book.
It’s said that the chapter’s end, with the Constantine-like character becoming a visual copy of Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem character from Transmetropolitan, was unscripted. On the one hand, it comes off like an unneeded arrogant swipe at the end of a fair-handed story—one that Ellis is still blamed for years since, despite his not writing it in. On the other, however, as a call to action it makes a certain sense—Jerusalem was an original character that Ellis created, one with a message (if not a particularly subtle one). Time to find one’s own way, the character says as he recedes into the shadows. Who are you going to follow as a fan—the character, or the creator? Are you as a creator going to keep working on books that aren’t yours, or create something new? For someone charged with being unfair towards superheroes, it’s an unflinching look, including towards Ellis himself. As his manifesto read, “I am part of the problem.”
The book as a whole is smart and often powerful, but this chapter, the most interesting for a number of reasons, is also the least accessible to readers unfamiliar with 80s comic books. Each chapter of Planetary took a look under the hood of some bit of pop culture—Hong Kong action films, 50s B-movies, pulp heroes, the Victorian beginnings of genre fiction. While the title works on some level as a series of adventures and an eventual confrontation with the antagonists, the level of appreciation relies entirely upon foreknowledge of the “wonders” that Planetary uncovers. While some—like Godzilla—are part of the public consciousness, some are clearly not. The ideological struggle between Planetary and The Four—between suppressing these elements or raising them up to the public as beautiful and Worthy of Attention In Their Own Right—is a battle that every reader must work out for themselves based on the limits of their own trivial knowledge, just as Ellis worked it out himself in the writing, drawing upon his own ideological concerns with the superhero genre.
XXI. “…so long as they grow out of it.”
At least one daycare has banned superheroes for inciting aggression in children. On the one hand, given the aggression and “mature” themes that the books have taken of late, it’s somewhat understandable; on the other, it’s a very faint echo of the days of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate subcommittee hearings that inspired the creation of the Comics Code Authority as recently retold in David Hajdu’s bestselling The Ten-Cent Plague, the idea that the genre is inherently corrupting.
There is, however, another point of view. Art Spiegelman gave a lecture not long ago, to talk about his recent book Breakdowns and offer a sort of “Comics 101” for the uninitiated. While reporting the event, Austin Kleon noted something interesting:
“He kept talking about how our brains are ’hard-wired’ to understand comics, so I asked him if he’d come across any specific pieces of neuroscience on the subject that he’d recommend reading. He told me cognitive psychology is a much richer place to look, and gave examples: babies recognizing a smiley face before they can recognize their mother … baby red-beaked birds preferring the caricature of their mother to their real mother—worms fed to them with red chopsticks!”
Spiegelman’s examples aren’t really about “comics” at all, they’re about cartooning—imagery of a certain style. Comics, as I discussed in my previous installment, are part of a visual language that is parsed differently than film or prose. However, I would say that we start out “hard-wired for comics.”
James Kochalka, in his own polemic The Cute Manifesto, suggested himself that “The structure of comics matches the pattern of wiring in our brains.” As Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, children find the merging of words and visuals natural—indeed, instinctual, a necessity when the vocabulary is so much smaller. When a child draws a picture of their family, they add text to the image to support what they’re trying to get across, and they learn to read by matching text and visual in picture books. At some point, however, that ability is drilled out of a young student. We’re each taught to divorce image from text, and to elevate text above all—the better to write the theses that get us through the educational system.
On the one hand, it’s a necessary evil, as using text alone is what helps us learn to organize thoughts and deliver convincing arguments. On the other, visual language is our most universal communication tool—check safety warnings on airplanes or furniture assembly instructions—and giving up that natural faculty is a major loss. I have a friend who serves as a teacher and art therapist at an alternative school outside of Chicago—he works with children with varied levels of emotional development issues as well as other behavioral or psychological issues. It’s been his experience that, with some of his students, creating comics together has been the only way to get on an even level of communication and enable the youths to open up. Working in visual language has enabled a different form of intimacy and provides more than one level to interpret. His thesis, including a case study with a student that he’d worked with heavily on a comic project, is released and available publicly. He has also, from time to time, used video games as a classroom community-building tool to impressive results.
There are reports of people unable to read “sequential art” at all, a sort of “comics illiteracy” that results not from any lack of desire to engage with a well-though-of work, but rather an inability do one of two things: to process the “closure” between panels (to translate two points into a line, essentially), and to synthesize the text and the images together in each panel and in sequence, rather than taking in one and then the other, which leads to an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. The idea being that even Garfield is difficult for them to translate (although the lack of discernible motion in most Garfield strips probably makes it a suitable remedial class). Text and images are processed each by a different half of the brain, and so those halves need to operate in tandem to read a comic. [For those who believe bicameral theory—that it was, in ancient times, the signals passing between the less-connected halves of our brain which led to beliefs in deities—you could write up a fairly interesting tangent, particularly when our first writing, picture writing, often depicted those ancient stories as a means to explain the universe.]
Frequently, however, difficulties in reading graphic novels are a more banal question of composition. In Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden make a point of referencing the most common and frustrating error in page layout, putting more than one tier of panels next to a tall vertical panel, which confuses the path of your eyes as they travel across the page (another similar problem can come from identical panel grids on either side of the book’s spine—it becomes difficult to tell if the two pages are to be read as a splash, horizontally, or as separate pages). To claim that only superhero titles feature these particular errors in composition would be skewing the data—alternative comics, for their part, rarely do much in the way of dynamic layout. That said, there are more specific compositional elements that can impact a reader, particularly an “untrained reader.”
While the comic panel, as discussed in my first installment of this column, is its own unit, the comic page is a single unit as well. How the panels are laid out on the page can effect all kinds of changes on the book’s tone and pacing, but that design element only succeeds when the eye is capable of traveling “correctly” through the path laid out by each panel in sequence. As in any visual art medium, from painting to film, the eye will follow lines made by the composition and anatomy in each panel, visual clues that progress the structure of the narrative. In a western comic, a running character in a panel on the left side of a page must run towards the right, to keep the eye moving, or else the reader will be jostled off of the page entirely, which disrupts the interactive reading in the same way that your avatar in a platforming video game will boot you out of the immersive experience if they fall down a bottomless pit.
If the reader has no prior knowledge of the “rules” behind the visual language of comics, then the creator must have a complete understanding of those rules in order to use them properly.
XXII. “I’m writing this for me.”
Part of the problem with fan worship is that there’s a sort of implicit understanding of an old writing maxim, that any idea, any character or concept, can be brilliant in the right hands—and superhero comics change hands so frequently that in a month’s time a derided and mediocre book can become something stand-out. Alan Moore took the perennial joke Swamp Thing and turned his book into a rueful meditation on the world of the 1980s; he later adapted third-rate superheroes owned by Charlton Comics, then recently bought by DC, into the characters in Watchmen, which is now better known than its progenitors. Jonathan Lethem adapted a forgotten 70s superhero into the literary Omega the Unknown. Ellis’s Planetary did this on a regular basis, taking worn concepts and finding the soul of them, digging them up and providing a contextual resonance—all too perfect for a story about archaeologists. When these things are possible, it’s difficult not to jump in to defend regular following of these books—though the problem is in following the characters, rather than the creators.
The previously-mentioned Matt Fraction, years before Iron Man or his surprisingly layered Casanova, once wrote an article for the comic book site CBR titled “Dabbler,” in which he said “I’m not writing this for you, I’m writing this for me.” He wrote, as only appropriate, in static images of his own life, out of order—talking about how his own life had been shaped by comics. And in the end, that’s the beauty and the tragedy of the whole thing … Movies can be shared. There is, even to this day, a powerful experience to be had in a theater surrounded by other people experiencing the same moments in cinema as you. But comics are by nature personal, singular, and the ideas that Spiegelman and McCloud suggest—“closure,” and the identification properties in a simplified “cartoony” figure—only make it more intimate by virtue of interactivity and Moulthrop’s “interstitial” nature. That superhero comics have added layers of history and continuity that throw up a barrier between “in” and “out” only compounds that. Anything that personal is going to be contentious, regardless of how “accepted” the medium has become and will become over time.
But in another installment of the same column, Fraction quotes Pauline Kael:
”…I got a lot of that kind of mail from young moviegoers, high-school and college kids, who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as excited about things like The Towering Inferno as they were. And there are Towering Infernos coming out all the time. The people on television who got excited last week by The Patriot are getting excited this week about X-Men, and they’ll get excited by something else next week. But if you write critically, you have to do something besides get excited. You have to examine what’s in front of you. What you see is a movie industry in decay and that decay gets worse and worse.”
And he contrasts that with Takashi Miike, who has so clearly been an inspiration on both himself and on his early patron Warren Ellis:
“We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget; that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie.”
Something that I hear all the time is that all media are in competition. That all of them have to battle it out for the audience’s attention, and that some are clearly going to be better than the others. Part of the impetus for my writing this column at The House Next Door is the frequent “can comics stack up to film” arguments that were starting to pop up in unrelated articles. Every medium has inherent potential; and every genre does, as well. What Ellis proved with his creation of the “widescreen comics movement” was that one of the many strengths of the comic medium is its unlimited effects budget. As Ellis himself has said: “That’s one of the things that keeps me in comics, when every day I’m given more reasons to quit—I can say what I like, and say it in one of the most accessible media there is. Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” But when it comes to the superhero genre, a genre that Ellis himself is so very ambivalent about … if nothing else, that conflict has driven his most interesting piece of work, a work with more energy and insight than any of his others.
In the end, the superhero genre, to reach the critical plateau that other graphic novels are reaching (minus the few exceptions that slip through, including some of the works that I’ve mentioned above), need to find an appropriate level of accessibility. This doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of longtime fans, though it’s often viewed as one. Despite the critical praise of BioShock and Braid, the genres of those two games, the first-person-shooter and the platformer, are not generally viewed as artistic triumphs that last—though their commercial dominance has kept both genres as two of the most well-known in gaming. But new inroads like Guitar Hero and its ilk or Nintendo’s courting of the “casual gamer” are not contemptuous towards the “hardcore” fan crowd—what is contemptuous is selling the same thing over and over again, year after year, with a slightly different art style (though I’ll argue the “Zelda” franchise with anybody, outside of this column). It requires a level of commitment that comic publishers are clearly uncomfortable with—DC Comics closed doors on its imprint for young girls without giving it a fair shake, and Transmetropolitan was the sole survivor of another wing that similarly suffered—but the reliance upon “event books” is giving them diminishing returns.
It seems like the more difficult it is to “get into” mainstream superhero comics, the more aggressive the fans get in attacking the genre and those opposed to it, equal in turn. This is what happens when you rely upon a particular character, rather than the creators who tell their stories. What’s frustrating is that when superhero stories are made into movies, everyone goes to see them—superheroes are the blockbusters of the twenty-first century—and each time, the obsessive fans wait on the edges of their seats, expecting their books to suddenly skyrocket in popularity, that a good Iron Man film will bring people to Marvel comics, as well. And when the film is based on a single novel, like Watchmen—one that’s Time Magazine’s favorite, no less—that can happen. But be it a specialty comic shop or a Barnes & Noble, the superhero shelf is a confusing morass. Manga volumes are numbered in order and easily begun—who can tell where you start when you want to read The Avengers? The reaction is often, “If you can’t follow along, you shouldn’t bother trying.” It’s like living up to the outdated stereotype out of spite.
If you can’t figure out the rules, you’re not going to want to come play. It’s a shame that sometimes the ones who try to rewrite the rules can be so conflicted, but it’s hard not to be—and that conflict makes interesting art. Some fans—and all of this, every generalized statement, is only referring to “some fans,” the bitter ones, the lifetime ones, the all-or-nothing ones—don’t want “art” in the game, and they think criticism sours it. And then they wonder why the film adaptation of their favorite book “doesn’t take the source material seriously.” The Dark Knight, in my own critical opinion, didn’t work well as a film. But it’s lauded because finally a “Batman” film was dark enough, violent enough, to reflect their comic books. I’m reminded of “Transformers” fans, polled before production on the first Michael Bay movie was finished. They were asked what they wanted most in the film, out of anything. They asked for Peter Cullen, voice actor from the original 80s cartoon, to reprise his role as Optimus Prime. The film is what it is. Cullen did a fine job with the four lines he was given. “This is what you want.” Kick! ’Splode!
But I’m not writing this for you, I’m writing this for me. I don’t hate superheroes. I’m trying to take them seriously.
In the next installment: Mapmaking and the hoi polloi—Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Dylan Horrocks, and The Prince of Persia. It will be much shorter, I promise!
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
Review: Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists
This is a satisfying survey of the artists who’re still actively turning the graphic novel into a new kind of literature.
Almost eight years ago now, Yale University Press released a thick, glossy book by Todd Hignite called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. It was a collection of interviews with indie cartoonists, among them Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. The book not only reproduced, in its almost 500 full-color illustrations, examples of the work of the artists being interviewed, but also reproduced the comics they read and loved and studied and borrowed from while developing their own way of drawing and of telling stories.
Last month, the University of Chicago Press released a book by Hillary L. Chute called Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists. While it doesn’t have as many lush, dramatic reproductions of comics new and old as Hignite’s book has, it’s nevertheless a satisfying survey of the artists who have turned and are still actively turning the graphic novel into a new kind of literature—and in so doing are now being stamped with the approval of academia and its elite university presses.
Chute’s book contains 11 interviews and spans the range of the comic medium’s creativity, from the artists whose work is fully fictional (Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine), to work that’s closer to memoir and essay (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Spiegelman), to new forms of political journalism (Joe Sacco and Phoebe Gloeckner), to theory and aesthetics (Scott McCloud). Chute also interviews two women who were at the helm of the most important underground comics magazines of the 1980s: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who co-edited Weirdo with her husband Robert Crumb, and Françoise Mouly, who co-edited Raw with her husband Art Spiegelman, and who today is the art director of The New Yorker.
Chute is a minimal presence in the interviews and gets her subjects to talk about how they got into comics, how they got their breaks as professionals, and what their stylistic and storytelling preferences are. The conversations are cross-cut with full-page excerpts from the cartoonists’ work, allowing you, while reading, to take a detour into a page from a graphic novel, then return to the interview and keep on going. In Chute’s interview with Ware, there’s a two-page spread of how a single page of his comics grows from fluffy sketches with a non-photo blue pencil, to then having black ink applied and all the details sharpened and the text written out, to then, finally, having color applied digitally and, as it were, all the scaffolding taken down and cleaned away. Those two pages alone can teach you more about how professional creativity works—about what it takes to go from a vague notion of a scene in a story to actually having that scene become polished and sharp and legitimately, nicely, beautifully finished—than a semester of art classes or creative writing workshops.
If there’s something missing in Outside the Box, it’s the acknowledgment of cartoonists outside the U.S. and the English-speaking world who are also creating the kind of dense and confrontational and artful comics as the people Chute interviews here—cartoonists in Canada like Seth and Chester Brown, or in Europe like Joost Swarte and Ulli Lust, or in South Africa like Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes. It may be the case that New York, Chicago, L.A., and the Bay Area are where the majority of the people in this book either currently live or got going in their career, and yet it’s just plain old provincial to assert that it’s only in America that worthwhile work is being done today in indie comics.
Aside from that, how refreshing it is to listen to these cartoonists talk about a branch of the culture here in America that isn’t plagued by feelings of decay, repetition, malaise, or despair. Yes, it’s a little unnerving that indie comics are being swept up into the machine of academic scholarship, as if soon enough they’ll become ossified and frozen and just another object for observation, but that hasn’t happened quite yet, and these interviews are as good a reminder as any that, at least for the world of alternative comics, the blood is flowing and the people believe.
Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists is available now from University of Chicago Press; to purchase it, click here.
Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital
Aside from expected essays on film adaptations, there are a number of pieces that roam free from these constraints.
Several weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague asking me to explain why it is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier had broken the April box-office record for biggest opening weekend: “What’s the urgent need to give a history of contemporary geopolitics from the standpoint of superheroes?” While I didn’t have an immediate, comprehensive answer, Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital seeks to answer this question (and many more) via an eclectic collection of 13 essays, each one examining various, emergent features of the superhero narrative in the digital age—roughly the last decade and a half.
Editors James Gilmore and Matthias Stork write in their introduction that the superhero genre is “a site of converging media and, as such, offers multiple points of intermedial exchange.” This point is key, since much of the collection is aimed around Henry Jenkins’s notion of “convergence culture” and Jonathan Gray’s definition of “paratexts.” Essentially, the collection of essays seeks to demonstrate how “the form of today’s superhero genre relies on digital technologies,” but Superhero Synergies is more than a rehashing of well-trodden terrain regarding indexicality or a celebration of comic-book culture. Instead, the essays form a rigorous and often provocative collective that, among many of its achievements, argues for these transmedia forms (primarily cinema) to be taken seriously as a reflective expression of contemporary discourses on reformed digital aesthetics and neoliberal politics.
Like many collections, the essays are loosely united around a common theme, but with sometimes divergent or methodologically varied approaches. Gilmore and Stork admit as much, calling their book “a confluence of ideas that at times complement and at times challenge each other,” and in this case, the strategy is put to excellent use, particularly in the corpus of paratexts and various media discussed throughout. Two essays on Hulk and The Incredible Hulk examine how digital technologies have reshaped the character’s presentation across both films. Gilmore views Hulk’s digital body in both films as “part of a larger mise-en-scène about scientific engineering,” while Matt Yockey examines Hulk exclusively, detailing how “the digital is an essential tool by which Lee represents the governing dialectic of the melodramatic superhero: the desire for perfection and the perpetual reenactment of perfection.” A focus on digitized bodies is repeated throughout, but the finest essay in this regard is a short piece by Ben Grisanti’s entitled “Melodrama, Romance, and the Celebrity of Superheroes,” which draws primarily upon theorist Richard Dyer to explain intersections between celebrity, comic books, and multimedia. It’s the kind of straightforward but well-detailed synthesis of various methodological resources that yields new and exciting avenues for further scholarship.
Perhaps most delightful about Superhero Synergies is just how synergistic its scope gets. Aside from expected essays on Marvel and DC film adaptations, there are a number of pieces that roam free from these constraints. For example, M.J. Clarke explains how comic books have been impacted by digital technologies, primarily digital coloring, and attributes several “material and institutional contexts” for these developments. Furthermore, Mathias P. Bremgartner discusses Batman Live, a 2011 stage show which contributed to the intermediality of digital superhero narratives by focusing heavily on “visual live spectacle” and reforming the well-known characters and stories, resulting in a “contemporary circus dramaturgy” and forms a unique addition to the expanding, transmedia franchise.
Lisa Gotto’s piece on the convergence of digital and visual focuses primarily on film adaptations, but does so through an exciting recasting of classic-film theorist Andrè Bazin’s discussion of the film frame, which “produces a centrifugal configuration.” Gotto uses the polyvalence of Bazin’s terminology to proffer “digital masks,” both literal and figurative, within the superhero narrative, then uses these reformed terms to show how mapping and mediation ultimately yield a “digital superhero [that] embraces multiple perceptual modes including principles of interaction as well as immersion.” As a synthesis of “fantastic views,” Gotto’s essay navigates digital spaces of convergence with a stunning degree of precision, exhibiting an inextricable influence of digital effects and spatial orientation.
The crowning jewel of the entire collection, however, is Stork’s own essay entitled “Assembling the Avengers: Reframing the Superhero Movie through Marvel’s Cinematic Universe,” which somehow condenses decades of Hollywood filmmaking strategies into an airtight case for Marvel’s attempt to “reconfigure the market context in its entirety” by comprehensively reforming the notion of a franchise, culminating in the release of The Avengers. For Stork, these developments aren’t merely coincidental, but a carefully strategized business move, “imagined in a corporate-industrial dimension,” that shifted emphasis away from auteurism as a component of franchise filmmaking. Thus, over the course of five preceding films, with features such as postcredits teasers, “team” rhetoric in interviews and press junkets, and an exorbitant $525 million credit line backed by Merrill Lynch, Disney and Marvel embarked to create “almost Pavlovian-trained” audiences that sought each new film as a new addition to this emergent “cinematic universe of convergence.”
Stork’s clarity lays bare his extensive research, which digs not just into the financial logic of revised aesthetic approaches for maximal capital gains, but also film theorist Rick Altman’s definition of “re-genrification,” which finally makes clear that Marvel’s strategies are not new as much as reinterpreted—“a new presentational model of crossover synergy.” Stork’s work here is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand precisely how corporate control yields pop-culture product. I’ll be sending his essay to my inquisitive colleague shortly—along with the rest of Superhero Synergies.
Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital is available now from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; to purchase it, click here.
Comics Column #6: Fourteen Capsule Reviews
I thought I’d take a minute to scoop up a big random pile of stuff here and do some old-fashioned reviewing.
After this columns’s previous installment, I thought the format needed a break. My wife and I have a pretty wide-reaching library of comics (and comics-related works) in other media here at the house, and so I thought I’d take a minute to scoop up a big random pile of stuff here and do some old-fashioned reviewing, the way Mama used to do it. Let’s see what I could find:
Kill Shakespeare #1, McCreary/Del Col/Belanger, IDW Publishing
Tom Stoppard this isn’t.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark is recruited by Richard III and the three witches of Macbeth, who want him to kill an evil (?) sorceror in exchange for the resurrection of his late father. The sorceror’s name is not a surprise if you have read the book’s title, or indeed, any metafiction ever written.
This comic is off to a bad start just on the basis of its back cover. The high concept pitch may have gotten the book published, but putting “…a dark saga that is Fables meets League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with a dash of Northlanders” in your cover copy is both arrogant and dangerous in the expectations it sets—and in this case does not meet. The first two books in that list offer intriguing twists on the original characters in classic stories, whereas this issue does not promise new insights so much as the sliding around of puzzle pieces.
More interesting is the claim to the third title: I haven’t read Brian Wood’s Northlanders, but one of the viking epic’s draws has been the portrayal of brutal action by a number of strong artists (though their rotation has apparently left some inconsistent story arcs). That seems to be where their claim is leading here, as the first issue is mostly set during the off-scene pirate attack in Hamlet. Unfortunately, the art is workmanlike at best, with no dynamism to the action scene and a limited range of facial expressions. Moreover, the pirate scene adds nothing to the story but “action,” and reads more like the two writers had always wanted to see the moment play out.
More petty is the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern repeat each other’s names over and over during their few pages. Were they concerned we would not be able to tell them apart? Seems pointless, as they of course die before the issue is half over. A poor beginning to a series with an idea that could be used in interesting ways under a stronger hand.
Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers, Matt Kindt, Top Shelf Productions
I’ve previously spoken highly of Matt Kindt’s Super Spy, one of that year’s strongest graphic novels. This new volume isn’t a sequel but a victory lap, a set of DVD bonus features, with some new short stories, sketches, reference photos, etc.
The short stories are notable here for being a bit more experimental than the material in the original—without having to fit into the original’s format, Kindt has more room to play around a bit. The “blur your eyes 3D” stereoscopic gimmick falls flat, but one of the book’s largest stories, in which you reassemble a set of nonlinear story beats along a map, is genuinely interesting (and fits right in with the theme of my previous article on the book). The highlight of the volume, however, is the annotations for the original text, offering commentary on process.
It’s a fun and worthwhile addendum, and for fans of the original a must-purchase, but it would make a poor introduction to Kindt’s real strengths, which play out over his long books like Super Spy or 3 Stories.
Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Starring William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Chris Noth, Gina Torres, and James Woods, Warner Bros. Animation
If you get James Woods to play a supervillain, why the holy Hell would you ask him to play the character without emotion? The actor’s strengths lie in switching between rage and smarm—even Disney knew that. It’s not a question of Woods phoning it in; even in the video game series Kingdom Hearts, reprising his Disney role, he does more heavy lifting than the next six voice actors. No, it’s a script decision to recast the evil alternate universe Batman as an emotionless psychopath, and it is a baffling one, not only on a story level (if he’s Batman’s opposite, he should be decadent, as Grant Morrison’s version of this story showed), but also drains all pacing and energy out of the film’s third act.
