Monday, 16 February 2009

Panel Madness Week, Day 2: Criminal Intentions

(In which David invites the reader round for dinner, then begs them to steal a second helping!)

Staring 'til your eyes squirm

Hey readers, howsit going?

This Panel Madness week is shaping up to be quite a spectacle isn't it? Plok's post on "Edenic Fracture", Steranko and the labyrinth of stories to be found in a single sci-fi cover image has sent the ball waaaaaay up into the air. And now I'm supposed to catch the thing? Damn! Well, let's just say that I've managed that already. Let's say I've caught the ball, and I want to invite y'all back to my place for some good, old-fashioned Glaswegian hospitality?

(Try not to laugh, Duncan. Try not to feel full just thinking about it Scott.)

But what have I got to offer, you ask. Well, for one thing I've got this:

As always I'd recommend that you click on that image to view it at its full size. This isn't a case of emphasising the size and impact of the image, as it has been with various Kirby pieces I've posted here. Instead, the important thing with this panel is to take in its textures, from the little smudges of black ink from which Sean Phillips creates figures and buildings to soft changes in lighting that Val Staples colours bring to the frame. These are the sort of details that are best taken in up close, so please give the image a good, hard eye-fucking. Better yet, if you've got comic this panel comes from (Criminal volume 2 issue #5), hold the page up to your eyes, cos that's the effect we're trying to simulate here.

Establishing the borders

Now that we're done with that business, it's time to talk a little bit about context. This might seem counter-intuitive, since the whole point of this exercise is deal with the image itself, but I think it's useful to get a taste of the bigger picture before spitting it back out on the curb. Just so you understand what's not for dinner, you know?

Criminal is noir-as-fuck, of course, and as such its pages are generally full of brooding antiheroes and naked, out-of-control women. So far so Sin City, but even though 'Bad Night' (the story from which this image is taken) is possibly even more reliant on the genre cliches than any previous Criminal yarn, it's still capable of finding sophistication within these boundaries. Partly, this comes from Brubaker's use of a (pretty damned cliched) modern-lit ending, which wouldn't be worth much if it didn't add to the story rather than reducing it to something even simpler.

Like Jog said in his review of this story's finale:

This issue's the one that kicks, and it puts some weight behind it. Even the structure of the storyline gets knocked around, as Brubaker basically stops the plot at two points to back up and present scenes from the point of view of the detective and the femme fatale, with an omniscient narrator suddenly provided to free them from Jacob's skewed perspective. In less assured hands it could have come off as a clanking mechanism for filling out the backstory, but Brubaker seizes the opportunity to present these characters as slightly more complicated than the simple archetypes Jacob (who hears the voice of a fictional noir detective in his head, remember) has fit them into via the plot that is his life. Too much time alone drawing crime funnies, I think!
Damn if that man doesn't prove his rep as "The World's Finest Comic Book Reader!!" every time he finishes a post. Still, while Jog is correct to highlight the little narrative twists that make Criminal worthwhile, there are also moments where the art provides something even more complicated and unusual. Like our panel of choice, for example: what the hell is that doing in a self-avowed pulp magazine?

Way back in the early days of this blog, I had a bit of fun comparing apples & oranges (and what a wonderfully ripe old cliche that is!), or in this case, Frank Miller & Eddie Campbell.

My basic point was that the two artists had almost diametrically opposed techniques and priorities, with Miller focusing on stark, brutal contrast...

...while Campbell worked hard to catch every zip-a-toned, commonplace detail:

Comparing these two images gives me a bit more of an insight into why this Criminal panel jumped out at me so much... or rather, why it makes me want to bring the page up closer to my face every time I read the issue in question. Normally, Criminal's art is bursting with raw, crude life... like Miller's Sin City, but with a broader pallet of both colors and emotions. The panel we're discussing, however, is far closer to something from one of Eddie Campbell's autobiographical works. There's an absence of drama in the image -- it's completely lacking in windswept heroes, crazy dames or latent violence -- but there's something else going on in there... an unexpected resonance with the hundreds of stories going outside of the one we're following in 'Bad Night'.

I'm a little weary of sounding like I'm praising this image for being 'adult' or 'serious', which isn't what I'm trying to say at all. I'm also emphatically not claiming that moment like this help Criminal to 'transcend its genre', because I have absolutely no time for that kind of strained blather. Instead, what I'm trying to say is that Criminal is a good, lively example the versatility of its genre. It shows that good crime stories can mix pulp caricature with an attentive eye for the baffling, poetic details of everyday life. Of course, all you smart people out there already knew that (as did Eddie Campbell favourite Raymond Chandler), but it's good to have such a perfect example within this precise intersection of medium and genre.

