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.]


David said...

Damn, I'm gonna have to do that thing I laughed at Plok for doing: finishing a massive post then adding to it in the comments!

But... it occurs that this panel is so perfect because there is no such thing as a life without borders, and that borders are what give our life a lot of their meaning. The Criminal panel is a beautifully vague fantasy -- it works because it couldn't be more than it is, not without a degradation of its impact.

plok said...

Absolutely fantastic, David! Back to comment in a bit...had to check this first thing I rolled out of bed, and it did not disappoint!

And now the morning ablutions.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Wow. Great analysis ... and now I suddenly have an overwhelming sense of stage fright.

Hopefully my post adds up to more than "this panel looks cool!"

The Fortress Keeper said...

P.S. I love the depth of that Criminal image. It feels like you could just fall inside ...

plok said...

I think your point about where the image lies on the McLeodian triangle (hmm...more triangles, I think we haven't seen the last of these) is incredibly interesting: how do we see, in actual life, really? Or rather, what is it that we see? The figures milling about on the street seem more "realistic" to me by their charcoal-y abstractness, than any photorealistic image...more and more I'm starting to think that Phillips is a damned clever fellow, don't you think? Having noticed the deftness of that noir Wyeth, now this noir Bosch seems even more skilled and wouldn't surprise me in the least if all if he'd undertaken every bit of this drawing with complete deliberateness, even to that far-reaching extent. The Steranko image I looked at seems to me to be incapable of such intricate assembly at the stage of drawing -- it's an elegant encapsulation, certainly informed, but it doesn't seem as intellectual as what Phillips does -- I mean who would plan out an image like that on thirty 3x5 cards before sitting down to draw it? You wouldn't do couldn't. But this one seems much more plotted that way, much more conscious of influence applied to intent. Those people on the street look like the people out on my street! They look just like them! It's a remarkable understanding that's put forward here, I think. The limits of long-distance vision: that's a whole other layer of realism. Sprawling yet compact, as you's like your Eternals comment, about super-science so extreme it can pack allegorical meaning into tiny panels of four-colour punching! The more I look at it, as the Keeper says, the more I fall into it. The perspective on this...what? Opaqueness of "life outside"? Is very interesting, it's like looking down into a little reservoir, into an encapsulation of metaphor...but the metaphor is just like a bunch of randomly-moving particles, and the reservoir is sieved so they all leak out and slip away, evasive, as you try to watch them.

It's bloody hypnotic! Anti-Bosch. Wonderful.

sean witzke said...

Right on.

Holly said...

This Panel Madness Week thing is awesome! You don't have to worry about keeping up with Plok here, and he can tell you that's pretty high praise coming from me because he knows how much I love him. :)

But I like your panel even better because from a young age I was always fascinated by crowds in shopping malls, cars on the freeway, people in doctors' waiting rooms, anything where I could sit there and imagine the kaleidoscope of stories I would never know, people I'd never see again... I wasn't even able to imagine it really, just had to let it wash over me. And I was delighted to read your arguments for how this image evokes that same kind of kaleidoscopic tsunami.

And I'm sorry I can't step up to the plate properly here to talk about the technique of it like the rest of you lot but I wanted to tell you of my enthusiasm and appreciation for what's going on here.

I'm not much of a comics reader so find it difficult to keep up with what I know are some very good writers here, because so often I'm lacking sufficient context for what they (you) are talking about. But making it about a single panel makes it entirely self-contained, all you need to know is right here in the individual entries, and that makes me happy because for once I can follow along. :)

David said...

Thanks for the kind words, guys!

Fortress Keeper, you're dead right about the depth of this panel -- it's definitely designed for you to want to dissapear into it.

I think I've given the colouring way less praise than I should have here, because it plays a huge part in making this image seem so expansive. It's almost as good as the colouring in All Star Superman, though Val Staples' work is painterly where Jamie Grant's shines like the world's greatest compuerised playset.

Plok, you make some damned good points, as always! I'll get back to you in more detail once I've finished with my work for the day.

David said...

