Thursday, 24 February 2011
"What Does Your Crime Require?":- Paul Cornell & Gail Simone's "Action Comics / Secret Six" Crossover (Part 3)
There's a great deal that I might add in this part of our chat about the recent crossover between "Action Comics" and "Secret Six" on the matter of how both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell add depth and detail to their recognisably modern-era, fast-moving scripts. And having been a teacher for almost twenty years, I certainly do find difficult not to fill up these pieces with every potentially relevant grain of information I can, as if some imaginary student might suffer an exam catastrophe because I haven't made my notes as comprehensive as possible. But that's a particularly bad habit here, since I'm not approaching a subject I know relatively well, such as that relevant to a specific exam syllabus, but rather using the opportunity of writing a blog to try to gleam some small measure of insight into the business of how thoroughly entertaining comic books are created. What's more, I do have to constantly remind myself that I've discussed a great deal of the information that's relevant to matter at hand elsewhere. For if we're talking of how Mr Cornell and Ms Simone succeed in crafting comics which use a great many of the more contemporary narrative tools while ensuring that their books are far more than
three minute reads, then that's something that's already been repeatedly touched upon in pieces on this blog for much of the past year. And so, for example, we've already talked about how Ms Simone might have politically informed her work, as when we were recently discussing "Welcome To Tranquility", and of how Mr Cornell might have done the same, while engaging last year with his short story "Secret Identity" and his work on Captain Britain and MI:13. To repeat such points would at best be redundant and, at worst, apparently obsequious, duplicating often admiring statements long ago expressed in what would most probably read as an act of utter Uriah Heepism. So, if I fail to once again mention, for example, any detail of how Ms Simone so deftly uses continuity to make her books more substantial and entertaining in that which I've written below, it isn't because I've somehow come to the conclusion that her most recent work lacks any such quality, but rather because I've written at length on the subject before, and especially in connection with her use of the characters of Catman and Deadshot.
But the matter of how Mr Cornell uses continuity, or rather, how he uses history, whether from the real or a host of imaginary worlds, isn't something that I've had the chance to talk about previously, and so that's the topic that I'd like to concentrate upon for the remainder of today's piece.
"Intertextuality" is an ugly if useful word that gets all-too casually and imprecisely banded around in academia, and I doubt I'd ever have come across the term if I hadn't found myself struggling to deliver a few lessons of Media Studies a week for some three years in the late Nineties. For anyone who's never come across this brute of a mark-earner before, it's used in its broadest sense to refer to the way that creators use other people's work to add meaning to their own. For decades, the writers and artists of superhero books have tended to put to use the contents of other comics to achieve this, mirroring other creator's work, adapting other creator's plots, and generally relying on the ever-proliferating mass of continuity, of a common and narrow store of comicbook memories, to encourage the audience to perceive complexity and value in what's tended to be rather familiar fare.
It's quite unavoidable, of course, that such a process should occur in any genre and in any medium, and it's often an incredibly productive business. But when a genre such as that of these marvellously absurd superheroes gets into a longstanding habit of constantly referencing itself and relatively little else, it runs the risk of becoming creatively inbred and functionally deformed, if not ultimately sterile. A thirtieth Galactus story in which he threatens to gobble up the Earth again, which constantly draws off the content of the preceding twenty-nine epics? Yet another grimy, cynical twilight of the superheroes tale, re-using the same familiar mashed-up tenth generation "homages" of Watchman and Dark Knight, produced with the expectation that it'll feel apocalyptically important because those seminal works did? Comic books informed solely by even the best of their tradition don't become more powerful, of course, but far weaker, endlessly rolling out less and less distinct uncreative photo-copies of the surface rather than the soul of the past's great work.
But Mr Cornell is self-evidently part of the ranks of those writers who not only want to broaden the inspirational gene-pool of the genre, but who can't help themselves in doing so. There's something endlessly cheering about his utter unwillingness to consider producing thin, self-referencing fare which exists in sterile isolation from all that verdant stuff that's there for the shaping in the world outside of the Big Two's un-mainstream. And just as we can note his deliberate intent to master the modern-era form of scripting from his work on the first issue of "Wisdom" onwards, we can also follow his enthusiasm for using a mass of material from beyond the world of costumed crime-fighters to add something distinctive and invigorating to the mix. At its most explicit, as in "Fantastic Four; True Story", where the reader is presented with a host of characters often casually stigmatised with the utterly defeating label of "classic literature", Cornell simply refuses to suppress his conviction that the books he's referring to are self-evidantly exceptionally good fun
In "Black Widow: Deadly Origin", for example, we find allusions to, and scenes inspired by the narrative conventions of, 007, Bourne and Mission Impossible. ("I'm going to have my collected James Bond themes on all the time while writing it." he told CBR in 2009.) But at the same time, we're also presented in the same book with cameos of Logan, Bucky Barnes, and The Red Guardian matched with specific moments in the history of the USSR and its empire. And this is one of the aspects of Mr Cornell's writing that's most interesting and important where this genre is concerned, in that Mr Cornell's not in any way snotty or snobbish or dismissive about the characters and the continuity of the fictional universes he's working in. He's not trying to suggest that the superhero as it's often been presented isn't a beguiling and magical thing, but he is unable to consider resisting his belief that so is just about every other type of story too. And regardless of whether these extra layers of story are recognised or not, they mark out Mr Cornell's books as notably different, creating in them individual and distinct textures which add to their character and appeal.