An early-in-their-career Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter) come into conflict with an alternate universe in which evil versions of themselves are holding the world hostage. They travel to the mirror universe and do battle. Not much else happens. Dwayne McDuffie is a strong writer, and he had a hand in many memorable episodes of the Justice League animated show, but this feature-length DVD film is spectacle from beginning to end. The Martian Manhunter is given a romantic subplot, but not until partway into the second act, and many of the characters remain as ciphers. Many of the straight-to-DVD films that DC has put out in the last few years have been lazy, but this one, based on a classic story and with the potential for an examination of moral relativism, is particularly frustrating.
There are highlight moments; Gina Torres as Superwoman, the evil Wonder Woman analogue, vamps it up and appears to be having more fun than the rest of the cast. And superhero fans get a good laugh out of which character is U.S. President in the mirror universe. But the film is largely forgettable, except perhaps for a climax which suddenly shifts in tone and has Batman straight-up commit murder against an opponent when it’s arguably unnecessary, which is difficult to swallow.
Speaking of decadence, the DVD contains a featurette with DC staffers patting themselves on the back regarding a series of poor choices and embarrassing stories over the last few years. It’s telling that they choose to celebrate their retrograde choices on the same disc as a film which reverts its heroes from the original, beloved animated incarnations of particular heroes (the Wally West Flash, the John Stewart Green Lantern) to the bland earlier versions that the supposed wider audience of an animated film would have no connection to.
The film also comes with a short based on The Spectre, largely a snoozer only worth mentioning because it used an iteration of the character that hasn’t existed in years—the current Spectre’s human host is an African-American man, and it’s clear that they went with the older character to support a lazy noir pastiche, but it speaks to a larger whitewashing of DC Comics that has been under discussion lately. Draw your own conclusions.
Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles,” Patrick Meaney, Sequart Research & Literacy Organization
I’m not entirely clear what Sequart is doing with these volumes. This is the second one they’ve done focusing on the work of Grant Morrison, and while this one is a stark improvement over the previous (Grant Morrison: The Early Years), it’s a bit of a mess.
Sequart has a laudable goal. From their website:
“Sequart Research & Literacy Organization is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting comic books as a legitimate artform. Our mission is twofold. First, we promote research into comics-related topics, publishing books and other materials that encourage comics scholarship. Second, we promote comics literacy by promoting the medium itself and encouraging others to experience the unique artform known as comic books.”
Unfortunately, this volume, like its previous on Morrison (the only ones I’ve read thus far), is only approaching these ideas in a roundabout fashion. “Research” implies a level of formalism, but of course there are no citations—indeed, there is very little in reference to secondary sources at all. This is commentary, by a fan (Meaney is also directing a Morrison documentary through Sequart), and reads like one.
The book is formatted one issue at a time, and consists of a great deal of plot summary, with interspersed analysis. Some of the analysis is strong, and there’s an awareness of how these themes tie into Morrison’s other works. That’s solid. However, the extent to which the stories are summarized feels greatly like padding—this is a book analyzing a single comic series, and people who would pick up such a volume are going to have read the series in question.
The book has a great deal of merit, but needs a much stronger editorial hand. The previous book about The Invisibles, Patrick Neighly and Kereth Cowe-Spigai’s Anarchy for the Masses: An Underground Guide to The Invisibles, was derided in some fan circles, and it’s easy to see why, as that book featured a lot of opinion on particular stories and plot twists, opinion which doesn’t really fit a guide that offers analysis and supplemental reading. Unfortunately, Meaney suffers from the same problem, and a lot of “this issue really moved me” and “this one is my favorite” slips in, as well as a lot of opinion on recent American politics, which makes the volume feel like a collected set of blog entries. The former volume’s explication often went so basic as to be condescending (it explains to the audience who John Lennon is), whereas Meaney sometimes assumes you know a little too much. Both volumes offer explanations of different ideas, and each offers some theories that the other doesn’t, and one can imagine that a good editor could probably merge the two books into one better one, with a bit less plot regurgitation.
The Invisibles is a complex work, and it’s nice to see more books looking back on it not only as its own book, but how it fits into Morrison’s oeuvre. However, the book isn’t strong enough to “promote comics literacy” or serve as a text on its subject of analysis. Sequart is going to have to diversify their subjects—and their authors—if they want to serve their mission statement.
Mirror’s Edge, Pratchett/Smith, DC Wildstorm
When my wife picked this book up, she was not aware that it was based on the game for the Playstation 3. The game, which I haven’t played, received criticism for (among other things) poorly conveying the dystopian story that underpins the mechanics. The setting is an Orwellian nightmare city where all communication is controlled except for messengers who scale the roofs and balconies Parkour-style. The graphic novel is an attempt to clear up the game’s backstory, which would be great if said backstory wasn’t paper-thin and cliche.
Faith (groan) is a new “Runner” with an older mentor and parental issues, and a sister who has joined the enemy police. She learns that her absent father is still around and is a target of the enemy, and in rescuing him comes face to face with the truth about who her parents really were. A very bland set of revelations telegraphed miles in advance.
The book’s art style is appropriate: when conveying Faith’s acrobatics and feats of balance in the air, there is a great sense of motion and a lot of money shot poses of her “cool moves,” but whenever details are to come into focus, things collapse. Most egregious may be the portrayal of a seedy strip club bar, which looks airy and spotless, even as Faith is revolted at how sadly it’s fallen from its days as a charming pub hangout. It took a second time rereading the scene to even understand that it was supposed to be a strip club. The book is a style over substance exercise without half the style to support it.
Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Knopf (Random House)
At C2E2, the new Chicago convention, they were handing out a pile of these little graphic novels for kids. They’re cute, the quality varies of course, but this one may have been the most fun, casting school lunch ladies as super spies with an array of cafeteria-themed gadgets. They all have a monochrome-with-one-accent style, in this case yellow, and Krosoczka’s cartooning is expressive and simple. It was an enjoyable enough little breeze, though I wonder if it’s quite charming enough for children to re-read.
The evil plot the lunch ladies must foil involves a science teacher replacing the other teachers in school with cyborg substitutes who are no fun, so that he’ll become the favorite teacher. Which is silly enough, except…I don’t know, casting the fun teacher as the villain and the other teachers as possible slaves of said villain kind of gives the wrong idea, doesn’t it? Probably just me.
G.I.Joe #155 1/2, Hama/Padilla, IDW Publishing
May First was this year’s Free Comic Book Day, an annual event timed to coincide with a major superhero film release, in which the publishers give out free books to encourage comic shopping. Comic shop patronage goes up a little, there are sales and signings and events—it is virtually the only time that I see kids visit comic book retail stores in Chicago. This year’s batch of freebies may have been one of the most cynical collections yet, overall. There were still some fun releases, but the ratio of give-aways that were not even comics, but collections of advertisements and checklists, was higher than ever.
One of the releases was this prelude to a new ongoing G.I.Joe series, reuniting Larry Hama with the property that he built single-handed at Marvel in the 1980s. Hama’s actual military experience always lent the original title a surprising realism that battled tooth and claw with increasingly ridiculous characters and equipment that were dictated by Hasbro in the book’s service as a toy advertisement (Hama always did a better job with his property than the Transformers writers did, sadly).
Nostalgia’s newest hold on the superhero comics business has been the institution of a series of books where creators are given their own title to continue formative runs of their work from decades earlier. Chris Claremont, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the X-Men as we view them in the modern day, has come back to continue his original story in X-Men Forever, and that book has inspired a number of other Forever spin-offs with other creative teams. Hama’s return to G.I.Joe is in this vein, and so it’s destined to suffer a similar problem that the other books in this style already have: that is, it’s been decades, the world has changed, the characters have been used since, and there’s no such thing as a “perfect reset.”
This prologue issue involves perpetual antagonists COBRA putting a secret government agency in their back pocket (written for maximum current political commentary) and a catch-up on the status quo vis-à-vis their perpetual infighting and frequent brainwashing of each other. It’s decent enough material, but everything is off by just a degree or two, as Hama’s style has changed naturally over the years. The dialogue is off just that little bit (Destro and The Baroness, two of Hama’s pet characters, suffer the most here, and a confrontation between two other characters is awkward given their long history rubbing up against the aforementioned brainwashing). The art is competent but boring—the original title’s run had some talented artists and some hackwork, and this falls closer to the “talented” side, with solid figurework that move naturally, but the action sequences are a little perfunctory and have little pop to them.
For a freebie leading into the story, it’s fair work but doesn’t fully entice. You don’t get any more sense of how the series is going to work than you would have without it.
Krazy Kat (A Novel), Jay Cantor, Vintage (Random House)
Cantor’s more recent novel. Great Neck, also dealt with comics; the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s were partially framed in terms of a fictitious underground comic and its characters as superheroes, with only a cursory glance at the actual comics industry of its time. The book was well-crafted but largely an exercise in miserablism. There was, however, one really brilliant comics-related moment: the suggestion that the darker and more comparatively realistic twinge to superheroism in the wake of the birth of Marvel Comics in the 60s was a way of sublimating the pre-Code subversiveness (a parallel drawn between the silver age self-loathing hero and the shift in American Judaism to self-loathing is less solidly-delivered).
This book, though, in which legendary comic strip characters Krazy and Ignatz witness the first atomic detonation (Coconino country being not all that far from Oppenheimer’s test) and subsequently awaken to their status as characters, tears me in two ways. There are flourishes of genius and equal slogs of trite, but that also seems to be somewhat purposeful.
I asked Jog, sharpest man in comics, for his opinion on the book on Twitter:
“Yep—it’s both kind of interesting and crashingly obvious, very much the product of some inherent whoop-de-doo whimsy, assumed from dragging cartoon characters into elaborated sexual and political personae. A little condescending. But some decent ideas…felt like a modern superhero revamp to me, a ’rethink’ that’s more common, reflexive now.”
He’s a very prideful author, to be sure. And he does seem to know the material, Tiger Tea and all. I think that, as precious as some of the individual ideas are, the satire of using critique to justify “low art” worked at large. He’s playing with two conflicting ideas, that by dissecting and postmodernizing the characters, they become “rounded,” versus their “less-rounded” nature being what allows criticism in the first place. But he inherently segregates into “high art” and “low art” to make his argument in the first place, which mucks it all up and raises the question: is this exercise because Krazy and Ignatz are iconic, or because as comic strip characters, they’re simplistic enough to fuck with? The “love them” versus “using them” argument then overpowers a lot of what he’s trying to do. It’s a fascinating book, even if it’s not a perfect one by any means.
Unknown Soldier Vol. 1, Haunted House, Dysart/Ponticelli, DC Vertigo
Dr. Lwanga Moses, Ugandan expatriate, returns to his homeland to provide humanitarian aid in 2002. However, the enormity of the situation there quickly tries his pacifist stance, and awakens something buried deep inside him, an unstoppable soldier bred to destroy everything in its path. Moses, at war with himself, attempts to use these sudden and surprising skills to fight a one-man war against an entire nation’s suffering, even as the C.I.A. roll into Uganda to follow up on an old project.
The story is meticulously researched, well-scripted, and is unflinching in its portrayal of Uganda. The art’s scratchy, dirty style is visceral and portrays the violence as ugly while still conveying the skill of “The Unknown Soldier.” It’s a brilliant book, except that its very premise is controversial and difficult. A drama set in war-torn Uganda is enough without the genre trappings that no doubt helped get it published (the character’s name and bandaged face mark it as a new iteration of a DC-owned war character dating back to decades ago). The mystery of what has been done to Moses and why he has these skills is well-conveyed and engaging, but in the face of the rest of the book, it trips things up. The painstaking realism dry heaves whenever Moses lets his persona take over and moves about like a superman, and speaks to the Twilight Zone that is mainstream comic books.
That said, in its final pages, Dysart attempts to lay out a way of making the two books that he’s writing here dovetail into one ethical examination. Moses declares his new statement of purpose, his one man war, and a supporting character states the obvious: “But that means declaring war against an army of demoralized children.” Uganda has no action movie fix to its problems, and Dysart clearly wants to get at that, and in the process he may along the way offer trenchant critique on the American desire for a fictional solution to problems they don’t want to pay attention to. Unfortunately, he has a long and difficult road ahead of him if he’s going to get anywhere with it, and despite the story’s strengths, it may in the end prove too difficult, considering the cognitive dissonance that the book has thus far provided.
Sparta USA #1, Lapham/Timmons, DC Wildstorm
This wasn’t a Free Comic Book Day release, per se, but some of the local comic shops were giving away #1 issues of a number of recent titles, which tends to be far more useful for publishers than the specially-targeted crossover advertisements that they ship out for that event. Chicago Comics, I know, was handing out first issues for the Morrison/Phillips mini Joe the Barbarian, a beautifully-drawn fantasy comic that at its halfway point is only just barely now hinting at the idea of thematic layering, and for the Ba/Moon Daytripper, in which the twin brothers (new favored sons of pop mainstream comics) do a riff on the magical realist novels of their South American heritage—their gifted linework only somewhat masking the triteness of their “carpe diem” storytelling.
But this one I hadn’t read, and David Lapham built up so much credit (which he is burning through rapidly) as the creator of Stray Bullets, still a landmark for crime fiction in comics, that it was worth a read… I missed Lapham’s last book, Young Liars, which had a pretty even split with readers, who only apparently agreed on the word “crazy” as a descriptor. It seems equally relevant here, if not moreso.
The story is apparently about a not-so-idyllic small town under the control of a blue-skinned man named The Maestro. The residents seem under the impression that they are living the American dream, but the only resident to leave the town borders has returned (with red skin) to tell them that “America” does not exist and that he has returned to free them. The opening pages that establish the community are full of blunt-object political commentary, overly cynical about red state ideals, which makes the flipped skin color of the two opposing forces the only interesting twist. Most of the first issue is concerned with a power struggle between residents whom we’ve yet to actually meet—little of Lapham’s economical storytelling seems in play here, and the characters are all ciphers.
But, of course, the most off-putting detail to the book is the one which has come up with every review. Photo refrencing versus tracing versus original figure drawing is an argument that could easily fill a column on its own, and anyone that does care about that argument should be reading Dave Sim’s Glamourpuss for a look at how all this got started and also so confused; but all of that dialogue falters before the simple fact that the hero (?) of Sparta USA looks like Colin Farrell and it’s distracting me from the story. I don’t know if everyone here knows that a big part of the reason for casting Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in these Marvel movies is because writer Mark (Kick-Ass) Millar deliberately based his new Nick Fury on Jackson, and that everyone viewed it as (A) distracting, (B) a shameless attempt to get him interested and subsequently cast, until it actually worked. As many comic artists become less and less concerned with hiding which actors they’re referencing, we’re only going to see more of these books, which are unreadable because we’re all too busy trying to figure out if they’re just movie pitches in comic form or comic stories with lazy artists.
With a writer like Lapham supposedly steering this project, we should be able to expect better.
Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 20-22, Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media
We just caught up on these here at home, after a prolonged period when we couldn’t find volumes without ordering online—which I thought was strange, since this series has always been a phenomenon here in the States, and even now is enjoying a resurgence due to a brand new anime series.
That said, the extended break from this series did it no favors with me. I’d always been a bit surprised with how much I ended up enjoying this manga series, about state-controlled “alchemists” (their use of the term “alchemy” basically gives it an all new definition) at war with a group of homunculi based on the seven deadly sins. It comes, I think, from an adolescence spent soaked in console RPG video games—the title was originally published in Square Enix’s manga magazine, and reads very much like a manga conceived as an RPG in print (one of many reasons that it’s so baffling how bad Squeenix’s game adaptations of the series have been to date). Protagonists and characters who could easily be called “NPC’s” slide around the board into various configurations, engage in short skirmishes before a “boss battle” in which someone is finally killed off. The early volumes were especially notable for this, as main characters Edward and Alphonse Elric would go to a new town on the world map and get tangled up in a new conflict which fed back to the main plot—there was even Squeenix’s favorite Final Fantasy staple, the battle aboard a train. Contrasted with many of the popular shonen titles, Fullmetal Alchemistwas also notable for having protagonists who were not concerned with being the best at their particular field, except insofar as an increase in their abilities might aid their quest for a more concrete and identifiable goal, the restoration of their own bodies.
As the series enters its last act, however, the building sense of menace is starting to give way. So many characters need page time, and the political maneuverings which gave the earlier arcs needed grounding have now created so many double- and triple-agents, that no time is given for any particular event to breathe, which is unusual in a genre that usually runs overlong in order to let things play out. And indeed, there’s something very Western in the way Arakawa tells the story. The panel-to-panel and page-to-page pacing rarely slows for action, the way it would in traditional shonen: pages flow vertically, rather than straight-shot horizontally.
To steal a remark from Jog, talking about a different manga:
…for youth-targeted genre manga of this type, panel-to-panel flow is crucial to the expression of action. Time is dilated to a considerable extent, while place dissolves into temporary lines and partial white void, pliable in much the same way as the emotive character cartooning typical to Japanese comics. Of course, manga like this also benefits from a fairly secure industry allowing for long, steady serialization of self-contained stories (and proctoring the assistant-stocked studio setup often necessary for continuous production), which encourages the use of page space for stretched time; even at the height of the ’decompression’ popular half a decade ago in Marvel comics, the effect of wide panels and bleeding pages was primarily the conveyance of enormity.
And “enormity” is the only thing Arakawa will pause for, the earth erupting due to a well-timed spell or a villain’s transformation to a giant lizard creature. In earlier volumes, this technique (along with making it very approachable for Western audiences) allows Arakawa to have some grace notes with regards to character and dialogue, but in the ramp-up to the final battle, all that’s left is exposition and witty rejoinders, and so Fullmetal Alchemist reads more than ever before like an American superhero comic, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses.
Long-running series of this type usually creak at this stage, however, between the final moments of character growth and the action climax, when characters and plots get juggled around. Arakawa has plenty of time (and pages) to bring things to a conclusion worthy of the book’s earlier volumes. However, there is a sense that the mangaka may have gotten tired, maybe frustrated at having the anime lap the book twice over now (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, still working on the original Evangelion manga adaptation, could relate, I’d think), and while the series has been on the whole reliably entertaining, there may in the end be nothing to the book as clever as the original two character designs, for the two Elric brothers, still one of the smartest designs in recent shonen history.
Problem Sleuth, Volume 1: “Compensation, Adequate,” Andrew Hussie, Topatoco
MSPaint Adventures may be one of the most consistently reliable, enjoyable sources of humor and entertainment on the internet; and the level of craft that Hussie now displays on an almost-daily basis (he updates more often and regularly than most any other cartoonist I can name, but he’s been understandably intermittent of late due to concerns out in the “real world”) belies the bad-on-purpose aesthetic that his website’s title would imply, a title which was initially far more accurate, if almost never literally true. The only thing that might trip him up a little bit is the argument some quarters might forward, which would be that maybe what he’s doing isn’t actually “comics” at all.
This sort of defining for defining’s sake always leads too far off the road for me, this “what is comics and what is not,” it’s just not all that useful except when you’re looking to exclude things. That said, Hussie’s projects on that site have consistently poked at the boundaries of the form, for the most part without much thought or recrimination. The style of MSPaint Adventures is to mimic, to some degree or another, the old-style graphic “point and click” adventure PC games of the previous generation. An individual panel represents, to some greater or lesser degree, the window that would contain the game screen, and so the majority of the time there is only one panel on screen at a given time (which an orthodox proponent of McCloud’s definition of comics would immediately raise as a red flag). More interesting has been his intermittent use of multimedia.
A friend and I once went to a talk where Ivan Brunetti (a cartoonist who gets to sit at the table) scoffed at the idea that comics were flourishing on the web—this was a couple of years ago, but not that many, before some trends but well after some others—and he said a thing that we’ve always found funny, that he literally could not conceive of doing a comic online without adding in sound, animation, etc, that the temptation would be too great and that no cartoonist, unequivocally, would be able to resist that impulse. That Chris Onstad’s Achewood has now largely been accepted into the canon means there’s a readily-available single example out of the trillions to hold up (second place being, I suppose, Penny Arcade, not for the artistic merit or lack thereof but merely for the sheer size of its phenomenon) as proof that Brunetti was being a characteristic crank. But some cartoonists have been probing those regions, either as deliberate experimentation or just for the sake of their particular story. At this point, Hussie’s current comic Homestuck, midway through serialization on the site, has contained not only animated gifs and embedded music, but full animated Flash sequences, interactive battle sequences, embedded minigames, and in a few instances full-fledged game sequences which can take up to an hour to explore while still representing a single “panel.”
There were minor animated images in his earlier works, but the real root of this style came in Hussie’s year-long epic Problem Sleuth, the (ostensible) story of a detective who has locked himself in his own office and requires the reader to assist him escape through the solving of Sierra/LucasArts-style adventure puzzles. Hussie’s more deliberate experimentations have involved varying degrees of reader input, and in the case of Problem Sleuth, virtually every “game command” which would lead to a new panel was provided by the readers. It’s very silly, of course, and part of the appeal is watching Hussie dance with the readers as they each try to foul the other up. Homestuck is deeper, and relies upon actual characters, and is an all-around more satisfying read, but Problem Sleuth is arguably a “purer comedy” for its devotion to the slapstick and running gags at the expense of virtually everything else.
Topatoco has released the first of a series of print volumes collecting Problem Sleuth now, and the book takes on a second dimension in that it is an interesting case of something very specifically designed for the web making the formatting jump back to print. Some things get lost—certain jokes that relied upon the animation are here watered down—but the consolidation of multiple panels to a page and the removal of the multimedia also bring it back in line with more traditional “comics,” and inadvertently reinforce the narrative aspects of the project: it feels more like an actual story now, albeit one that’s a goofy parody. The flip side is that the feeling of “playing” the adventure game is eliminated almost completely, which makes the format seem a little more arbitrary than in its original format. In one respect, though, this brings out a bit of humor that was a bit lost in the original, the idea of keeping track of each character’s “inventory,” because the smaller panels make that part of the artwork a little harder to make out in the strip’s rough style—only, you lose nothing from not keeping track, as the collection of items was always played for humor and becomes more and more pointless as the story goes on.
The book thus becomes an interesting artifact as well as a funny comic; the only downside is Topatoco’s poor editing job. There are a number of typos (even in the indicia) and production gaffes (a footnote repeats on two pages), which makes the whole thing look a little more unprofessional—ironic, given the aesthetic style of the comic in general.
Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, Edited by Brendan Burford, Villard (Random House)
Anthologies. Sigh. Comics don’t do well with anthologies, generally speaking. Other media have similar problems, but price points and varying art styles widen the gap further in comics.
The subtitle is instantly off-putting, as well, “Nonfiction Picto-Essays.” It’s because there isn’t anywhere near enough cohesion to the pieces contained within the book, some are autobiographical, some are reportage, some are something else entirely. The book frustratingly reads throughout like an attempt to put something together solely for use in schools, “everyone pick a piece and write on it,” etc. There’s some solid work in here—Alex Holden’s “West Side Improvements,” about particular graffiti, has terrific linework and uses the comics medium particularly well to tell its story, as opposed to just fitting the story to form after the fact, as some of the pieces do (including “Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz,” written by the editor). Victor Marchand Kerlow’s portfolio-piece collection of full page sketches of subway buskers, on the other hand, is non-narrative, non-sequential, and is text-free, barely fitting into the anthology at all.
Some strong work lies within (including an appearance from Nick Bertozzi, who as the largest name involved understandably opens the book), but the book is so non-notable and directionless that there’s little to recommend it overall.
