I. " ... if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." warned poor old Nietzsche, a man who by the accident of ill-chance and the arrogance of character managed to completely neglect his own advice and suffered so vilely as a result. But I could never have expected that the same principle would apply to the lighthearted and journeyman work of John Forte on the Legion Of Super-Heroes, for Heaven's sake, though it certainly has. For as the past few days have rolled pleasantly on under the unexpectedly splendid skies of this late-coming English summer, and as I've spent a few more hours studying Mr Forte's work, I've become more and more convinced that his art was never best described as " ... something .... that didn't seem right ...", as George Perez among many others has argued. (*1) Instead, it's become overwhelmingly obvious to me that John Forte's work is, unique among almost all the mainstream superhero artists of the Silver Age and beyond, simply perfect for the very youngest readers of comic books, as well as those who, to quote Dean from the comments of the previous entry on this blog, would agree that "Weird is good in superhero comics". It's not therefore that Mr Forte's pages are intrinsically worse, or less ably-designed and executed, than those of Papp and Swan and Mooney, so much as that his work was targeted at a much younger audience than even theirs was. And given how deliberate and consistent was Mr Forte's style where his years on the Legion are concerned, I can't help but wonder whether he was deliberately making his work as thrilling as it could be for the very young while safely making sure that nothing too exciting, aggressive, or sexual appeared in his LSH work.
Or: there's nothing wrong with John Forte's work that being a very young child, or thinking like one, can't put right.
(*1) I was myself quite convinced that was nearly always the case too, so I'm not being snotty where Mr Perez's quite legitimate opinion is concerned. Forte's art obviously wasn't "right" where the the young artist's brain of George Perez was concerned, but that doesn't mean that the work itself was the problem, if "problem" is the right word here at all.
II. I know, I know, it's never going to bolster my case as a know-it-all blogger if I concede that I've been at least in significant-part wrong while only half-way through a series of pieces that began with a rather different premise. But I've been staring into John Forte-world, you see, and, wouldn't you know it, but John Forte-world has, yes, been staring back into me too.
Though, unlike the abyss, which I've visited myself on occasion and hope never to return to, John Forte-world is a rather splendid place to wander around in.
III. We were previously discussing why John Forte's work feels odd and dislocated to minds familiar with a less static and more kinetic tradition of superhero art. And the fact remains that, whether Mr Forte meant for his work to be so alienating and yet simultaneously so enticingly weird or not, it will still help us make sense of his art's strangeness if we look around a little more for the unusual choices he was making in his work. In yesterday's piece, we discussed how Mr Forte's characters appear to lack personality, and even individual identity, and how his men and women of all ages lack distinct markers of difference, and, indeed, even the evidence of personal relations with each other. These distancing effects become all the more pronounced when Mr Forte's strange choices where perspective is concerned are considered. In the panel above, for example, we're once again faced with a scene where part of the work seems to obey standard conventions of object placement, while elsewhere the rules of perspective seem to have suddenly ceased operating in the Thirtieth Century. So, while the cluster of Legionnaires seem quite suitably placed, and thanks to not being inked by Mr Forte even display a touch more animation that normal, the Legion clubhouse to the left of the panel appears to have been dropped in from some other tradition of artistic convention entirely. Ah, that strange Legion clubhouse, which never seemed big enough to function as a porta-loo, let alone the HQ of an inter-stellar crime-fighting force. Isn't it just insanely positioned in the frame, absurdly small for where its placed in the panel? That's the future's smallest big building ever. Perhaps it's actually a fairground attraction, containing a tiny trampoline-adventure for one or two children, or perhaps Mr Forte never thought too much about it at all. That was how the clubhouse looked, and perhaps even felt, like to him, he might have thought, and that was how he intended to depict it. Which all seems quite heretical to the faux-precision obsessed, pseudo-realists of 2010's superhero audience, but Mr Forte's readers were almost entirely small children, and as, for example, Lowenfeld and Edwards tell us, young children can't even begin to grasp even the very basics of perspective before their sixth birthday. To a young child, therefore, Mr Forte's ridiculous Legion headquarters and its nonsensical relation to the figures around it wouldn't even register as an issue. Indeed, Mr Forte's work would have had a serious mark of authenticity to so many of the boys and girls staring at his pages, for that's to a degree how they saw, and how they drew, the world they lived in too. Mr Forte was speaking to the young using at least a considerable and familiar part of their own language.
But to everyone developing past that cognitive threshold of a sixth birthday, the suspicion must have been gradually dawning, and gathering with a greater and greater force, that the world wasn't like the innocently askew and odd presentation of things in Mr Forte's art at all. And that irreality must have worked in combination with the factors we've discussed before to slow down with the passing of time the reader's engagement with Mr Forte's art. For where the Kirbyesque tradition of superhero art catches - or rather grabs and hauls - the readers eyes and wrenches them backwards and forwards across the page with dizzying force and speed, Mr Forte's art compels the older reader to stop and question just what is actually going on here? You can see that "expelling" process at work in the above, and rather enchanting, panel of "The Avenue Of Superheroes", where so much of the drawing is quite as convention would demand, and affectingly so, and yet certain features compel that sense of still unnaturalness again. For example, Polar Boy, our point-of-view character at the left of the panel, looks at first glance to be appropriately placed in the scene, until that sense of "wrongness" just forces us to look again and realise that, yes, he's either possessed of twelve foot long legs or he's standing on the first - or even second floor - of a building looking down at the Avenue. And that bloke to the right of the panel? Well, his placement only makes sense if we imagine he's at the top of a downwards-bound elevator.
There's a strange contradiction, therefore, between the relatively effective use of a vanishing point for the Avenue itself, which creates a familiar sense of reality, and those strange floating figures stage-front, and those apparently too tall pedestrians at the far left of the panel too. The developing mind, and the mature one too, senses the conflict between the two traditions, the realistic and the naive, and struggles to engage. But a young child would have no difficulty at all.
And I wonder if this child-centred sense of appropriate wonder might help explain in part why that first generation of Legion readers contained what would become a hardcore of lifelong LSH fans. Legion fandom has been, after all, the most engaged and committed body of comic-book fans for most of the modern superhero's existence. And perhaps these Legion fans are folks who loved the team so much in their youth that they wanted to retain the sense of magical involvement it had brought them, even as they often felt that the man who'd first helped cast that spell of joy for them wasn't good enough for their more sophisticated sensibilities as they grew older? Perhaps the irony is that it was in some substantial sense that "childish" and still art of Forte's which actually helped to grab and maintain the attention of the fans in the first place.
Just a thought. It may be that the very things which make Mr Forte's work so uninvolving to us as we age are the same qualities which initially hooked the Legion a space-ark or two of young and loyal fans in those pre-psychedelic Sixties.
IV: And then there are other choices made by Mr Forte in his art which also seem to the modern - though perhaps not always mature - reader to slow down the pace of the story-telling, and yet choices which again produced work perfectly appropriate for and enticing to younger readers. Consider, if you will, the horizontal panel above, which has a typically and uniquely Forte-ian design, breaking up the action within a single frame into "thirds", three equally-spaced and mostly distinct phases. Whereas most any other artist would present the action as a single unified scene, speeding up proceedings and ensuring that the reader doesn't need to slow down to focus on three scenes where one would do, Mr Forte regularly compelled folks to mentally brake and engage in three artificially-separated components of one comic book moment. There's no urgency or even a sense of a progression-forwards-in-time within the frame of this panel, as there might be if a high-angle shot had been chosen showing the Legion moving from left to right through the alien traders, in the direction the Western-trained eye naturally reads. Instead, the monotonous and predictable division of the panel creates a sense of sloth and stillness, which in its turn is intensified by the stiffness of the figures, as we've discussed before. Indeed, with Lightning Lad and Chameleon Boy placed still and central in the drawing, there's inertia doubly-inserted into the panel's construction. For rather than the reader being drawn to turn over the page, we're trapped in the middle-point of the comic, watching the impassive, undynamic Legionnaires failing to do anything of interest at all.
And yet, to a mind which considers the accumulation of engaging if static detail a source of joy, as young children do, rather than it being an impediment to the flow of the story, this panel is something of a disconcerting wonder. That citizen of the "Ant-Race of Canopus" selling his Element Tree seems more fascinating in itself to me than the last three or four Crisis-On-How-Ever-Many-Worlds combined. And similarly the robotic "Autom Guard", being told by a strangely relaxed Sun Boy that the Legionnaires are in fact pirates, enchants the unjaundiced periphery of my rather-ancient and superhero-saturated mind.
V. Mr Forte also had the peculiar tendency of representing action in such a way that it reversed the natural flow of comic-book motion, regularly showing characters moving counter-intuitively from right to left, in the opposite direction to which we read, which often compelled the unsuspecting reader to process the same panel twice, once forwards and then once back again, in order to work out exactly what's going on. (It's as if he couldn't bear the thought that any child might be over-thrilled by action and so placed artistic training wheels, as it were, on many of his more exciting scenes, making sure that no boy or girl could gets too carried away with the forward-motion of it all.) Below, we can see an "Omnibeast", a typically inventive Forte-ian design, haring around and apparently establishing itself as a fearsome bird-of-war. But it's going in the "wrong" direction, and so any speed it might seem to carry is weighed down by it heading away from the right-hand border of the page, and since Mr Forte has again placed the main attraction in the scene pretty much in the panel's centre, the reader is pulled away from anticipating what comes next in order to be landlocked in the middle of the page. More confusing yet, the Omnibeast's progress leftwards is countered by the strange and attention-grabbing creatures facing in the opposite direction. The eye goes backwards and forwards across the page, only to come to rest where convention and utility demands it shouldn't. Why would anybody want to race on to the next page when every design aspect here is hauling them back to start reading the panel all over again? It's a fun, cute illustration, but it carries the reader away from the natural progression of the story rather than slamming them forwards in the direction of the end of the book.
VI. Finally, we can note the combined effects of the "backward-looking" panel and the "thirds" division of a horizontal scene below, in what should be a deeply moving, if not harrowing, representation of the first familiar and major-league superhero death of the Silver Age. The scene is divided into a different design of "thirds" this time, with the grieving faces of the Super-cousins at stage-front, the mournful Legionnaires at the back, and the strange and supposedly impressive coffin-come-eternal-memorial to the fallen Lightning Lad, stretching almost unnoticed below the mid-point of the panel. And all of the problems we've discussed in the past few days come into play here. For characters in considerable distress, for example, our Legionnaires are hardly overwhelmed, which is in this example something of a relief given the excessively buttock-clenching, teeth-grinding despair which has marked some more recent, and similarly short-lived, cape'n'costume deaths. But the mass of the figures are, as we might expect by now, static, awkwardly placed in a straight line, and yet they're still oddly fixed in a fashion which distracts from the supposedly more-central and remarkable device of the "appropriate ... electric bolts" of the memorial and superhero coffin before them. And, once again, this is predominately a mid-shot, taken straight on at eye-level, providing no variety and little sense of difference or scale. It's a dead scene for a dead Legionnaire, and the panel's central vanishing point takes us straight to Cosmic Boy's distant, small and unexpressive face, which has been placed quite passively in the centre of the panel, giving us little encouragement to anticipate what comes next. Why, after all, are we focused on looking at that still and uninvolving depiction of Cosmic Boy during Lightning Lad's funeral? Why is Cos the point of this scene at all? (Answer: he isn't, though the design declares that he is.) And then, when the reader does allow their eyes to move to the right-hand edge of the page, in order to move on, Supergirl's gaze hurls us back to the irrelevant Cosmic Boy again, who's, yes, still of little importance in the scene as a whole. It's a form of comic-book art time-machine, trapping the weary reader into reading the same uninvolving take on the funeral over and over again.
A child's mind might, however, enjoy the fact that Supergirl and Superboy have been divided from their fellows and placed as pillars framing the non-action: the Twentieth century heroes are after all our familiar point-of-view characters in this distant future and, look, they've got the same costume! And then there'd be the pleasure for a younger reader of noting which Legionnaires were at the funeral, and the differences in their heights, if little else. That's the kind of detail which a young child uses to make sense of, and engage with, the world, after all. And we might even be charitable and assume that Mr Forte designed this panel to minimise any distress felt by younger readers at the death of a familiar character by taking the eye as far away as possible from that dead body which would be, in quite anybody else's design, the absolute centre of attention and importance. But whatever the reason for his design choices, the result of his work is to create again a strange, purposeless inertia, an absence of significant action and emotion. It'd be no surprise to me at all if the Legionnaires were to later be shown heading off post-funeral to watch a 30th century game of Space-ball, with a few somewhat-mournful souls being encouraged to cheer up because "Garth wouldn't want them to be unhappy", would he? This isn't death as trauma, this is death as a mild distraction, like the passing on of a neighbour's cat before a gaggle of somewhat shocked and befuddled small children.
Is this a welcome relief from the practically pornographic depictions of mourning in the modern-era superhero book? It undoubtedly is. But all the same, Mr Forte has managed by chance or design to defuse the emotional core of the scene by making Lightning Lad appear an irrelevancy at his own funeral. And yet, where an audience of young readers in 1963 or so were concerned, I can't help but feel that that was quite the right fashion in which to undertake the business of depicting the laying to rest of Garth. This was, after all, entirely a comic book for young readers, and their exposure and acclimitisation to the Claremontian excesses of pure soap opera angst was still a decade and more in the future before them.
To be continued, where we'll take one last, relatively brief look at what we'll kindly presume are more of Mr Forte's strategies for turning down the drama while dialing up the fun of the strangeness, focusing on his unique take on futuristic technology, the strange disharmony between his realistic figures and his naive backgrounds, his disengagement from the traditions of science-fiction and super-heroes, and the remarkably arduous demands made upon him by Mr Hamilton's scripts. And then it's on to the good stuff.. No sleep 'till Hammersmith, folks, and I hope I'll see you soon for more grand advice from another superhero dimension about how to engage a younger readership. And remember, it's John Forte's world, so look harder and things should all go splendidly odd for you.