There's a love of history, and a willingness to enjoy at the very, very least a touch of historical research, in Mr Cornell that first became overwhelmingly obvious to me, or so it seemed, when I was reading his "Black Widow: Deadly Origin". In the first chapter of that book, there's a two-panel appearance by Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, which in itself is unremarkable, except that's he's portrayed in a way that, to my knowledge, is unique within the pages of any superhero comic book. Instead of the usual taciturn, faintly oriental and frankly sinister stereotype, here we're given, for all the scene's brevity, a figure recognisable from modern popular scholarship. For it is only in recent years that we've become familiarised with the face that Stalin could and so often did present to those around him. A psychopath who could be a warmly intimate and, despite decades of Western preconceptions, an astonishingly gregarious, apparently good-humoured man, Stalin rose to supreme power with a measure of charm as well as through the application of an abnormally ruthless and scheming character . The laughing, wandering Stalin of "Deadly Origin" was so spot on, and so untypical in the context of comic books, that I immediately started to pay even more attention to the unshowy historical background of the tale, as well as reaching for my copy of Montefiore's "Court Of The Red Tsar", which, if I was compelled to, I'd wager is a text that's not unknown to Mr Cornell.
This process of both buttressing and enriching his work with these other real-world narratives can be seen in "Action Comics" # 895 too. Sometimes, it's nothing more playful than the use of an appropriate historical name that might sound to us like that of a bronze-age supervillain - Spearhavoc (*4) - or that chosen for a city - Sacristi - that is itself a French swearword adapted from a religious ritual, a suitably ironic title for a profane conurbation masking a somewhat transcendental and hidden reality.(*5) At other moments it's the use of unspecified but clearly historical events to serve as a backdrop for Vandal Savage's centuries old obsession with prophecy; can that be Rousseau at 895:4:2, and surely that must be the Prague Spring two panels later? And all of this material is used to inspire the reader to ask themselves one absolutely pertinent question; what does it do to even an immortal man to be that obsessed for that long and with no good reason beyond prophecy to be so?
*4:- There was, for example, the splendidly named Bishop Spearhavoc, who served as Edward The Confessor's goldsmith, as a swift Googling will reveal.
*5:- Or so I'm told. French, let alone the etymology of French swear words, is not comfortable territory for me in any way at all.
Regularly grounding action in references to historical events which, for all that they needn't be identified or understood in order to enjoy the story, lends comic-book events a real-world flavour which is as much a relief as it is a pleasure, I'm sure, to many a reader. I'm far, far from being even vaguely competent in Bohemian/Czechoslovakian history, and so there are a series of possible references in "Action Comics" 895 which escape me and leave me cheerfully grasping at vaguely-informed guesses. (Is that the thirty years war at 895:4:1? Is that a reference to the brief revolts of 1848 a few frames onwards?) But the point is no more that the reader is driven to an obsessional search for information by "The Black Ring" part 6 than it is that Mr Cornell is seeking to spread the gospel of Central European studies. What matters is that the real world and the fictional one are shown intersecting, given the latter a greater sense of depth while expressing a joy at how all these various actual and fictional narratives can be both playfully and serious-mindedly referred one to the other.
Of course, Mr Cornell's desire to use history as content and flavour rather than as an aspect of ostentatious self-regard can lead to a tiny measure of frustration in the reader who'd quite like to know a little more. What did happen in Bohemia in 1358 that inspired Mr Cornell to set a scene there, and is the character with a lupine quality and dark black eyes at the fore of that splash page anything other than an unlucky everyday citizen? (Could the events be connected to the Black Death, since even Savage's language has been affected by that specific horror; where the Black Lantern energy was referred to as "things" in the scene set around 1000 in # 894, by 1358 he's referring to its globes as "pustules"?) Similarly, in "Black Widow; Dark Origin", shouldn't the attack on Stalingrad in 1928 by "imperialists" actually have occurred in 1918 in Volgograd, when the White Russians occupied the city? (*6)
But these kind of trivial questions aren't important, and that's especially true in a comicbook universe where we just don't know what might have occurred in the USSR of Marvel's 1928. What's important is that the text is alive with aspects of depth and enthusiasm, which can, if the reader wants, inspire them to ask a few questions more than they might otherwise have felt moved to consider. The appeal and the value of these books by Mr Cornell is no more founded solely or even substantially in history than many of Ms Simone's comics are made fascinating by her evident love of the geography and culture of nations far beyond America's borders and nothing else. But all that extra care, and curiosity, and, yes, excitement, about how stories might do more while working in an effective and efficient way surely doesn't hurt a comic book's achievement either.
*6:- But then, I could have easily mis-read or misunderstood that page of BW:DO or missed out by not having read previous chapters of "The Black Ring" while waiting for the trade. This isn't a question of getting the references right, as if these comics were nothing but a game of spot-the-connections , but of rather being inspired to read each comic as if it were more than a quick surface-dash from set-up to throw-down.
Oh, dear; to be continued. I must stop saying I'm going to write a particular number of entries on any subject when I invariably over-run. There's one last piece on this topic already written, although not checked, to go up next, and that'll be put up soon. My apologies for any confusion, and my best wishes too for a splendid time to anyone who's kindly persevered with this page for at least long enough to reach these closing words.