Dealing with that noir talk

Speaking of what's not for dinner, what about that caption? It's a little gristly, isn't it? Gristly, but full of chewy, noir goodness, for sure:

As part of the 'Bad Night' story, this panel serves as a glimpse beyond the main character's ever-narrowing horizon; taken on its own, it does much the same thing in a more universal way, with no noticeable loss of flavor. We're all educated enough in crime stories to make sense of these words on their own, and there's a play between words and image here that is simple and powerful.

See all this life? All this space? All of these different stories bustling off in different directions? None of that can save you. You'll never find out where any of these people are going, or what's going on in any of these side streets, 'cos you've made your choices, swallowed whatever poison was foisted upon you, and now you're fucked.

Shit, I think maybe we better turn this panel into some form of "Get Well Soon" card and but soon! That'll lift the public mood in no time!

Thinking about this caption and its context, I'm knocked flat on my ass by how good pulp fiction is at creating these startling sensations using the crudest of ingredients. Sure, I could freestyle on this sentence for ages, but there's no need. It's all there! Just like it is in a line like "the key was glass and shattered in our hands just as we got the door open" ('mon the Dashiell Hammett!). Combine it with the picture, and hell, I think I sold the results short a few paragraphs ago when I said it was simple and powerful!

Taking in the still life

Let's take a look at that panel one more time, before we finally get around to considering it on its own terms:

This image manages to be very clear while being very, very abstract -- it establishes its parameters (a city street at night), and then pushes at the limits of cartooning shorthand within this basic set up. And you know what? It's a wonderful simulation of the way we take in these kinds of scenes!

Looking at, say, the building fronts, there's this wonderful trailing off, with the solidity of the image disintegrating into the distance:

It's not all as simple as that, however. Right below the more "solid" and "realistic" end of the street-front is this clutter of cars and street signs and canopies that come together more as an expressive clash of shapes and colours than anything else:

Except... except that it's still recognisable, just. Like I said above, Phillips is playing at the edges of cartooning shorthand here, but he's still playing with shorthand. If you were to try to place this panel on Scott McCloud's Big Triangle, you'd probably end up placing it dead in the middle of the three points (language, reality and the picture plane), with perhaps a slight inclination to the top right:

In truth, the image is too varied and changing for that sort of categorisation. Which isn't surprising, really -- Scottt McCloud's theory work is normally best considered as a jumping off point rather than a definitive statement. (And yeah, it is kinda fun to invoke Mr Sequential Art as part of a series on the power of individual images in comics, isn't it?) Still, getting back to the image, I'm increasingly certain that it's these clashing levels of realism that make this image so enticing. It's like when you're strolling down the sidewalk and you watch laborers feed their dirty, glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on, you know? No? Me neither!

What I'm trying to get across here is that more often than not there's too much going on in the world for us to take it all in -- whether you're walking through a busy street or reading a bundle of comics, chances are that you'll let some of it blur out into a crazy haze, and quite right! Who could be bothered to try and compartmentalise all this stuff? Still, it's worth paying attention to this process, and trying to think your way through it sometimes. It might not save you from whatever clunking machinations you've got yourself caught up in, but it'll definitely provide opportunities to better understand and appreciate the vibrant mess of the world.

And if that's not enough, then hey, fuck it: at least you're not a character in Criminal!

Making your getaway

If that comfort seems a little too cold for you, then why don't you stop staring so hard at the image and have a wee think about it reminds you of. Stop worrying exactly what it is you're tasting and ask yourself -- where have you encountered these flavours before?

Plok has a damned fine palate, by the way. When I was discussing this post with him he was able to fire out a fistful of fine comparisons without even flunching. He mentioned 'the cars slowly slipping forward in "Touch Of Evil"', which got me excited!

This sequence plays with some of the same themes as our panel of choice, but the way it conveys these themes couldn't be more different. While the Criminal panel flashes a whole world of life and possibility in front of our eyes in a single image, Orson Welles uses this opening scene to tease and taunt the viewer in a more drawn out fashion. We're presented with a portent of inevitable carnage for a brief moment, and then we have to sit uneasily as this literal explosion-in-waiting winds its way in and out of a whole world of life and people and stories and cars. It's hard to say which is crueler, the slow wait for the inevitable conclusion or the vague glimpse of a life less closed off, a life less defined by the borders that frame it. If anything this comparison makes me like Sean Phillips' work even more, simply because of how much he is able to suggest in such a succinct image.