Oops -- didn't see your comment there Holly! Wish I'd chosen a less gender-specific term than "guys" now. Thanks for your comment, and... yeah, I'm gonna have fun responding to these thoughts later!

Holly said...

Aw, don't worry about the "guys," David; it never seems exclusive to me.

A friend of mine went to university at Georgetown and his class got Paul Wellstone, legendary much-loved (and stil missed, by me anyway!) Minnesota senator as a commencement speaker. My friend says that he started his speech with the disclaimer that "you guys" is Minnesotan for "y'all", so he wasn't referring only to men when he said it.

I'm from Minnesota too and I can verify the truth of this. :)

(And even without all that, I am, for better or worse, used to being "one of the guys.")

plok said...

Fellows, I propose this Holly as our Designated Girl!

It'll be just like high school.

NO!! It'll be just like "The Traitorous Challenger" in the Keeper's post!

We will form an Inverted Pyramid about her. From which she will never escape.

Unless, y'know...the Doctor shows up, or something.

Holly said...

See why I told you I like Plok so much?

David said...

Whew -- now that was a tough day at work. I killed it, but man is there ever a lot of stuff that's gonna need doing tomorrow!

Holly -- that's cool. I know some girls who hate being called "guys" and some who don't, and I just didn't want to offend someone who had just said such nice things about this post!

I'm 100% with you when you talk about how good it is that "all you need to know is right here in the individual entries" with these Panel Madness posts.

The idea is brilliant because it allows for both great depth of reading and a fairly easy jump-off point from which to immerse yourself. That Plok fellow is fiendishly clever, don’t you know. Well, I dare say you do, and I have no problem imagining why anyone likes Plok so much.

(That said, I look forward to writing a revisionist history of the comics blogosphere in which I’ll claim to have came up with the idea for this Panel Madness dealy – oh the glory! The glory shall be mine!)

Oh, hey Plok -- Howsit going? This week’s shaping up nicely, eh?

With regards to the ongoing case of “McCloud’s triangle vs. Our perception of the world”, I’ve always found myself responding very well to art that at least flirts with abstraction. Sometimes this is because I like strange, unfamiliar takes on the world around me, but there’s also the sense that... I don’t know, that maybe this stuff chimes with how I experience the world, at the very least.

This ties in with Holly’s point about crowds:

I love/hate/am fascinated by crowds. Used to take panic attacks in them as a kid; loved losing myself in them as a teenager; now find myself simultaneously disoriented and amazed by them. Stick me at the top of Buchanan Street and I might find it hideously overcrowded or I might think that it hums with life.

Either way, I feel like the Criminal panel I riffed on does a better job of simulating how I process these scenes.
That’s what I was trying to get at when I lifted a little Frank O’Hara during the Taking in the still life section – I always loved the way that O’Hara’s poems shift from straight “I do this, I do that” style meanderings into something more expressive and harder to define and back again. Sometimes he does this by throwing in some genuinely jarring passages, and at other points he just lets sentences run into each other in an unusual way. In both cases, there’s a certain blurriness to the perception, and this element of O’Hara’s poetry has always struck me as being quite true.

One issue that I cunningly dodged in the post itself is that the detail of panel is so blurry because it’s just one of many medium-small panels on a busy page. I think that you’re absolutely right, Plok, to think that Phillips is an intensely clever artist and that he composed this image quite deliberately within the confines of the page, but to get into that would have taken me further into the world of panel layouts than I wanted to get during this particular series of posts.

When I started reading this I was reading that new Brubaker/Phillips collaboration, Incognito. I was flicking through it and thinking “Yeah, this is solid, but it could never contain a panel like that Criminal one.” And I was right, but imagine my surprise when I opened up issue #2 and discovered that there were pages full of lurid, horrible fun in that book that equalled this panel in a very different way. That Phillips is a smart bastard... he knows exactly what he’s doing, and I’ll be careful not to underestimate him again.

plok said...

Hey, David!

Marc Burkhardt's reposted his Panel Madness piece on his new blog here:

Could you plug the new link in, so we can keep the hand-offs working?

plok said...

Whoops, did that not wrap around?

plok said...