E-Merl.com, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Online
E-Merl was, actually, one of the very first comics I ever publicly reviewed, back a couple of lifetimes ago when I was doing reviews for Cellar Door Publishing, an indy comics outlet, back when my review of Scott Pilgrim could still be counted as shedding light on an undiscovered gem. Cellar Door has just started putting out a very sharp book by a very good friend of mine, Richard Carbonneau’s The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons, which would be unprofessional of me to review. But reviewing E-Merl all those years ago, I enthused:
“Merlin is one of those guys who makes the miraculous look so simple that you almost want to hate him for it. Better instead to hate his sadistic avatar Mr. Nile… Merlin and Mr. Nile don’t just experiment with the comic form—they are full-blown mad scientists, and their twisted creations now run rampant across the internet, changing whatever they touch. When Scott McCloud spoke of “Reinventing Comics,” he was talking about Merlin…what it feels like to exist in sequential panels of movement, and how sound exists in comics. There are questions answered we didn’t realize we wanted the answers to.”
Which is hyperbolic, to be sure (I was young, your honor), but not entirely inaccurate. Merlin’s early career was about pushing those limitations of form we were just talking about, also playing with nonlinear narratives and McCloud’s idea of the “infinite canvas” potential of online comics. He was so enjoyable as a formalist, in fact, that it came as something of a disappointment when he spent the last few years focused on more traditional stories, occasional print work-for-hire, and approachable but unchallenging humor strips. They were frequently still fun, but felt like hollow works, grasps at wider audiences.
Goodbrey may have felt the same way, because upon retiring his previous humor strip All Knowledge is Strange, he revised his site and launched three strips simultaneously, two of which are the resurrections of his long-lost projects for other webcomic collectives, including the delightful The Nile Journals, a faux-journal comic for his sociopathic breakout character in an “Unfolded Earth” where the multiverse has something of the consistency of uncooked dough. The return of Mr. Nile and the way Goodbrey uses Flash to illustrate the character’s higher consciousness and shifting reality is a breath of fresh air in a webcomics community which has largely (but not totally, as mentioned above) stagnated into a series of humor strips with niche audiences that frequently overlap. It was hard to realize how much Mr. Nile had been missed until he made his triumphant return. Now all Goodbrey needs to do is follow through with one of his daring formalist hypercomics, and his site will be fully unmissable again. And with Patrick “E-Sheep” Farley making a full return in June on the wave of overwhelming fan support, we may be due for a new formalist webcomic renaissance.
There is no conclusion to be drawn from this grabbag of reviews, except just maybe a reminder of the breadth of modern comics. It’s just a snapshot of what I had around, what’s had me thinking lately, and in a few cases what’s worth seeking out. My generation of comic readers will probably be the last one to find novelty in there being so many interesting books that I’ll never get to them all, something which in this still adolescent medium was not true at all not so very long ago. I can be grateful, then, that it’s hard for me to take that for granted. It used to be that discoveries were made in a limited number of genres, from sifting through water-stained longboxes; now, it’s just a question of taking a chance on something that might be right on the shelf at the local comic shop, or the big box bookstore, or on Amazon, or hosted online as a webcomic, or as a digital download, or, or, or. Writing a lot of these reviews, when they were negative, made me tired, but looking back at the collection in full, I’m reminded how much I love doing this.
Next Time: My comics can beat up your comics!
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog Patchwork Earth.
Comics Column #5B: The Fragrance of Nostalgia (20th Century Boys)
I want to talk about an interesting comic book movie today, but first I guess I should talk about Iron Man 2.
I want to talk about an interesting comic book movie today, but first I guess I should talk about Iron Man 2.
“Doing too little with too much.”
In the third installment of this column, I said this about Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man film:
“My favorite superhero film out of the current deluge is Iron Man, a film which is 100% origin, but reads very differently with foreknowledge of the character. It was fun from beginning to end, and always true to the spirit even when the details were off by this margin or that margin. It worked as a film, even for people who didn’t really know who Iron Man was, or what he was about. Screenwriter Todd Alcott noted that when he was briefly on the project, nobody could tell him a thing about the character, except that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.
Unfortunately, I have to operate from foreknowledge that I can’t erase—for me, Iron Man plays as a tragedy. Stark is addicted to not only alcohol, but himself. This is why, in Civil War, he is capable of sliding into fascist tendencies—he always thinks he’s the smartest man in the room. For someone already familiar with the character and his story beats, each moment seemed to lead into a second film where Stark would succumb to the drink, would find the plans for his suit on the black market, would cede superheroing to his friend Rhodey. It’s also why Downey Jr. was the only actor I could have ever seen in the role. You could tell which film critics, upon the movie’s release, were not familiar with the character of Iron Man—they were the ones surprised at Downey Jr.’s performance. Even the actor himself has said that this was the part that his life had built to.
Having already all but quoted verbatim the entire scene from season one of The Wire, where Sgt. Jay Landsman describes Jimmy McNulty, I should point out that the film’s ending echoes—very faintly, of course—that show’s fourth season finale, when audiences were pleased to see McNulty return to Major Crimes (unless they’d followed the show from the beginning, in which case it was clear that he was damning himself). Similarly, Stark’s full assumption of his title in the final scene press conference signals that his fate is sealed—he’s destined for the same fate as his comic equivalent, a victim of hubris. His one-man assault on Afghanistan, the most politically questionable scene in the film, makes more sense when you realize that the character’s arrogance in even traveling there will not be celebrated in the long run. The film is fully accessible on one level, and on another for fans—which is also to say, it will reward a revisit if the planned sequel manages to execute these ideas properly (and Favreau and Downey Jr. have both insisted that this is, in fact, the road that they want to take).”
See if you can pinpoint where, exactly, Iron Man 2 went off the rails for me.
It’s very easy for me to fall too far down the rabbit hole on this. Disliking a film solely because it didn’t do what I wanted it to do before seeing it is poor criteria. However, we weren’t ten minutes into the movie before a newspaper article on screen claimed that Iron Man had solved the Middle East conflicts, at which point it was clear that the filmmakers had already forgotten that what made Tony Stark so enjoyable to watch in the first film were his human flaws, and that the political ramifications of the first film’s treatment of Iron Man’s global vigilante act were ambiguous only by accident. This doesn’t speak poorly only for Iron Man 2 when you consider that there’s a Captain America film coming our way, not so long at all after that book made national news for a political controversy.
Let’s step back for a moment. What made Iron Man an enjoyable film was its light touch; it’s true, Favreau’s visual sense was perfunctory, but his decision to put his actors up front over action scenes which have rarely impressed (which superhero movies have had truly great action sequences? The only one I hear cited is the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, which I’ve admittedly never seen—Superman rescuing the plane in Superman Returns was well-conveyed, but obligatory and politically-on-the-nose and the School-under siege bit in X2 was too short to rate, even if it was the only instance in four films when Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine seemed legitimately dangerous…come to think, the only two that have worked for me on any level were the Nightcrawler opening bit of X2 and the very brief battle between superhuman-but-not-monster Tim Roth and the Hulk in the otherwise excrecable Incredible Hulk film) was a choice that did speak of directorial vision, and put the film apart from its contemporaries, particularly that year’s self-important mess (apologies to David Fear), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This sequel, in comparison, is a series of “and then this happens” domino drops and over-labored and over-scripted banter. This culminates, of course, in Samuel L. Jackson walking on screen halfway through the film to drop a silver trunk full of exposition in Stark’s lap and walk back out, embarrassing decades of screenwriters all over the world.
It’s an old story, particularly in the genre of superhero films—cramming too many characters, too many plots, too much shit onto the screen in an attempt to top the previous movie. I mean, this isn’t an original observation, but it may be particularly egregious in Iron Man 2 because the caliber of actors that they wasted, in some cases, is downright depressing. How do you get John Slattery cast as Howard Stark and not take advantage of his talent? Was there a better actor anywhere to play the previous generation’s Tony Stark? After three seasons of Mad Men he could play the smarter-than-he-looks playboy role in his sleep, and he’s left here to deliver hoary old clunkers like “You are my greatest creation.” Also: as a long-time fan of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night I thought the addition of Clark Gregg as an officious secret agent in the first film was an unexpected treat, and he managed to hold his own on screen; in this film, he’s given two scenes, both of which are about teasing other Marvel films. Terrible.
I don’t really need to write this review, to be honest, because Matt Seitz said everything that needs be said in his recent Salon piece, and much more succinctly than I’ve attempted in all of these columns (and thanks, Matt, for taking a moment out to point out how bullshit that cable car thing was in Spider-Man). But of particular note, of course, is his remark about Mickey Rourke’s mad Russian supervillain, who seems to have wandered in from a better movie. Iron Man 2 played ever-so-briefly with the idea that Rourke and Downey’s characters were grappling with redemptive legacies, and given their near-concurrent career resurrections, that should have been perfect to fuel this film, just as Downey’s career lows fueled much of the tension in the first film. But this movie didn’t know what it wanted to be about: legacies, sins of the father, ego…none of Stark’s insecurities in the first film transferred over to this one, when they would have paralleled Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Justin Hammer. Rockwell and Rourke had some great scenes together, and each of them got to play in ways that reminded of the first film’s joys—I could have watched Rockwell stutter around Rourke for another hour—but given the plot-bulldozing pace of the rest of the film, their scenes were tonally inconsistent and wound up dragging the film’s pace in strange ways.
I’m still not entirely sure what the point of the blood poisoning was. It was thematically confusing—knowing his father loved him coincided with the cure, so it was his self-doubt or something?—and it didn’t add much to the film. Screenwriter Justin Theroux was interviewed about the idea of doing Tony’s alcoholism in the movies, and he felt it would be too unappealing, would drag down the film’s atmosphere, and settled on the poorly-motivated drunken brawl sequence midway through. Why not have the alcohol interfere with the arc reactor, then? You would get a clearer sense of Tony’s poisoning himself because of his ego and apparent feelings of indestructability, which are established in the opening scenes? He doesn’t give it up because he doesn’t want to give up his image with all of the press and Senate attention, and so endangers himself. There, I helped fix a problem and it took me ten seconds. As for the entire “discovering a new element in his basement” bit, I’ve got nothing.
As Seitz pointed out eloquently, and as I’ve spent ages slinging like a sledgehammer, we lower our standards when we go see these movies when there’s no need for it. Once we left the theater, my wife and I, as well as two friends with whom we saw Iron Man 2 (one of them, despite having a much more tolerant policy towards popcorn superheroics than I do, was intermittently bored throughout), ordered food and put a movie on in the background while we talked. That film was the first Die Hard, and we kept stopping our conversation to watch Bruce Willis tear-ass around that tower. That movie is an unapologetic action spectacle full of explosions and one-liners, and yet…And yet. Not once are we talked down to, not once is a motivation ambiguous or absent, not once does an event or a scene lack a causal relationship with the scenes before it. There are brief moments of humanity, every cast member gets at least one solid thing to do, and it is still engaging decades later, after multiple re-views, which hardly a one of the current crop of superhero movies can manage. (Say what one will about the flaws of the original Richard Donner Superman—and Seitz makes a case against them which is hard to argue—at least it’s still fun years later.)
Wait, they had a Russian villain. Why wasn’t Black Widow Russian and why didn’t she have some tie to the plot or…?
Let’s just move on.
I once had, a couple of lifetimes ago, a girlfriend who absolutely loved Bryan Adams’s “Summer of ‘69.” Always excited when it came on the radio, and often singing it to herself—though only the chorus. She thought that it was a great little love story, a “how we got together” sort of thing. I was the one who finally explained to her that the song is sad, or at least bittersweet; that it’s a wistful looking back after a life of compromises and failures. There was a period afterwards where the song was damaged to her by the “revelation,” but soon enough she viewed it the way that she always had, despite my protestations—she enjoyed the version of the song that existed in her head far more than anything that I was selling, so who was I to interfere?
Aside from showing how readily I’ll leap at the chance to ruin something for someone, the story also gets at something about the way we consume art or media. The argument over the importance of “authorial intent” has been waging since long before I was born, but it pales in the face of the idea this story represents: the narrative that we write ourselves about the art we experience or consume will override even the literal facts about that work.
[A cynic (like myself, unsurprisingly) could relate this to what feels like a growing resistance to empiricism in this country, one that feels culturally damaging. But this isn’t an article about that, it’s an article about my pithy response to comic book adaptation.]
A significant, perhaps the most significant, element to this conflict is nostalgia. “Summer of ’69” serves my example better than most would because its very content is about the two sides of what I sometimes feel might be our most dangerous emotion. Nostalgia has done a real number on the film industry of late, hasn’t it? Remakes aren’t the half of it. When Ridley Scott is supposedly working on a film adaptation of the “Monopoly” board game, the wrong hands are officially on the steering wheel.
We all have our nostalgic weak spots—I’m the one who wrote this piece for The House, after all, which strains the idea of “critical objectivity” far past its breaking point. But nobody outside the boardrooms really wants nostalgia in command, not if you straight poll them. Nobody except maybe superhero fans, who latch on to the iterations of their heroes which first capture their youthful imaginations and want that to be the status quo forevermore—DC Comics in particular is a great barometer for this phenomenon, as the “it writers” of each heroic age retcon their books back to whatever was popular twenty years earlier (I did the big superhero piece already, so just go Google up “Geoff Johns” and read the arguing if you’re interested in that sort of thing).
When a nostalgic property like a comic book or a video game or a toyline makes the transition to film, it often has the same problem that other remakes and adaptations have, and one of the things upon which nostalgia has the most influence is tone. Tone is a fickle, fluid, elusive thing, and in many cases—particularly in genre entertainment—it’s not tracked as the source of the nostalgia, even if it was one of the original work’s primary strengths. The film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a mess for many reasons, but most especially so because director Zack Snyder made a film which was in tonal opposition to the book he was adapting. A great deal of what the film lauds, the book deplores, and vice versa. It’s appropriate, then, that one of the recurring metaphors that the film largely cuts out involves a perfume called “Nostalgia,” one that serves to represent not only that feeling, but also discomfort at change, related not only to the book’s political climate but also to the superhero genre itself.
But back to “Summer of ’69.” I recently watched the first film in a live-action trilogy adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s extraordinary manga epic 20th Century Boys. The book is the story of a young man named Kenji, a man who has traded in both his family liquor business and his natural gift for music; he is a good man, who spends his days raising the daughter of his vanished sister and knuckling under at the harangues of his convenience store’s district manager, but his compromises have left him trapped and without voice, a ghost in his own life. He is drawn, as young men usually are in a story of this type, into an elaborate conspiracy that threatens the world—a fast-growing cult who worships a figure known only as “Friend,” who has begun taking steps to seize power of the world’s governments, a cult whose plans and behavior are patently (dangerously!) absurd, because the tactics were taken from a childhood game of make-believe that Kenji and his grade school friends played in the Summers of 1969 (!) and 1970.
Despite being a total of twenty-eight volumes, each containing some 300 pages of manga, and taking place over decades, the story fits (rather loosely) into a three-act structure, and so a film trilogy is not unexpected. The scale, however, is a testament to Urasawa’s status as the artistic heir to Osamu Tezuka: with a budget of six billion yen and a cast of three hundred, it’s one of the largest undertakings in Japanese film history (really, you’d think it would have gotten more notice). The scale is necessary if one is to adapt a story of this size and scope, but the tone of the film’s first installment proves to be such a mishmash that a lot of Urasawa’s strengths get dumped in the rush to get all of the plot on-screen.
Going back to an unfair comparison I made in an earlier column: If Pluto is Urasawa’s “Alan Moore” work, peeling back the layers of an established property to find the darker questions and adult themes that lie beneath (tightly-structured, if occasionally over-purple), then 20th Century Boys is his “Grant Morrison” book—messy, rollicking, joyful in execution, and constantly digging at an industry and a fandom for which he is clearly still affectionate. Urasawa, however, often trumps Morrison at one of his greatest strengths—his ability to tap-dance right across the collapsing bridge of his narrative, emerging on the other side with a bow, as if it was planned all along. Both creators have a certain flair for relying upon the ending to hold up the rest, and some of the pleasure of 20th Century Boys, like Urasawa’s Monster before it, comes in watching the man laying track just barely ahead of the locomotive. That said, what makes 20th Century Boys a classic made to endure is what he manages to layer within the story. He shares some similarities, in this particular work, with Satoshi Kon, the Ray Davies of anime, in their portrayal of the double-edged sword of fandom and nostalgia. In Kon’s work, it’s intrinsically tied into Japan’s cultural repression (most obviously evident in Paranoia Agent yet visible in most of his work). But with Urasawa it’s knottier, because it is very much about his own internal conflict—the anxiety of influence palpable in his own fan-worship of Osamu Tezuka.
This may be something that doing Pluto helped purge from his system, as there’s far less trace of it in Billy Bat, his current work, but his use of the “star system” for his characters and the many Tezuka in-jokes referenced in his works made his admiration clear even before Pluto was in his sights. 20th Century Boys is fully steeped in ambivalence towards nostalgia: Kenji is consumed with feelings about a past which he frequently can’t even remember, and the villains are all obsessed with their childhoods and the affectations from that period. The best scene in the book’s first third—both funniest and most terrifying in equal measure—is one in which the cult argue over the construction of a physically impossible giant robot, growing more and more emphatic as they splinter into factions based on which anime programs were most influential on their own childhoods. A scene terrifying because the man charged with building the absurdity is a captive whose life, and that of his brainwashed daughter, are constantly at risk. One of the heroes is a manga artist, imprisoned because a totalitarian regime will not allow stories of heroism to inspire the populace (or conflict with cult doctrine), but when a teen girl wakes in a cabin full of manga and other otaku paraphernalia (obsessively cataloged and kept in mint condition, in true nerd fashion) the cabin’s resident is immediately threatening. After the story’s climax, though, the ending discards the importance of the mysteries established earlier on about the childhood identities of certain characters—once the danger is past, part of the lesson lies in letting the past go. Urasawa sees the value and the fun inherent in certain tropes: over the course of the series, a laundry list of manga tropes from the giant robot to psychic teenagers are brought in one at a time, but each one is subverted in the end, and tossed out. And don’t get me started on the origin of the cult’s sinister-looking sigil!
The first film of the trilogy, however, for all of its budget and scope, flushes those themes and ideas and rearranges the scenes somewhat in order to present a more traditional hero’s journey. It’s so…Hollywood.
Things get off to a good start; the film shares the iconic opening scene with the manga, in which young Kenji institutes an act of rebellion by blaring T-Rex’s “20th Century Boy”—the obvious inspiration for the manga’s title—through the corridors of his grade school to an apathetic and indifferent student body. And then there’s a structural change that suggests intriguing possibilities, in which a scary mystery prisoner speaks to the imprisoned manga artist, telling him the story that comprises the film as a message of hope. In the book, this prisoner is introduced at the beginning of the second act, clearly one of the heroes to survive the first act’s conclusion, but initially a mystery. By introducing the figure at the beginning, one would believe that they are going to play off the ambiguity of the book’s first act—who will be lauded for saving the world?—but the film drops this premise immediately, playing the rest of act one “straight.” This becomes problematic with how the film has restructured, since the film leans much more heavily on an earlier tease that the villain may in fact be Kenji’s missing best friend, only to drop the idea unceremoniously despite how it would have played into the prison sequence. From there, things grow more and more problematic.
The problem is one of tone. The film succeeds in visual faithfulness in a way that I would not have imagined possible. Every setting looks staged from the panel and, even more eerie, the characters look dead-on identical, as if they’d been ripped forcibly out of the comic. With the adults it’s frightening enough, but the collection of child actors (and more on them in a minute) look so close to Urasawa’s original drawing that the similarity actually began to pull me out of the film. But much as Zack Snyder’s visual fidelity to Watchmen missed the point, here the film quickly slides from accuracy to camp. I think, honestly, part of what they were trying to do was match the character’s expressions in the manga, which is the sort of mistake Hollywood films were making a couple of decades ago—and here we can go back to something Theroux said in that interview, talking about the alcoholism, which wasn’t actually wrong:
“We realized that in a comic book you can have one key-frame where it’s a guy, drunk, but in a movie, that’s gotta be a big scene and it’s gotta be addressed…”
The visual iconography of comics is designed to communicate a great deal in a single panel, particularly in fast-moving manga. Exaggeration is a tool of the trade, and it works drawn in a way that it doesn’t on film. Nuance has to be added to bridge that gap. The only actors that seem to be getting it right are, oddly, the children, whose performances work very well most of the time, better than the adults, and are always fun to watch—of course, the kids had an easier time of it, because they have more latitude to be exaggerated because the characters are by nature excitable. But at any rate, it’s clear the director wasn’t interested in nuance, anyway, in light of the over-exaggerated “spooky music” given to every revelation in the film’s first half. The wistful scene where the heroes dig up a time capsule that they believe contains clues to the mystery only to find old porno, rotten snack food and childish drawings becomes overblown and thus disastrous.
When the first translated volumes of 20th Century Boys first hit America, comparisons came from all over to Stephen King, and indeed, there is a great deal of Stand By Me and It in the story’s first act—the material that makes up this first film. Thing is, Stephen King is really hard to adapt to film. When King is “on,” his works often rely upon internal motivation to keep things moving along, which is always the first thing to go when the book gets to the screen. Great adaptations of his work tend to either find a way to convey that or work around it (Kubrick, for one, found the themes in The Shining that he was interested in and jettisoned a lot of the rest). No such decisions were made here—indeed, sometimes it seemed like decisions weren’t made at all, like when the characters flash back to things that happened less than five minutes earlier in the film or remain motionless for too long during dramatic beats.
That said, some changes make sense. The character of Yukiji is made stronger as well as a more substantial love interest, given her limited screentime (except, oddly, during the climax). Also, while the sudden shift in time from the first act to the second in the series was a great source of suspense and mystery, it would likely have made a climax to the first film unworkable. And there are some things that film can do that the comics medium just can’t, particularly with regards to sound. And sound is important in a film where music plays such an integral role. While the decision to make the cult’s love band a group of competent musicians weakened that scene, the ability to actually play the audio from T-Rex’s song worked beautifully in the opening and, more importantly, they used “Bob Lennon.” The Urasawa-penned (and originally-sung, as in the video above) song becomes vitally important in the film’s third act, and in considering the series before I watched this film, and with Scott Pilgrim on my mind, I was musing on whether relying upon a character-written song would play. As far as the third-act climax goes, I’m still not sure, but its use towards the end of the film here was well-done, and thankfully underplayed.
In the end though, the film is a failure. Rearranging the scenes in order to give Kenji an arc shortchanges a lot of what made the original series work, and also creates strange logic gaps—in one scene, Kenji appears in a giant rabbit costume, which had to do with surveillance that he was doing in the book, but here has no logical purpose. And in the rush to make a three-picture Japanese epic film trilogy (airports blow up! Blood erupts from people’s bodies! Lasers and robots!), the message is lost entirely. Much like Kon, Urasawa has frequently been interested in the dangers of going down the rabbit hole of obsession with pop culture and the artifacts of nostalgia, and the film confirms some of his fears by being soulless and bankrupt.
It’s hard not to think about comic books when the word “nostalgia” come up—not just my own nostalgia, but in general—because it’s so very plagued with it. Not only superhero books, though certainly Chris Ware has a sour take on it (although, again, come to think, he keeps putting a superhero in his own work, even if it’s a deliberately pathetic one). It comes down, in many ways, to a very old argument, about giving the audience what it wants, versus what it needs. In the case of this film trilogy, it looks like it opted for “wants,” and is far poorer for it.
Next: Sifting through a pile of crap on my desk—don’t miss it!
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog Patchwork Earth.
Comics Column Special—More Than Meets Few Eyes At All: The Legacy of the Transformers
When I began this essay, it was Friday, May 8th, 2009, and Transformers celebrated 25 years of near-continuous presence in various media.
I was working on the next comics column, inspired by some of the welcome suggestions and comments to my last entry, when a special date snuck up on me. So do pardon my self-indulgence.
When I began this essay, it was Friday, May 8th, 2009, and Transformers celebrated 25 years of near-continuous presence in various media, from animated cartoons to live action films to, quite obviously, action figures for children and obsessed collectors. It was, actually, the comic book that was released first, with the intent to stir up interest in the new toyline. And with a sequel to Michael Bay’s spastic blockbuster film coming in a couple of weeks and the newest speciously-reasoned philosophy book recently released (surely the sign that you’ve hit the zeitgeist, right?), it’s a time of reflection for armchair pop culture theorists; what has led the property to endure—even, arguably, to flourish of late—when so many have fallen by the wayside? While critical reception to the film largely confirms the popular view that the property’s long-running fiction is little more than a facile toy commercial, is there anything buried there to hold onto?