Is this what Plok was talking about yesterday when he discussed how single picture can contain...
the glimpse of the sublime that organizes our reading, and keeps us coming back for more. The moments of static motion and of sudden improbable silence, that give our reading many centres…many seedings.

Hell, it certainly seems that way to me!

And while we're talking about the organiser of this week of blogging festivities, I'd like to mention another one of the reference points he suggested: Hieronymus Bosch.

This comparison tickles me for a number of reasons. For one, it was an excuse to bust out the Bosch! Beyond that cheap thrill, there's definitely a connection there in terms of the energy of the image, the sense of life teeming beyond the any preset boundaries. Except, wait, isn't there a strict, sequential composition going on in this triptych? Isn't that part of the form? Shit. For all the life of the piece, I feel like the boundaries of Bosch's orgiastic scenes are more definitive than the borders that frame this image from Criminal. (Quick! Someone make sure Scott McCloud's still strapped down, cos if that dude's escaped again he's gonna start making some grand claims about our humble art-form!) What this really highlights is the very precise amount of abstraction involved in this panel -- Phillips and co hint and suggests where Bosch depicts with manic detail. Again (always and forever?), Phillips' panel ends up seeming both more and less hopeful for its vagueness. It doesn't need to depict histories, heresies or hellish fantasies any more than it needs to provide us with fully realised Edenic escapes -- it's a perfect fleeting moment, every bit as compact and powerful as the text that hovers over it. Even if you linger on it in obscene detail (as I've done here), it still refuses to resolve into anything more comforting or more damning.

Ha -- and here was me trying to find a more reassuring way to end this post! So much for that. Best to just make a run for it, if you haven't already.

Speaking of which, shall we make our getaway? Yes, let's. But before you leave, make sure you've loaded up on the image. That's the loot, you know -- that one tiny, haunting image. This text here? All those other pictures? That's all just part of some crazy caper. Take the loot, and do what you want with it: forget it, study it, scrawl crude imitations of it on the wall of a public toilet, turn it into a lego diarama, whatever. Think it over and tell me I'm talking crap, or tell me I'm exactly right. While you're at it, please feel free to call me on the amount of mixed metaphors that I've tossed into this post, paying special attention to the fact that I've made dinner into treasure during this frantic closing paragraph. (Dinner is treasure, by the way. Just make sure you bring your own tupperware, or at least a doggy bag, and I'll look the other way while you take your fill and run!) Actually, forget me -- just blow this panel up and tac it to your wall, make it into a crappy Lichtenstein rip-off, cut it out of the comic and mail it to a relative, set the whole damned book on fire and see what survives, stuff the panel down your pants to confuse your beloved in the heat of passion...

Do whatever you want with it, do whatever you can.

And hey, when you're done with it, be sure to head over to the The Time Bulleteer, whose essay on a panel from Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown is up now! And, unsurprisingly, it's both brilliant and way more concise than my entry. Go check it out, if you haven't already!

After that?

Wait and see, dear readers! Wait and see!

[This post is dedicated to Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan, who died on January 13. In his best performances McGoohan always seemed to be raging against whatever borders he found himself in, and it's with great sadness that I now contemplate a world in which he's not out there constantly pushing against the wall. As Sean Witzke stated at the time, McGoohan was also painfully aware of exactly how complicit we can all be in creating out own prisons. As such I'm going to start trying to pay more attention to the right things and to apply my own anger more purposefully this year.]

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Chimera Lucida: Is Go!

I meant to post this earlier, but I forgot (sorry Dave!). David Fiore's novella/prose poem Chimera Lucida is now available on Amazon! As I've said before, I've had the good fortune to read this book, and it's a real explosion of mental shrapnel! Go set it off -- you'll be struggling to get all the pieces out of your brain forever!

Marnie Stern: Is Fun!

Daytripping with Marnie Stern, Pitchfork style!

Part 1 is all about Sly Stallone and the Steve Vai Presets:

Part 2 is all about The Aristocrats:

(Via Matthew Perpetua)

"You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything."

Phew, that was a close one!

For a while there, I had the feeling that time had been compressed down into a constant yesterday. And brothers, sisters, I have to say -- I was getting tired!

And yet... somehow, I don't think I've quite escaped the feeling yet. There's still a little bit of it left in me (in all of us?). Time to fight? Yeah, let's.

