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!
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.]