Noted webcartoonist and longtime Transformers fan David Willis (Shortpacked!, Joyce and Walky!), in noting the anniversary date, proposed, “…perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers’ longevity. It’s free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable…Star Trek had to sludge through forty years, at the end subsisting on nothing more than fumes, before it was allowed to reinvent itself top-to-bottom for a fresher audience.” And indeed, Transformers’ numerous iterations over the years found it trendsetting as often as it drew on nostalgia (the Emmy award-winning cartoon Beast Wars, for instance, was one of the earlier uses of fully-CG animation for a wide audience, debuting only about six months after Toy Story).
In the early 1980s, Japanese toy company Takara had a number of toylines featuring transforming robots, vehicles, and animals—and none of them were especially huge sellers. The two largest, or at least the two with the best design sense, were Diaclone (which featured robots that turned into realistic cars and jets) and Microchange (robots that turned into household objects like tape players and, er, Walther P38 firearms—Microchange was also a subline of Microman, the progenitor of the also-infamous Micronauts!). At a toy show in March of 1983, representatives from Hasbro (who perhaps need no introduction in America) stumbled on the various Takara transforming toys and suggested that they could sell the toys with a solid rebranding. (Thus beginning, at the franchise’s very inception, a tradition of repainting and retooling toys that continues to this day.)
And solid it was. Calling them “Transformers” so that it was obvious what the toy was supposed to do, Hasbro licensed the property immediately to Marvel Comics. Marvel put writer Bob Budiansky on the job—it was the comic writer who came up with the tech specs for the backs of the toy packages, and thus established the basic traits for characters like Bumblebee and Megatron, who would continue to appear in thousands of different forms to this day (though it was actually editor and famed Batman writer Dennis O’Neil who named the lead heroic Autobot Optimus Prime). Even as Marvel began production on a cartoon for Sunbow Productions, Budiansky was writing the first year of comics, solidifying not only the characters, but recurring elements like the home planet of Cybertron and “the Matrix,” a Macguffin which has become an underpinning of the property’s mythos (a version of the Matrix was called the “Allspark” in the Bay film in order, presumably, to avoid confusion with the Wachowski trilogy).
Sunbow, the animation studio, was actually owned by the advertising agency that was employed by Hasbro. Ronald Reagan had recently de-regulated television advertising for kids, and Hasbro more than anyone else (save perhaps rival Mattel, owner of Barbie and He-Man) leapt through that open gate, pushing cartoons for Transformers, GIJoe, and other properties that were glorified commercials, but also (generally) vast improvements in programming for the demographic for the time period. Sunbow knew how to market, and the cartoons all featured talented voice actors (to compensate for lackluster and comparatively inexpensive animation), catchy theme music—and the characters made every excuse to call out each other’s names, locking those names into the young audience’s minds, often to this day.
The comic, meanwhile, was a limited four issue tie-in (the first issue featured cover art by the respected Bill Sienkiewicz of Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, and the Alan Moore-penned Big Numbers; and a script by long, long-time Marvel writer/editor Ralph Macchio) that was so popular and sold so well that Marvel agreed to continue the series indefinitely. During the period of Transformers’ highest recognition and sales in the toy stores, the cartoon and the comic book were both enormously popular (though their stories had only the barest minimum to do with each other—while the cartoon was similar to the other ‘80s properties in portraying the heroes as reactionary defenders against bizarre super-villain-style schemes, the comic laid the “misunderstood alien race” thick with a trowel and brought the property eerily close to the X-Men in tone). However, in 1986, a number of things happened at once:
1. Transformers: The Movie, a full-length animated feature (we’ve all heard the Orson Welles urban legend), killed off most of the beloved characters, including Optimus Prime.
2. 1986 became the year that comics exploded, and “dark, realistic” comics ran roughshod over books like Transformers, which debuted during the era of Secret Wars II (and was, like all Marvel books, technically part of that crossover—still viewed as awful by comics’ current lazy crossover standards).
3. Nintendo came to America, a move that proceeded to utterly decimate the way that kids had played with toys through the first half of the decade.
Transformers began to hemorrhage money, as the toys increasingly relied upon further gimmicks (Headmasters, Micromasters, Action Masters—the Transformers that didn’t), the cartoon gave up all pretenses and crammed the cast full of awful comic relief characters with no straight men, and the comic took an odd turn.
Marvel had a separate branch in the UK in the ‘80s, a branch which was often known for more esoteric and experimental writers—Marvel UK put Alan Moore on Captain Britain early in his career, a step on the road towards his later acclaimed graphic novels. One Marvel UK writer, Simon Furman, had been writing Transformers since the title’s inception—Transformers was a weekly book in the UK, and for every two issues that could gather material from the US title, two more had to be created whole cloth, and had to dance around the Marvel US title’s own ridiculous continuity. Simon Furman became an adept tap dancer, and with the UK title under a little less pressure from the licensor than Budiansky’s work across the pond, Furman was able to make his stories darker and more concerned with character. He gave the characters an origin story with light religious underpinnings (though with a marked similarity to earlier stories by Fantastic Four scribes). When Budiansky tired of trying to play ball with Hasbro’s demand for new toys to appear in the comic and left, Furman took over the writing duties entirely. Even after the cartoon had gone off the air, the comic continued into the early ‘90s, until even the toyline collapsed, and the comic industry was gasping for air in the days of the Death of Superman, Speculation, and the “Image Revolution.”
The fields lay fallow for a few years, but Hasbro provoked a brief resurgence with Generation 2, an early grab at nostalgia featuring largely repainted figures from early in the original toyline—the cartoon, as well, was the original show with new bumpers. It was only the comic book that struck a different tone, continuing the story where the original had left off, but now darker and more violent (showing its mid-‘90s roots) and a story that went deeper into the origins of the Autobot-Decepticon schism and how the robots operated in “families”—a major plot point was their original ability to reproduce. Generation 2 didn’t last long, and seemed to be a victim of the many toy store closings that happened at this time. The title would be a footnote were it not such an inspiration for the creators to come.
Generation 2 was dropped, but there was barely a gap before a completely reinvented Transformers franchise was released in toys and animation. Beast Wars and its sequel, Beast Machines, were controversial in the eyes of fans when they were released—the robots now became not vehicles and household objects, but animals, from insects to primates; the cartoon was now fully CG and the plot was wildly different. However, the toys were incredibly poseable (compared to brick-like early die-cast figures) and detailed, the cartoon was full of homages to the original series, and the characters were memorable and more evolved than any since the ’84–’86 era (it was too expensive to computer-animate a larger cast). Most notable, perhaps, was that the Beast era series did more to examine what exactly a “Transformer” was, canonically, than had ever been done before (more on this below). While Beast Machines is still unfairly derided by fans, the era as a whole is now considered a renaissance for the property and a sign (along with the superior, two-time Emmy award-winning Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series) that children’s entertainment was finally maturing.
Because Beast Machines did poorly (and for a number of other reasons), creative control shifted from largely-US to largely-Japanese for the next iteration of the franchise, now known as the “Unicron Trilogy” for how it focused on the titular devil figure in each of its series. The series were a mess of CGI-mixed animation and odd decisions including hip hop themes, Pokemon-style “catch ’em” plotting, and the return of added gimmicks to the toys. Opinions on the trilogy are divided, but the story’s close left just enough time for a return to “classics” (revised toys in different models, licensed toys, publisher shift of the comics from financial disaster Dreamwave to IDW) before the infamous Michael Bay picture and the new animated program that is airing its final episodes this month.
Currently, the toys have undergone such a resurgence of popularity amongst both children and now-adult collectors, that multiple lines address various versions of the story—figures for the movie, cartoon, and updated versions of classic characters war for shelf space. Recognizable characters like Optimus Prime have been placed on any licensed item that could be bought, putting the property on a level of many better-known superheroes or other kids’ properties. The “BotCon” convention gets a larger turnout every year, and recognition didn’t exactly hurt the opening numbers of Bay’s picture in 2007.
We all have, I believe, at least one thing. An affection that, if it can be justified at all, is justified weakly, with exhaustion in one’s voice. A band, a book, a reality show, a…I have a distaste for the term “guilty pleasure,” personally. One should never feel guilty for what one enjoys. That’s an old argument, of course, and not an especially deep one for a critical community. And, of course, Transformers is only barely a year older than I am. It was something that I was there for the beginning of, something constant—indeed, I personally learned to read before I could walk, and some of my first books were comic books, particularly Transformers ones. I can cite down to the number and title (Issue #7, “Warrior School!”) the book that, while not of a standard that I usually apply to the books that I examine here at the House, captivated me so fully at an age that I can barely remember otherwise that I decided on the spot that I had to write comic books, even just write about comic books, for the rest of my life.
[Apocryphal Note: It was also a Transformers story where I noticed my first plot hole, my first error, and—apparently, as this was a story told to me later—I (at seven years) wrote a three page filler story to explain whatever continuity gaffe I’d discovered, fully assuming that they would ask me if they could print the story later with full art to repair the damage. I would imagine that it wound up in a dustbin at the Marvel offices labeled “No-Prizes.”]
When prompted to explain, though, my own affection for the property, beyond nostalgia: It’s a question of potential.
When Alan Moore turned the campy, barely-noticed punchline Swamp Thing into a meditation on human nature and its relationship to the environment, all bets were largely off in the comic book community regarding what could be done with an established character. Since then, postmodernism steamrolled the superhero biz (see my fifth comics column) and any property can be mined for a (usually darker) take that’s geared for theme as much as its original idea. That nobody has done so for Transformers speaks to not only its perception as a commercial cash-in but almost certainly also the heavy hands of Hasbro and Takara, desperate to protect their trademarks—a sharp 180 from earlier days, when they assumed that children wouldn’t care about any particular character, and so fan favorites from the cartoons and comics would vanish from toy shelves entirely after their year was up.
The Transformers story, in all its iterations right down to Bay’s film, features two long-warring factions battling it out on our own home planet. Rather than the more intimately-familiar alien invasion storyline, typically the Transformers have little interest in Earth beyond using it as territory and as a source of energy to fuel the combat. It’s the clearest sign of its Reagan-era Cold War origins: Earth is Vietnam or Korea or your fire-bombed nation of choice, with giant robots serving as giant national superpowers. In contrast with its brother-in-arms, G.I.Joe (which also recently celebrated a birthday, and which also has a film due out shortly), Transformers ostensibly bears its paranoia on its sleeve. The “modern era” G.I.Joe featured “terrorists” as costumed clowns who fires Stormtrooper-esque lasers, easy to spot, easy to laugh at. A Decepticon could be anything, that plane overhead, the car passing you on the street, even the tape player in your pocket. What is odd, however, is that Transformers is more defiantly anti-war than its military-fetishist compatriot.
Consider the argument from a distance, holding one’s laughter in check for a moment. Here you have a single nation of people, split along arbitrary lines. From the moment of their birth, they know nothing of life but warfare—civilian life is not an option, you’re conscripted instantly into a battle whose origins are largely forgotten. You ostensibly argue for, pray for peace, but knowing nothing else, how can you do anything but continue taking your war with you, regardless of who gets caught in the crossfire? And while there are idealogical differences between you and your foe, indeed (depending on which version of the story is being told) there are even differences in theology, the battle comes down to nothing really but an inability to share the same energy resources.
Michael Bay’s film featured sequences set in the Middle East, but I don’t quite think the connection made it across, do you?
Where Transformers defies its obvious critical examination here is that the Decepticons are so very clearly evil in intent. There is no reasoning with Megatron, there is only battle or escape. Shades of gray fall by the wayside in favor of epic (or “epic”) battle sequences: Recent writers have attempted to explain Megatron’s backstory as a reaction to a corrupt Autobot government, an overdose of power and manipulation from above. In earlier comic book tales, he’d been portrayed as Hitler, instead. The Hitler comparison typically wins out—it’s easier, and it makes sure kids know which side to root for. Even there, as the face of the whitewashed view of warfare, it’s relevant in its way to modern audiences.
When the later cartoons, Beast Wars and Beast Machines, began their run, the situation was similar—initially unable to get away from manicheanism in a children’s cartoon, they settled for other tactics of maturing the brand. The tortured, Shakespeare-quoting character of “Dinobot,” a defector from the villain side (and a ronin poet superhero in the mode of Wolverine or Star Trek’s Commander Worf) offered a view of someone being trapped between the two ideologies—his second-season sacrifice remains one of the few moments in the property’s history (alongside Optimus Prime’s first death in the 1986 film) that provoked such significantly strong emotions in its fanbase. A later redemption of duplicitous villainess “Blackarachnia” tackled similar ground, with the addition of a rare show of romance in the largely sexless universe of characters, and prompted a deeper look at the idea of duality—apparently the “good/evil” division is an imprinting process performed on (essentially) Transformers young, an imprinting which can be broken, but only in part. A surprising amount of time was spent on the life cycle and biology of a Transformer for a Saturday morning cartoon, but more interesting was the ever-so-briefly implied idea that in the future from which this cast of characters originated, the Autobots had won their “Great War”—and proceeded to oppress their former foes during ostensible peacetime.
Beast Machines, which followed, was, in the words of story editor Bob Skir, a “religious epic novel for television.” While it was an uneven and very different production from its often-campy preceding series, it nonetheless attempted to use its characters as mouthpieces for a twenty-six episode treatise on the balance between technology and the environment, and the role of an individual in service to a society at large. Perhaps even more notable is that the series featured its heroes as guerilla warriors in a fascist state, which brought the original Cold War-servicing story back down to ground level (fans reacted poorly to the protagonists frequently running away from the rampaging villains).
Over both of these CG series, the “Megatron” character (only taking his name from the original pistol-to-robot villain) was portrayed as a master chessplayer who frequently won, eventually conquering the planet—but in the final episodes of the run, it became clear that only a removal of the duality that the Autobot/Decepticon idea represented was required in order to heal the planet—to some extent, a facile “yin and yang” sort of argument (one that Simon Furman had apparently also been working towards in the Marvel comic years earlier, before its cancellation) but also a marked step up from its relatives of the era, and what would have been a first, tentative grasp towards transcendence—comic book heroes, for their part, would have to rely on Grant Morrison for its anti-manicheanism, as he was beginning his counter-cultural hit The Invisibles at roughly the same time.
Michael Bay, after the release of Pearl Harbor, has had perhaps unprecedented support from the U.S. military, and he in turn has showed them off at every opportunity. His first Transformers was no exception, featuring wisecracking soldiers and impressive weaponry brought against the rampaging alien menace. If anything, the film stands as idealogically opposite to the original story—but unfortunately, the inability for writers to fully express those ideals under the limitations of such a commercially-locked property (often through, it would appear, little fault of their own) leaves it a poor argument to support fully. In fact, the scene of Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime, voicing his opinion that the Transformers are little different than humans and vice versa, even as humans torture the Autobot Bumblebee within their laboratory, seems torn from a different script, one closer to its forebearers in partially articulating an idea that doesn’t survive under the weight of ADHD battle editing and jokes about Shia LeBoeuf’s masturbation habits.
In a Wired magazine article just prior to the first film’s release, much hay was made about Optimus Prime, that big rig with the voice like John Wayne’s, and his paternal role to a generation of latch-key kids. There’s a certain amount of truth to this—this was the generation which grew up in the shadow of Baby Boomer divorce and a shifting set of priorities, a different pop culture cause for juvenile delinquency every week, and alone amongst the ‘80s properties for children, Prime was an unerringly confident and compassionate leader of men, with a traditionally masculine voice and demeanor. It’s been said that Prime’s death in the ’86 cartoon was the “Bambi moment” for a generation that often didn’t know their fathers even if they still lived in the same house. There was a parent uproar over the death scene which prompted the upcoming G.I.Joe: The Movie to edit a death scene out of the film before release out of concern for the backlash. Transformers, then, in its own clumsy way, left an indelible impression on a great many young boys during an impressionable period.
And so Transformers also contains, perhaps, one half-formed metanarrative as well. A frequent plot device in many iterations has been the use of time travel, and the established story element of the Transformer war’s length leads also back to history. The idea of a race of violent, underdeveloped personas—like arrested adolescence—trying to escape memory and history (of violence, of loss), to change the past entirely, exists buried beneath the surface, and that (like Moore’s own character-reinvention, Watchmen) speaks to the power and the narrative potential in what has always been viewed as one of the things holding Transformers back from being anything like a serious narrative: that is to say, nostalgia.
The sick irony, then, of Transformers at the conceptual level: the property is about a race of beings who change into other forms, it’s right there in the title, but there is little about Transformers that changes at all, or rather, nothing that evolves. The better part of the property’s rabid fandom desires a consistent reset to the cast of characters and original concepts of 1984, and usually the 1984 cartoon, at that. IDW’s current version of the comic book story has suffered an ugly narrative blow, even by the property’s low standards, as a long-running plotline which was attempting, awkwardly if earnestly, to update the ideas to the present day was cut short and the long-standing writer was replaced with a fresh newcomer whose “direct continuation” dumped most of the established continuity—to bring everything back to the old cartoon that hangs around the property’s neck like an albatross. The new series contains a dire bit of subtext as the characters claim their newer motivations were antithetical to their existence, that they needed to return to “who they really were”—the idea being that anything other than a particular conception of the ’84-’85 year of characters is an aberration, an idea which Hasbro and Takara are comforable supporting, due to collector response to that set of characters when they come around again as toys.
Not long ago, DC Comics brought Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, back from the dead after his death in 1986—many fans have lobbied for the character’s return, but now find themselves frustrated with how little the character belongs in the new, weirder, darker and more violent DC Comics universe. Barry Allen was a symbol of an age that has passed by, a hopeful atomic age, and his non sequiter existence in 2009 was called by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club a reminder of why superhero comics repel many audiences.
“In my ideal world, D.C. would toss long-range continuity out the window. They’d stop trying to rectify it, reboot it, or in any way fix something that’s beyond repair. The writers should just tell new stories, and only rely on the rudiments of the past.”
But, of course, their lifeblood is a small and ever-dwindling group of people whose eyes are locked at a past that applies solely to their own generation. Like the Transformers themselves, a dedicated section of the readership (and no, as I’ve said in articles past, it’s never everyone, it’s always just some, many, most) claim to desire change but find themselves unable to adapt or evolve. And so the Flash is an episode of The Venture Bros. with the humor leeched out, a failed symbol of a hopeful age lost and adrift in the modern world, and our heroes become, well, robots, fighting the same old battles. And Optimus Prime is destined to die again, and again, and again, to where in Bay’s film he begs for it to happen in spite of a perfectly logical solution to his situation that a teenager is able to figure out without effort.
Transformers has, from time to time, shown glimpses of a promise that often goes unfulfilled, and yet an endearing set of character types and a fundamental idea which is a simple line to youth’s heart—the desire to transform—keep it running in perpetuity, bordered tightly by its commercial origin and existence. Will such a large, lucrative property ever make a fully-formed leap from entertainment to “informed” entertainment, or to whatever one’s personal criteria may be for a loftier “art?” It’s a questionable proposition at best. However, with a new tune-out-and-turn-up action blockbuster film on the horizon, the idea serves as a healthy reminder both of what more it can always be (with a guiding hand), and what we so often settle for.
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
Comics Column #5: Pluto, Scott Pilgrim, & Watchmen
Well, here’s hoping three months makes the heart grow fonder, eh?
Well, here’s hoping three months makes the heart grow fonder, eh?
With regards to my absence from this website, I can only offer my heartfelt apologies and a list of excuses, only some of which would be of interest to the readership which had been so supportive of this column in the past: impending nuptials and subsequent change of residence, a possible comic project of my own since put on brief hiatus (artists wanted—apply below!), the effects of the economic climate on my day job, and repeated consultations on my upcoming oral surgery (really, don’t ask). It’s been something of a “restructuring period” around the homestead of late and I can’t yet imagine how the next few months will affect my planned return to regular column-writing. My lovely wife-to-be is a teacher with a particular eye to comics in the classroom, and our discussions have meant this site has rarely been far from my mind. I believe it was the great Albert Swearengen who said that announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh. That said, with an event of some notice occurring this week amongst the “comics to film” crowd, I’d be remiss in not peeking out from my self-imposed gopher hole and taking a glance at the landscape.
Quick notes of thanks that I’d planned to make before I vanished from God’s green Internet last: To Journalista’s Dirk Deppey and to Savage Critic Abhay Khosala, who both had kind words for this column, as well as to Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton (also very kind), and to each of the readers who made the comments threads such an enjoyable follow-up to these over-labored writings. Though to those who were troubled by my tendency to meander, this might not be the best entry to rejoin my scattered thought processes…
And of course thank you to Keith Uhlich for his never-ending fount of patience and goodwill. One of these days I promise to get around to earning it, I swear.
XVIII. “…Somewhat self indulgent.”
The world’s greatest heroes are being picked off one by one, and a troubled detective meets with each in kind to warn them of the danger. It’s the beginning of a classic work by a beloved author, one that deconstructs the long-running comic characters on which it is based, most notably in relating these children’s characters and their narrative to contemporary, real world politics. While it is a striking work in its own right, much of its inspiration lies within the science-fiction stories which preceded it, particularly those of film and television. With an upcoming film renewing interest, the Internet is ablaze with discussion of this classic work of sequential art.
Clearly, I’m talking about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto.
I’m being overly cheeky, of course. The narrative similarity between Watchmen and what some are calling its Manga counterpart are superficial, and limited solely to its opening pages. That said, as America reacts to what media buzz would have be the movie event of the season, it’s worth noting that the first volume of Pluto (as well as one of Urasawa’s other great works, 20th Century Boys) has finally been released in an English translation.
Pluto is Urasawa’s take on Osamu “God of Manga” Tezuka’s most beloved Astro Boy story, “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” Written to coincide with Astro Boy’s “birth date,” it takes Tezuka’s book-length fable and constructs a whole (projected eight-volume) series about the nature of war and humanity.
“The Greatest Robot on Earth” tells the story of a robot named (wait for it) Pluto, which was built under orders of a deposed sultan for the express purpose of destroying the seven greatest and most powerful robots in the world, an international group which counts Astro Boy himself as Japan’s contribution. The robots, many of which embody broad-stroke national characteristics (Greece’s “Hercules” is proud, Germany’s “Gesicht”—Gerhardt in the English translation—is an agent of order), are destroyed by the unstoppable Pluto, who takes no enjoyment in the actions for which he was programmed. He strikes up a friendship with Astro Boy’s sister, Uran, and views Astro Boy himself as an honorable match. With his guardian captive, the return of the father who spurned him, and another agent with a grudge against the sultan pulling everyone’s strings, Astro Boy must navigate the chaos and try to find a way to defeat Pluto without destroying him—a mission which he fails.
The story, which Tezuka penned in 1965, is a condemnation of the arms race: Astro Boy is convinced the key to stopping Pluto is to be supercharged from his “100,000 horsepower” to one million horsepower and the climax features two robots unable to save their creators from a volcano because they weren’t designed to do anything but battle. It was released during the height of the original Astro Boy television program in Japan, and quickly became the most remembered tale of the character—from its simple message to its exciting battle sequences to the sympathetic portrayal of the “villain” Pluto, it contained everything that readers could ask for. Tezuka received more letters about “The Greatest Robot on Earth” than perhaps anything he’s ever written, an impressive feat for the creator of Buddha, Phoenix, Adolf, and Kimba the White Lion—among a thousand-odd other works.
Into this stepped Urasawa, whose early classic Monster currently has screenwriter Josh Olsen (A History of Violence) attached. In talks with Tezuka’s son, the filmmaker Macoto Tezka, it was agreed that if someone was going to “take on” manga’s godfather, it had to be an all-or-nothing effort. Tezka, for his part, has been nothing but supportive. As he says in a post-volume interview:
“Well, directors are often evaluated by how unreasonable they are … so what you need to do is express your needs in as humble a way as possible, without using the command voice so often associated with directors… When the crew is naturally motivated to do their best possible work, the quality of the film improves… So I’m happy to give Naoki Urasawa a free hand, even if it means he’s going to be somewhat self indulgent.”
Of course, the act of adaptation is by nature self-indulgent, isn’t it? The idea that one has a “better” way of telling the story than the original creator? Infamous producer Don Murphy recently gifted the Internet with a tirade on Watchmen writer Alan Moore, who is notorious for dismissing film adaptations of his work—a number of which were produced by Murphy to … varying degrees of success. In the wake of the attention-bait, which is largely beside the point of this article, Internet discussions re-ensued over Moore’s various eccentricities, and one particular comment tended to re-appear again and again: How is what Moore does different than the act of adapting his work to film? Doesn’t he base many or most of his well-known works (Swamp Thing, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to say nothing of pastiches like Supreme) on other people’s work?
XIX. “Did we ever talk like normal people?”
It’s interesting that, in a year in which Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are collaborating on a Tintin trilogy and a CGI film of the aforementioned Astro Boy is due to release soon—that is to say, upcoming film projects will star two of the most well-known comic book characters worldwide, characters representing the style and grace of their respect national comic cultures—that the most anticipated post-Watchmen project in the realm of “comic book movies” may instead be a comedy based on an independent cult hit comic book called Scott Pilgrim.
Scott Pilgrim is a love-it or loathe-it sort of book, and one of the more frustrating aspects of its audience reception has been the dismissal of the book’s thematic core based on the atmosphere of its early acts. And in adapting it to the screen, Edgar Wright (who is as sharp an eye as the not-really-indie crowd has turned out in the last few years) runs the same risks that Zack Snyder does in his self-proclaimed “visionary” retelling of Watchmen. It’s a surface/substance problem, which of course is the core problem of any adaptation whatsoever—bringing the substance to light in a new way is what separates one’s work from the “self indulgent.”
The book, then, in short: Scott Pilgrim is a 23-year-old arrested adolescent from Toronto who splits his time hanging out and playing with his amateur band. On the rebound from a bad break-up, Scott dates a sixteen year-old (in the most chaste way he can manage) until he meets the woman from his literal dreams in American courier girl Ramona Flowers. But to get with Ramona, he has to battle her seven evil exes in video game-style combat, and maybe become an adult in the process. The battles, of course, may be framed in the pop culture language of the kids who grew up in the 80s on a steady diet of the games and comics and music that Scott Pilgrim references, but they’re also an obvious symbol for the need to deal with the history and baggage that any new companion brings to a relationship—as well as one’s own.
I have already defended Scott Pilgrim as a narrative at The House Next Door: Notably, I took a half-formed swing at the esteemed John Lichman in the comments thread of Vadim Rizov’s incisive review of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. It is only in the most recent, penultimate volume of the book that creator Bryan Lee O’Malley’s point become fully explicit. For some reviewers, this marked a departure, if not an unwelcome one, but the seeds have always been there, quietly sprouting. From the first volume, there have been little comments and asides from the book’s supporting characters that maybe Scott needs to grow up and wake up, that maybe he’s not a role model or an emblem for a generation (or a demographic) but just a jerk. And in this past volume, it all comes together.
As reviewer Sean T. Collins notes:
“The greatest trick Scott Pilgrim ever pulled was convincing you its conscience didn’t exist. For a long time, the series’s skeptics criticized the shortcomings of the characters as though their existence was a shortcoming of their creator—as though writer/artist O’Malley was unaware that Scott was kind of shiftless and feckless, or that Ramona Flowers was a little bit cruel and aloof, or that their group of friends was cliquey and catty. I definitely see where such critics are coming from, for a couple of reasons: first, that was pretty much my line of attack when I first read Jaime Hernandez’s Locas material (newsflash: Hopey’s a jerk and Maggie’s a mess!); second, I am now a 30-year-old married homeowner in Levittown, and the further I get from Scott’s situation, the harder it gets to relate to, or even in some ways really care about, his plight.
“But over the past three volumes, O’Malley has slowly pulled back the operating curtain to reveal the beating heart of the series; if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors, what this means is that the chickens have been coming home to roost. It turns out that all those evil ex-boyfriends aren’t just plot devices, but people who’ve had a lasting effect on how Ramona lives. It turns out that Scott’s glibness both hurts his relationship(s) and enables him to see their potential when others can no longer do so. It turns out that Knives’s lasting crush on Scott isn’t just a funny recurring gag, but something that’s screwing up her life and causing her to screw up the lives of those around her. It turns out that all the “we suck”isms the band indulges in actually have power in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. It turns out that supporting players have lives of their own and that they can really grow to dislike how oblivious the main characters are to that fact. And so on and so forth.”
What makes Scott Pilgrim work—what enabled me to hand it to a co-worker who did not match its apparent “target demographic” of white hipster without comment (and I’ve found that telling one of the book’s detractors that a middle-aged African-American single mother of two found the book delightful tends to cause a bit of cognitive dissonance)—is the moments that would work in any story, moments that are if anything more pronounced for being bookended by pop culture references and silly action sequences. The moment that I used when responding to John is a personal favorite: Scott, confronted by his own “evil ex” Envy Adams, drops his “awesome” veneer and plaintively asks her “Did we ever talk like normal people?” It’s a moment that I’ve lived, in a more substantial way than Scott’s deadbeat mooching lifestyle of the early volumes, which also echoed a period in my own life. The latest volume presented another favorite, as Scott finally understands himself enough to treat the “girl who once was” Kim Pine with a measure of forgiveness.
[Aside: For more on Scott Pilgrim’s latest volume and its relation to the real world, I recommend Abhay Khosla’s own column on the subject.]
When it comes to comparing O’Malley’s opus with another work of fiction, many people turn to the BBC comedy Spaced—which is directly relevant, with creator Edgar Wright at the helm of Scott Pilgrim the film. But to me, the closest in spirit is a bit farther afield, in the absurdist GAINAX anime FLCL.
XX. “Every day we spend here is like a whole lifetime of dying slowly.”
FLCL is quintessential GAINAX. The studio behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, GAINAX is well-known for producing anime that garner a certain sort of reputation—something like the one David Lynch carries with him to every project. Evangelion, for its part, reminds me of nothing so much as Alan Moore’s Promethea, a traditional genre pastiche that serves, in short order, as the character and plot foundation for an exploration of larger ideas (though where Promethea is a polemic for Moore’s views of magic and the Kabbalah, Hideaki Anno’s divisive filmic conclusion to his anime allows, at least in its last moments, a small degree of ambiguity). FLCL was the studio’s follow-up piece, a six-episode shot of adrenaline designed at least in part as a way to experiment with various animation techniques and special effect shots.
Writer Yōji Enokido’s story of the alien Haruko Haruhara and her relationship with a Shinji-like school boy named Naota Nandaba is typically viewed as a degree of excess above that of End of Evangelion—madcap, silly, and filled-to-bursting with parodies of animation both Eastern and Western, a term I often see used is “nonsensical.” Part of the problem is that some of the humor is lost in translation—a thick layer of puns and other wordplay left the English localization staff with a mess on their hands, even with the creator’s full participation. A joke about similar-sounding words from the fifth episode became half-muttered arguments over the difference between robots and cyborgs, the title card that supplanted the original joke remains, becoming a Pythonesque non sequiter about fish. What remains, however, is the throughline that gives FLCL its lasting appeal and power.
Naota’s brother has left his small town to play baseball in America—the anime is, at its core, about dealing with loss, and living in someone’s shadow. His absurd family and his brother’s ex-girlfriend all behave over-the-top, but do so out of an expectation that Naota will replace his older brother, that he’ll grow up fast and be the man who left. The only person who treats him as an equal, classmate Eri Ninomori (the ultimate love interest), is the only character to reassert Naota’s childhood. Hyperactive Haruko, the alien rockstar secret agent pirate queen, is—as an alien—representative of the world outside of his town, and thus a proxy for the brother who abandoned him. The show, for all of its absurd robot battling, peels back its layers in the final episode, when Naota breaks down in her arms and tells her that she “left without saying anything”—speaking to his brother and reverting to the child that he is supposed to be.
What FLCL and Scott Pilgrim share in common is that they use their pop culture references as a language to communicate emotion, rather than as punctuation or as replacement for legitimate content. In FLCL’s fifth episode, one sequence featuring man-in-black-type Amarao is drawn in a South Park style, which initially serves as a funny, if unnecessary effect—but Amarao represents a possible future for Naota (their similarity is highlighted over and over), and later, when Naota is confronted by his brother’s ex-girlfriend Mamimi Samejima over how he has begun to assert himself, he withdraws by pulling his hoodie tight around his eyes, resembling death-prone Kenny. This is when Mamimi impotently shoots at him with a toy pistol, unable to harm him anymore. In the fifth and latest volume of Scott Pilgrim, a similar event occurs towards the book’s close. That Scott’s life has been portrayed in the grammar of video games has long been a running joke, and so when Ramona Flowers is whisked away, we all expect the “Game Over” that displays above his head. But as we continue over the next dozen pages, we are reminded just how much of Scott’s life has been ruled and ruined by his “all a game” approach—he’s locked out of his home, his friends want little to do with him, and his band has collapsed in on itself. Scott is unable to do so much as care for Ramona’s abandoned cat, a cat named after the man that she’s returned to. And so Scott attempts to lure the cat back to him with increasingly pitiful offerings, with the implication that if he can just do this one thing right, maybe it’ll all be okay. And of course, he can’t. So when the second arcade text appears, asking if he wants to “Continue?”, it’s a question of life in general, a refutation of a “hipster slacker” lifestyle that seemed so funny and charming when the story began.
When FLCL was adapted into manga format, it was somewhat striking just how different the two-volume series was from its source material. Whereas an adaptation like the Evangelion manga contained occasional plot changes but was largely faithful (as one might expect), FLCL in comic form is so wildly different that it all but comprises a separate work. Drawn in a graffiti-inspired style that distinguishes itself from most other manga (which, for all of their variance and sophistication in writing, tend to stray less from Tezuka’s inspiration than Western comics do from their own forebears), the book is an odd animal by any measure. In the case of some plot and character elements, it serves as the stronger work—Naota’s grandfather is given more to do, for instance, and the Naota/Ninamori relationship is given more time to breathe and a deeper exploration. Indeed, one of the most heartbreaking moments from either iteration of the work is in the manga, in which Naota excuses himself from the women who have been torturing him and sits alone on the porch with the robot Canti (the symbolism of whom would require another essay entirely) and speaks aloud about how desperately he misses his life before the “comedy” began.
Where the manga fails, however, is that it lacks the thematic core that the anime, the original work, possesses. The superficial elements, the sexual atmosphere, the rampant violence, they are ramped up, but for all its strengths the book does not reward the revisits that the anime series has and still does. If anything, the manga is a closer project to how many critics view the anime: a fun, if disjointed look at the horrors of puberty through the deconstruction of the “boy and his robot” manga trope. A series of good ideas that don’t quite hold a whole story together.
Now Scott Pilgrim takes its turn at adaptation, and Edgar Wright faces the same challenge that manga author Hajime Ueda faced. Wright is smart and his previous work is tonally appropriate (Spaced shows an understanding of how modern pop culture serves as a language that we frame our experiences in, not just as the source of our running jokes), but in compressing a six-volume manga into a two hour (or less?) romantic comedy, will Wright be able to capture the small interstitial moments that give the book its thematic weight and thus its relevance? Without those moments, Scott Pilgrim is, in fact, an expendable hipster fantasy.
If comics, as Scott McCloud attests, gain their power in the moments that happen between panels, it’s also true that comics (as in all fiction) gain their power in the moments that happen between events. It isn’t the superhero battles that have left X-Men as a catch-all representation of prejudice in its varied forms, but the quiet character moments that its various writers have used (with varying skill) to string those battles together. In Will Eisner’s veiled autobiography, The Dreamer, it’s the loving portraits of the other cartoonists of his generation and the weight of the individual stories that brought them to comic books that resounds—the first thing that you’d have to cut in a streamlining.
XXI. “…we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat…”
Sometimes, adaptations go the other way. Usually, this is the when the dread beast postmodernism rears its head and fixes its deadly gaze on the original property, licking its lips. When “The British Invasion” came to comics, they created such a significant sea change because in their desire to elevate comic writing, as well as in their desire to be both noticed and taken seriously, they began picking at whatever characters they could get close to, looking under their tights to see what was still moving. In my third column, I discussed the series Planetary, which took apart various well-known genre pieces and reflected, among other things, the writer’s conflicted view towards the superhero genre. That book could be viewed as the middle ground between the two great deconstructionist geniuses of genre comics—Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.
Watchmen has been read by so many people now in the wake of the film’s first trailer (and very secondarily, Time’s elevating the book to one of the “greatest novels” of the contemporary era) that to discuss its deconstruction of the idea of the superhero, its grounding of that concept in the real world, is hardly necessary here. Moore’s creedo might as well be “What does that mean?” for the ways in which he takes stories and extrapolates them to conclusions that often seem logical in hindsight, despite their sea-changing nature. When Moore took over the Swamp Thing book in the 1980s, already viewed as (at best) a camp icon for its silly feature film, he stunned the comic industry by turning it into the most serious book DC was publishing not by adding violence or sex—although those were both present as it was the first mainstream book to eschew the Comics Code Authority—but in his dissection of the very idea of a “Swamp Thing.” A plant that was a man. The groundbreaking story “The Anatomy Lesson”—the second story for the title that Moore wrote, and the first not tying up plot threads left by the previous writer—is still used as an example for how to change or “retcon” a story while paying full respect to the original, and Moore went on from there to tell a series of story-appropriate horror tales that commented on various aspects of American society before taking the character into space and challenging the nature of existence—a theme that he would return to time and again.
“The Anatomy Lesson” tells its story through the protagonist’s autopsy, a fitting metaphor for Moore’s usual technique. Not to say that he’s cold and clinical—there are too many examples to counter that, but I’ll point to Rorschach’s final moments and move on—but rather, he opens up the character to find the source of life. In contrast, Grant Morrison is less concerned with pulling apart the stories than he is reveling in them. Morrison, who began as a counterculture icon with titles like Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, seems to have left his dissection tools on the table after (the infuriatingly out of print) Flex Mentallo, a book which did as vicious an amount of damage to the superhero idea as anything Moore has attempted. The last decade has been full of Morrison taking on the most popular characters from each of the two major superhero publishers, and while he tends to have the same effect on the characters as Moore, his technique has changed considerably (perhaps in reaction to Moore, with whom he apparently has something of an unspoken rivalry—though Moore is far kinder to his characters and their worlds these days, as well).
In an examination of Morrison’s publisher-handicapped “event book” Final Crisis, comic scribe and columnist Steven Grant challenged the idea of superheroes as mythology (and I beg his pardon as I quote him over-liberally here):
“For a long time, the temptation has been strong among comics creators to treat superheroes as the equivalent of gods for the new age. This has been strong in Morrison’s work, at least since Zenith, which posited the marginally more mundane superhero-as-rock-idol… The problem here is that most of us misunderstand the nature of myths… Mythology—it’s important to differentiate between its nature and its artifacts; the stories are the artifacts—is a civilization’s environment. It’s a means by which members of that civilization make sense of the world and the times they exist in… Commonly, mythologies evolve in civilizations where stories are passed down via oral, not written, transmission, which neuters all concepts of “authorship” and their content and meanings shift with the demands of the times. The civilization is the author.
“But superheroes are not good vehicles for addressing our times. By their nature they stand outside our reality, and holding them up as an evolutionary goal is a basic (again, very ‘30s-‘50s science fiction) misunderstanding of evolution, which has no “goals.” Comics stories aren’t the joint creation of our civilization but the products of individual minds, even when those minds work in consort (and just as frequently at cross-purposes) in a “shared universe,” a rather pathetic, puny shadow of mythology. They’re just stories, they don’t function as myths function. It’s not reflexive; myths are stories but stories aren’t myths… Not that our civilization doesn’t have myths, but the authors of those myths are Karl Marx and Milton Friedman, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, not Camus or Isaac Asimov or Stephen Cannell or even Grant Morrison. And we no longer live in a world where magical/fantasy/mythological/religious constructs are required, or even useful, to make sense of it. Those are “comfort” constructs, ultimately reductionist to give us the consolation that even if we are unable to control our world in any strict sense of the word, we may at least simplify it to easily digestible bits that we might at least entreat…
“Reducing our philosophical world to good and evil seems at great odds with everything else Morrison tries to accomplish in FINAL CRISIS and his other work (except for The Invisibles, where he struggled to break down the barriers, and is arguably the closest thing to a contemporary mythology Morrison has yet produced).”
I think Grant is being somewhat unfair on at least one count: superhero comic stories aren’t failed mythology created by one author—they’re the oral tradition that precedes mythology. The story of Superman began with two Jewish boys in Cleveland telling a story, but that story has been handed to hundreds of writers since then, has been told in every media, has been parodied, has been ripped off, has been diluted and then refreshed depending on the telling. If you ask the infamous “guy on the street” (always a great resource) about Superman, he’s going to tell you the most important details; the ones that he remembers not from writer Elliot S! Maggin, not from director Richard Donner, and not from that atrocious last-gen video game where Superman handled like a brick—but the ones that he remembers from all of them, to say nothing of the “Death of Superman” event of the 90s and Smallville and Lois and Clark and the action figures where Superman carries missile launchers for some reason, and the Superman logo on bath towels and worn as Halloween masks and … The story’s been retold in so many ways and, like in the oral tradition, only the best details, the most important ones, float to the surface. Those are the ones that endure the test of time, that become mythology.
Superman’s origin to that guy could be summed up in the four phrases that begin All-Star Superman, which I noted in this column’s third installment: “Doomed planet, Desperate Scientists, Last Hope, Kindly Couple.” Morrison’s best work (which Final Crisis certainly is not) is about distilling, rather than dissecting. His recent run on Batman (which has its flaws) was an experiment in which he postulated that all versions of Batman were true and the same person, from goofy 60s hero to brooding 80s fascist, and a look at what sort of character that would be—would the character endure and still be relevant? His New X-Men story brought the mutants to the modern day, but recognized each of the elements (school, Phoenix, Sentinels, Bad Xavier) that have resonated with the audience over the years. Morrison is looking for the mythology that is slowly forming from the superhero oral tradition, which is why it’s difficult to return to the characters after he’s left his mark—stories of the “Justice League” are still compared to his run from ten years ago.
And as for the larger argument, as to whether these stories have anything to say about the world we live in now… All-Star Superman, for one, is about mortality and the capacity to do good, which are very viable lessons in 2009. Many of the Greek and Roman myths are, to us now, stories of fantasy without their context, as Grant points out. The context for “Superman” as a character is the 1930s; the Nazi ubermensch, the immigrant culture of the United States, a very uncertain global future. Those ideas, as well, still have their relevance in different forms today. And while we might not need gods to understand the world in the way that Grant points out, we still, it seems, need stories that explain our need for gods. That isn’t just a metafiction, and it isn’t even an existentialist pondering—it’s a dangerous political reality.
That All-Star Superman shares a number of superficial similarities to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns points to an important point: when it comes to adapting, it’s more approachable, and easier to pace, when you distill rather than dissect. Dissection storytelling requires a lot of little things strewn about and wriggling on the table—in the comparatively-simple The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore heaps on detail from sources well-known and obscure in equal measure, in order to give his work a sense of verisimilitude. When translated into LXG, Moore’s charming story collapsed in part because that level of detail was going to be inherently absent from a film adaptation.
It’s not to say that one approach is better than the other, when it comes to comics. And indeed, when it comes to comparing the work of the two comic giants here, there isn’t a one-to-one that fits. Seven Soldiers of Victory to 1963? Not even their done-in-one Batman tales (The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth) are similar enough to be comparable. But they speak to two very different schools of bringing a story or a set of characters to a new audience that still hold two things in common: a respect for the original work and its audience, and an understanding of why the original property resonated in the first place. In adapting comic books into films of all stripes, screenwriters are having to make choices with regards to how to shape these tales, and the two paths should be well contemplated before the writing begins.
XXII. “…You’re Atom, aren’t you?”
Pluto follows the robot Gesicht as its protagonist and the events of Tezuka’s original story dance around the margins. Pluto’s destruction of the other robots is viewed as a mystery that Gesicht must solve, but it soon becomes clear that there is a political motivation for the attacks—the robots under attack (save one) were part of a recent war in the Middle East, waged after UN inspectors (including Astro Boy’s creator) search for an all-powerful robot, that is a “weapon of mass destruction.” They don’t find it, but the United States (of Thracia, that is) decide to invade anyway, provoking a massive destablization of the area…
As Watchmen was a commentary on the politics of the 1980s, and as the original “The Greatest Robot on Earth” was about the arms race of the 1960s, Pluto is a none-too-subtle look at the world of the last few years. But subtlety is not the point here when it comes to the politics—to be too understated would betray the spirit of Tezuka’s original work (the man was a brilliant cartoonist but tended to wear everything on his sleeve—Buddha may stand as his best work because the overt messages fit the nature of the sort-of biographical story of the Siddhartha better than any of his other works) and, if anything, the political element was a necessary context to get at Urasawa’s real interests.
The original Astro Boy was frequently a screed against prejudice aimed at children, one that always sat uneasily because the distrust of robots displayed by the occasional character always seemed unearned in Tezuka’s retro-sci-fi utopia. In Urasawa’s retelling, some robots are clearly so (and bear Tezuka’s unmistakable hand in their designs), and some are downright human, including Gesicht himself, as well as the reimagined Astro Boy (here bearing his original Japanese name of “Atom”—the Atom/Adam wordplay has always had more heft than America’s superhero version). Volume One of Pluto ends with a full-page splash of “Atom” appearing as a human boy, an image which can’t help but inspire chills, for its sheer audacity if nothing else. It is only appropriate, however, given Urasawa’s true interest, in picking at the nature of humanity through Tezuka’s robot characters. The juxtaposition of “human” robots and more traditional ones explains the distrust simply, and a hate group has been introduced to the plot to add to the idea, but more interesting are the robots themselves, who often can’t determine themselves how truly “human” they are. They are able to transfer memories via chip, but their deaths are permanent. They gravitate towards human affectations like drinking tea and having family dinners. They are capable of dreaming, in a throughline which invites comparisons to Blade Runner (down to its detective protagonist)—another interesting case study in adaptation—but Urasawa’s book doesn’t suffer for it.
Urasawa’s more realistic artwork places it in a smaller subspecies of manga, at least with regards to what is translated and available in the West. Like Koushun Takami and Masayuki Taguchi’s manga adaptation of Battle Royale, many of the more emphatic and malleable traits of manga artwork are held in check. What makes manga so interesting in its differences from local comics is the way the art from panel to panel can shift so wildly in style to match the emotional tenor of the sequence. Exaggeration is prevalent, but in service to the moment itself—this is a significant reason why shoujo manga has succeeded with young girls in America, because manga wears its heart on its sleeve. A vision of romantic love is a fully rendered and soft-lit portrait, while a sudden pratfall can put Chuck Jones to shame.
It’s something of a stereotype now to compare the comic art of Japan to its internalized culture—it’s the sort of remark easily laid out when dismissing anime and manga on the merits of its pornography—but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The superhero comics of the early 90s come to mind, largely those drawn by the artists who would later form Image Comics—Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, et al. They were lauded for their dynamism, even when, in varying cases, that dynamism sacrificed realism or even (in the case of one or two artists in particular) basic human anatomy. This is a trait that originated, in manga, with Tezuka himself. Tezuka, who was inspired by Walt Disney’s early work (the origin, as has been told again and again, of those “big eyes”), tended to play fast and loose with realism, particularly in pursuit of a joke. Even his highest-minded works like Phoenix and Buddha are rife with deliberate anachronisms, recurring “actors” in differing roles, and elastically-delivered slapstick.
I recently read a few remarks that helped to better place the context—with Tezuka, these show-stoppers are a Brechtian device—keeping the reader from identifying too strongly with the work (a lesson I sometimes wish could be conveyed to the creators of manga that has become American mainstream like Naruto or the admittedly-superlative Death Note), reminding the reader that it is a fiction in order to keep the focus on the ideas, which for Tezuka were always of paramount importance. That this concept has been copied and re-copied without the same intent should no more fall on Tezuka’s shoulders than the violence and cruelty of American comics should rest on Alan Moore’s, whose work (even lesser cruelties like Batman: The Killing Joke) always carried full consideration of consequence and causation, the same of which cannot be said of his imitators.
Urasawa’s work, though, in contrast to Tezuka’s, is almost Western in style—not only in its down-to-earth portrayal, but in its adherence to a traditional panel grid, something that manga has often eschewed (at least in part due, I think, to the size of reprinted volumes). While an action sequence in the air in the book’s first volume floats back towards shonen manga’s barreling-forward vertical breaks, an early scene of mourning by a faceless widow robot, repeating a close-up shot again and again within a 90-degree grid feels as though it could have come from the pen of a particularly gifted Western creator as easily as an Eastern one. This is one of Urasawa’s gifts—not that he is somehow trying to distance himself from the manga of his fellow Japanese creators, but that he considers carefully the application of all styles in order to suit his story. The early installments of his current Japan-only serial King Bat are done in a fully-Western cartoon style, in fact, only to return to a traditional manga appearance when we meet the comic-in-a-comic’s creator. Urasawa’s work is often about building bridges, which is ironic given his narrative fixation on isolation and identity.
Proximity to Tezuka’s humanism, however, has heightened Urasawa’s taste for melodrama—but then, Alan Moore’s purple prose has always teetered on the brink, as well. In the most forceful bit of the book’s first volume, the robot North No. 2 is the butler for a film composer with an overly tragic backstory, but the melodramatic tale, which has little connection to the main plot until the robot’s sad but inevitable end, serves as thesis statement for the work and conveys what Tezuka was never able to—why the robots are hated. For the composer Paul Duncan, it’s a case of self-loathing; in the end, he and North No. 2 aren’t much different at all. Urasawa’s interest in what Tezuka’s story says about humanity is why Atom doesn’t display his powers or enter battle for much of the story—like Moore, Urasawa is interested “in what Atom means.”
I’ve kept far away from “spoilers” for the volumes of Pluto to follow, something I rarely do when it comes to comics (Scott Pilgrim is another notable exception). For me, personally, it’s one of the most exciting comics in ages. And part of that comes back to the reaction to seeing the human-looking Atom. I know how the story “ends,” as I’ve read the original Astro Boy tale. And this is, of course, why people still get excited by film adaptations of comics, by remakes, by re-imaginings and retcons, dissections and distillations. We want to see what they’re going to do with these ideas, what they’re going to bring to the original.
The argument for filmic adaptation has been going on far longer than I’ve been alive, and will continue through as long as cinema exists. For every Godfather there is an Alone in the Dark, and so on, into infinity. In the end, the argument is tiresome. When it comes to a question of “self-indulgence,” one must hasten to point out that all art is self-indulgence on some level, and let that be the end of it. Urasawa spent some time after having his idea for Pluto finding someone else to do it, to take on the “God of Manga,” but in the end, of course, he had to do it himself.
The problem is with motivation, and with understanding. Having a story that has to be told is a motivation—most of the rest aren’t, though you can also make a case for getting someone else’s worthy story to as large an audience as you can gather. As for understanding…
XXIII. “…perception is reality.”
Back when I was capable of updating my site, I ran a half-formed screed in response to the first released Watchmen trailer, which I didn’t consider to be hopeful. I was tired and irritated, but I was also reacting to a number of recent audience backlashes that frustrated me. What I saw (from the trailer alone) seemed overly glossed, sexed-up, and distant from the sad sack group of failures that Watchmen the book is about—the sort of frustration I feel when Rorschach, as he is in the original text, is viewed by the audience as a “badass hero.”
“It’s all right to like or not like any given thing, but do so for what it is, not what nostalgia tints it as, or what you’d expect it to be. [Considering “Transformers”], I can see aspects of this up and down the line. Many people remember their old toys as being, say, more posable and better designed than they really were, remember the cartoon as being less embarrassing (though its strengths and weaknesses are an article for another time)—an image is built up in their mind of what a “Transformer” is supposed to be, and they’re never happy—and certainly never publicly happy—with what they get instead.”
I was rightly called out for a very obvious point—my reaction to the Watchmen trailer is based on my own expectations for what that story is and entails. Friend of The House The Culture Snob put it best:
“But you expect/want it to be faithful, so you’re bringing expectations, too. And an unfaithful adaptation is no less valid than a faithful one in your formulation, because you just want objects to be outside of their cultural or individual contexts… The best case of this is the Star Wars prequels, which were arguably no less awful than many elements of the original trilogy; the difference was that the audience was a few decades older. Like it or not, perception is reality. You can fight it, but you ain’t gonna change it.”
He’s right, of course. And I’ve gone ’round on fandom’s “sense of entitlement” and authorial intent before—it’s too long a debate to go near in a column like this.
My final pre-movie comment on the trailer, which is recorded for posterity:
“But moreover—speaking specifically here—with many projects, adaptations being more or less faithful have merits and drawbacks, but we’re speaking of Watchmen here. Watchmen is not memorable for its literal plot. The finale is known more for its rip-off of an Outer Limits episode than anything else. What it’s famous for is the clockwork structure of how every image interconnects with every other—that’s the point. This is why Terry Gilliam told Moore that the book was “unfilmable” and dropped the project. Gilliam is a talented director and has a keen visual eye. If it was a question of dropping some dead weight, slicking up the costumes, and picking different angles, then Gilliam could have done it (assuming that one of his famous curses didn’t strike the set down). If you’re not utilizing the structure, and you’re severing the backstory (whether out of necessity due to length or not), and you’re pointedly not telling the story of how pathetic these individuals all are—which, indeed, is part of the plot in the sense that it partially fuels Adrian Veidt’s motivations for doing what he does—then what is left of the story?”
It’s rather a lot of froth for someone who hasn’t seen the film. But I humiliate myself here in service of a point: Watchmen is one of the most difficult adaptations that will likely ever see a film screen. Difficult adaptations have generated great returns in the past (like, say, The Orchid Thief). What makes Watchmen special is its construction, its thematic weight, and the small moments that make the characters so full-bodied. The plot, and the look at superheroes, are so far and away from what make it special … to me. The mystery plot has always interested me the least when it comes to this confounding, fascinating text, and if that is all that exists on the screen, it can’t hold my personal interest, though it may hold other people’s.
The adaptations that last are the ones that add something to the source that they’ve drawn from. And be it Moore, or Morrison, or Urasawa—or Coppola, for that matter, or hell, Uwe Boll—what will be remembered, for better or for worse, is the interpretation. Interpretation is usually the audience’s department, and when a creator steps in, the dialog extends in new, further ways. When I first began this column, I said that my favorite comics-to-film adaptation was American Splendor. That film was able to find something new and fresh to say about comics in general and the life and work of a creator I’d respected, something that I myself had never seen in his work. And in some ways that was a “dissection” sort of adaptation, which is not the sort of thing that anyone would have expected at all.
The reviews for the Watchmen film are already coming in from all over as I write this, and they’re mixed (as one would certainly “expect”). And now apparently, Hollywood has set its sights on Pluto—everything comes full circle. When it comes time for Urasawa’s take on Tezuka to be abstracted even further into an American film, what will it have to say? What will be left out? And how much arguing will it provoke before it arrives?
…Anyway, succeed or fail, how crazy is it that Scott Pilgrim will be battling Superman in a live action movie?
XXIV. “I wish all the scum of the Earth had one throat and I had my hands about it.”
I went to the theater with five other people. Of them, the first opinion I solicited was from my friend Richard Carbonneau, who is a talented comic writer in his own right. “I’m pissed,” he said, “because I really liked it. I thought it was brilliant satire.” As he would have it, Snyder’s filmic work contained everything that people claim to enjoy about superhero movies but wind up disliking, that wind up looking terrible on film—that the film’s empty-eggshell design was a conscious choice that worked as a deconstruction of superhero films (which, I suppose, was the supposed intent of the costume nipples, yes?).
I disagreed with him, but Walter Chaw’s review of the film helped me see Richard’s point:
“No, the conundrum of Watchmen is that it’s a commentary on idol-making in our culture, the near-instant transformation of any atrocity and cause into buzzwords and ad art—and yet, armed with all that mainframe memory and truckloads of cash, the temptation is to turn Watchmen into an exercise in idolatry… A piffle, a pittance, and everything of which critics of comic-book movies accuse the genre, it’s faithful in every way except the poetry and philosophy. It’s sleek when it should be ugly and its darkness is a child’s impression of nihilism.”
Chaw I agree with. But as I’ve said, I was perhaps too overly biased to review the film.
I was a sophomore in high school when I got my first job—at a local, terrible comic book retailer, but, of course, I didn’t have a work permit. I accepted half of my pay in store credit just so I could work there—and I was only going to funnel the pay back to my employer anyway (oh, in these times, how I long for the days when my greatest financial responsibility was keeping up with the latest issue of Generation X). It was, really, a terrible job. I was too immature to be responsible and too young for the manager to bother teaching me anything. And I bought so many awful, awful comic books. Yes, I was the worst, most stereotypical of all fanboys in my earliest teen years, and I had a stack of polybagged #1 issues to establish my geeky street cred.
Any longtime comic fan has a similar story to this, to where it goes; picking up one of those true “classics” that opened their eyes to wider possibilities within the medium. It’s why so many girlfriends have had to choke down volumes of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher or some other just-above-average “growth spurt” book as though it was going to awaken in them a four-color world of like-minded obsession. My problem, though, was in pushing off too hard on my first hit. Being surrounded by my drug of choice, I just about overdosed before I could even feel the rush. In the span of about a week, I read McCloud’s Understanding Comics, I read my first two volumes of Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus, and I of course read Watchmen.
I wonder, sometimes, if I had read Watchmen on its own, would I view it the same way? My critical vocabulary exploded over night, and I analysed the damned thing to death—my study periods in school were spent poring over the pre-wiki analysis site “Watching the Detectives,” hosted by Professor Stuart Moulthrop, whose analysis of comics and video games as “interstitial fiction” I have spoken of in the past. In some ways, I am only just recovering as a casual reader and as a critic. When Chaw says in his review that he “more admires the Moore source than loves it,” I consider myself in 2009 fully sympatico—the original text is brilliant, but also so often joyless and exhausting by deliberate nature. It wears one down over time. But oh, how I do admire it.
It should be stated as a matter of eternal record: Patton Oswalt is, unfortunately, absolutely correct. He wrote recently on the Watchmen mixed-reaction:
“Tell you what—before you go and see THE WATCHMEN, plunk down and watch CATWOMAN, GHOST RIDER and DAREDEVIL. And use those seven hours (and don’t pretend like you don’t have seven free hours in your day) to get out all of your disgust and the-world-owes-me-my-daydreams-made-real attitude you strut around with.
“Because Zack Snyder STEPPED UP, motherfuckers. THE WATCHMEN was going to get made, one way or another. And instead of bleating on his Facebook status updates or Tweeting about how shitty the upcoming adaptation’s going to be, he TOOK THE BULLET and tried to do it right. Yes, THE WATCHMEN should be a limited series on HBO and blah blah blah IT WAS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN THAT WAY. Zack delivered a 2 1/2 hour, honest attempt, and broke his ass cranking out tons of free extras. Hell, he even animated The Tales of The Black Freighter for you chumps.”
I am, as I’ve said, of the personal opinion that this was an adaptation that didn’t have to be made at all. But it’s true that, with DC Comics in control of the property, a film was inevitable. I’ve read the Sam Hamm-penned version of the screenplay, and this was not it. Snyder attempted to pay full tribute to a work that he obviously cared about, tried to do the book justice as he understood it. I would allege, in my own point of view, that he didn’t understand it well enough, but in some sense it comes down to your particular definition of the term “faithful.”
To get into the differences between book and film is largely an exercise in pedantry, if only because Tasha Robinson of The Onion A.V. Club has already done a yeoman’s job of it. In particular, she made an effort to point out why many changes mattered with regards to not only the original work’s context, but the film operating as its own product. When Robinson points out an added line about Rorschach’s “mask,” it’s not a case of a fan requiring slavish devotion—it’s a case of the line undercutting two key scenes in the film’s portrayal of Rorschach’s psychosis.
I’ve been reading a lot of reactions by people in the comic business in the week following the film’s release. Some of them are people I know, but mostly from following blogs and having a pretty hefty Twitter feed. It seems as though, in my estimation, the “faithful” line is pretty shakily drawn down the middle of a particular divide. Speaking generally, of course, not discounting anyone’s hard-fought opinion, but I see a lot of artists calling the film “reverently faithful” and a lot of writers calling the film “a travesty.” This speaks, I think, to something fundamental about Snyder’s adaptation and how it was made.
Artist Dave Gibbons, fresh off a career-making turn on Green Lantern, did not have an easy time with Watchmen—the legend goes that Moore, not owning a fax, had to send script pages to Gibbons in a cab, as they were so dangerously close to losing schedule. There were script pages by the hundreds, as Moore’s scripts are infamously novelistic (the only way that one could convey the piles of recurring motifs, parallelism, and layered metaphor). Gibbons turned out work of the highest caliber, conveying all of what Moore was attempting—and generally making it look easy. But his style works in the book because it is often muted and static, which fits the downtrodden and defeated world of Moore’s broken heroes. The artwork is rightly acclaimed, but since its release Gibbons hasn’t really struck hard a second time. His recent graphic novel, The Originals, is solid but largely unmemorable. Snyder’s vision of adaptation, which captures many of the same images from Gibbons’s work, is certainly a “faithful” treatment of the book in visual terms, though in three dimensions that muted quality is often lost. Comparing image to image, the book is all there onscreen. It’s in the words, or rather, in how words and images relate, where much of the damage has been done.
XXV. “I’m not a comic book villain.”
I want to damage my credibility further by sticking up for “the squid.” No, no, I don’t think it would have worked in the film, either. Removing the climactic monster construct from Moore’s text was one of the most necessary changes the film had to make. But I want to point out why it worked in the book.
The commonly-raised question is how we can be expected to believe that one monster corpse can unite the world in common purpose. The answer to that is, the corpse is almost beside the point. Adrian Veidt’s masterstroke is the cloning of a psychic brain, stolen from a dead boy named Robert Deschaines. In one sense, the idea of “psychic brain” has to be where you choose whether or not to draw a line and walk away, but the implication is that Deschaines is only unnaturally adept, and is spoken of casually in a way that the idea is a given—appropriate for our modern master of the occult arts. You can also, given the portents that run through the text, infer (if you so choose) that the increase of mental sensitivity is a result of Dr. Manhattan’s creation on a global scale—an idea with thematic weight.
The Comedian, in his drunken rant to former “supervillain” Moloch, does not react to the construction of a genetic dead-end squid monster. What he reacts to, on panel, is the actions of “writers and artists”—the horrific images and ideas of a coterie of creative people that Veidt had spirited away. These images were broadcast in a wide ratio, far beyond the epicenter of destruction caused by the teleportation attack (which was also the result of Dr. Manhattan’s birth). It was the horrible images and ideas shot directly into the minds of a world populace that tips the scale—the monster serves only as tangible supporting evidence. It is the clouded and infected minds that shut down out of terror, and it is that fact which makes the deliberately absurd plan easier to swallow. The “Outer Limits” rip-off is not only an homage, but a suggestion that Adrian’s plan is so absurd that its fragile structure could be toppled by anything. It is this fact only which allows the sting of the coda—Rorschach is viewed as a madman and the New Frontiersman is a jingoist tabloid rag, but there’s a hair’s chance that it would send the glass castle toppling down as easily as the one Dr. Manhattan constructs, in parallel, on Mars.
The monster looks like a vagina dentata for two reasons: One, because the artist, Hira Manish, had repressed problems that led her to flee her own husband and children (she is also responsible for a late and passing comment on the news broadcast to a pregnant woman believing that her unborn child was devouring her from the inside); and Two, because it serves as a reactionary point to the violent masculine act that begins the story—the rape of Sally Jupiter (consider the pair of squabbling lesbians on the newsstand corner, who argue over a poster with a similar dentata motif).
All of this, of course, relies upon more detail than a film can support, aside from it being over the top—and the nature of the world has changed since September 11th, when an attack on New York failed utterly to unite the world peaceably (or, then again, maybe for a day or two it seemed to; until our nation reacted in accordance with its nature and, lacking an alien telepathic message to cling to, looked for another solution). In Snyder’s film version, the weight is instead put upon Dr. Manhattan’s shoulders, which is a simplified, but logical, alternative. But the plan as it is portrayed is, if anything, even weaker than “the squid theory.” Because everyone in the world knows exactly what the being who was once Jon Osterman is capable of, and that he could have exterminated humanity in the first instance if he’d wanted to. In the weeks to follow, doubt would collapse the idea of peace even without an inciting article—if anything, it’s even harder to believe that one nation wouldn’t blame the ruse on the other, because this time there isn’t a shared psychic impulse to keep them from the idea.
The sort of change in an adaptation that frustrates most is one that seems to work better in a superficial viewing but that falls apart upon consideration—when dealing with a work that has withstood so much analysis as Watchmen has, a film, no matter how different from the text, can pay the greatest strength to the original by being a film which rewards re-viewings, that pays off further dividends and only seems deeper under a harder critical eye. That Watchmen stands as, if anything, a middle-of-the-road mediocre film, hurts the hardest. In the end, Snyder’s desire to keep things visually similar to the text allows him little chance to survive—those looking for exact 1:1 filmmaking are still going to see the seams, and anyone who wants to see a comparable work that fits into its own medium the way that Moore’s fits into comics is going to be disappointing.
The only exception to this rule, of course, has been stated in perhaps a hundred reviews. In the bravura opening credits sequence, Snyder takes the basic events of Watchmen’s backstory and translates them into film with no visual correlation to any part of the book (save the Minutemen photo, which works just fine) but instead relates itself to an audience used to film and photo—the language of the Zapruder film, of the iconic Times Square photo. The audience at my viewing of the film laughed harder at the appearance of Andy Warhol in the opening sequence than anything else in the film—perhaps appropriate, as the figure who so blatantly walked the line between style and substance.
XXVI. “…the whole plot has already gone to fuck…”
1986 was the year that everything changed in comics, for better or for worse. Watchmen began its serialization around the same time as Frank Miller’s fascist-fetishistic The Dark Knight Returns. The two have always, unfortunately, been linked in the minds of superhero audiences, as the legitimization of their genre. As Eddie Campbell put it in his comic history and thinly-veiled autobiography, How to Be an Artist: “Batman. Well, of course, the whole plot has already gone to fuck as you can see right there. But it’s too late. It’s in the hands of the PR yuppies.” A suit named Igor Goldkind in the next panel states that, “There was a marketing opportunity. My job was to develop a semantic the general public and the book trade could understand.”
It was from there that events like Marvel’s Civil War or the 90s spectacle The Death of Superman could make national news. Godfather of western comics (and counterpart to Osamu Tezuka) Will Eisner didn’t necessarily coin the term “graphic novel,” but his early literary comics like A Contract With God set a path for the potential of sequential art that would not be well-traveled for many years—and the response to 1986 from the major superhero publishers, to flood the market with cheap collections or perfect-bound editions of average battlers, confused the issue even as the market started to topple from speculation into the early 90s.
The film adaptation of Watchmen has been released within a year of a film that, at least, shares a similar title with Miller’s “Dark Knight,” and that draws from it (in part) in inspiration. Christopher Nolan’s film was, among other things, endemic of a trend in an industry desperate to churn out more superhero moves while they sell—a fundamental embarrassment in the films to be what they are actually about. Bryan Singer and Ang Lee, for their part, attempted to instill their films with the traits of superhero stories (high and low) that make them special, but neither of them could quite stick their landings, as strong as their work was in general (though Singer took one failed X-Men film to get there). Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, in part because of its story’s parallel to its star actor’s own history, managed to transcend a very difficult character and make a film that puts most of the rest to shame. But the last two decades are otherwise littered in superhero corpses, from B-grade embarrassments like the ones that Patton Oswalt was quick to list to the merely-mediocre The Incredible Hulk, which flirts with camp and a peculiar reverence to the TV show that preceded it while never committing to its higher ideals.
Nolan’s second film, which I’ve reviewed poorly in the past, succeeded with reviewers who claimed it was less a superhero film than a crime flick in the vein of Michael Mann’s Heat. Certainly, Nolan’s “realistic take” on the character tried to relate him to James Bond rather than deal with him as an icon—which is one reason why the character recedes in the face of Heath Ledger’s all-in performance as the Joker. Watchmen, in turn, reveres its source on a superficial level—that its superheroes are “for adults” because of anti-establishment ideas and a hard ’R’ rating—while inevitably shaking loose the complexity and subtlety of the original.
So then, we must take the film on its own and see what it has to say. I confess I have a hard time with it. The film is paced like chunky soup, the score is a series of soap opera cues and generic action movie throbs that suggests there’s little below its surface—the popular song cues might feel less obvious and forced if the volume was brought below 11, but Snyder’s film doesn’t have have the patience to do anything under 11. Much has been made of his slow-fast action cinematography, but more jarring are the lighting choices, which seem to point the way for a half-asleep audience (Look! Adrian’s the killer!) The sequence in which Adrian’s supposed assassin attacks and “feeds himself” a suicide capsule is framed poorly, giving no chance for the audience to believe that the event could actually be happening how Adrian claims—he never has a chance off-frame to even get his hands near his face, and Adrian is too far from the attacker when he makes his assertion.
Similar notes fall flat when they are supposed to be emotionally complicated—the biggest thud is the relationship between the original Silk Spectre and the Comedian, which is first foreshadowed too heavily, robbing the idea of its shock value on Mars, and then later not given enough time to breathe, written off as “one of those things” and then put aside despite a long and ugly (and pretty faithful) scene of attempted rape early on.
Make no mistake, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are extraordinary. They lash the broken film to their backs and try to carry it across two hours and forty minutes, enduring whatever obstacles are put before them, and the strength of their performances almost save the film from itself. Malin Åkerman and Matthew Goode have the most challenging parts in the film and largely waste them, but the cuts made for time also do the most damage to the complexity of their roles. Goode at least might come out on top when the film’s extended cut reaches DVD and his character is buffered by an hour of deleted scenes and animated pirate symbolism. However, Akerman as Silk Spectre (arguably the most important character in the story), gave flat readings that wrenched the heart out of scenes that desperately needed them. Some of her choices seemed downright bizarre—what was with her smirk before accidentally setting the “Owlcave” on fire? And Patrick Wilson ran alternately hot and cold throughout the film—his wounded performance helped distance the character of Dan Dreiberg from the actor’s good looks (I stopped missing the pot belly), but his scream at Rorschach’s fate was so awful, he joined a rare and disreputable club that also counts among its members Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode III and Arnold Vosloo’s failed world-conquering undead at the close of The Mummy Returns.
In the end, the film will be forgotten. That reactions have been so mixed, but rarely so emphatic as for even The Dark Knight, all but assures its fate. The book’s sales brought it to the very top of Amazon.com this week, but as more people see the film (or don’t), that’s going to taper off as well. While anticipation fueled sales, I have a hard time picturing the film as driving people unfamiliar with the book to the stores to learn more. And if I am wrong in that, I wonder what they’ll find? What will Moore’s classic (though not his opus—he had a great many works to follow, many of them more powerful in their way and less beholden to a genre’s troubled history) offer to audiences of Snyder’s film, rather than the other way around? This is where I am at a loss. Moore’s work, for all of its complexity, its intertextual weaving, its moral ambiguity, and its deep exploration and gentle cradling of broken men and women, is a very different animal, a horned mutant where one might expect a tiger. It is dreary and quiet, more open in its condemnation, more exhausted with its own action, and ultimately more pleading. It demands far more of you than Snyder’s film, and we are all less interested than ever in meeting the demands of our entertainment.
Watchmen, the text, changed comics in positive and negative ways, incontrovertibly, regardless of how one views the text itself. Watchmen, the film, is going to change very little, regardless of how one views the film on its own. That, perhaps, is the biggest change between the two that will result from this long and arduous adaptation process. The question of why adaptation is ever bothered with can be answered with any number of worthwhile films (or any number of worthwhile projects in other media), but with a project like this one, taking the helm of the adaptation might only be, as Patton Oswalt suggested, damage control—with little spirit of the original in place, and little to recommend it as a work of its own right, the film serves as little more than an experiment, like another act of adaptation that I’d yet to mention: Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, which attempted a Borgesian exact retelling and lost a lot of its heart in the service of a weak idea.
So that’s another major comic off of our list. What’s next? Someone option Promethea yet? I’ll bet you can get a really good fantasy out of a two-hour Promethea movie, right?
NEXT: I try to write another column within three months. Should I open the floor to suggestions?
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
Comics Column #4: Mapmaking and the Hoi Polloi (Dylan Horrocks)
The inside covers of the books are marked with a pair of maps, essentially bookending history with cartography.
XXIII. “There is only the past.”
Jordan Mechner, creator of the long-lived Prince of Persia video game franchise, released a graphic novel inspired by his games earlier this year through First Second books. A publisher swiftly becoming known for high-quality literary works, First Second usually releases imported works from beloved European cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, as well as prestige projects from already-known talents like Eddie Campbell or Jessica Abel—the idea of a video game adaptation coming from their publishing house, even a particularly well-marketed book like Prince of Persia (celebrating a major new game release), seemed something of an anomaly. However, unlike most adaptations of a video game into any other particular media—cinema having notably had trouble with the product so far—this book turned out to be surprisingly well thought-out and often gentle in its storytelling. While hardcore gamers who came to the book out of curiosity may have been disappointed at the minimal level of swashbuckling—or, really, any of the superficial elements inherent to the “platform game” video game mechanics—the book is a rewarding, if disposable, bit of fairy tale confection.
What makes the book work is not, strictly speaking, Iranian writer A.B. Sina’s appropriation of Arabian Nights themes or the elegant simplicity of the linework by married artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland (one a noted illustrator of children’s books, the other an animator at Dreamworks), but rather their combined understanding of the medium that they’re working in. For an adaptation, there is a distinctly notable tailoring of the story to the strengths of the comic narrative. Prince of Persia, the game series, has two primary elements to its story: first, that there is and has been more than one prince, each of whose story repeats throughout history (an element it shares on some level with the best-selling Zelda franchise) and second, that time is an integral element. At first, that time played out as a time limit that the player had to race; later, it took the form of a time-travel mechanic that allowed the player to rewind moves and gaffes mid-play. In the graphic novel, the stories of two heroic Princes of Persia are intertwined through history and told concurrently, and the idea of “time” is played out in a myriad of techniques. From thematic elements concerning the impact of history on the present (at one point, one Prince must battle history itself, in the form of the dead rising), to the mechanics of how the story itself is told, the interplay of moments in time is kept at the forefront.
By telling two stories in tandem, vacillating back and forth, the most obvious method of playing with time and history is the juxtaposition of two moments in subsequent panels. This is a technique that was taken to perhaps its narrative limit in the two Dr. Manhattan chapters in Watchmen, where Manhattan’s near-omniscience enables him to see all of time at once. We view moments out of order and simultaneously on the comic page, a taste of how Manhattan looks at all of time. As Dr. Manhattan says:
“Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”
One of the best comics of last year, Matt Kindt’s Super Spy, presented its series of vignettes and short stories out of order, and left it up to the reader to assemble the narrative itself—it worked twofold, because the actual espionage plot was very much secondary to the examination of what the characters had become due to their profession, and also because the act of “decoding” that part of history placed the reader within the story, trying to piece things together along with the characters. In Prince of Persia, one of the Princes, who both enacts moments in history and inhabits them, has been drawing picture scrolls telling the story of the previous Prince—and by reenacting those moments and identifying with them, he’s making his artwork tell the story of two times, just as the book itself does. When he’s forced to leave his artwork behind, the story barrels forward along the secondary motif of the river—the lifeblood of any desert kingdom, water here is used to represent time—the chosen prince of the prophecies rises from the waters, coming out of history itself, and the site of his reenactments becomes the true kingdom.
The inside covers of the books are marked with a pair of maps, essentially bookending history with cartography. This is appropriate for comics, as, in their ability to display moments in time simultaneously, they resemble nothing so much as maps of time as opposed to place.
XXIV. “…The Big Kids Table…”
One of America’s most favored sons in the world of comics, Chris Ware, tends to be lauded more for craft than for story, and it’s easy to see why: while an intensely skilled cartoonist, as a storyteller he is almost completely constrained by his style, a combination of emotional desolation and ironic detachment toward his own humor. While there is a certain degree of biting satire in portraying God as a superhero, a blatantly Superman-looking one at that, and then making that man a pathetic failure, the actual humor of it has no air to breathe because every other character in his works are similarly empty and broken. His best-selling Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy in the World was based in part on his real life confrontation with his father; his other major works feature the same tropes. If Ware shares one trait in common with Warren Ellis, the subject of this column’s previous installment, it’s his tendency to approach the same subject again and again, yet each time with a pair of tweezers.
Ware has two techniques that have gained some deserved praise, however, with regards to the portrayal of history. The first is similar to the jumbled histories of Watchmen and Prince of Persia, in which Ware sums up moments in creative history in brief comic strips and then collects them together on the page like a crowded Sunday newspaper, allowing them to play off one another and create history in aggregate—a concept brought even further by David Heatley, whose recent book My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down features a pair of stories, one for each of Heatley’s parents, in which hundreds of tiny one-note strips are piled atop each other in order to get a larger sense of each of them.
The second technique Ware uses, though, is more unique. Ware’s formal diagrams for portraying relationships between his characters and the flow of history are uniquely beautiful. Late in Jimmy Corrigan, Ware has a two-page diagram follow the bloodline of one of the supporting characters back in time, using a series of snapshots, cutaways of a yearbook, the appearance of a pressed flower in a Bible, and a complicated series of arrows and trails in order to tie her to another supporting character who, as in Prince of Persia, exists in a simultaneous narrative taking place earlier in history. That it’s even difficult to describe without the image notes it as particularly unique to the comic medium.
Ware and many of his peers—Ivan Brunetti, Adrian Tomine, Seth, and others—have ascended to certain rarefied stratum amongst comic professionals. They are viewed as the forefront of the medium by The New York Times, manage to pick up awards previously available only to prose fiction, and are otherwise held as proof that the comic medium has evolved past the material that wider audiences had for so long considered the only potential of comics at all. The other side of it, however, is that very frequently they find themselves considered the exception that proves the rule. They’re sometimes shelved independently of other graphic novels—Spiegelman’s Maus, David B.’s Epileptic, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis have been in the “Biography” section for years—and many of them are so insular that their recommendations and commentary stay restricted to the same crowd year in and year out. The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other “Best American” collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.
It’s the inevitable counterpoint to the insularity of superhero comics, which I discussed last time. Many of these cartoonists and their books very much do belong in the list of “best comics,” but not all of them, all of the time, to the exclusion of the thousands of other creators who have been innovating or otherwise producing powerful work in relative obscurity. Unfortunately, there are no used bookstores, third-run theaters, or DVD rentals to provide late discoveries of work that slipped past the initial radar.
I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the “Best American” books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I’m inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:
“Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They’re the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we’re resigned to it. They’re married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity. But above all, there can be only one creator, not a union of writer and artist, for only a single creator can achieve their full vision.
”[…] I was surprised to see Jeffrey Brown had been offered a seat. His style is scratchy, they often look like they’ve been dashed out on a napkin over breadsticks, before the entrée arrives. As a writer, he manages often quite eloquently to capture a moment, a feeling, and to bring these together to show us life that feels very true, and often is quite literally. But should there not be a higher standard of artistic storytelling, to find your work on a wall? Where is David Mack here? Why wasn’t he invited to sit at the table? Where is the innovation of JH Williams III? Is the main requirement of comic literary greatness solely the ability to capture malaise and emotional torpor? Is the sole genre the capturing of a wasteland of desperate isolation? And why is it so frequently autobiographical?
”[…] There is a self-loathing that is apparent in comics at every turn, all the more troubling as we reach an acceptable level of pop culture acceptance, but it is perhaps never more alarming than it is here, at what we consider our highest peak. It so often feels like these are men who create comics because they’re not good at anything else. Often, their comics read like a protracted suicide note. All the more terrifying when they’re so carefully, artfully crafted. Ware, for all his faults, has done more for the language of visual storytelling in his work than many of his peers. The irony being, of course, that it so frequently crosses paths with the work McCloud is disseminating in the online community. It’s not hard to make the connection between his elaborate and intricate “mapping” panels and McCloud’s nonlinear “trails.” Though I think perhaps Ware would be mortified at the connection.”
Jeffrey Brown, of course, followed up one of his highest profile moments with the quaint and charming book The Incredible Change-Bots, a “Transformers” parody. It’s been clear he doesn’t take all of this particularly seriously, and I respect the man for it. My final comment, however, ties directly into Ware’s formalist work and how it’s worth viewing separately from his other stylistic hang-ups. Many of the other groundbreaking cartoonists working today have been experimenting with similar explorations into how time is handled in comics—how the map is drawn—including those who deserve a higher profile.
XXV. “The proximity of bodies.”
The idea of the “map of time” perhaps first made its impressions with McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in which he explicates in full detail just how confusing the passage of time can be in comics—that is, what we assume are “static images” usually contain the passage of time, highlighted by dialog and motion. Because the comic sequence provides a visual schema for time’s passing, one could consider time the most integral element in the physical construction of comics, both within the panel and then through a sequence of multiple panels.
Really, though, the movement has as its father the work of New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks, creator of the acclaimed Hicksville. Horrocks was one of the first to come forward and directly challenge McCloud’s polemic, particularly with regards to McCloud’s attempt to define terms that encompass the entirety of the medium—one whose borders are in constant dispute. Horrocks wrote “Inventing Comics” for The Comics Journal shortly after the McCloud book was released, and he pokes hard at a number of McCloud’s assertions (including the link to textual language, which I spoke rather cheekily about in this column’s second installment. In “Inventing Comics,” Horrocks used the relationship between McCloud’s theorizing and a cartographer charting known territory to highlight the limitations in Understanding Comics, and one has to pause at the title of McCloud’s sequel text: Reinventing Comics.
The fascination that Horrocks has with cartography is nowhere clearer than in his best-known work. Hicksville is the story of a comics journalist named Leonard Batts who travels to a small town in New Zealand to do a feature on a popular superhero writer’s upbringing and finds instead a mythical utopia for comic creators and a number of truths about the star writer and the life he’d left behind. Throughout his travels, Batts is guided by a series of mysteriously-appearing fragments of a comic about Captain Cook and a cartographer, which discuss the nature of maps and what they mean to culture as a whole. For the first half of the narrative, it seems wholly disconnected from the rest of the work, until an interlude exploring a supporting character’s backstory brings her to a fictional Eastern-European nation called Cornucopia, where an aging cartoonist named Emil Kopen explains his work:
“Maps are of two kinds. Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kind—the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time—or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time. […] But these days I have begun to feel that stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies. Time is simply what interferes with that, yes?”
Kopen then claims that he’s digressed into talking about magic (more on this in a bit). It becomes clear here, however, that while the story of Captain Cook in the interwoven narrative of Hicksville is partly a love letter to New Zealand as a whole, and in particular this town where comics are the natural lifeblood, and where the lighthouse contains a library of every great comic never written, the story is also about comics itself, maps that can be communication with something beyond oneself.
Horrocks has been working on a sequel to Hicksville titled Atlas, in which this subject is further explored; however, the glacial pace of new Atlas chapters makes the ten year wait for the conclusion of Berlin (the subject of this column’s first installment) seem downright punctual. In fascist Cornucopia, maps were outlawed (among other things) in order to keep the populace confused and docile, and only war hero Emil Kopen was able to disseminate maps to the people through his newspaper comic strip.
Horrocks wrote one other significant essay on the nature of comics, comparing McCloud’s work to James Kochalka’s own theorizing in The Cute Manifesto—he examines storytelling, particularly in comics, as being primarily about the creation of a world in which to play, the play being the narrative itself. This is not so far off from Stuart Moulthrop’s idea of the “Interstitial,” as previously mentioned, and like Moulthrop, Horrocks makes the connection between comic books and video games, rather than with cinema or prose fiction. In the case of Horrocks, however, the map of that world and its history is inherent to the form in which the story is told.
This idea was also utilized by Nick Bertozzi for his Xeric Grant-winning minicomic Boswash, about a Civil War-era surveyor and cartographer. The comic itself is folded in the manner of a road map, and the story literally “unfolds” as one opens it. By telling Boswash’s story within a physical map, the character is physically constrained by the nature of the map and its borders, which fits the character’s story: he is forced to go on the run when he insists on showing his superior where the true border lies in disputed territory.
McCloud, for his part, in the writing of Reinventing Comics, made the transition of focus to web-based comics and their potential for experimentation. While he offered many different ideas, and continues to explore in his comics work online, one notable inclusion was the concept of the “infinite canvas.” Comics are ever-more frequently exploring their physical space—Chris Ware in particular is notable for seemingly never using the same size and shape for any two comics—but they are by nature restricted by both the printing process and practicality. Online, however, a single comic can theoretically take up a near-infinite amount of “space”—the parameters of the screen through which you view the comic will only concern the window you use to see part of the image at once. This is, in one sense, the natural extrapolation from the “window” concept as explained in the column’s first installment—while you might only see part of the map at once, you have access to the entire thing, and all panels can be in juxtaposition with each other in a single space, rather than on opposite sides of a sheet of paper. Online experimental comics pioneer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey has since developed a flash program called the Tarquin Engine, which enables one to zoom in and out of a single “infinite canvas” comic, allowing depth to be introduced to a comic’s “physical” construction as well as allow for an entire comic to be viewed at once.
In order to connect panels in an online setting, however, McCloud needed to use something other than the “gutters” that occur between two panels in a print comic, since an infinite amount of space can make the question of direction confusing with regards to how a comic is read. He came up with something that he called “trails.” By using a simple (or deliberately ornate!) line connecting panels from one to another, often going in multiple directions, the comics resemble a map more directly—and what’s more, the diagrams of Chris Ware. Using “trails” in an online comic allows for additional techniques, including the ability to exaggerate the space between two given panels to suggest a length of time, more literally displaying how time can “interfere with the proximity of bodies.”
XVI. “Everything’s made from language?”
Perhaps a suitable antidote for Ware’s emotionally empty formalism are the comics of Kevin Huizenga. Huizenga is perhaps the great humanist of the “indie cartoonists” (Los Bros Hernandez does a different sort of work, and I tend to count them separately despite their general brilliance)—his work has the clean lines and formal experimentation of Ware with a more full-bodied emotional range. Curses, his one hardcover collection, is focused on wanting children and losing them, and despite the pain inherent in the story is at times very funny, very moving, and even occasionally creepy. When it comes to formalism—and the cartography of time—however, you can draw a line from Ware’s history diagrams to Huizenga’s short story “Time Travelling.”
In “Time Travelling,” Huizenga’s self-similar character Glenn Ganges is walking to the library on a spring day and realizes that the day is so similar to another that he could very well be living that day again. Rather than feeling trapped by it, Ganges feels the purity of the moment as eternal, and thus recurring—which means other moments are full of potential as well. Huizenga conveys the feeling of stepping out of time by having Ganges step through a series of panels-as-windows (calling back the trope I’d discussed earlier) and then viewing the comic page as a series of moments in history that could be replaced with other moments in a constantly turning wheel of all possible worlds. Later, when Ganges is home and experiencing a comparatively rare dark moment while watching his wife sleep, the wheel image recurs, evoking the previous image (see “recurring visual metaphors, column #2) but now each moment is represented by a person, by a couple—to Huizenga, the people are what matter within and without the moment, and he never loses the gentle humanity of his characters (a number of times, Huizenga has even circled this issue through the logic and visual aesthetic of video games—in the second issue of his “Ganges” series, an abstract portrayal of a video game battle leads into a story in which characters during the dot-com bubble have no external outlet for their anxieties—and camaraderie—save a regular death match tournament).
In the responses to my second installment here at The House, commenter Bruce Reid drew my attention to artist Warren Craghead. Many of his illustrations and comic work follows the pattern of Ware and McCloud in their diagrammatical form. Small collections of image and text form like clumps and are connected by “trail”-like lines that often fork. Some of his work, in fact, quite literally depicts places and the paths between them. They’re nonlinear and frequently tend toward the abstract, which lends them the poetic cadence that I’d spoken of in that previous column. Somewhat similarly, Douglas Wolk in Making Comics drew connections between comics as cartography and the use of poetry when discussing the work of Hope Larson.
Perhaps one of the great tragedies of modern comics is the frustratingly high percentage of time that Hope Larson’s work is spoken of only in the shadow of her husband’s. Make no mistake: you’d have to go far afield to find a bigger fan of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work than myself; the “Scott Pilgrim” series is one of the most enjoyable comic experiences that I could recommend, and despite its hipster reputation it has been incredibly accessible and approachable, in my experience, for newcomers to comics. But since O’Malley’s work has been scheduled for adaptation by Edgar Wright (with Michael Cera to star), the increased press coverage of his work has frequently mentioned Larson only as an afterthought, and one of the most promising cartoonists of her generation has been edged out of the spotlight in the last few years, even after the success of her young adult book Chiggers. The truth is, despite having a greater personal fondness (and identification) for and with O’Malley’s work, Larson is the better cartoonist—her craft is at this stage much more impressive and she has a greater tendency toward exploration.
Part of the problem may be that her books have, to date, been distinctly all-ages in tone (she is reportedly at work on her first “adult novel”), and a child-appropriate narrative is a very easy way to get the complexity of your storytelling choices ignored. Her second book, Gray Horses, concerns dreams and dream logic, and the rhythms of her work very much speak to the idea of “poetic cadence” in comics. Wolk writes:
“One big theme … is the flow of the world’s images and sensations between the real and imaginary realms: wrinkles in a blanket become a dream image of grass in a field … Dream logic is the only way to make a map of the processes of joy, and Larson is already becoming a master cartographer of the psyche.”
Indeed, her book’s endpapers and indicia pages all feature map fragments—relating to the protagonist’s literal travels, but also acting as metaphor for plotting the border territory between dream and real. The relationship between photographs and experience in Gray Horses serves not only to blur that boundary further, but also implies, as Prince of Persia attempted to state outright, that history, memory, experience, and dreams are all aspects of time, and in comics can frequently become interchangeable.
Many cartoonists, particularly those in the aforementioned “British Invasion,” have dealt at some level or another with the idea of magic, the nature of the comic medium making it the ideal tool to express magical ideas. Alan Moore, more than any other, has used comics to disseminate his particular view on magic, and that magic is frequently tied as much to geography as to comics. In From Hell, his first major “magical” text, and one of the last books he completed before declaring himself a full-fledged wizard, Moore has a lengthy chapter in which Sir William Gull, the author’s suspected Jack the Ripper, takes his coachman Netley all about London and shows him how the architecture of the city has ominous magical significance that is specifically informed by its history. Psychogeography has played some part in virtually every work that Moore’s written since—the works contained in the book A Disease of Language, which was mentioned in regards to poetics in this column’s second installment, are specifically concerned with the magical history of his hometown of Northhampton, England.
No work of Moore’s, however, is more specifically involved with magic than his opus Promethea, a title that at first appears to be a pastiche of Wonder Woman and quickly becomes a near-polemic on Moore’s Kabbalistic (by way of Crowley) ideas. While a study of comic technique in Promethea could fill a sixteen-week course, the idea of cartography and language plays a specific part—the Kabbalah, after all, is a cosmological map itself. When Moore’s characters begin their quest up through the spheres towards the Godhead, the Kabbalah is drawn in the manner of a London Tube map, even as Moore and his artist J.H. Williams III wander around the station.
In a confrontation with Mercury, Moore’s heroines are informed that the gods are abstract ideas, dream ideas that could only exist through imagery and stories, and Mercury implies a link between hieroglyphics or vase paintings and modern day comics in the existence of myth, all the while looking directly at the reader. And just moments before, the map of time has been up-ended; Promethea is trapped wandering a road in the shape of a Mobius strip, and she sees herself coming and going along the path just as the reader can see each simultaneous depiction of her on the comic page.
These conceptual tricks reach their apex in the final issue, in which the characters in the story have attained a certain amount of enlightenment, and Promethea speaks directly to the reader in a complicated fold-out poster of an issue that takes the idea that Boswash suggested and cranks it up. On either side of the poster, Promethea travels around the image, and one can follow her and read her dialog in order, or follow a series of “trails” that connect disjointed ideas in a different narrative order—or, one can read it one page at a time as it appears in the book format! In attempting to convey his unique view of magic and the nature of the universe, Moore has completely rewired the natural cartography of reading comics.
XVII. “…an infinitely complex landscape…”
Matt Madden, one of the co-authors of the cartooning textbook Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (and also, now, one of the series editors of the “Best American Comics” line), had earlier worked on an experimental text titled 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, an attempt to do a comics version of the original Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau, one of the co-founders of the Oulipo movement in experimental literature. Madden created ninety-nine variations of the same single-page comic script, attempting to show the variety of possibilities the comics medium had available to it in the telling of a simple tale. In addition to camera angle challenges that would fit in a similar experiment in cinema (all close-shot, all low-shot, etc.), and a series of style imitations (done as Jack Kirby, done as an EC horror comic), there were some very inventive choices. One particular selection had the story told not with a series of panels or dialog balloons, but rather with a full-page map. The physical objects are boundaries and borders, the people geography, and the dialog and thought are roadways to travel—while it’s obviously not the most clear of his storytelling options, one can piece together the story being told even from the map.
Madden’s use of cartography for storytelling is on the one hand the most “unnecessarily” experimental, but it also serves as a perfect example for how time operates in comics as a unique geography, an oft-overlooked aspect of the medium that informs creators in all the genres and forms. While it is true that much of the best work in comics is getting passed over in favor of a more select group of creators, this element is one of many that shows the various comic camps aren’t really that separate (I mean really, on some level, is Ware’s pathetic deity superhero that far off from Lethem’s wandering neighborhood superhero Omega?).
The “cartography of time” that comics can represent is something that film is less suitable for, but I’m drawn back to the awkward “panel” superstructure of Ang Lee’s Hulk, which I mentioned in the first installment of this column. In zooming out to view footage of many clips from the film at once before moving into another, it couldn’t quite get across the feeling of reading a comic while watching a film, but there’s a definite link there, a map of the story of the film using chosen moments in sequence. And even the lackluster adaptation of From Hell couldn’t entirely gloss over the strange beauty in London’s urban geography with its magical import.
Horrocks wrote of McCloud’s book in “Inventing Comics,”
“Like any map, it presents only one way of reading an infinitely complex landscape, thereby suppressing other possible readings. There are some alternative readings which McCloud is clearly wanting to suppress—those dreaded ’stereotypes’ that ’defined what comics could be too narrowly.’ But even these maps can be useful at times—they helped guide me on my journey through the history of the industry, for example. They are, after all, the same maps that guided many of the cartoonists, publishers and readers who built that industry.”
The divisions aren’t going to go away, any more than the divisions that split prose, cinema, video games, and other media into their own various subsections. And while the market forces at work today make those divisions so pronounced that many brilliant creators are going largely unheard, they can also be used as landmarks on a map for exploring comics as a whole, even while finding the similarities from territory to territory.