So -- it's my contention that Grant Morrison and co's Final Crisis is a better event than it is a comic. It's certainly not a better "event comic" than its direct competitor, in terms of brand unity and marketing, but who gives a damn?! [1] Final Crisis seemed like a strange alien singularity from which the comics Internet would never escape -- suck it, Secret Invasion! Only Abhay Khosla cares about you! [2]

Back to Final Crisis: you want annotations? Why we've got several varieties for your reading pleasure. Mindless bitching? Check. Sour, witty takedowns? Why not! For a while there we were blessed with both articulate essays on the series' faults and equally well-reasoned defenses on a daily basis. And then just when I thought I was done thinking about the damned thing, Sean Witzke posted a Unicorn-slaying critique of the book, and Plok wrote a brilliant analysis without even reading a page of it!

I have neither the skill nor the inclination to work out whether or not this comic has been good or bad for DC comics -- the sales seem to have been solid, but people have expressed concern about reader burn-out. What I do know is that the comic has a weirdness to it, and that people get really caught up in the book, regardless of what they thought of it.

Now, as so many people have pointed out, a lot of this comes down to Morrison's elliptic storytelling style, but the way this style is used in Final Crisis bears closer attention. Tom Spurgeon took the book to task for poor deployment of fractured, neo-modernist storytelling:
Compare Morrison's use of disjointed narratives in Final Crisis #7 to something similar like the panel to panel leaps in Jaime Hernandez' "Tear It Up, Terry Downe." In Jaime's story, everything you need to understand it is there in front of you; what you'll see if you give yourself over to it isn't a nefarious plan of some fake cosmic bogeyman but a story of emotional betrayal and how quickly our positions can change vis-a-vis the people we love. When a narrative technique is most effectively used, it tends not to bring to mind another use of that technique but some sort of gut-wrenching effect based on the content being marched through its paces. I just didn't get that here.
I'd say that Final Crisis achieved this effect at points (i.e. during Turpin's disjointed fall through the first four issues, in Batman's triumph in his own title, and with the self-constructing myth that was issue #7), but that Tom is probably right overall. The funny thing is that Morrison has been using these techniques brilliantly for years, so what went wrong here and in his recent Batman run? [3] Well, shit, it's gotta be because these are big, tentpole event books, huh?

Maybe not. Maybe it's just that Morrison's still making an argument that he'd already won by the time he wrote Animal Man #26 back in 1990. Maybe it's just that after seeing the man make a demonstrative call for kinder, more imaginative escapism in All Star Superman, it's tiring to see him write about this kind of story instead of just writing it.

Except... except that's not quite true. Because there are elements of the story that do seem new, even if they end up being all the more frustrating for it. Take the Super Young Team, for example. Sure, there's a lot of cliche in their conception, but there's also genuine energy to the group from the designs on up. Which just makes it slightly maddening that they DON'T REALLY DO ANYTHING IN THE END!

Two more examples of the ways in which Final Crisis does/doesn't work, one an obvious example of "big event" corporate re-prioritising, the other a truly idiosyncratic touch:

1. The Return of Barry Allen
  • Ok, but honestly, why bother? What's the point of dredging up this old corpse? To give forty-year-old men a mild, illicit boner? Fuck that: he doesn't do anything in the story that the current Flash couldn't do equally well.
  • Except, hey, if that's your thing then fair enough. Are you looking forward to reading Geoff Johns' take on the character? Cool. Johns' writing doesn't do anything for me, but whatever.
  • And maybe there is something to the way Morrison reintroduces the character -- the idea of the man reforming himself from pure cosmic information to save the day is kinda curious...
  • Or it would be, if it hadn't been presented in the collection of mangled trailers that was DC Universe #0.
  • Oh, and also: all three Flashes spent far too much time standing around. This does lead to one or two nice touches ('We have to save everyone. We start with family', for example), but it also feels like a waste of time and space. [4]
2. Superman Sings His Way To Victory
  • This idea is goofy and cute, if anti-climactic (seriously, I've linked to Marc Singer's review already, but it's worth another look).
  • I suppose this scene is also kinda stupid, if you look at it from a certain point of view. Except why would you want to do that when it's, y'know, pure superhero poetry?
  • Also, you guys all know this plot point has started one hell of a meme, right?


Now, the fact that this scene started a meme doesn't mean that it's great art, or great comics or whatever. Indeed, if anything my argument would be that the aims of the two plot points I've just discussed butt against each other so that neither plot element feels properly aligned. But what I would say is that there's something to this misalignment that makes Final Crisis fun to riff on or write about. Maybe that's what's going on with the choppy storytelling that Spurgeon bemoans -- maybe it's not so much there to generate an aesthetic effect as it is to provide the reader with the raw materials to create one. This approach might drive Geoff Klock up the wall, but it also provides the Mindless Ones with ample space in which to work their magic.

