Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Challenge Of The Super-Friends: Why Warren Ellis & Bryan Hitch's "The Authority" Is One Of The Sweetest Comic Books Of The Modern Era

1. "Oh! You Pretty Things"

For a comic book characterised, according to Wikipedia, by its "... intense graphic violence ..", and designed to be marked by an "... attention to nasty little details, its appalling bad attitude, and the utter carnage the cast are capable of when working together ... ", according to the original series proposal by Warren Ellis (*1), the Authority can read from the perspective of 2010 like a rather sweet and fundamentally traditional superhero book. In truth, I can't help feeling that in some ways "The Authority" is closer in spirit to the likes of E. Nelson Bridwell's "Super-Friends" than it is Brian Bendis's "Siege", and that Mr Ellis's statements such as how his loathing for the superhero genre "...comes out in me as pure, bloody hatred ... " somewhat obscure the truth. (*2) For all its satire, for all the occasional ferocity in some of the fight scenes, for all its non-traditional lifestyle choices, and for all the undeniable scenes of mass murder and wholesale property damage, this is, yes, a profoundly conservative take following the model of an early-Sixties superhero comic book.

And by "profoundly conservative", I do mean closer in spirit and execution to the form and content of the work of Broome and Fox and very-early-1960's Lee than any of the contemporary and dissenting creators usually yoked to The Authority when comparisons are proffered.

Now, it may be that a week spent studying John Forte's work on the Legion Of Superheroes has in some way altered my perceptions, corrupted me with sexless, peaceful innocence, and left me seeing nothing but the beauty of the prom, the good clean fun of the gridiron, and the moral necessity of placing the morning newspaper in the letter box rather than throwing it on the lawn. But I don't think that's so. Rather, I really do believe that "The Authority" is as much the last true heir of the Silver Age as it is one of the radical daddies of the modern-era's obsession with widescreen brutality.

*1 http://wildstormresource.wetpaint.com/page/The+Authority+Proposal+by+Warren+Ellis
*2 from "Writers On Comics Scriptwriting" by Mark Salisbury, (Titan Books, 1999)

2. "Violence. Violence. It's The Only Thing That Will Make You See Sense

But such is "The Authority"'s association with violence that the issue has to be dealt with first before the occasionally unrecognised sweetness of the book can be engaged with. And, compared even to the most mainstream of books from the Big Two in 2010, there's little of the famed "hyper-violence" commonly associated with "The Authority" on show when re-reading the book today. Jack Hawksmoor literally knocks off an opponent's head with a very swift right hook at 1:22:2, dismembers an alien by leaping right through it at 8:15:4, and there's some alien tentacle-penetration of innocent Japanese citizens on the streets of Tokyo at 10:6/7, but that's about it where the less-typical extremes of force are concerned. And in a mainstream characterised by gods being torn literally in half and Teen Titans high on heroin attacking drug addicts with dead cats (*3), "The Authority" in truth looks rather middle-of-the-road and restrained from the perspective of today.

Yes, Jenny Sparks does indeed electrocute large number of super-powered assassins, and the Authority do indeed commit appalling atrocities on Sliding Albion. But these murders aren't shown in any prurient fashion, and the justification for the acts of terror is at least as good as any presented by the Western Democracies in defence of their 1 000 bomber raids of World War II. (*4) So, though we're told that Gamorra's superhuman clones are being electrocuted, the panel itself only shows a traditionally comic-book energy energy blast hitting some bad-guys. And the complete annihilation of Italy on an alternative earth is seen firstly from orbit, and then as a large panel mainly occupied by a tidal wave. There's none of the kind of graphic horror that even an EC thriller of the early '50's might have indulged in. Even the death of Kaizen Gamorra occurs off-screen; we do get to see the Carrier ripping through the city towards him, but his final end is left to our imagination. If this is excessive violence, then it's remarkably thin on the ground visually, if not in fact. And if these actions are all so morally unacceptable, then the question needs to be asked "What else could be done?". If it were Mr Ellis's intention to portray The Authority as Fascist brutes operating completely beyond the pale, then he ought to have provided scenarios in which other feasible options to "our" superhumans murdering "their" superhumans, and "their" people, were obvious and feasible. As it stands, unless you're with the folks who see the A-Bomb attacks on Japan and the bomber raids on Germany as war crimes themselves, The Authority seem pretty much to be on the side of the angels. (*5) Brutes, mass-murderers, and vigilantes on a global scale, but strangely appropriate in their responses considering the threats they were facing down.

In fact, if we're being honest about the degree of the so-called violence over the twelve issues that make up the Ennis/Hitch run, a quick re-visit to 7.19.3/4 will put any excessively Whitehousian concerns at rest. For there, as the Engineer slaughters large number of alternative-Earth cavalry, you can note how none of the horses are shown being hurt in any noticeable, let alone gruesome, fashion whatever. In fact, this might as well be, where the shooting of horses are concerned, a mid-Sixties, pre-Jonah Hex comic-book Western, where horses get hit, and horses fall over, but horses are never shown shattering limbs and feeling pain in those moments between bullet-penetration and brain-death. (And, in fact, Mr Hitch even avoids showing the terrible force of a charging horse tumbling over here.) And though the fate of these cavalry horses is hardly kind, the reader is spared their mutilation, murder and disposal. This principle of unexpected restraint tends to hold true for all of the Ennis/Hitch issues, and though it's obviously expected that the reader grasps the "collateral damage" the Authority are wracking up, the overwhelming majority of it goes quite unseen.

Yes, the Authority are an arrogant gang of super-human terrorists, redeemed in some small part by the fact that their enemies are so much worse than they are. Yes, they operate according to their own whim and conscience, and yes, they kill a great deal of people. But we don't see most of it, and of that we do see, well; it isn't so different from that on display in the latter-day X-Men, and it's a great deal less morally worrying than recent runs of "Daredevil" and "Justice League; Cry For Justice". In the best traditions of Bomber Harris, the Authority only strike back when war is declared and the end is, or has been, nigh. It's hardly unproblematic, this habit of wiping out millions in the name of survival, but it's presented in such a way as Jenny Sparks and her men have at least a case for the horrors they've been hauled in the direction of perpetrating.

So, the Authority only attack when innocents are slaughtered in great numbers, their opponents are always possessed of such power that nobody else can resist them, and most of the violence they are compelled under terrible pressure to unleash goes unseen by the reader. This isn't the cess-pit of blood and bowels it's been so often sold as, and the truth is surely that the most obvious moral to be drawn from The Authority is not that superhumans would behave without conscience, but rather that a necessary war of self-defence by superhumans attacked by superhumans would be a very bloody business aindeed. That's not a challenge to the values of the superhero genre, it's just a comment on the degree of realism common to cape'n'costume adventures where the consequences of violence are concerned.

Coming a decade and more after Scott McCloud's "Destroy!", in which two supermen destroy an entire city before the victorious protagonist, knee-deep in rubble, declares that it's good how nobody had been hurt, "The Authority" is hardly a radical statement even where super-heroes are concerned. It's exceptionally well-executed fun, but it's neither innovative or revolutionary, and I can't believe that it was ever intended as such. It's in truth a very traditional statement of defiance against the absurdities of the superhero genre, tweaked just a touch, with a splendid tongue in its splendid cheek, for the late 1990's.

* 3 - I know, I know, everybody's referring to that, and I've done so myself, but I think the terrible truth of Speedy the one-armed cat-hammerer really needs to be kept in the forefront of the mind. Otherwise, we'll all simply assume that it was an absurd joke or even that it never happened.

*4 - Neither point in that sentence defends the Authority's acts; they're not intended to. Here I'm just pointing out that their atrocities are neither thrust in our faces or too different from essential components of our National myths concerning the last Moral War.
*5 - I'm not suggesting that such a stance is incorrect. I'm just saying that that seems to me to be the real moral parallel between the Authority and real-world events.

3. " ... The Sounds Of A
Switchblade And A Motorbike .. "

But if the scale of the violence, and the presentation of some small portion of it, can be pushed away for the while, the remainder of The Authority is charmingly conservative, if not conventional, fare. It now reads as if Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch had decided to serve up some fiercely traditional and two-dimensional fare sweetened with a few dollops of large-scale mayhem and artistic dynamism, as if the joke was less on the superhero as such and more on the deeply stuck-in-the-mud mainstream consumer of the genre. Consider the villainous Kaizen Gamorra, a blatant Fu Manchu/Ming The Merciless knock-off for whom the term "two-dimensional" would be vastly overstating the case. "But now ...now, HAHAHA, Stormwatch no longer exists. There is no one on this planet who can place shackles on my anger." he declares as part of a three page soliloquy which, for all its endearing play-it-to-the-gallery exuberance, only succeeds in making the early portrayals of Victor Von Doom seem Shakespearean by comparison. It's thin gruel, this business of villains in The Authority. Having the alien warlord Regis heralding the invasion of our planet by an alternative Earth by declaring that "There's a German word I'm fond of. Lebensraum" does show he grasps a concept which many GCSE History students can use with some precision, but beyond that he's completely without a character which couldn't be summed up with a hearty "gggrrrrr". He's a brute, a rapist, an imperialist, a genocidalist, he probably feeds children their own fingers after sawing them off himself, and without anaesthetic too, but he's nothing more, or less, than a very bad boy indeed. And the final great challenge for the Authority after Gamorra and Regis is, tellingly, God's brain travelling in a pyramid-shaped spacecraft, a concept as potentially exciting as Galactus was back in, oh, 1966, Indeed, it's a concept pretty much the same as Galactus except that Ellis's take on the type doesn't talk, or have a herald that talks, or, sadly, possess any purple shorts with a big "G" on his belt-bubble. Ellis's God says nothing at all, which is certainly a metaphorically interesting concept, but pretty uninvolving in a superhero comic, and succeeds in the unlikely business of presenting an antagonist for The Authority that's even less interesting than Gamorra and Regis. As a statement of how ridiculous the anthropomorphic tendency is in superhero-land, this God's an interesting concept, but as a villain, he's only as scary as any really big rock with lots of violent worms in it can be.

But that's all perfectly acceptable, and actually perfectly charming, when taken at face value. This isn't a comic book that's trying to achieve psychological realism, or any cod-approximation of it, not certainly where the villains are concerned. This is a comic-book comic-book. And if the key super-villains of The Authority are without menace because they're of such familiar types and without any involving character, then so too are their henchmen - and they are all men - similarly unengaging. Oh, they're certainly bad guys, and we know this because they all look the same and they all kill people. Indeed, it's the fact that every single one of the antagonists fighting on the various fields of war look the same - clones, cavalrymen, tentacles - that helps to take the Authority clean out of 1999 back to 1960. These opponents of the true and the just aren't real people with individual natures, they're bioreactored clones, all dressed in black, all set in fiendishness, or they're identical horsemen from a perverse Britain. The biggest threat these identical enemies can pose is in their numbers, and we know, as we'll discuss later, that sheer numbers won't hold back The Authority. As far as threats go, they're no threat at all. They're just off-the-assembly-line copies of generic, thinly-constructed, all-purpose opponents, which, as we'll discuss later on, helps to lower the sense of jeopardy even when the punch-ups get a touch explicit and intense.

Nothing can stop The Authority, and we know that because we're never told that anyone who stands against the Authority is of any importance at all; if these enemies were of consequence and dangerous, they'd exist as more than the broadest and tinniest of stereotypes. And so, these huge confrontations against apparently overwhelming odds are actually rather comforting. Good is good, and bad is hardly there on the page at all. It's as if the Justice League were back fighting old toothless Kanjar Ro, long ago in the days when insect eyes and a little wand qualified as markers of evil.

4. ".. Now Hurry Up, He's Scratching At Your Throat .. "

Given that the antagonists don't threaten, and the heroes can't be beaten, "The Authority" is wonderfully free of jeopardy. All the traditions of modern popcorn entertainment, so nefariously encoded in Robert McKee's "Story", all the expectations of three plot reversals and fates more terrible than the expected terrible fates, are out of the window here. There's never any doubt that the Authority will win. In fact, a rule of thumb is that even any secondary character given a speaking role of just a few words will survive without harm too. Only strangers, marked by no individual characteristics, suffer, or the faceless ranks of the protagonist armies. We never need worry who'll live, because we certainly know who'll never die right from the off.

This lack of jeopardy is so untypical in a post-1968 superhero book that it's at first quite confusing. Where are the torture scenes, the separation, the angst? Why, when Apollo falls from the Carrier far above Earth, isn't there some plot confection that pretends that he not might find his solar-powered abilities rekindled on the way down? (Apollo's so apparently confident, and The Midnighter so in love with him, that there's never any doubt he'll survive. We know Mr Ellis wouldn't do such a bad thing to the Authority's Superman, because nowhere else in his scripts is Mr Ellis that cruel. Whedon is cruel, Claremont and Bendis too, but not Mr Ellis. He's untypically, for a superhero writer of the modern era, disinterested in upsetting his audience in The Authority for the emotional sake of it.) And when Apollo is flying at full pelt towards an invisible force field, impact against which will squash him flat, there's no pretense that he may really be squashed against that immovable object; there's no cross-cutting of panels between worried comrades and nonchalant hero until a last minute, quite unbelievable, save arrives. In fact, Apollo is removed quite undramatically to safely by being magiked into a " .. broken universe ... (where) travelling over a hundred miles an hour gets converted into music", without the reader even seeing him closing in on the city and its forcefield.

Indeed, Mr Ellis must have a fierce aversion to permitting his superheroes to suffer the emasculation typical to most acts 2 and 3 of the typical capes'n'costume narrative. The Authority always have a plan, or at least they have a very solid defence while they hold the line and wait for a very big idea to occur. They never loose control. They're never separated, picked off, turned against each other, or even any more hurt than exhausted. Wherever they are is the safest environment that can be imagined, the members of supervillain armies notwithstanding. And even when Jenny Sparks dies, after the very simple matter of electrifying God's brain, she does so without a great deal of telling foreshadowing or indeed any blood or suffering. Not even death's too dangerous in "The Authority", if you're on the right side, and, look!, isn't that Ms Sparks returned immediately to life as a baby, ready to save the 21st century as she did the 20th?

Aaahhh. Isn't she lovely? No, seriously. Isn't she?

5. " ... Sailors Fighting On The Dancefloor ... "

With the exception of the first year or so of Grant Morrison's re-invention of the Justice League in 1997, I can think of no other comic which was so free of character conflict as "The Authority". Since the first appearance of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, a fair dose of at least serious irritation between superhero team-members has been the rule; the Thing swipes at the Torch, Hawkeye cusses Cap, Green Arrow loathes Hawkman, Wolverine hates Cyclops, and so on, and on. But nobody even niggles each other to any great degree in "The Authority". Everyone takes orders without questioning the right of Jenny Sparks to tell them what to do, after The Midnighter has a passing rant against her to Apollo in the very first issue. Yes, everyone works together without questioning their fellows, or being any more than passingly irritated by them. And the only dissenting voices, with the exception of a mild exasperation at the Doctor's habit of tuning out and dropping out too, are those of the old moaning lovers, the Midnighter and Apollo, who mostly whinge and carp at each other because it stops them having to worry about anything else.

In fact, "The Authority" is almost a personality-free zone. These are, give or take the odd swear word and expression of physcial desire, standard-model heroes. They're brave, they fight hard, and they make jokes in the face of the return of an unforgiving God. (See above.) Beyond that, there's very little at all going on to seperate one from the other. We learn, for example, little about each character's past as they relate to matters-at-hand. (The Engineer seems to develop the most, embracing her mechanical nature, but it's a restrained step forward for a superhero genre obsessed with devil-fractured marriages and the like.) There is, of course, a default position where The Authority make references to aspects of the '90's counter-culture which might pass as markers of individual difference, but that's not the same as "character". The Doctor takes drugs, yes, but you couldn't picture him as a three-dimensional character without an awful lot of work. Even compared to fiercely one-note figures such as the Batman, most of The Authority seem thin as characters and therefore intially somewhat unimportant as superheroes. (I doubt too many thousands would ever feel motivated to buy into a Swift monthly, or even an Engineer mini-series.) But most surprising of all, for a group composed of such symbols of the '90's counter-culture as a psychedelic explorer, a cyborg, a fags'n'beer anti-establishment curmudgeon, a George'n'Mildred gay couple, and a super-psycho-geographer, the team don't argue at all over principle or speculation. Have you ever seen any two folks interested in, for example, cutting-edge psychedelics or human-cyborg evolution, sit down for three minutes without some point of difference, affable or otherwise, breaking out? Yet these folks in The Authority are strangely uenthusiastic about their interests and beliefs, as if they agree on everything already, which is a profoundly odd stance for a bunch of anti-authoritarian individualists to take. They're the least radical radicals I've ever seen, the world's most compliant, peaceful, do-as-you're told dissidents in history.

And this is again a return to the Silver Age, pegged between the character uniformity of Gardener Fox's Justice League and Stan Lee's "kooky-quartet" Avengers. The foot-soldiers of the Authority are so uncomplicated and accepting of each other that they never seem in danger of falling out and so they entice the reader into never worrying about their fate. As long as The Authority stick together, the message seems to be "everything will be fine", and for them, it is. (Hawksmoor telling The Midnighter and Apollo to ".. get a room .. " when the couple are hugging each other is the closest we get to banter, let alone conflict. And for banter, it's awfully fond and accepting.) It's exceptionally relaxing, and something of a relief and a retreat from the soap-opera high-notes of just about every other superhero team book in the past decade or more, to be watching the adventures of a cast of characters far more similiar in their construction to Hamilton's Legion Of Super-Heroes than to Claremont's X-Men.

6. "Coo, Coo, I Just Want You"

It may not take much to create a convincing superhero love affair, but simple dishes are notorious for being the most difficult to cook successfully. But Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch presented the love-affair between the Midnighter and Apollo in such a fundamentally touching and straight-forward fashion that I never doubted they were lovers, and that indeed they'd always stay so. In fact, I've been rather surprised to learn, while researching this piece, the "fact" that the two of them were effectively outed in "The Authority" # 8: were they ever "in"? Admittedly, I hadn't read "Stormwatch" while reading the first few years of The Authority, so perhaps I'd missed some degree of obscuration there. But from Chapter One of "The Circle", it appeared to be so straight-forward a business that I never thought twice about it, beyond being relieved that this wasn't going to be a love-affair defined by doubt and trauma. Moving on from the tantrums and indulgences that mark the perpetually-adolescence trysts which even now constitute the quorum of superhero affairs, The Midnighter and Apollo were securely placed in a take on an early-middle age marriage. Their relationship's tensions weren't those of the teenager trying to decide between Betty and Veronica, Gwendolyn or Mary-Jane, of the repressed and dissatisfied half-child trying to have their cake and, yes, eat it too. Our gay Batman and our gay Superman were a couple: they struggle to remember the intensity of their feelings amidst the everyday crisis of the four-colour world, they express the normal claustrophobia of a relationship where home and work are the same place through bickering - "Shut Up. You whine like an old woman." - and they're taken by sudden, awkward declarations of absolute commitment when the worst seems about to happen - "You'll die./"I wouldn't dare." It's all absolutely recognisable and rather deeply affecting.

And in taking a step backwards towards those Silver Age relationships where fidelity and honesty were assumed as givens rather than perceived as impediments to drama, Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch created the most fundamentally decent and admirable romantic relationship in superhero comics. Sue Storm and Reed Richards may seem to be constantly fracturing, splitting and reuniting, Peter Parker may conspire with the Devil to end his marriage, and Superman may - apparently - abandon his wife for a year to, er, walk across America, but The Midnighter and Apollo, being grown-ups, simply bicker and fuss over each other as grown-ups do.

This is a sweet, sweet comic book. It may not be the sweetness that some of our Grand-Parents might recognise and support, but it is sweet. And we could still do with as great deal more of that in the universes of the Big Two. After all, there's a fair bit of sweetness out here in the real world too, alongside all that undeniable tragedy and despair. The world of Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch's "The Authority" is actually a world I can happily wander around in my imagination when I can't sleep, secure that it's not so dark a place that I'll trip a few nightmares for when I do slide into slumber. Its horrors are no more hideous than those of most other superhero titles, only "The Authority" never hides the scale of the losses in the fight against really-really bad people. Still, its pleasures are recognisable ones. I may have to admit that I've no idea how the members of The Justice League and The Avengers sit down together, so many and tortuous are the disputes that have divided them in the past. But The Authority? Well, they're as close to grown-ups as you can get when you've got the spandex brigade on patrol, at least where the basic human social skills of getting on and working together are concerned, despite the overall lack of informing detail for most of the team's members.

And so, by subtracting the emotional hullabaloo that passes for character sophistication these days, the lovers and comrades of The Authority strangely become more believable rather than less.

Simple dishes, you see; the hardest to cook properly.

7. "It's Just A Test, A Game For Us To Play"

My favourite radicals are the ones who're so firmly rooted in a clearly defined vision of the past that they're hardly radical at all; they're shocking because they extrapolate from what's known rather than indulging entirely in "what-ifs" and "if-we-all-think-nicelys". It's endearing to find dreamers and doers who've bothered to do their homework rather than rushing full-pelt in the direction of some ill-defined utopia without the slightest sense of the failings and achievements of all the radicals who've come before. And "The Authority" is so full of the tropes of the Silver Age superhero that it's almost a historical textbook on what we used to read; it only looked radical because it's creators had actually looked backwards before stepping forwards, for the modern superhero comic often seems to have slipped the moorings of its roots so long ago that it's forgotten that it had any in the first place. Yet the characters in The Authority were mostly recognisable spins on the basic stoic superhero type, while there were also familiar-feeling and yet uniquely spectacular superhero and supervillian bases,, there was technology at hand which a child of any age could dream of having access to - "door!" - and, as stated, the evil-doers had all the nostalgic and unthreatening depth of an Egghead or Killer Moth. (There's even the teacher-spirits of previous Doctors in their "Garden Of Ancestral Memory", ready to advise through their experience on the best course to take, an utterly ignored trope today when the likes of Professor X or The Ancient One must either be killed off or emasculated so our heroes can't be kept in for the superhero equivalant of detention.)

And what could be more traditional than how our heroes are constantly needed by the not-great and the un-good of the powers-that-be, who'll always need The Authority because the powers-that-be aren't as strong and capable as they'd like to believe. Isn't that the most fundamental superhero fantasy? To be outside the system and yet have the system's survival reliant upon a few outsiders in their very shiny pants? And in the end, when the Authority leaves the Earth to kill God, Jenny Sparks can even tell all six billion humans to "... bloody well be good ... ", indulging in a hitherto hidden level of the ultimate power fantasy of anyone overwhelmed by homework or inflation, diminishing pensions or a party curfew: screw feeding the world, let's just mange to get it to shut-up! Yes, it is indeed an ambition most probably held by those of us who feel quite outside of whatever power elites can be brought to mind, but then, would anyone object if Superman had asked, more modestly, the entire population of the globe to be kind to each other while the JLA was off fighting the sand-giraffes of Red-Mumble-12, or whatever?

Such fidelity to the traditions of the Silver Age comic book even extend to Mr Ellis's love for throwing comic-book spins on contemporary science into his books, just as John Broome, to name but one writer, used to do with his "Flash Facts". (The broken universe which transmutes speed into music in "The Authority" is no more convincing than the 64th century science that changed The Flash into a puppet, but both snippets contain interesting ideas: Broome was introducing his audience to Arthur C Clarke's dictum concerning advanced science being in effect the same as magic, and Ellis the idea of alternative universes where the fundamental laws are quite distinct to ours.) In a similar fashion to how Stan Lee would add a slither of depth into his scripts through the use of untypically demanding words, for a comic book, such as "omnipotent", a challenge to his readers to just trot a little faster to keep up, a gesture of faith that they weren't as stupid as they were often treated, so too would Mr Ellis throw in mention of a " ... mathematical key suitable for late type-zero civilisations ...", far less an example of tech-speak and far more a cheerful wink that we're all smarter than the surface of the comics we're reading might lead others to believe. It shows a fondness for the audience to occasionally wink at them and acknowledge that they too are clever enough to play around with ideas which most folks who sneer at superheroes wouldn't even recognise as anything other than gobbledygook, and it also shows that the writer is having fun too.

8. "Where Do We Go From Here, Which Is The Way That's Clear"

Authority-Fact: for a man who has claimed so often to hate superheroes, I'd be astonished if Mr Ellis doesn't retain a great deal of fondness for The Authority and its members, even if he never feels the slightest need to go anywhere near the characters again. And it's hard, given how The Authority was so very much like the Silver Age comic books of the genre's second childhood, to believe that Mr Ellis hates superheroes at all. Perhaps he does, and perhaps he hates all the ridiculous things that have been done with them as they've risen to swallow up so much of their fellow comic book genres. But there's just too much affection for the traditions of the form and too tender a devotion to his characters for all that grumbling and carping to obscure the truth that The Authority is a far more affectionate and traditional book than so many folks would have it, even today. For if the Authority is a satire, it's only a slight if worthwhile one, poking fun at the superhero fan's belief that their genre has become more mature and meaningful as time has passed. Yet, if "The Authority" is to be trusted, if Mr Ellis and Mr Hitch have told us the truth, and I think they did, dark and gritty doesn't in itself indicate depth, and sweet and traditional doesn't always mean all-mined-out and childish, and the one approach doesn't need to be disconnected from the other at all.


Sunday, 27 June 2010

"Please Forgive Me For Materializing You ." John Forte & The Legion Of Superheroes part 5 of 5

I. Anybody can produce art that is strange. What's most interesting about John Forte's work is that it is by its very nature strange. "Strange", where Mr Forte's art is concerned, occurs everywhere and all the time; it's not the result of an attempt to shock, or of gross incompetence, or an ignorance of a less-quirky tradition of comic-book story-telling. It's an intrinsic strangeness that exists even when the skies are blue and the teenage superheroes are - sort-of -smiling, just as much as it does on alien worlds populated solely by the statues of long-extinct mysterious creatures. It is, if you like, an honest strangeness, a constant and consistent effect of the choices Mr Forte made job-in, day-out. And as we've been discussing for a while now, the strangeness is generated by a wide variety of design elements and pen'n'ink achievements all working together to produce a world quite individual to John Forte's art. Where other comic books of the period, such as the thin gruel served out by the Batman stories from the Bob Kane school, can now be seen as the product of creators who were cutting corners and underestimating the potential of the stories they were churning out, Mr Forte was regularly turning in complex and yet charming pages of a fairy-story 30th century which deserve a great deal more respect and attention than they've so far received.

At the conclusion below of this final look at Mr Forte's LSH career, I'll put forward a checklist of techniques used by him which could still be adapted and applied to achieve a distinctive and useful sense of "normal oddness", but before then, I'd like to briefly discuss just a few of my favourite examples of his work. (I was intending to present far more than just the panels I talk about below, but I soon realised that I was behaving not unlike the bloke who insists on playing no other records other than his own favourites at the party. It seemed, on reflection, more appropriate, and more respectful of Mr Forte's work, to present and discuss just a few pieces. Then, should anyone ever be in some small way nudged towards considering Mr Forte's Legion work - should they not have already been familiar with it themselves, of course - there'd remain even more hidden gems for them to discover for themselves.)

II. John Forte's work always contained the capacity to convey a peculiar and touching sense of mournfulness. Here his skill at creating quite alien races from Earthly templates quite outside of the usual comic book tradition, combined with his affable style, has produced these doleful statues of an "all-dead" alien race. Mr Hamilton's script has Cosmic Boy describe these effigies as "weird monuments", but I doubt he could ever have foreseen quite how distinctly odd and yet endearing these statues would appear once Mr Forte had got to work on the matter.

The panel creates a sense of stillness and loss through the application of many of the inertia-causing techniques of Mr Forte's that we've been discussing. The panel is again divided in thirds, with each third containing two of the Legionnaires as they stand in a wide semi-circle at the front and bottom of the frame. The focus of the gazes of the young superheroes are fixed on the distant statues far away at the top-centre of the panel, giving an impression that the Legion has been placed in a huge alien graveyard of sorts, and one too substantial to explore with any ease. (It's an impression reinforced by the gaze of the large memorial figure at the right-hand side of the panel, which turns our attention back again to the scene just as our eye is ready to move on to the next panel.) The passive, still postures of the Legionnaires similarly give the reader the sense that this is a planet where the human scale, and human effort, are entirely unimportant. And if the somewhat strange perspective which afflicts the "strange abandoned building" to the top-right of the scene is by now a familiar matter in a John Forte scene, it also carries with it a feeling that this is an environment where odd things are happening, where even old empty buildings don't quite obey the everyday rules of ordinary life.

Most touching to me are the individual qualities of the memorials. The fourth statue from the right, for example, seems to have a serpent of sorts wrapped around it, while his arms have been lost with time. It's hard not to want to speculate about who the race depicted in these statues were, and what were their myths and symbols, and what was the tale of the turtle-lizard who came complete with a serpent wrapped around his belly?

And why did they all disappear?

These enigmas mean that the panel retains its power to move despite those rinky-dink space-boats in the foreground that the Legionnaires have apparently used to land on this planet of the giant civilised turtle-lizards, which says a very great deal considering how utterly unimpressive those sadly typical examples of John Forte's tech-designs are.

The work of Mr Hamilton and Mr Forte regularly feature such examples of dead cultures memorialised by some great markers of their lost makers. The city dwarfed by the cloud-high robots, to take one such scene which actually resonates better in the memory than it does on the page, and the scene above, where another race of aquatically-inspired aliens survives only in the form, once again, of monumental statues. It's a haunting panel in itself, set up by Hamilton's word-pictures - "... built by an inhuman race ages ago, and illuminated by perpetual radium lights .... " - and again our impassive Legionnaires serve as blank slates for us to project our own responses of awe and loss onto them. It is, I believe, a touch too crowded a composition to carry the same measure of despair that the first example above does, for the Substitute Heroes stand so close together that they seem to some greater degree protected from the world around them than the Legionnaires were. But it's still a quietly haunting piece.

No other superhero artist that I can think of regularly left so much space at the far right-hand edge of his longer, larger panels. It's a choice which often leaves his characters hemmed in far away from the promise of escaping into the next stages of the story. Here two of our heroes step rather gingerly through a "world devastated by atomic warfare", and nothing as much marks the loss and fear in the scene as Mr Forte's characteristic stillness and the sense of deathly quiet. A Gil Kane or a Jack Kirby would choose to show the scale of the devastation, illustrating the immense force of the "atomic" weapons which had been used. But Mr Forte simply shows us the world empty of anything that a human being might think fondly of while presenting the ruined city as a simple fact rather than as an means of extracting any excess of fear from the reader. There's a space here between how these ruins of atomic warfare are depicted and our knowledge of what caused that devastation, and that makes the whole piece all the more subtly upsetting; we can't escape into the awe-inspiring thrills of any Kirbyesque depiction of an atomic holocaust, and so we have to accept the fact of the planet's end rather than the spectatcular cause of it. And so the scene is much closer to the quiet fortitude and certainty of extinction that marks "On The Beach" rather than the chest-thumping histrionics of the last scene of the "Planet Of The Apes". In essence, the focus is on the terrible consequences of the bomb rather than the beguiling power of it, and it's all the more scary for it. This is a painfully empty, static world, even for Mr Forte's work. (Two of "thirds" here are empty of any figures or action at all, although the vertically integrating effect of the two skyscrapers in the centre of the panel still divides the space without a Legionnaire in it into two.) And our typically undemonstrative heroes fit perfectly with such a reading. The destruction is so complete that would be futile, even hubristic, for them to respond in any other way than keeping quiet and moving on.

III. From the end of the world to something considerably more enchanting, the panel above illustrates how brilliant Mr Forte was at depicting children, just as he was at projecting a child's view of the world. (I wonder how many contemporary artists could produce something as simultaneously touching and amusing as the above.) A panel as deceptively straightforward as this needs little explanation after all we've discussed, though again it's worthwhile to point how the far right of the panel beyond Dream Girl is quite empty again. With that apparently evil grown woman standing menacingly and confidently between the kids and the progression of the story, we're being told that she's standing between them and rescue, and that's she's powerful enough to bar their escape past her. That empty space is a mental mud-trap, telling the reader that the story's progression breaks down there; it's a clever way of getting the reader to worry how our super-tots will ever manage to return to the sober pinacle of LSH teenagerdom.

IV. So many of John Forte's strengths and apparent weaknesses are present in this final example that it's all I can do to not set a quick quiz here. (I can't resist; "How many of Mr Forte's usual array of techniques are present in this panel, and what effect do they have in combination with each other? 25 marks.") And yet here the work contains a few small innovations of the formulae which result in what for me is his most enjoyable single panel of his entire tenure on the LSH. Once again the reader's attention appear's to be divided into three sections, namely the Legionnaires to the left, the city to the right, and then the smaller figures being thrown through the sky above. It presents a strange challenge of reading; the word balloon at top right demands we first focus on Saturn Girl, whose orders galvanise Lightning Lad and Sun Boy into project their individual powers. Lightning Lad, being the dominant figure in the panel, then throws our attention off to the right, in the normal direction of reading for the Western eye, where his energy bolts flash in front of the hostile city. And then, wonderfully, our eye travels upwards again, to where the three tiny figures, representing the three most mighty Legionnaires, are being blown before the storm. I've never seen such a panel construction before! Where another artist might have tried to present this scene as a single event, with the three wind-blown and tumbling figures appearing in the background of the main scene, Mr Forte, as is his want, hives Mon-El, Ultra Boy and Superboy off into their own part of the panel and uses them to point the reader forwards to the next no-doubt exciting section of this story. In such a way, the panel becomes absolutely full of action and excitement. The power of the Legionnaires in the foreground is emphasised, the force of the storm is accentuated, and the lucky reader gets to dwell in a scene which is untypically both exciting and exacting to read. (A child's eye could focus on this scene for a good long while.) Even the typical Forteian stoicism of his Legionnaires becomes unquestionably a sign of determination rather than boredom or insouciance.

To my mind, it's a small triumph of design and skill, and a good point to break off this attempt to engage with Mr Forte's work. For if there's anybody who can't see a modest and yet considerable virtue in the above panel, well; no amount of extra words on top of all those I've invested above will help my case.

Huzzah! for Mr Forte! Three cheers for his splendidly individual, odd, and engaging art work!

V. So, in some alternative universe, where I've quite undeservedly lucked Jack-Black-like into a job at a prestigious academy training the comic book artists of the future, one of the year's major homeworks will be to apply the oddness-creating techniques of Mr Forte to a page full of superhero action, as well as perhaps a single horizontal panel of a extinct race and the monuments to them on an Ozymandias-evoking planet. I'd be sure, however, to make sure the students had a list such as the following, so they could remember how to mix and max from Mr Forte's considerable repertoire of strangeness-inspiring tricks;
  • create your human characters from the realistic tradition, using considerable detail as long as it doesn't create too substantial a sense of individual difference, emotion or action.
  • produce stiff, largely-impassive and similar figures differentiated by colourful and distinctive costumes. (If you must reach for sophistication, focus on individual hairstyles and height.)
  • only show emotion when it is absolutely demanded by the script. Don't dwell on it. When it's over, it's over, and it should be over in a few panels time at most!
  • juxtapose these blank-slate but realistic characters against backgrounds which contain naive elements, especially where perspective is concerned
  • and skewed perspective should be used to inform readers that what looks like an standard representation of a comic book world is something odder entirely
  • never layer a scene with different events occurring at the same time without breaking up the action according to Forte's rule of thirds
  • remember to slow down time for the reader by turning their attention away from the "escape" point of the panel's right-hand edge, and wherever useful, have as your eye-focusing vanishing point a scene of emotionally-unintense importance near the top-middle of the page.
  • don't be frightened to increase the reader's sense that escape from the moment shown in the panel is impossible by leaving the right-hand third of the panel empty, or blocked off by a dominant figure, or containing a face looking to the left.
  • don't show a character doing something if you can show other characters watching them doing something instead.
  • avoid focusing the reader's eyes on scenes which are unnecessary upsetting or exciting. If that's not possible, have stoical emotional-control panel-front and choose the moment just before or just after the most powerful view to illustrate.
  • If one super-powered character is using their powers, try to have them all doing so.
  • make sure your panel layouts are predictable and traditional: 6 panels in two-panel vertical rows, each occupying a third of a page, with a long horizontal panel four or five times a tale.
  • concentrate on wide and mid shots. Remember that focusing on a large emoting face, unless it's the Emperor Nero, is only going to end in an unnecessary emotion of some kind.
  • When designing technology, don't care about realism. When attending to xenobiology, draw extravagantly from the open-house mix'n'match options offered by Terran lifeforms.
  • Remember that sex and violence are dangerous matters which your audience should be protected from.
  • When in doubt, ask yourself two questions: 1 - what would a young child see?, and 2 - If it doesn't look like it's real, does it at least look like it's engagingly strange?
Now, class, try showing the war between the Green Lantern Corp and Sinestro's army of evil-doers using those rules. All work must be in by Friday, and there will be no extensions.

VI: We humans have a terrible tendency to regard anything which doesn't survive as inferior, as if the shark and the crocodile were markers of excellence, and the dodo and the quagga weak and irrelevant accidents of biology practically begging to wiped from the fact of the environment. But not everything which survives is beautiful or useful, or even morally defensible. (Of course, that which survives is mostly just the most deadly competitor on the field of play.) Jon Forte's world isn't any less beautiful and beguiling because he didn't leave a school of his style behind him, and it contains, as I hope you'd agree, lost and apparently self-contradictory secrets which could well do with being unearthed and put to use on occasion today.

And it's worth remembering that even those things which appear to have been entirely lost have a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Sometimes we find a coelacanth being sold in a South African fish-market hundreds of thousands of years after it was supposed have been wiped from existence. Occasionally, the unexpected survives so far out of sight that it's hard to believe it's still there, but as with Paabo's discovery of Neanderthal DNA in some modern humans genetic code, there's always the hope that what was thought lost might be in some small way quietly influencing the future. And if some of us can perhaps have shadows of gentle, flower-gathering, grave-maintaining Neanderthal dreams at night, then I'd quite like my John Forte moments too.

For I was wrong about Mr Forte's work. Seven days ago, when I started these pieces on his art, I thought his pages occasionally contained single moments of a unique character through an accidental fusion of craft and chance. In essence, if not in every detail, I was accepting the school of thought that judges his work to be "wrong". And I was wrong. Though I've focused here just on his large horizontal panels, I can now see there's a strange, effective and counter-intuitive beauty running through much of his LSH art. I stared at John Forte's work, if you like, and it stared back, and you know what? It really did make me happy.

Please accept an open invitation to offer up a word or two of your own favourite John Forte panels, horizontal or not, in the comments here. Although I started off these pieces on Mr Forte by noting how little favour he's received from professionals of a later vintage, I'm aware that I'm hardly the only John Forte-booster on the interblognetweb. "The Comics Treadmill", for example, ran a whole string of pieces full of a warm appreciation of Mr Forte's work a few years ago. So, even if it's a few months or even years ahead, I love to hear what other Forteian watchers have thought.

Thank you for everyone who's dropped in to read a line or two in one or more of these pieces on Mr Forte. I have no idea what's coming next on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, beyond a suspicion it may concern "The Authority" during that titles' pomp, but whatever, it will involve thinking and comics, I promise you, so I hope I may see you here again. I wish you a splendid day!


Friday, 25 June 2010

Everyone Is Important, Everything Should Be Shown: The Penultimate "John Forte's Legion Of Superheroes"

1. A Blogger Posts A Warning To His Readers

I do feel that I ought to warn anybody who's found it in their heart to persevere with these pieces on John Forte's Legion Of Superheroes that they'll find me writing below of how I've become convinced that Mr Forte would have been the perfect artist for Grant Morrison's "Final Crisis".

It strikes me that that's such an apparently ridiculous idea, and one which I'd certainly never have considered before writing these past few pieces, that I may have quite lost whatever sense of perspective I previously owned. (It's obviously gone wherever Mr Forte's sense of perspective had travelled before it.) Be warned, gentle reader, this may the case of the bridge too far beyond the bridge too far.

And now; concluding our look at some of the strangeness-causing elements of Mr Forte's work;

Like some strange translation of the principles of Krautrock to the comic book page, John Forte's work gains much of its strange power through providing subtle variations within a framework of metronomic repetition. The same page layouts occur time after time, and unlike, for example, the periodic experiments that Curt Swan carried out with, for example, long vertical frames occupying two-thirds of a pages' left hand side while horizontal panels are stacked to the right, Mr Forte kept to a default page design of three equal rows containing two panels each. Four or five times over the length of a leading feature, Mr Forte would break this pattern by creating a single horizontal panel occupying an entire row, and as I've argued before, these longer, narrow pieces often contain his very best work. The effect is, over a run of pages, quite hypnotic, accentuated by his preference for front-facing wide to mid-shots and his reluctance to allow any figure to dominate the scene he's depicting. If the purpose of Jack Kirby's work was always to involve the reader by engaging their attention at the most intense moment of the action at hand, then Mr Forte's work was concerned with the opposite process. As can be seen by the panel below, the reader was far less thrown into the events on display so much as forced to view them through an observing character's eyes, placing us in the position of watching a character watching another character doing something.

Here, Brainaic 5 engages in a dual of multi-dimensional chess while - I believe - Pete Ross and Jimmy Olsen ignore their different decades of origin to look on. As a result, we're not vigorously engaged with Brainaic 5, who's hardly locked into the most visually thrilling dual in the first place, but rather focused on the two teenagers watching him. This has the effect of pushing the reader out of the action, making us feel as if we're far away from events, as if we're wearing our distance lenses rather than having our glasses for close reading at hand. Combined with those other factors we've already discussed, from his own unique rule of "thirds" to the extremely strange perspective to the "backwards" direction of the action, it's as if Mr Forte has quietly dosed us with a selection of visual tranquillisers to prevent us becoming too excited. And yet, as with most mild dose of tranquillisers, there's that unexpected focus, that illusionary sense of precision of thought. By distancing the reader from the meaning of the panel, Mr Forte manages to lend his work an absurd kind of intensity. It's ridiculous, but it's also true.

III. Though he does on occasion execute a comparatively daring mid-shot, or even a rare and almost perversely dynamic medium close shot with an attention-dominating figure in the foreground, such as shown above, Mr Forte is most comfortable stringing his characters across his panels in more or less straight lines while allowing no single figure to entirely dominate the attention. This again stands in direct opposition to Jack Kirby's work, because the refusal to centre on one figure or one example of action tends to diffuse the impact of whatever the panel is supposed to be depicting, creating multiple focuses vying for the reader's attention. This diffusion might have been avoided if, for example, Mr Forte had placed elements of vertical integration in the background of his work, strong organising top-to-bottom elements which might dominate the sense of his frames and pin his characters together in the same scene, with a common relationship to each other. Instead, characters seem to a degree to occupy quite separate and disconnected places, and even planes. Every character carries a similar weight of importance to every other one, and combined with a tendency to show full-body shots of figures dominated by the environment they're in, this gives the impression that nothing of real dramatic importance is happening here - even when the likes of flames are shooting out of Sun Boy's hands - and that we ought to move on. It's such an odd effect to create, especially when it is considered that Mr Forte obviously felt it was incumbent upon him to show most if not all of the Legion showing off their powers if just one or two of them needed to do so. (In such a way can his direct line to a child's mind be established. It's so easy to imagine a child describing the events occurring within individual panels of Mr Forte's LSH work: "And then Bouncing Boy was bouncing, and Sun Boy's hands were on fire, and Shrinking Violet was shrinking, and Chameleon Boy was changing shape .... ") This strange lack of focus can be seen in the shot of the Legion Of Substitute Heroes at the top of this page, and below, in what was actually one of Mr Forte's more dramatic panels, where each Legionnaire has their moment in the sun while Bouncing Boy flies all over the place in what seems like a deliberate attempt to prevent the eye coming to rest anywhere in the scene at all;

However, being as pleasantly literal-minded as he was, Mr Forte obviously felt compelled to give Colossal Boy far more panel-space than any other character when Gim Allen had grown into his giant-sized form. It was as if Mr Forte's habits of drawing a particular kind of landscape and placing his characters into it in a particular way couldn't be changed to incorporate this huge superhero. (Or perhaps he felt obliged to keep everything to his original scale so he could help his younger readers grasp what "colossal" meant.) And it's often in those panels, which feature the Legion's own giant attaining the size of a mid-town department store, that carry the most traditional sense of superhero power. Suddenly, as can be seen below, Mr Forte's panels burst into life, with the kinetic and muscular presence of Colossal Boy co-existing with the familiar and static elements of the more typical Forteian action/no-action scene.

And while we'll come to the uniquely testing demands of Mr Hamilton's scripts upon John Forte's talents in just a few panels, perhaps here we might pause in a foretaste of that and just delight in the sight of a giant head sculpted out of an asteroid slamming into Colossal Boy while the Legionnaire in turn gently shoves a tiny Light Lass away to safely. No fire-storm trail through the atmosphere, no sonic booms, no miles-wide pit of glass, no mushroom cloud; no, our favourite really-big Legionnaire is merely knocked off his feet, rib-cage intact if slightly winded. And he saved that inattentive Light Lass too, or perhaps he just saw the asteroid-head first, because he was, er, closer to it than she was as it flew towards them.

IV. In his "Understanding Comics", Scott McCloud speculates on the effect of placing characters drawn with very simple and "cartoon" facial features into panels marked by complex, realistic backgrounds. The relatively blank faces, he argues, allows the reader to identify with the actors on the page, and the detailed and apparently recognisable scene-sets create a sense of "realism". Well, with John Forte's work, his impassive characters certainly permit the reader to associate themselves with whoever is on show. There's no substantial difference between any of his male leads, even given Chameleon Boy's antennae and Brainiac 5's green skin, so there's no individual particularity preventing the reader from associating with this character or that. (Indeed, it might be argued that Mr Forte's incredibly similar looking characters existed in order to permit young readers to take the part of this Legionnaire or that without having to be concerned with any differences of character or appearance.) However, the backgrounds of Mr Forte's work are far from naturalistic, or detailed in any typical sense. In fact, they tend so strongly towards the naive that it's a rare adolescent, let alone an adult, who could take them seriously. (Young children, of course, would have no trouble at all in doing so.) And this means that panels such as that below seem to have been wired up quite contrary to the kind of formal rules Mr McCloud is engaged in trying to decipher. The human characters in the foreground are both cartoon-like in their expressions and similarity while also belonging to the "realistic" tradition of four-colour art. (It's funny, isn't it, that the "Proteans" to the right third of the panel lack any faces and yet are actually more expressive than the Legion are: the blobs have the character of a surly mob, the humans the qualities of scissor-cut cardboard figures for a child's theatre play-set.) And then as if there weren't enough mixed signals being fired off by the foreground, there's then the juxtaposition between the partially-realistic Legionnaires and the utterly absurd and naive background. For a static scene, the art transmits on so many frequencies of meaning that it's like watching the visual equivalent of static on a late-night medium-band radio, through which the signals of several indistinct stations weave in and out of focus, often over each other's programmes.

The aesthetic appeal of John Forte's work lies in part for me in the very fact that his work pins the modern, adult reader's mind back with so many contradictory, mixed messages. The aesthetic of his work is almost, the reader can't help but suspect, a deliberate attempt to enchant the child's mind while at the same time causing a hundred "huhs?" to spark up in an adult reader. Young children, of course, are not simply adults with less mental processing power: they perceive the world in quite different and distinct ways. To a five year old, the above is a scene of wonder. I very much doubt the Legion's originally intended audience would be concerned with Mr Forte's utter indifference to how unconvincing the technology and buildings are. He's focused on the meaning of the background to the story; it's a sketch of the fact that folks underground need light and shelter. (They may not need perspective, but that's never been mentioned in a hierarchy of needs, has it?) And the foreground contains all the golly-gee-whiz material, the colourful and comfortingly interchangeable heroes, the strange aliens and so on. But to a mind operating at a more cognitively adult stage, this panel alone appears to be a storyboard for a classroom lesson on the dangers of post-modern borrowings lacking an integrating ethos. Surely none of all of this belongs together; the rules change according to where the eye travels and which objects the mind combines to create meaning. It's a panel which constantly undermines its own appeal, and yet because of that, I've come to value it very highly. This isn't "camp": it's nothing to do with kitsch and irony. It has its own logic and beauty and it achieves its affect because of Mr Forte's skills and choices rather than because of any modern-age tongue-in-check engagement with it.

In a comic-book world obsessed with surface, with the appearance of reality rather than its depth and disturbances, there's always the danger that any depiction of the superhero that isn't "realistic" will be relegated to camp-fodder, which is of the course merely an adult expression of the playground's tendency to cruelly belittle anything which doesn't immediately conform to the moronic everyday standards of the "familiar", "acceptable" and "normal".

No, this panel above is nothing else than an oddness-experience machine! Plug into it and it shifts the whole world just that tiny fraction of a degree away from the standard mode. And so can I be the only person who thinks Grant Morrison needs a Forteian artist for his next project? I may well be mocked for this, but imagine, to take but one example, "Final Crisis" executed in a faithfully imaginative and respect take on John Forte's style. That would have been quite wonderful, and far stranger and yet considerably more understandable than the final mish-mash of a product was.

V. I will readily concede, however, that John Forte's lack of interest in technology does still in places throw me quite out of page, panel and story. For while there's surely no doubt that Mr Forte's LSH is a children's fairy story presented under a sugar coating of supposedly 30th century technology, that trick only works well until the tech of the distant future needs to be shown centre-stage. In the panel below, for example, we see a fleet of what we're told are "sinister astronauts" approaching a dark planet. (*1) Even ignoring the fact that our sinister astronauts are actually racing right past the planet, soon to hurtle right through the right-hand border of the panel without ever getting close to their destination deeper in the plane of the scene, it can't be ignored that the lack of leg-space for the evil Roxxas's men poses an immediate to the verisimilitude of the tale. (Mr Forte consistently present future-tech which ignores the need of the human knee to bend on occasion. Grud only knows how those space-pirates' circulation survived with their legs flat against the floor of their attack craft for a few hundred thousand miles or so.) In truth, these craft hardly seem convincing enough to pass muster as a child's training dinghy, and Roxxas himself actually seems to be leaning forwards in an attempt to coax more speed from his deadly vehicle. Perhaps he shakes his steering wheel with fury as his speed maxs out without topping 11 on his speed metre.

In his introduction of the LSH Archives volume 2, Harry Broertjes suggests that we charitably consider that Mr Forte was drawing his inspiration from the era of Flash Gordan, stating that he couldn't draw from the familiar iconography of Star Trek because the adventure of Kirk and crew hadn't actually begun yet. But this is disingenuous, because it relies on there having been no innovations in the depiction of futuristic technology since the mid-1930s, and that's patently not so. It's not that the choice was Flash or Kirk, but that there was a whole world of science-fiction material for Mr Forte to adapt to his purposes. Remarkably, for an artist who had previously made a living from science-fiction illustration, Mr Forte seems in his LSH stories to have avoided being influenced by any work in the science fiction tradition for almost 30 years before. Even a nodding acquaintance with the EC artists of the Fifties, for example, might have widened the source material he could adapt to avoid the anachronisms of his space tech. Perhaps he considered that the world of the future was so fantastic that it didn't need to be depicted in a way which followed any traditions or reflected even the science of his own time, but the strange thing about the fantastic is that it relies on the mundane to ground it. An example of how disconcertingly nonsensical his spaceships could seem stands below, where Mr Forte's design is not only outstandingly ill-thought through, but it commits the cardinal sin of presenting a spaceship which few children might daydream of flying. Shock, awe, perspective: all of those can be ignored if the result is magical, but the Great Space Ark of the people of the doomed planet of Xenn looks like nothing so much as a couple of rubber sharks fins stuck backwards on a frisbie with a light-bulb socket placed on top.

Which, come to think of it, might very well look like the kind of spaceship a young child of the Sixties might have made in an era when creative play was a given and TV didn't provide a mind-numbing baby-sitter for the young all day.

(*1) Mr Hamilton's scripts are fantastically inventive, but they also contain several examples of the kind of impossible scene that causes artists to despair. Here, for example, Mr Forte was required to draw a "dark planet" against the background of space. Oh, well, then, that's easy...

VI: But in all good will and fairness, it should be noted how consistently Mr Forte was asked to draw scenes which would have defeated the design sense and pen'n'ink chops of a far more celebrated superstar artist. It's futile to speculate on what effect a month-upon-month grind of trying to depict never-to-be-used again scenes of frightening complexity might have upon an artists, but who knows how Mr Forte's reaction on seeing panel descriptions such as that for the scene below might have impacted upon his ambition and style. For example, here we have the Legion Of Substitute Heroes flying away from a building quite literally bursting at the scenes because of a host of rapidly-growing plant creatures are causing it to explode outwards, and it's impossible not to laugh outloud at the apparent impossibility of depicting the scene while applauding what Mr Forte achieved. Yes, the scene has all his usual "defusers", the impassive Subs flying in a counter-intuitive direction away from what will be " ... a tremendous population explosion", but it's still to my mind a difficult job done well and truly weirdly. There's even a hint of a most-un-Forteian menace in the tiny zombie-like pod-creatures which have made it out of the green house.

Those of you already familiar with Mr Forte's work will be able to list dozens of these "impossible" scenes which litter Mr Hamilton's imaginative if artist-challenging scripts. The domed city of ill people constantly following the sun on its planet-girdling rail tracks. The long alleyway of carved asteroids hanging far out in space. The energy blast trying to destroy the attacking black suns. It's a shock that Mr Forte made anything at all of these demands, let alone the often magical pages that he did. Whatever we consider about the quality of his work, the weight of the demands being made upon him was considerable, and yet, there's no apparent sign of a weary artist hacking out the pages beyond in small part the occasional sequence of shark-finned space arks. The work never loses its care and detail, and indeed its affable effect, even when depicting a machine designed to store and then project all the energy in the universe outwards in order to destroy an incoming swarm of black suns.

Next time: our final John Forte blog, in which a few of his most strange and lovely panels will be presented, as well as a challenge for you to nominate those you've found most splendid, or, indeed, the most ridiculous, or both! And let's work up a interblognet campaign to get the next Grant Morrison mega-epic drawn in Mr Forte's style, shall we, because that really would surely bring the DC Universe to sentient self-awareness, as well as making my day!

PS: OK. This is camp.


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Secret Language Of Children: John Forte's Legion Of Super-Heroes Part 3

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.