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
Comics Column #2: Poetry and New Languages (A Disease of Language, Kabuki)
My point here is that one of the most important ways to read and critique this medium is as a visual language.
”’Comics’ are a social object written in a visual language that combines with text. If novels or magazines are written in English, why should ’comics’ be a language, instead of be written in a language?”—Neil Cohn
VI. “…axis of connection…”
Not that long ago, I wrote briefly for this site on the subject of recurring visual metaphors in Neon Genesis Evangelion. I wrote, then, that—
“It is incredibly difficult to create a solid visual that then serves as a metaphor within the work itself, as the visual has to be potent in its initial incarnation without disrupting the flow of the story, and then must recur in a natural way.”
—and in film, this difficulty is in part because of the difference in “window” that I discussed in my first installment. We don’t, by nature, refer to a specific visual composition as a metaphor that recurs because the objects in the frame are so often moving. This is not to say that it isn’t done—directors like Kubrick and Lynch have been able to capture visuals that work in a single frame, empowered by meaning even apart from context, and oftentimes those images inform on the work as a whole—but it’s an underused technique.
In comics, the most talented creators are finding this skill much more useful to their medium, where individual panels can exist as static images, the motion provided by the context between them. In the already-mentioned Berlin, Jason Lutes used recurring images of a woman whispering into a man’s ear as representative of their ability to find the man’s buried vulnerability. That the second instance (Marthe and Kurt, directly preceding the de-framing nakedness I mentioned last time) mirrors the first lends it even further weight, creating a thread of memory and resonance. And in the newly-released volume two, “City of Smoke,” he calls back to the scene on the lawn that I mentioned in the last installment—the posed image of the lovers directly recalls the moment of vulnerability in a scene where it’s come back to haunt him.
The most blatant and obvious example of this technique in comics is perhaps the many underpinnings of recurring images in Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Images like the iconic blood-smeared smiley button, or of hands reaching from a foreground on the other side of the fourth wall, reaching into the panel, are given an emotional and intellectual power with their first use that compounds each time it is reused.
[Aside: A brief one on the frequent citing of Watchmen as an example … the book, one of Time Magazine’s “100 Best Novels” (written after 1923) and a current best-seller, is without question a brilliant work. However, it is often misunderstood. I was at a talk a few years back given by Maus author Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer-winner and underground comics pioneer, for the Chicago Arts and Humanities Festival. Asked by an audience member what he thought of Watchmen, Spiegelman was a bit put off, and dismissed it offhandedly due to its use of the superhero genre. While I disagree, it’s hard to miss his point. The title works with common iconography of superhero books, and is rooted very much in its Cold War time period—as an example of “timeless literature,” it doesn’t hold up the way some of Moore’s later projects do—and its complexity makes it a poor starting place for a first time or casual comic reader, which is why the book’s legacy, for all its strengths and its merit, has largely been the dark tone and deconstruction of superheroes, which were the smallest parts of the work. This has everything to do with DC Comics once again falling back on “going dark” when they’re not sure what to do with a property—this time on film. That said, Watchmen is virtually peerless on a level of craft, and techniques like the ones under discussion in this installment have very few examples to draw from in displaying what the medium is capable of on its own merits rather than as the ugly cousin to film, or, for that matter, to prose or any other medium.]
Stuart Moulthrop, pioneering hypertext author, professor at Baltimore University, and founder of a major online haven for critical analysis of Watchmen, wrote in his essay “Misadventure” that this technique was both an elaboration of Scott McCloud’s concept of “Closure” and a call to higher interactivity with the text:
“Like persistence of vision, this mechanism emphasizes causal relationships and sequential continuity; but unlike our response to cinema, the work of pattern completion in comics does not depend on mechanical projection and thus is not limited to a single axis of connection.”
Moulthrop categorized graphic novels in the same class as certain “higher-functioning” video games (my words, not his), a category that he termed “Interstitial Fiction.”
”…an extension of storytelling into and across various gaps and fault lines. Some of these interstices separate intensity from extensiveness […] Others represent the unmapped spaces between familiar forms, as in the case of comics, which borrow something from prose fiction (comics as over-illustrated stories) and other elements from cinema (comics as runaway storyboards, or movies with exceedingly low frame counts) but really belong to neither of these major domains.”
This is a usable term for a number of reasons, and there are comparisons and through-lines to discuss regarding the intersection between comics and games; however, some might suggest that a step further back is needed, and that this use of recurring visual metaphor hearkens back to the origin of what we call “comics,” which is language itself.
VII. “I’m going to stop now before we start talking about Lacan.”
There were a lot of responses to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, as well as his two subsequent books, which developed his own theories further. Some were contemplative, some were venomous, and some were exultant. One of the most interesting responses, however, came from comic creator and theorist Neil Cohn, who teaches at Tufts University and studies, in his own words, “how [the] visual language found in ’comics’ intersects with linguistics and cognitive science.”
In Understanding Comics, McCloud makes the claim that the tradition of creating “sequential art” reaches back through all iterations of form, from the Bayeaux Tapestry to Medieval Christian art and stained glass series images of the stations of the cross to Trajan’s Column to ancient Egyptian wall paintings. Whereas Cohn proposes that what we call “comics”—whether we refer to graphic novels or humor strips or any other derivation—are a subset of a larger unit called “visual language” and that, to quote his book Early Writings on Visual Language, “like verbalized language, the unique property of visual language lies in its sequence—its syntax.” Cohn, for his part, then spends much of his book looking at how the syntax of this visual language can be diagrammed, taking a great deal of his inspiration from Chomsky’s Knowledge of Language.
We can carry this on through to our textual language, if we’re feeling frisky; Japanese kanji—where a visual character serves as an icon for a word, the grouping and context of those images change the word’s meaning, and then, laid out in sequence, form a sentence—certainly carry a lot of these characteristics. English characters stand for groupings of sound, but they’re still abstract images, many of which evolved from original pictograms of the same nature. A few years back I was interviewing a friend of mine, an author who’s spent significant time in both the east and west, and we discussed this a bit. He was quick to point out:
“English is more similar than it might seem; when we read, we’re not actually sounding out every word, we’re just seeing them as discrete units learned through years of practice. When we look at the word ’cat,’ we see it immediately as ’cat,’ not ’kuh-ah-tuh.’ Even polysyllabic words like ’Neurofibromatosis’ are seen more or less as discrete entities which we can read very quickly without really having to sound out. We see words as images, and read images like words, for example, understanding the visual metaphors in morality paintings of the Middle Ages. […] I’m going to stop now before we start talking about Lacan.”
[Aside: It’s worth noting here that Eastern and Western comics have entirely different shorthand icons, some of which are hard to translate culturally. There’s little western precedent, for instance, for the “nosebleed as lust” image, which is as common to them as the little skritchy cloud over Charlie Brown’s head would be here. The language developed and continues to develop very differently.]
And this is all a very amusing exercise, but in terms of relevance, my point is not to argue graphic novels, or any sequential art for that matter, as either primal or primary. Its universal understanding and the use of it in instruction is an important point, but one for later discussion. My point here is that one of the most important ways to read and critique this medium is as a visual language—and that the synthesis of text and image is just exchanging one sort of image for another, a fact that “fine artists” have understood for years in their usage of text in paintings (a personal favorite is Suzanne Duchamp’s dada masterpiece “Multiplication Broken and Restored”) and in other such examples. And because of this, elements like the ability to use static images as recurring visual metaphors that inform on the work as a whole as well as on individual scenes have to be viewed as of the utmost importance to the spirit of works that include them. To exclude them in an adaptation or translation of the work is equivalent to performing Finnegan’s Wake with the narration reading the text in strict accent and ignoring the importance of language-play, innuendo, and allusion in every line of that text.
VIII. “When form was all of our vocabulary.”
A few years back, I was reading an article on poet Gillian Conoley and a quote stood out sharply for me:
“A professor of English at Sonoma State University in California, Conoley suggests readers shouldn’t expect poems to behave like advertisements or newspaper stories. That is, we shouldn’t expect poetry to be a totally transparent medium. Instead, we should look to verse for the thrill of discovering, as Conoley puts it, ’language that doesn’t behave in ways we’ve become accustomed to.’” [Emphasis mine]
Most comics on shelves at the present take a hardline “prose” attitude to storytelling. It’s a natural response, but sequential art is a more complicated language than much of its handling gives it credit for. One could almost presuppose that poetry is a more natural textual structure to underlie the work. A good example: the autobiographical stories of Eddie Campbell, which have successfully blended prose narrative and poetic cadence—complementing the artwork, rather than explaining it. While Campbell’s literary references tend toward Henry Miller (or notably O. Henry, which he adapted so skillfully in his recent The Fate of the Artist), there’s something of the beat poet in his rhythms, particularly in the stories that capture his gadabout youth. Campbell and the aforementioned Harvey Pekar were beginning to do similar things with autobiography in the same period, though they wouldn’t be made aware of each other until much later.
Eddie Campbell, whose most famous collaboration with Alan Moore is the mammoth From Hell, a book of complex thematic overtones and sooty verisimilitude which was turned into a rote thriller by the Hughes brothers starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, also worked with the magus on a pair of adaptations of Moore’s magic-themed stage shows, now collected in a volume titled A Disease of Language. Each of the semi-abstract thought pieces is a complicated work that plays on history, geography, biography, and Moore’s own belief in magic. The original stage performances were jazzed up with fire-breathers and other live acts that wouldn’t translate to the page—Campbell had his work cut out for him.
What Campbell does is essentially revise his entire style to fit the project—while his “sketchy” and often minimalist linework for projects like the “Alec” or “Bacchus” series found their full expression in the revelatory From Hell, his more diverse style in recent projects began here, somewhat out of necessity. Given the nature of Moore’s stage performances, Campbell was often working from a very loose sort of “narrative”; to convey it in the comics form, everything about the texts remain in a state of flux: the level of abstraction and realism, the level of literal relevance, and the level of correlation between one panel and the next.
“Surrealist” would be the wrong term, I think, because everything works in service of Moore’s arcane narration, but “poetic” most definitely applies. While the common act of “closure” can be viewed as largely intellectual—a logical connection between two images in which we fill in the gap—this sort of storytelling relies upon a more intuitive, even emotional reading of the text, one that relies upon the reader’s ability to recognize what even the more abstract images provoke within themselves and connect that to the surrounding images in the same way that we explicate the imagery of good poetry. In The Birth Caul, the first half of A Disease of Language, this cadence—which almost inevitably comes with an upheaval of traditional comics pacing—is used to regress over a series of sections through personal history, each step backwards a more universal experience until it passes back through the womb into the most universal experience(s) of the human condition.
Perhaps one of the other strongest examples of this sort of cartooning, and one that has what I’d consider a more interesting relationship with the mainstream, is David Mack’s graphic novel series Kabuki.
IX. “…My language of crisis.”
Getting more personal for a moment—my initial finding of Kabuki is a sort of microcosm of the relationship that the larger mainstream audience has with comics in general. When I bought Circle of Blood, the first volume, I put off reading it for some time—something which I never do with comics (I read them too fast to bother). A cursory flip-through did nothing but highlight my initial prejudices: during the late eighties and early nineties, there was a glut of what were called “Bad Girl” books—over-endowed women who star in paper-thin and ultra-violent stories, including moderately-infamous characters Vampirella and Lady Death, or the book that inspired the Pamela Anderson vehicle “Barb Wire.” A cursory flip-through of Circle of Blood, with its scantily-clad female assassins, would seem to tie it into that genre—the book was released around the same time as those embarrassing titles. In truth, the tone of every volume of Kabuki is different; and whether creator David Mack is using the blood-soaked cyberpunk style of the first volume or the rapturous mixed-media compositions of the fifth, Kabuki stands out as a considered treatise on the nature of identity and creativity, both on its own and within a cultural context that increasingly reflects our own twenty-first century society.
Ukiko Kai grew up as a government operative as a result of a single brutal act, one that echoes through the entire story—the violation and murder of her mother, an Ainu comfort woman, by the sadistic mobster Ryuichi Kai (Ukiko’s father and adopted brother). Her mother’s memory cries out for vengeance, and in the story’s early act it’s the only purpose that Ukiko—now government agent “Kabuki”—has to hold onto. The opening chapters retell both Alice in Wonderland and a famous Japanese ghost play, dressed up in a proto-superheroic comic book style. But when the protagonist has her pyrrhic victory, Mack sets her out on a much more interesting and, for the comic medium, a much more inspired story about redefining oneself after one’s single-minded purpose has been fulfilled. It’s here that Mack’s work on a technical level graduates: from a well-crafted mainstream style with the occasional heightened sense of layout to something that is utterly unique in design.
Mixed media work in comics is rare, but the creators that work in that style and format have a very high pedigree: Bill Sienkiewicz, creator of Stray Toasters and artist of Elektra: Assassin; Dave McKean, creator of Cages, frequent collaborator with Neil Gaiman, and director of the Jim Henson Company’s MirrorMask; and Bryan Talbot, who, while known for sci-fi romp The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and the child abuse story The Tale of One Bad Rat, branched out into mixed media for the unique historical metafiction Alice in Sunderland. Books of this stripe are often considered apart from the general comic medium by some critics, and viewed instead as art books—they fit in more readily, I suppose, with what would generally be viewed as “fine art” because of abstractions and a wider-range of visual styles. While David Mack’s craft has come to be appreciated in this sense, Kabuki as a whole is often an overlooked work and rarely included in this list because it tips in and out of genres.
There’s a certain dark amusement to be had at perception in the comic community that the Kabuki series is both “too rote” and unnecessarily “prettied up” for a tale featuring assassins, and yet supposedly light on plot development. The tale of the government-sponsored Noh agency and the team of female operatives of which Ukiko is initially a member is a framework to talk about something else—in this case, the idea of reinventing oneself, and coming to terms with loss (Ukiko’s mother—the book is very much a personal project for Mack, who lost his own mother as he was beginning the series). Because of the mixed media artwork and unconventional layout, reading the book is a very different process from most recognized comic works, and, in scenes of high drama or action, the story frequently turns inward to show abstract imagery rather than choreography—more concerned with how the protagonist is processing the event than the event itself. Mack often eschews the use of panels entirely and relies upon his command of the page itself as a unit to keep your eye moving from image to image, even as the whole often comes across as nothing more or less than a loving portraiture (an idea that culminates in the volume Metamorphosis where Kabuki constructs a self-portrait out of seemingly unrelated abstract finger paintings).
Mack uses images—a boy with a necklace of ears, a young girl on her knees, a dragon in the shape of a question mark, a crescent moon, a smile and tear in conjunction—to create a language that exists solely in the context of the story. In one notable sequence in the volume Skin Deep, Kabuki’s abstract painting on the floor of her cell becomes some of these images, as she is trapped alone with her memories—having recently been resuscitated, the cell is a new womb, and a traditional Japanese image of maternity looms over the iconography from previous volumes to form a representation of her face. The unusual imagery and composition of many pages read like freeform poetry, and yet the return to recurring visual metaphors and iconography implies repeated and rhyming stanzas and provides a structure to build on.
X. “…Completing the last chapter as we speak.”
Cohn’s syntactic analysis is relevant primarily because he addresses the relationship between the comic panel and other panels in the work besides the ones adjacent to either side. Because pages or strips work as single units of composition, and because visual recall threads through the work as a whole, this should perhaps be an obvious statement, but it’s one that has been largely ignored; the only discussion of visual recall and syntax in visuals is restricted for the most part to analysis that can be compared to other media—for instance the use of the flashback, which is not particularly unique to any narrative form. The use of visual metaphors that only exist within the work, in examples like Watchmen or Kabuki, can often be viewed in the same terms as recurring visual metaphors in film, but there exists a separate component in comics—the place of the image in context to other images around it, as a single term in a visual language.
Recently, the folks here at The House Next Door began reissuing the columns and essays from the respected criticism site 24LiesASecond; I happened to take note of a passage in Jim Moran’s “Casualties of Genre, Difference, and Vision: Casualties of War”:
“In the latter scene, which recalls and inverts the viewer’s first impression of the enemy introduced in the expository jungle sequence, Diaz slowly crawls toward the girl, paralyzed in Clark’s embrace, from an angle echoing the approach of the VC in the tunnel. Lying next to Oahn, nearly adopting her perspective, Eriksson shares her terror as the knife looms ever nearer. Having been concealed from Eriksson’s vision in the tunnel, the “enemy” here resurfaces ironically in the figure of Diaz, whom Eriksson recognizes as such by adopting Oahn’s perspective, and who demonstrates to the viewer the ideological power of cinematic identification.”
De Palma is a director well aware that the technique of recurring visual composition as metaphor is available to him in film. But compare that to Kabuki: The Alchemy, Mack’s most recent volume. While that level of visual recurrence appears—the image of young Ukiko’s lessons, etc.—the structural elements factor into the climax. Each chapter of the volume utilizes different mixed media, not only in putting images on the page (using cut wooden blocks, toy train tracks, and the iconography of a bathroom placard), but even the page itself: some chapters are on graph paper, some panels use legal pad paper, etc. Each chapter represents a lesson or series of lessons that Ukiko needs to learn in order to create something closer to a normal human life, and a productive and creative one at that; in the final chapter, all of these various elements are brought together in every image to show the assembly of Ukiko’s new self.
Mack uses the building iconography, the language that he has established over the previous volumes and earlier chapters, to convey the recreation of a self, and the visuals are constructed in an intuitive and poetic way, often straying from easily-parsed metaphor to abstract relation as you pan across a single image. Mack relies upon nontraditional layout and mixed media craft to break down the usual reading rhythms of comics and provide a unique and sometimes challenging cadence to his work, in the interest of taking his audience inside his protagonist’s struggle for identity. Both halves of this idea—the poetic cadence and the recurring visual metaphors—rely upon a full understanding of the nature of comics as a visual language that depends upon a synthesis, rather than a collection of static images.
XI. “…A new sense of order in the marks.”
Inevitably, all discussions of comics and of film circle back around to synthesis, not only of the various elements that comprise the medium, but also of the various interpretations of that medium that creator and audience both bring to the table—what’s interesting about these two media in particular is how vitally important both of those processes are in understanding the basic languages in which they are written. That unorthodox creators have begun using non-traditional styles of cadence, pacing, and layout to produce a more immersive take on traditional narratives proves the range of possibilities that the comic medium is capable of, and they’re beginning to tell stories that only work in the comic medium, in visual language, rather than something that can be easily adapted from one form to the next.
Whenever a new medium begins its maturation period, there’s a series of growing pains where much of its work relies upon the tricks of more formally established media. When film began, it was much more beholden to theater because the rules and the capabilities of theater were already known. As the rules and capabilities of comics are further discovered and established, it finds further and further distance from the storyboard—a sort of weak irony, in that more than ever comics are being used as storyboards for film.
Next Time around: Kick! ’Splode! “This is what you want!”
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
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?
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.
Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.
The Funny Pages: Best Venue in 2007 to Publish Weekly Serialized Comics
Clowes showcases the boundless formalistic possibilities of telling stories through comics.
Quietly, The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s Funny Pages (an unlikely comics venue the last few years) has been running some really polished new stories by such old guard alternative cartoonists as Jaime Hernandez, Seth, and, currently, Daniel Clowes. All have been doing independent comics work since the early 1980s/1990s, and that’s not even including Chris Ware, who kicked off this series when it started in 2005 with his strip Building Stories, just recently reprinted in ACME Novelty Library #18!
Technically, Jaime Hernandez should be excluded from this list since his strip, La Maggie La Loca, appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2006. But his comics publisher, Fantagraphics Books, collected all of his strips and released them this summer in Love and Rockets (No. 20) with four added pages, some revisions and in smaller dimensions than the original 23- or 24-week run.
For most of his career, Hernandez has been published in black-and-white, but on this rare occassion, Steven Weissman (an accomplished cartoonist himself with YIKES! and hopefully the permanent colorist on all future Locas stories in color) has done a splendid job coloring Hernandez’s world, a treat that adds further nuance to this heartfelt strip and added pleasure to gazing at it afterwards. Even though Hernandez has been telling these stories for over 25 years, he has not lost any of his forte to capture previous and first-time readers with the characters’ “never-stale” adventures as they mature through the years from one tale to the next. Hernandez has designed a narrative with tighter structure than he usually practices: every episode uses five panels to tell its story, with Hernandez being loose enough to have an occasional montage within those five panels while still pushing the overall narrative forward.
Seth is at the height of his storytelling/cartooning powers with George Sprott (1894-1975), where the reader gets to know the story’s main character through not only first-hand, direct address accounts, but also second-, third-, and even fourth-hand accounts, pulling it off with panaché. A bit like how everyone recounted bits of information and insight in Citizen Kane regarding their relationship to or encounters with Charles Foster Kane. Sure, there are similarities to Citizen Kane and Robert Siodmak/Jacques Tourneur film noirs, making this read like a pastiche from the canon of classic RKO/Universal Pictures film noir flashback plots. But George Sprott (1894-1975) is the least cinematic (due partly to its static, talkative and flat qualities) and the most unfamiliar (because it references a past that reaches beyond what we remember in our recent collective memory, making it a novelty) of the three strips on this list. It’s more a hybrid of retro poster art graphic design sloganism/early 20th Century illustration & cartooning (i.e. The New Yorker’s single-panel gag cartoons during the jazz/flapper age) and storytelling that weaves effortlessly through both flashback and vividly descriptive monologues like those of Bibi Andersson in Persona, though not as brutally dour in their penetrating honesty. Just like how Hitchcock’s Spellbound felt like a clunky early attempt at the tropes he would later hone to perfection in Vertigo, Seth’s earlier stories and efforts now seem like a warm-up to tell this story—a most profound tale of a very insignificant man in the grand scheme of things, and how he devastatingly affects those around him through unintentional/intentional dereliction. Seth creates a very memorable character, full of life with a rich history, and Seth’s views on nostalgia and memorabilia have never been more bittersweet than in George Sprott (1894-1975).
Although Daniel Clowes’s Mr. Wonderful has just reached its halfway point (of the three on this list, it’s the only strip I have been reading every week as it comes out—I read the others in one sitting after they were published in their entirety), what we’ve seen so far is very promising. And quite possibly it will be just as entertaining and fulfilling as Clowes’s Ice Haven, even though there is a certain uneven quality of following the strip each week it comes out. Actually, it’s probably best for me to reserve final judgment until the strip completes its run and I can re-read it in its entirety. Through his narration, Marshall (the lead character) has the same self-deprecating assessment of himself as the neurotic leading men Woody Allen portrays in his films. But Marshall has more poignancy than Allen’s leads because of narration so intimate with insight and candor that it evokes blissful melancholy. As with Wong Kar-wai, Clowes dwells on mundane, introspective personal moments extended in time during each episode, which resonate nicely without the benefit of music or slow-motion camerawork because Clowes has his own devices that are effective only in comics. Clowes’s line art has a nice balance between realism and cartoony-ness. And, most of all, Clowes showcases the boundless formalistic possibilities of telling stories through comics. Clowes is quite the formalistic, yet tempered showman with Mr. Wonderful.
These three strips have the superficial veneer and charming endearment of children’s comics. But Hernandez, Seth, and Clowes make them much more, deploying their formal inventions, obsessing with nostalgia & collecting memorabilia of the past, drawing from personal experience (possibly?) and referencing their past work, as well as the comic medium’s vast history. Bravo to The New York Times for publishing these strips to entertain us on most Sundays!
Author’s Note: Although I prefer the magazine print versions for the larger reproduction size (even though they cost $5 a pop or roughly total $120 to own every installment of the individual strips), you can conveniently download free PDF versions online. The Clowes and Seth strips are still being archived here. Also, you may have to sign up for a password to access The New York Times site. It has been announced that Drawn & Quarterly’s future collection of George Sprott (1894-1975) will include more episodes to compliment what was first published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s Funny Pages. And La Maggie La Loca will be re-reprinted in the same size as it first appeared in a future collection of Jaime Hernandez’s work.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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