The last time a Grant Morrison comic felt this big and messy and open and interactive was probably at the end of volume three of The Invisibles. The conclusion to that story was frustrating, but I have a lot more time for those comics, partly because the stakes were higher, and partly because the build-up was better (The Invisibles was one of my favourite comics of the 90s, while Final Crisis follows on from/contradicts a fuckload of terrible comics)[6]. I mean, sure, you can mock The Invisibles for being drug-addled and hippyish (because it is!), but it was a genuine attempt to make sense of the Universe through a broad mash-up of 20th Century pop culture. You can find similar meanings in Final Crisis, for sure, but there are too many other priorities in the mix, which means that its interactive nature is annoying as often as it is invigorating.

In trying to be a big, dark superhero comic that reflects the times while also providing a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis and Jack Kirby's Fourth World books, Final Crisis sets itself a lot of contradicting expectations, so maybe it's no surprise that it's a mess. But mess has always been Morrison's medium, so it's equally unsurprising that he makes something out of all of this. What that something is... well, as both Steven Grant and Tucker Stone have already said, that's pretty much up to you.

Me? I'm done thinking about the book, at last! I'll check out whatever Andrew Hickey has to say about it, because his enthusiasm for the book is always entertaining, but... yeah. It was a big event, lots of people had interesting things to say about it, but it's over now and I don't feel like much has changed.

Right now I'm thinking about Criminal, Seaguy, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, All Star Superman, Pixu, The Umbrella Academy, I Killed Adolf Hitler, Empowered, Scott Pilgrim, The Education of Hopey Glass, Or Else, Finder and I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets and I'm thinking yeah, that's it. There's a whole world of different stories out there, and isn't savoring them what Final Crisis is supposed to be about? It's ironic that in putting forth this argument Final Crisis ended up acting just like its villains Darkseid and Mandrakk, at least so far as the comics Internet was concerned:

So hey, here we are, the comics blogosphere -- changed forever/forever the same! Who cares: I'm just glad that I got to read everyone doing their thing, and I look forward to another year of madness, hopefully with the same energy of these FC posts but with a far broader scope.

Then again, I'm one to talk, given that I've been publicly reading The Filth till the staples come out (about which, more at the end of the month).

Oh, and DC comics? Yeah, I'm looking at you. Next time you publish a comic where the bad guys want to make all stories their story publish a comic, please make sure you don't colour a black man white before having him disappear from the narrative:

(Image via the ever-awesome David Brothers)

Yeah, I know it's Grant Morrison's fault that Mister Miracle's big moment is narrated rather than seen in Final Crisis #7, and I'm holding him responsible for that disappointment. But the colouring fuck-up? That's on you, DC, and that shit will not stand. [7] Fucking idiots.

[1] Lots of people, apparently. Hey, whatever floats yr proverbial boat!

[2] Though that said, his very best pieces on Secret Invasion (i.e. all of them!) are almost enough to tip the scale on their own!

[3] Three examples of Morrison using these same techniques far more effectively would be The Filth, Mister Miracle #4 and Seven Soldiers #1 respectively.

[4] Really, if any comic character deserves relentless storytelling, it's the Flash.

[5] I'm also very fond of Andrew Hickey's discussion of this topic, and Sean Collins' Animal Collective riff captures where my head is at right now in some inexplicable way. Also, how cool is the 5th World remix of 'Losing My Edge'?!

[6] I'm talking about Countdown here, rather than the previous two Crisis books, Seven Soldiers, Batman: RIP and Jack Kirby's New Gods stuff, though the fact that Final Crisis sets itself up to follow all of those books doesn't help, as I note a few lines later. Sean Collins had a good discussion of this over on his blog, didn't he? Ah, here we go. And for the record, I don't actually care about Countdown, but the lack of a solid lead in to Final Crisis does make it less powerful than, say, The Invisibles, or Seven Soldiers #1. I know that Morrison has talked the comic up as the culmination of his superhero work, but it feels more like a reiteration to me, so... I guess I'm not really buying that argument either. Wait, have I ended up claiming the there's both too much and too little build-up to Final Crisis? I guess I have! Well, there is such a thing as the wrong kind of build-up, and wouldn't it be just typical that you'd have to employ such an odd term to describe Final Crisis? Yes, it would.

[7] Yeah, I'm aware that DC comics could care less what I think, but it's fun to let the angry out every once in a while. And, seriously -- THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN!