Sunday, 31 July 2011

"Luke":- Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie’s Generation Hope # 9; On Making The Superhero Protest Story Work (Part 2 of 2)

In which the blogger concludes his discussion  of "Better", a well-worth-the-buying superhero protest story, the first part of which is here. Please do be aware that this piece is spoiler-full. Why not invest in the issue - which you most probably will not regret - and come back afterwards if you have a moment or two of downtime to fill?

3. The Absence Of An Easy Solution Ought Not To Be Matched With The Absence Of Hope

There'd be little more useless than a superhero protest story which left its readers feeling so overwhelmed by despair and so lacking in hope that all they could do would be to stagger to the nearest bar or the closest frozen foods cabinet in other to drown or smother their blues. The dead hand of depression rarely inspires anything other than even more depression in its wake, and a problem which overwhelms the slightest possibility of progress is one to push far away to the side and purposefully ignore. Mr Gillen, so obviously recognising this fact, chooses to close Better with a quietly optimistic and generous-spirited conclusion which, rather cunningly, debates but doesn't close the fate of Luke. In short, he and Mr McKelvie keep us angry, but they temper that with a sense of responsibility and purpose. In doing so, they subtly shift our attention from the fate of Luke to that of the mutant Kenji Uedo, who's decided that Zee's persecutor deserves to die and that it's down to him to be the executioner. Given, as we've discussed before, that Luke has to remain free and seemingly escape punishment in order for the story to retain its bite, this shifting of Better to a parallel narrative at its end offers the possibility of a more positive finale which still leaves the question of justice for Zee upsettingly unsettled. It's another example of narrative misdirection in the book, in that Kenji Uedo's debate with Wolverine over Luke's fate feels as if it's the logical extension of the comic's A-Plot, and yet it closes nothing of it at all. We get to leave the tale feeling that a point of catharsis has been passed and a degree of success and satisfaction generated at the end of events, and yet we're never presented with the illusion that the social problem of mutantphobia has to the slightest degree been diminished by the X-Men's actions. Logan and Uedo have succeeded only in not making things worse, and the tragedy of Zee's death remains as affecting and thought-provoking as ever.

But what it does do is raise and settle the question of what the appropriate response to Better and the endless crises of homophobia should be. To those who associate any form of moral stand not linked to the rejection of authority as a bore from the pulpit, if not the censor's office, it may seem terribly quaint and even insulting for a comic book to take a position on what the response to a social problem such as this should be. Yet, having ensured that Generation Hope 9 has successfully made the reader angry, it'd surely be irresponsible for Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie to avoid discussing what use that anger should, or rather should not be, put to. And casting Wolverine as the X-Man who convinces Uedo that murder is very much not the right option here is a clever stroke on Mr Gillen's part, since restraint preached by Logan never feels like a bourgeois nicety. The audience knows that he's slaughtered an intimidatingly substantial number of people, and they can be sure that if he's advocating Luke's right to live, and that if he's explaining how the burden of murder is a terrible thing, then what Uedo's hearing from his aged colleague is anything but Sunday school cant. (After all, Logan hasn't suddenly and

unconvincingly converted to the liberal left. He's happy to agree with Uedo that some folks really do deserve to die.) But in reaching out to Uedo and setting the hideously uncool business of a good example, Wolverine stands as a symbol of the straight-forward and yet so-often ignored business of taking responsibility. Wolverine, so often presented as the ultimate individual and lover of revenge, stands ironically and powerfully for what once might have been described quite simply as 'decency'. All that anger and despair, Generation Hope # 9 suggests, aren't an end in themselves; the response to Zee's suicide shouldn't be one of making the "thugs" involved pay with their lives. What matters now beyond respect for those that've been lost is what gets created, not what gets destroyed. After all, stab Luke through the head and what changes? The gawpers on the other end of the Net, the gutless witnesses, the absent adults who're supposed to give something considerably more than a passing half-a-damn? Of course not, the sickness is buried right down there in the bone marrow of society, and loping off a joint of a digit won't affect that a whit. As such, Uedo's reluctant and unenthusiastic decision not to kill Luke serves a double function; it both gives us a gently hopeful ending while perpetuating the dissatisfaction of Luke's apparent escape from the consequences of his actions. The very fact that Wolverine's final act in the story is the simple and fundamentally inclusive business of taking Uedo off for a drink, of involving him in and binding him to a wider world beyond his own atomised existence, elegantly makes the point without ever seeming in the slightest bit worthy. After all, what could possibly be deeply caring and all public information announcement about Wolverine dragging a teenage team-mate off for a beer? (*1)

*1:- Mr Gillen's work has of course been characterised by these themes ever since Phonogram. The cost to both society and the individual of selfish action undertaken without reference to the good of the polity reappears over and over again in his work, as does the vital importance of making the most of the worst of situations without capitulating to revenge.

Yet it really ought to be said that optimism is carefully wired throughout Generation Hope # 9, despite the fact that the narrative itself is designed to seem in its urgency to be one of pain and failure and loss. Throughout the issue, Zee's isolation is constantly counterpointed with the community of Utopia and the co-operation which its citizens work to achieve despite their differences. It's a business which is programmed subliminally into the storytelling, and its progress and purpose can be noted in the first two scenes of the book. In the first, Hope, Gabriel and Phoebe are seen together working as we'd hope citizens of a community would; "We thought we'd keep you company. We figured it'd be lonely. (And there's nothing else to do.)" says Gabriel to Phoebe, whose lack of golly-gee-whiz enthusiasm ensures that the scene stays free of Walton-esque sentimentality. They're a trio of folks who, to a lesser or greater degree, share a dream and a function and the sense of belonging that that brings. It's not that they're shown as moral automatons and social bores, unable to enjoy life in its own terms; Gabriel is keen, shall we say, to "make out" with Hope while Phoebe shown is telepathically enjoying 'Glee'. But there's a community here instead of an

gathering of largely rootless individuals. And in the book's second scene, Zee, Luke and an unnamed friend are clearly killing time in the absence of purpose, passive rather than active, and bound only by boredom and dares and confessions. A harmless business in itself, of course, and the source of endless entertainment in most everyone's lives. And yet Better suggests that this is all that the culture as understood by Luke offers, and that that's clearly a profoundly anti-social and dangerous business. And that comparison with belonging and not, between community and rootlessness, between a considered morality and an unreasoning selfishness, is one which is kept up throughout the comic. So, as Luke and Zee debate the mutant situation as perceived through the filters of pornography and the sensationalist press, Hope is shown focusing on a far far less solipsistic set of concerns. As Zee is shown isolated from his fellow students and terrified by the sudden onset of his mutation, Hope's team are presented racing to the Blackbird in order to lend whatever help they can. And in the wake of the tragedy of Zee's death, the mutants are shown clustered around each other, concerned for their friends and comrades as they cope with the failure of their mission and the loss of the friend they never got to meet. On the one hand, a community of individuals with a purpose and a willingness to cooperate and sacrifice. On the other, an atomised and deindividualised non-community of moral morons and vulnerable young people binding themselves unhelpfully together with the distractions offered by a fascination with gossip and the callous wounding of others. Implicit in Better, therefore, is a promise that more decent and caring cultures certainly can and do exist, and that individuals such as Uedo, and by implication poor Zee, can find support and guidance within them if the effort is only made to reach out to them.

“This world is not right. Why would we live in it?” asks Kenji Udeo of Wolverine, and the answer to his question isn't so much in Logan's words as in his presence, in the fact of his kindness and concern. For there really is a conspicuous lack of adults taking responsibility in the world of Luke and the internet voyeurs who logged on to reveal in Zee's suffering. Mr McKelvie's panels are quietly empty of anyone who isn't young and apparently rootless, with the exception of a single-frame appearance of two ambulancemen, tellingly appearing only when the very worst has already occurred.Yet at the tale's end, the qualified hopes of the story lie to a considerable degree in Logan's willingness to note the loathing and nihilism that's poisoning Uedo, and in his determination to advise the lad to reject the business of revenge. It's not that Wolverine offers Uedo any manifesto for a better world beyond the fact that "It gets better, kid.", which for most of us it thankfully does, although at times it doesn't seem as if it ever gets all that much better at all. But what he does offer him is a world to belong to, and principles to live by. By which I mean, in the terms of a well-crafted 20 page superhero comic book, he offers him pretty much everything.

Well, who better to understand the importance of belonging than a man who so very often hasn't? And though there's no suggestion that his presence and actions at the end of Better have tipped the world as a whole towards some absolute good, his taking of responsibility quite obviously does matter a great deal. As a result of it, Uedo's future is still his to own, and Luke's is too. Things may even turn out for the better in the long run because of the lessons learned, although the terrible things which have occurred can't ever be reversed, can't ever be seen as necessary sacrifices. But without Logan's intervention, without his taking responsibility, Udeo would be a murderer, Luke's life would've been over and marked by little except Zee's death, and Better would be bleaker, unhelpful, and, quite frankly, exploitative.

A significant and realistic measure of hope, a clenched-fist's worth of anger, a conviction that the 'X-Metaphor' can be put to use to discuss the whole wretched business of homophobia; I don't know about you, but that sounds to me like the kind of comic book which I want to be investing my time and money in. In doing all of the above, and in producing what's after all a splendid comic too, Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie's Generation Hope # 9 certainly makes a lie of the line that the mainstream superhero book cannot deal with real-world issues in a way that's both responsible and entertaining.



Saturday, 30 July 2011

On Mark Millar & Steve Dillon's "Ultimate Avengers 3: Blade Versus The Avengers"

What is it that Mark Millar believes that the readers of the hardback collection of Ultimate Avengers 3 want in return for their £24.99? Mr Millar is, after all, a canny thinker, and by his own admission, he’s keenly aware of the need to identify and fulfill his reader’s expectations. As any sensible creator must be, he’s quite rationally concerned not just with story and self-expression, but with markets and consumers and commercial success.

Given that he’s very much a formalist, Mr Miller’s work always does carry with it a sense of how he judges the tastes of his audience. For although there are those who believe that Mr Millar takes little care with his comics writing at all, the slightest glance at the structure of his scripts shows how deliberate and purposeful his work actually is. For example, 4 of the six 23-sided chapters of  Blade Versus The Avengers contain precisely 4 splash pages each, with issue one having 5 and issue six having 3. The chances of this happening by accident are surely almost impossible. No, Mr Millar's work on Ultimate Avengers 3 is clearly constructed according to a well-defined model of storytelling. And so, each issue is divided roughly into 3 acts, each act is organised around an attention-snaring water-cooler moment, and each chapter contains at least 2 supposedly-shocking plot-reversals, one of which is always rather cunningly placed 3 or 4 pages before the issue's end, creating a double-climax for each of the parts of the tale. In short, Mr Millar is anything but a careless author. And so, it's surely safe to presume that the incredibly precise formula which guides his work here tells us a great deal about what it is that he thinks his audience is looking for. After all, a man who thinks that carefully about his craft is highly unlikely to have avoided thinking about the tastes of the consumers that his comics are aimed at. 

Of the 137 pages of Ultimate Avengers 3, 24, or 17%, are splashes, including the one above, which contains nothing but the information that the vampiric Captain America is digging his fangs into Blade. Once an artist would've been trusted to transmit the meaning of this in a single panel using skill and imagination. Now the data is delivered in an absolutely straight-forward, prosaic fashion, while the "punch" that the scene is meant to carry is supposedly conveyed by the fact that a whole page has taken up by it. In such a way has the full-page shot become little but a very big, comparatively empty and relatively expensive exclamation mark.
Where the evidence of Ultimate Avengers 3 is concerned, it seems clear that Mr Millar believed his audience would be largely uninterested in either the thoughts or the feelings of his characters. It's as if his desire to produce the superhero equivalent of a summer blockbuster pop-horror movie excused him from anything but the thinnest business of killing and threatening to kill off characters in unexpected ways, as if the barest bones of such a costumed killer-thriller strung across six chapters would somehow be satisfying in itself. In truth, the six chapters of Blade Versus The Avengers are concerned with nothing more human, nothing more emotional, nothing more touching, than the matter of who’s the hardest, vampires or superhumans, to which the answer is, of course and as always, Ultimate Captain America!

It's rather shocking to realise that Mr Miller is on record as having declared that he was keen to use his work on the Ultimate Avengers to go “a bit deeper into the characters”, because personality is the last thing that his scripts here are concerned with in anything but the broadest of terms. When Mr Millar does present the reader with the slightest hint of character in Ultimate Avengers 3, its sole intent is to mislead the audience about where the story is going to go. Because Blade Versus The Avengers is designed to do nothing more moving than surprise and shock, which in itself would be fine, if the shocks and surprises were delivered in the form of an inventive and dense narrative designed to reward the reader for their faith in the book's creative team.  Yet with an average of just 3.5 panels per page across the whole of the collected edition, and with the artwork in those frames most typically presenting us with utterly predicable and at-best efficient designs, what we have here isn't a story so much as an advert for one, a proposal for the spine of a tale which a truly ambitious and fully committed creative team might then have fleshed out together for publication.
And here is another full page splash from the next chapter of UA:3. Why is this page a splash? I have no idea. The shot is almost exactly the same as the one above, except that Blade is now weaker and a few guards have chanced upon the feast. In an incredibly competitive market where entertainment is concerned, Mr Millar and Mr Dillon have effectively given us one substantially dull splash page twice in 4 pages of the collected edition. Now, at what point was (1) excellence of storytelling and (2) value for money for the consumer of the slightest concern here?
And so, the first chapter here is purposefully set up to wrong-foot the expectations of a reader familiar with the conventions of the superhero sub-genre. We’re presented with two point-of-view characters, Blade, who will in truth have little of substance to do with the plot, and the new Daredevil, a teenage boy created to engage the audience’s sympathies not through his character, but through his given role of young superhero-in-training. (The boy Man Without Fear will have little to do the plot either, when it comes down to it. That's because the plot itself is so threadbare that it's merely a ramble from one jarring reversal to another.) The reader, presented with a blind boy enthusiastically embracing the life of a superhero in order to fulfil a mystic destiny, immediately expects to be following this lad through a rites-of-passage tale. But that’s all disinformation, and the misdirection is, it must be said, rather well done. When the new Daredevil encounters his master Stick being gorged upon by a vampire Hulk, the reader new to this tale, and therefore not stupefied by the endless parade of such incidents which lie before them, is surprised and yet also convinced that the young sightless hero will escape. After all, the narrative has already produced two unexpected moments in a single full page shot, with both ninja mentor and gamma-powered super-monster suddenly revealed to be fighting for the sharp-toothed other side; who'd expect a third contradiction of expectation at this point of the very first chapter? That the new Daredevil, who’s existed for just eight pages, and who’s been in costume for just three of them, should then be snacked upon himself is utterly unexpected, and Mr Millar has achieved his ends. Our assumptions have been contradicted, and our sense of where the plot is going has been completely undermined. 

Mr Millar's scripts famously lay the responsibility upon his artists to do much of his story's heavy lifting. In the above double-page spread, the Avenger's base is revealed to have been teleported to Iran. It's hard to think of an artist who might have turned such a thankless task into a spectacular, story-sealing moment, but surely no-one would've thought of laying such a responsibility upon Steve Dillon without having individual human beings informing the shot. Mr Dillon's skills have nearly always been shown to lie in the clarity of his exquisite storytelling and the delicacy of the emotions his characters display. His style as stands is not one which serves the cause of the spectacular. This is especially true when Mr Millar seems to be expecting the reader to be fascinated by a scene which has no human agency in it at all. There's no one to see this marvel through the eyes of, and there's not even any key markers to show us exactly where the Triskellion has ended up. It's just a vague uninvolving chunk of comicbook-architecture in a vague sand-covered locale. Wouldn't the two pages have been better spent playing to the considerable strengths of the artist, providing clear and involving establishing shots & details of character reactions, all of which would've rewarded the reader with a touch more narrative for their bucks? (With apologies for the cropped scan caused by the blogger's somewhat old and inexpensive scanner.)
But that misdirection is all that the creation of this Daredevil was concerned with. The brief glimpses we'd been given of the blinded boy who “tried a sip of orange juice …. and gagged like it was battery acid” were only there to fool us into thinking that we were going to be offered the chance to get to become acquainted with him. His fate is nothing but a knowing, cold-hearted joke designed to work as an unexpected punch-line spicing up an all-too-predictable narrative. And in that, the first chapter of  Blade Versus The Avengers succeeds in doing exactly what Mr Millar wanted it to. The reader was second-guessed when fangs unexpectedly drew super-heroic blood. But beyond the surprise and the PG spurt of blood from his neck, that's all that's been given. In that, the whole first chapter is little more than a set-up for an unremarkable if surprising jolt, and once that shock's been had, the story that's left feels remarkably thin. In that, it's certainly not an introduction which can bear any repeated reading.

It's a process of misdirection leading to "shock" which becomes incredibly tedious exceptionally fast. The metronomic predictability of Mr Millar's structure is so obvious from that point onwards that it's as if the reader is being taken for an idiot. Variety is very much not the ambition where Mr Millar's one-note script is concerned. As so, chapter two has Captain America being turned, and chapter three has Steve Rogers sinking his fangs into Blade. Chapter 4 sees the leader of the vampires killed, and by a vampiric Hulk-clone too, while chapter 5 sees Perun, the Russian thunder god, murdered. What counts for Mr Millar here is the bloody and supposedly unanticipated twist, the wise-crack, the splash page of the neck being broken, the story ending on a scene of
11 pages out of the first chapter of UA:3 is spent on introducing us to the young Daredevil, providing us with his background, origin, suffering, training and defeat. This single panel is all that we're shown of the death of his vampiric self.  There's not just a fatal absence of heart in this comic, there's a fatal lack of imagination too. This is all we see, along with a single panel of a burning Hulk-clone, of the end of an army of vampires in the desert sun. Who would throw away a spectacular moment, and a wonderful idea, like that with so little care and attention? But then, who'd choose to not show the end of that army and instead focus on the dullest double-page spread of the Triskellion instead?
ever-intensifying jeopardy and absurdity. After two or three consecutive examples of the same routine, it all stands as far less of a friendly wink to the reader and far more of a sneer; did we really pay $24.99 for this? Is this really what one of today's finest writers of the superhero book is now churning out as a legacy? Because by the time a giant super-soldier has killed another by stabbing him in the heart with a jet fighter, which surely ought to be one of the greatest and most absurd panels ever, the reader has already been utterly overcome with ennui.  No, Ultimate Avengers 3 is rarely more than an example of the most self-satisfied of storytelling disguised by spectacular piffle, of technique supplanting heart, of formula excluding meaning. It’s the ultimate triumph of a storytelling tradition which believes that superhero comics needn’t be concerned with character and emotion as long as they're peppered with bombastic moments designed to contradict and yet never challenge the committed fanboy’s expectations. And for a writer who claims to be disinterested in continuity, it's worth noting that Mr Millar's script of Blade Versus The Avengers works only because many of its key scenes run in a violently contrary way to the specific traditions of the Marvel universe proper. This is anything but an Ultimate comic aimed at the general reader. 

How much has the reader been rewarded for their presence, and their offering up of the cover-price, here? An entire page is spent telling us wordlessly that the fanged Captain America has been airlifted to HQ. This entire page could have been removed from UA:3 and nothing, nothing at all, would've been lost. It is quite literally a waste of space. It's not Mr Dillon hasn't done a competent job here; of course he has, he's an extremely fine artist. But what exactly was he being asked to do here that required a whole page to achieve?
This is what happens when the ironic and violent gesture obliterates any and all traces of emotion or thought beyond that aroused by a playground shout of golly-gee-whiz-look-it's-a-vampire-Captain-America! It’s the end-game of a comicbook market more and more obsessed with what unguessable thing is going to happen next rather than what action tells us about the characters involved. It’s the triumph of surface over substance, and in that, it thoroughly cheats the reader, because the implication is that spectacle can’t co-exist with intimacy,  that personality can’t flourish where great world-ending set-pieces do. It’s the easy way out, a comic book that can be written in next to no time at all, and it results in product which appeals only to the dwindling hardcore of fans who simply don’t care that Mr Millar could also have added scenes which were touching, and informing, and clever, and amusing, and structured to do something other than bawl out “Look at this!!! Argh!!! FOOLED YOU!!!”

Quite possibly the biggest wasted opportunity I can think of in any comic book at all. A wonderful conceit - a vampire super-giant is stabbed through the heart by a a skyscraper-tall colleague wielding a fighter jet as a stake - is quite thrown away. For not only is the book mired in one damn thing after another by this point, but the panel has had all potential markers of scale removed from it. As such, it looks like two athletes in jump suits, with one of them being poked at and punctured by a shiny paperweight.
Once the young Daredevil has served his purpose by being murdered, he disappears into the background of the tale, serving as just another stereotypical vampire. Any opportunity to wring some pathos out of the fact of a young life of promise cut so cruelly short is quite ignored. Daredevil is reduced to a boy vampire in a Bill Everett superhero costume, a gag which only the adept could extract very much meaning from. Even his death is a perfunctory business. He’s shown in the background of a single panel with his arm catching fire after he’s been teleported into the desert sun, and then he disappears entirely from the narrative, as is fitting, because he was never truly there in the first place.

There’s nought wrong with superhero books designed to be thinly-written, self-referencing punch-ups and nothing else, or rather, there’s not if both creators and consumers conspire to miss the fact that the former's cheating the audience and the latter's accepting narrative forgeries rather than well-wrought stories. For there’s surely no reason why big and apparently dumb tales can’t actually be unpretentiously smart too, no reason why such takes on the superhero narrative can’t be worked on and polished up until they carries far more than just a touch of surface flash and a

Yet another of the apparently-endless parade of splash pages in UA:3. Not only is it inexplicable that this beat of the story should require so much space, but the creators also ignore the faint possibilities for action in the scene. At the very least, the Hulk-Clone might have been shown lifting the weights from Cap with his lil'pinky or some such. As it is, this is all tell and no show.

sprinkle of continuity inversions. Why, isn't that what Mark Millar used to provide, month in and month out, with the likes of the original Ultimates? Yet as part of his farewell to writing for Marvel, Ultimate Avengers 3 stands as little more than page after page of a substantially gifted scripter slumming it, and that's a business that's almost as contemptuous of his own talent as it is of the folks who've ended up buying the book. As a framework for a fantastic story, what’s here stands as a promising start, a patchwork quilt of grand moments and a sense of a plot that progresses effectively, if somewhat tediously, from A to B. As a finished product, it’s shamefully thin, markedly lazy and appallingly complacent.
Yet another full page shot, yet another wordless page, yet another vampire having bitten yet another cypher of a victim. At best, it's a scene which required a panel. It's surely not a page.

Friday, 29 July 2011

On Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill’s “League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969"

Please be warned; spoilers! 

As anyone who was a kid in the very last year of the Sixties could assure you, it really can be hard to tell your Caramel Angel Delight from all those Hundreds and Thousands sprinkled on the top of it. And it’s the same with the story and characters of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s Century: 1969, because the comic's so loaded with eye-snagging, mind-snaring cultural references that it can be hard to notice, let alone care about, all that's actually happening on the page to Mina Murray and her immortal compatriots.

Ooo, look, there's Steptoe & Son, neither collecting rag'n'bone nor apparently hunting vampires, and Hitchcock, but that's not Blakey from On The Buses, but look, there's Thunderbirds 1 & 2 up in the sky, and could it be the terrible Dudgeon's Wharf fire that they're trying to help with, though that tragedy came after the free gig in Hyde Park by the Stones, which would put the chronology of the tale out,  and ... and .... and ....

It's a perniciously distracting business, this caring for the pastry far more than the rhubarb in the pie. But that's a mark of the mind of the habituated comics savant, trained practically from birth to value the continuity allusion as least as much as the narrative twist and the character moment. Such produces and then constantly reinforces an obsessiveness which can quite short-circuit the everyday business of just setting out to enjoy the story first, and from beginning to end too. And so, it's quite possible to ignore the fact that the very first panel of Century: 1969 - below - is an artfully informing establishing shot which kicks off the narrative with a mass of mood and scene-setting detail. Oh, the amateur might take a moment to enjoy this gently unsettling scene, to shiver just a little at the sense of unease suggested by the stillness of the night, by the lack of stars and even ambient light in the sky, by the darkness that's fallen on the joyfully playing figures of the statue. And the story-centered reader might even allow themselves to relax into the narrative, to feel content and just a touch excited at being in the care of such exceptionally trustworthy storytellers, to allow their curiosity to be raised by the "Oh ..." in the tale's first word balloon, and to then read on simply because of a desire to want to know what happens next.
"Ceci n'est pas une histoire"
But for all that there might be a little distracting beat of a story going on in that panel, there's also the far more compelling challenge of inter-textual combat sitting right there from the off, challenging the competitively compulsive to 86 sides worth of spot-the-association, catch-the-quotation, and second-guess-the-creators. For it's the fact of the existence in Century: 1969 of a great "Venn diagram of crime, pop music and occultism" - in the words of the great Glycon-worshiping sage of Northampton himself - that dragoons the obsessive's attention. And where Jess Nevins, the League's original annotator, first trod with learning and restraint and very good taste, his inspiring example seems to have triggered a terrible solipsism where it comes to the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. With an irresistible urge to decode the secret meanings of the masters, I find myself staggering not in Nevins's wake, but flailing far off in a quite different and considerably less laudable direction to him, struggling to keep a sense of proportion, or to even maintain control of a politely-masked preoccupation with point-scoring. Too much of this kind of thinking and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill's adventure-fantasy becomes far, far less of a graphic romance, and far, far more of a great mass of comics-credible stuff, seemingly designed to do little more than facilitate the reader in the expressing of their own fascinations and, save us, their very own creativity.

What do these wind-chimes mean? WHAT DO THESE WIND-CHIMES MEAN!!!

Caught on that very first panel, unable to read onwards until Mr Moore and Mr O'Neill's cryptogram is decoded, the cartoon cryptanalyst can find themselves helpless vacillating between competing analytical starting points. After all, what hope is there if that key jumping-off point is mis-interpreted and everything that's deduced from then onwards gets locked into an entirely misjudged context? Everything relies on starting out with the most productive strategy. Should the poor baffled investigator opt for a top-down approach, and attempt to first establish the themes which the initial frame undoubtedly establishes? Shall we presume, for example, that Century:1969 is to be a code organised around the conflict between a well-established suburban England mysticism and a transitory, butterfly-summer metropolitan media elite? Are we to understand that the statue of A A Milne's creations juxtaposed here against a flash-Harry convertible sports car suggests that we're dealing with a culture's infantilism, with the innocent pleasures of childhood having been supplanted by the shallow indulgences of a never-grow-up consumerism?


Or should the research begin with the patience of a bottom-upper, focusing on each object and its meaning in isolation before attempting to weave together the big picture suggested by the first one-third of the very first page? It is, after all, a first frame that's saturated with suggestion.“Sussex, 1969” declares the narrative caption, and “Sussex” and “1969” immediately suggest Brian Jones - “black eyes, under the skies of England, very stoned”- ensconced in Christopher Robin's father's old home, fated to drown in the house's swimming pool just 2 days before his ex-colleagues played their less than fabulous free gig in Hyde Park. And yet, for all that that seems transparent, there are immediately so many questions and contradictions in this single frame that the detail-merchant may well get bogged down from the off. For the building that Mr O’Neill’s shown us isn’t Cotchford Farm at all, and the statue before us clearly isn't the one of Christopher Robin which stands in its rather weather-beaten way on the site today. And what of that convertible? Research is obviously needed to discover what that refers to. Didn't Brian Jones rely on a chauffeur to ferry him around? Did he even have a driver's license? And what about those wind-chimes? Someone will know, someone will phrase their Google questions cunningly and luck into an entirely extra dimension of understanding. There'll be a tradition of Hammer horror movies, perhaps, where those chimes are concerned, there'll be a paragraph in a biography of the Golden Dawn, there'll be an account of the use of random notes generated by such an instrument in one of the trippier freak-outs of the era. It will all make sense.

It is, I will readily accept, something of a shame that I don't feel comfortable yet in moving beyond that very first panel of Century: 1969. For I don't want to contaminate my reading of the second panel and the third and so on with ill-considered assumptions. And yet, if I only could've accepted this volume of the League as a story rather than a great conundrum, I might have been able to grasp that one of the vital functions of that initial frame is to set up the hilarious and yet simultaneously shiversome shot of three black-robed figures striding across the same scene on page 2. In fact, if I'd not been resisting the distraction of the narrative, I might have been able to loose myself in a remarkably clear and quite frankly fun story of three amaranthine adventurers failing each other despite their best if baffled efforts in the teeth of a fearsome curse. I could've pushed aside for a while the fact that 
Carter knew Lonely, and that Boot had feasted on Wellington's corpse, or that the secret agent's car crash had happened right before Parker's crumpled puppet-face. I could've enjoyed for its own sake Mina's battle with her nemesis on the astral plane rather than focusing on Mr O'Neill's channeling of the libertarian Ditko's otherworlds with the counter-culture's psychedelic extravagances. I could've had noted how wistfully beautiful is the shot of the bomb-site playground surrounded by a no-doubt apposite ruin and centred on a swing suspended from a Martian Tripod in its own terms. I could've chuckled and cringed at Terner's ill-judged pretension and his cages full of dying bats without ever needing to read the scene in terms of Jagger and Byron and the butterflies and the steep plummet downwards towards Altamont. I could even have shared in the frustration and unease of Alan and Lando as their useless search for Mina in the deserted park plays out so tragically, and then - then - perhaps knowingly noted the irony of the Yoko-esque 'Love' ballon drifting above them, destined, as hers were in our world, to unwittingly provoke a decade-closing bigotry rather than any measure of love at all.

In fact, Century:1969 might just be a profoundly well-crafted, compassionate and smart comic book. You might not know it, from the reviews which can't seem to find their way past the references to the romance that's right before their eyes, or from the chit-chit-chat which focuses on what it all means rather than the pleasures of the narrative itself.  But it could even be that, first and foremost, Century: 1969 is a cracking good read.

Of course, that's not something that I could possibly say, because I've got my work cut out with panel number 1,  and I fear that that very important work may take a good while yet ...


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

"Zeeshan":- Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie’s Generation Hope # 9; On Making The Superhero Protest Story Work (Part 1 of 2)

Please be warned; spoilers! Really substantial, I'm-not-exaggerating, spoilers!

1. Tell A Story, Avoid A Lecture

There’s a continent or twelve’s worth of difference between text and sub-text, but you’d not know that where most superhero protest stories are concerned. Most writers called to this beguilingly worthy cause or that compellingly urgent one seem to have mistaken their obligation to entertain for a license to lecture. In their excess of ethicalness, they forget their responsibility to tell an absolutely engrossing story about the folks in the silly costumes who fly through the sky and punch through brick walls. They inform, but they don’t inspire, they preach, but they don’t persuade, and they puff and puff and puff without making the business of blowing down whatever particular house it is they're discussing any more of a compelling prospect. After all, if folks were moved by facts and feelings and sincere exhortations, what would be the need for a protest story in the first place? In that one key sense, good intentions are not unlike a host of other politically vital resources from food aid to weapons of mass destruction. Without a viable delivery mechanism, all of them are fundamentally useless, if not worse.

"Better" is, in Kieron Gillen’s words. “the one where we’re using the X-Metaphor to talk about teenage gay suicide”, but that context could’ve been stripped from the story and there’d still have been a moving and involving tale left on the page concerning the limitations of good intentions and the cruelty of fate. No, a Generation Hope # 9 which had had that specific use of the 'X-Metaphor’ removed wouldn’t have jabbed at the limbic system and provoked such anger, and it wouldn’t have messed with the empathy circuits and inspired such regret, but it would’ve still been exciting and it would’ve still inspired sadness and reflection. It would’ve featured the likes of the pulse-raising scene of Transonic's race against fate as she powered her way across the Atlantic is a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to save Zee’s life, even if the cause of his distress in a less-specific narrative would've perhaps been nothing more contentious than the complications of his emerging mutation. It could’ve presented Hope’s realisation that her mission will inevitably involve failure and a constant re-evaluation of her principles and purpose. It would have been a story that was composed of action and emotion and in its own terms, quite separate from Mr Gillen's more deliberate moral purpose, it would've worked.

But it wouldn’t have been nearly as good a comic book. Because in Better, the social protest doesn't eclipse the story, but powers it. And without that focus on a loathing of homophobia, without the rage and the purpose to which it's been put, the remaining tale of superheroes too late to save a potential comrade from the consequences of his mutation would've been far, far weaker, far more run of the mill. Certainly the absolutely vital closing debate concerning the virtues of revenge and restraint would’ve been almost impossible to shoehorn so movingly into the tale, leaving just another story of super-powers and super-conflict. More important yet, of course, Generation Hope # 9 wouldn’t have stood as an unpretentiously heartfelt mark of sympathy and solidarity with those young and entirely blameless folks persecuted to their deaths simply because of their sexuality and the bigotry of their peers.

But then, why would any such censored narrative ever need appear? Why would anyone want the superhero comic gutted of social and political content, when the very presence of such can make it all the more powerful and moving? For it's a myth that politics and the superhero book somehow work to each other's disadvantage, and Better very much proves that. What’s that ‘X-Metaphor’ for anyway?

2. The Problem Raised Must Never Be Solved

There’s always the worry that the raised spirits and sense of community inspired by singing of the likes of “Feed The World” will leave the singers feeling that the world has somehow actually been fed. So it is with the superhero protest book. A comic which closes with the reader feeling that even the tiniest amount of a social problem has been dealt with is one which runs the risk of transmitting a sense that things aren’t actually that bad after all. And so the script and art of Better work hard to ensure that the raw frustration and fury inspired by Zee’s impossibly lonely end remains undiminished at the story's close. In places, doing so proves a technically demanding business, and it at times involves the hiding of some dubious but necessary plot-holes in plain sight in order to emphasise how very common homophobia is and how little punished are its practitioners. For example, so understandably keen is Mr Gillen not to give the impression that the loathsome Luke has been suffering for his bigotry that he shows him still living in University accommodation “four weeks

after Zee’s death. Of course, it’s important that there’s no sense in the narrative that Luke has been brought to book, because that would undercut the fact that our real-world societies really aren’t making the appropriate efforts to engage with this issue. It's easy to carelessly suggest on an emotional level in a comicbook that the causes of a social problem are easy to identify and deal with. Consequently, Luke needs to be shown living the life that he had before he drove Zee to suicide, to accentuate the point that terrible things occur and yet all those Lukes are still out there living as if they were decent and typical folks, as if they'd never done such unforgivable things to the folks they've persecuted. But there’s few if any Universities in Britain which wouldn’t have had Luke at the very least suspended and awaiting a hearing as a result of the facts of Zee's suicide. Put simply, it's impossible to believe that Luke hasn't been turfed out long before four weeks have passed. (It's hard not to imagine civil rights groups not making his life in halls a living hell too.) Yet Better cleverly misdirects the reader with the pace of its telling and the content of its narrative, so that the quandary of Luke’s inexplicable presence in the University of Sheffield's halls stays in the background, where it of course belongs. For this is a story designed to make us long for resolution while ensuring that we never receive it. In places, therefore, there's a clear conflict between what most likely would happen and what it's necessary to show, and the latter always cleverly and surreptitiously wins out.

Similarly, it doesn't make a great deal of sense that Luke, and perhaps one or two of his fellow persecutors, are standing together in the open when Hope and her fellow mutants arrive at the scene of Zee's death. Unless he's been corralled there by Transonic, which the text gives no indication of, or unless he's waiting there for the police and/or the University authorities, which is never suggested, logic tells us that Luke should be anywhere but. (Laurie, for example, has already witnessed his complicity, and probably that of a good few others, in Zee's death.). Yet the narrative needs them all there, to allow their numbers and their freedom and Luke's presence among them to counterpoint Zee's lonesome and anonymous corpse, and to inspire the reader to identify the problem of homophobia as being of a far broader nature than that of a few bad eggs stinking up a kindly, liberal world.  And such is the contempt and loathing of Luke and his fellow mutantphobic rubber-neckers that Mr Gillen quite rightly inspires, that it's hard to notice that perhaps it makes no sense for all of those characters to be on stage there at all. Their presence is needed to place Luke's barbarity once more into its wider context, and so the narrative is designed to carry us past any such quibbles of logic with the force of the emotions inspired and the implications generated.

To that end, we're never ever allowed to focus to any great degree on Luke and his personal motivations separate from the bigotry and ignorance of the wider culture after Zee's mutation begins. At that point, Mr Gillen's script starts to concentrate far more on the blogosphere's encouragement of Luke's prejudice, of his mutantphobia, and upon the lack of will there is even on the part of Zee's friends to challenge what's being done to him. And so Luke's behaviour is reinforced by the 'number of hits' his photos of Zee's distressful state generates, and we're shown the cowardice and therefore complicity of those who witness the plight of Zee but don't immediately intervene, and the point is so emphasised that this is not an individual problem, even as a great many individuals are helping to create it. It's simply not an issue that can be explained with reference to just Luke, a few friends of his friends, and the dead-heartened, cruel and cowardly. bigots that they are. It's a truth that emphasised by how Mr McKelvie's art scrupulously avoids presenting those who're actively bullying or passively failing to help Zee as stereotypically 'evil'. Indeed, they're often far more conventionally attractive than many of the X-Men themselves.
And so, though we can recognise some of the folks who're on the right side of Better by the costumes that they;re wearing, it's considerably more difficult to spot the folks that they're meant to be opposing, which in that sense at least makes Marvel's Earth no different to ours. At every stage of Generation Hope # 9, the implication is that the beating up of two or three despicably callous students by the X-Men, or the destruction by a phasing Kitty Pryde of a hundred or so I-Phones and computer screens, simply won't affect the fundamentals of the problem at all. A few costumes knocking around a few students simply won't change anything, and yet that's what superheroes do; they hit things and they make them alright. Cleverly, Mr Gillen turns this impotence on the part of Hope and her fellow mutants to his purpose. He doesn't leave his superheroes on the periphery of his polemic so much as he puts them to use within it as a symbol of the limitations of punitive power in the face of widespread prejudice and apathy. The solution to the appalling problem, he suggests, is not a few show-trials, the odd significant punishment and a pretense that everything's alright now.  Instead, Zee is dead, and there's no meaningful revenge or salvation or closure to be found, which is why the story succeeds in agitating rather than pacifying, and why it inspires a genuine sympathy rather than a well-meaning but patronizing pity. Zee didn't die because he wasn't quite brave enough or bright enough or strong enough; his suffering, quite contrary to logic of the superhero narrative, was entirely beyond his own control. It not only didn't reflect his own fine qualities, but it occurred despite them. Similarly, his suicide wasn't the consequence of the mutants being late or because some super-villainous hidden hand manipulated events. He's not an excuse for the X-Men to feel even more sorry for themselves, or a way of stirring up a soap-operatic angst to add some tearful grit to their story, or even a victim to trigger a good old fashioned conflict with a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants or whomever. No, it was the banality of evil that did for him, which throws the question of responsibility back upon the reader.

Or, as Hope says at the end of her time in the story; "We have to be better." Not 'they', or 'he', or 'she', but we.

to be concluded;


Sunday, 24 July 2011

On Feeling Compelled To Boycott Greg Land's "Uncanny X-Men"

The blogger would appreciate it if folks who might be offended by a touch of somewhat bad-tempered and fruity language didn’t read on. Similarly, if you’re one of those folks who aren’t concerned with issues such as sexism and who loathe those who are, well, it’s best you opt out too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you;                    

I can’t do it, I just can’t. It doesn’t matter how much I admire Kieron Gillen as a writer, and admire him I most certainly do. He’s undoubtedly one of the best half-dozen writers currently at work in the superhero sub-genre, and his fine scripts have seen me return to the buying of Uncanny X-Men after 28 years of apostasy. But all the craft and ambition and decent-hearted humanism of his scripting can’t compensate for artist Greg Land’s utterly wretched storytelling and the despicable sexism that marks so much of his work. No, it just can't.

Of course, no-one’s going to surprised to hear a blogger lambasting the shameless Mr Land and his pathetic artwork. In fact, I’d assume that the general response of any who stumble across this page would be ‘why bother?’ Surely it’s a debate which has been and gone, surely we’ve moved past this? And there’s certainly a sense on the net that sexism is a social ill which comicbook fans don’t need to be concerned with, as if they’ve survived that argument, as if no-one but the stubborn, the obsessed and the congenitally joykilling would want to go through all that fuss again. Perhaps it’s that weariness which the poor harassed superhero fan may feel which accounts for the fact that of the first dozen reviews of this comic to be found when using Google, none of them even mentions the unarguable sexism of Land’s work. 

In this perplexingly staged scene, the Mayor of San Francisco is shown arriving without warning in the X-Men's 'Psionic Conference Room'. Note that the first response of the Mayor is to mimic a scene from 'Bus-Stop' while looking as alluring and passive as possible. Quite why her response to this situation is to grab her dress in the manner of a nervous, helpless child crossed with a guileless 'glamour' model must be obvious only to Mr Land. It is, of course, cheesecake that makes no sense in the context of the script, though no doubt someone will pay very good money for the original art. But if the first panel is pathetic, then the next one is incredibly ill-judged, as you'll note below;
Nope, not a single one. I'm sure that there's a great number of pieces which have noted the problems in this specific comic, but those first dozen destinations certainly didn't. From sites as high profile as Comic Book Resources to I Fanboy and then to all points beyond, any restrained criticism of Mr Land to be found was strangely centered on his reliance on photo-resources, with the exception of one review, where Land's choice of a cowgirl outfit for Emma Frost was objected to because, it seems, such would be out of character for her. And while I could only applaud a great breadth of opinions being expressed across the net, a thousand flowers blooming and such, the absence of sexual politics in these blogs didn’t mark any broad measure of debate and difference on other topics. In fact, what these critics have produced between themselves was a great homogeneous and politically-disconnected mass of incredibly similar and mostly lukewarm-to-positive reviews, although the blogger whose responses was to ask “Would the Mayor of San Francisco really be that sexy?” at least made me laugh. Yes, mate, that’s the context within which the argument ought to be framed. You’ve nailed it and closed it too. Well done! Just a little less sexiness for the middle aged female politicians in Marvel’s books, please ...

Well, why don’t more folks buy superhero comics? I couldn’t possibly say …

Good to see that in a virtual environment where Mr Land could have placed his characters in any relationship to each other, he's chosen to present us not with the Mayor's face, but with her right breast, the line of which then leads the reader's gaze down to Emma Frost's chest too. Note how ineptly constructed the frame is, with Cyclops being placed in the background in a way that seems to mimic a child's control of composition. So, Mr Land, why did you choose to focus on cleavage rather than narrative here, given that the Mayor's expression might have been interesting to actually see ..

Hardcore comic book fans, you undoubtedly get what you deserve, but your beloved hobby will wither and die, as it indeed is, because few beyond your ranks are going to want to spend money on such celebrations of contempt for 51% of the human race. Yet oddly enough, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to put Uncanny X-Men back onto the shelf if the likes of Land's objectivised super-people were removed from its pages. And I simply can’t buy into the premise that anyone searches out Land’s work simply because it gets them not just hot and flustered, but ultimately relieved and somewhat sleepy too. After all, there's surely enough porn to be had for nothing more costly and demanding than an internet connection and the capacity to manipulate a mouse while exercising a less than entirely limp grip too. And if there is a tiny minority of boys who’ve somehow sexually imprinted upon Land’s work, well, I doubt they constitute a commercially vital niche. No, Land could produce superhero

No one will be shocked if I respectfully remind them that while men are often represented in Land's art as bearing different body-types, ages, faces and so, women are nearly always stereotypically and tediously 'beauteous' and 'alluring'..
books without the most unedifying of cheesecake and most consumers would, I suspect, keep investing. So why does Marvel keep commissioning and publishing work that’s not just so often technically inept, but morally contemptible? Is it stubbornness, an unwillingness to avoid being seen to bend before the tyranny of kind-hearted ideals and simple ethical decencies? Or is it that the short-term business of making money is more important than the more generous and inclusive of moralities to Marvel? If so, the company has already crossed a decisive moral Rubicon. Once a publisher recognises the immorality of its product and yet continues to produce it - and how could Marvel not see Land's art for what it is - then there's no reason to note any significant ethical restraints at all. The basic principle that making money trumps ethical standards has already apparently been established, and all that's left is the key question of 'what can we get away with and profit by?'. Why, there are as yet untapped niche markets of sexists and racists and homophobes and a thousand other worryingly hateful minority tastes just longing for comics to cater to their beliefs in a far more specific way than at the moment. If filling up comics with Land's representations of women doesn't upset too many folks while also making you money, well, why not have the courage of the lack of your convictions and go a touch further, and further still? It's only business, after all, and it’s only comics, and why doesn't the publisher of Peter Parker and Jessica Jones and T'Challa make the bravest stand against the strictures of political correctness? After all, you're already effectively doing exactly that with artwork such as Mr Land's.

The reader will similarly not be astonished if Mr Land's reliance upon the 'widescreen' panel is remarked upon. Note how the artist works from the assumption that this type of frame is the best option for four very different types of content. It's as if Mr Land never actually thinks about how best to tell a story, but simply divides up his page according to whim and ease. Note, for example, the inexplicable choice to make the almost meaningless shot of the Juggernaut's face in panel 3 larger than the shot of Colossus punching him. But my favourite example of careless and surely lazy storytelling can be found in panels 1 and 2; note in panel 1 that Colossus is considerably smaller than his opponent. Strangely enough, the two of them are almost the same size in the next shot. Well, what does it matter?
Yet although I doubt Land's work brings too many extra panting and trembling consumers to the cash register,  I do find it easy to believe that a great many more folks might just give up buying certain comics because they're ashamed to spend their money on such regressive, ugly-minded and cruel-looking piffle. Me, for one. For it's not just that some of us despise Land's ethics, or his lack of any considered body of such, since it's hard to believe that he's ever given too much thought to his money-spinning, status-weaving activities. It's also that his ranks of sexualised women contradict the very meaning of the books he illustrates. He's not just producing tacky sexism, and poorly illustrated tacky sexism too. His representations of women actually work against the stories which he fails so conspicuously to bring to life. It’s certainly hard to buy into the adventures of a team of superheroic outsiders expressing support for the struggles of the powerless against the powerful as long as the women involved look just like stereotypical porn actresses. Give the X-Men the MU's tired, the MU's poor, the MU's huddled mutants yearning to breathe free, but just make sure that they’re built like the least edifying masturbatory fantasies of a ten year old boy so immature that he can only stir up bubbles of air while staring-staring-staring at the cleavage of Mayor Sadie, M.I.L.F.

Again, Mr Land has chosen to fill his page with four panels which are the same shape. In doing so, he produces a considerable amount of dead space; panel two is a prime example, giving us a great deal of the back of Juggernaut's shoulder and to what end? Panel 3 is a particular example of waste; who knows what's going on there, or why such a vertical segment of a face which simply can't transmit a great deal of emotion has been given such prominence.
Good work, publishers and editors at Marvel. Your wives, your sisters, your mothers, your daughters, as well as your husbands, brothers, fathers, sons and indeed everyone you know and don't know - that's everyone, really - must be proud of you. How you must long to take copies of Mr Land's Uncanny X-Men into schools and churches and town halls to show off the contributions you're making to a braver, better, more compassionate world. Well done for persevering with such a principled and well-thought through stance. Hurrah for Marvel!

For Marvel Comics can do all the thinking it wants about attracting wider audiences, and babble on in public about its progressive and well-intentioned strategic policies. But until the company fully recognises and accepts what shame is, they’ll not attract anyone from beyond the hardcore who’s got the slightest idea that loathing ‘sexism’ isn’t an aspect of ‘political correctness’, but of basic human decency.

What profession and character might we associate with this woman? Indeed, can we even tell how old is she? What's her emotional state in this shot? Why is she looking at the reader with that strange gaze? What is the reader supposed to feel about her?
It’s doesn’t matter what I say, of course. What I do or say won’t affect a thing, except that I’ll get a few more contemptuous and insulting comments and a few less folks visiting this blog as a result of the above. Writing about these things is never a ratings winner or a nerve-soother, I’ll tell you. Oh well.

But I did want to continue to read your work in Uncanny X-Men, Mr Gillen, and to be inspired by it too, and I really am sorry, but I just can’t.

Shape up, Marvel. It's 2011. If you're not going to be consistently and deliberately kind-hearted and generous in all that you're doing now, after 60 years and more of publication, then when will you?
I wonder, how many folks aren't buying the likes of Uncanny X-Men because they're uncomfortable with the objectivisation of teenage girls, such as with Hope here? However, please see below;

Folks who might want to see what Marvel can publish in the way of Mutant tales that're in a considerably more compassionate and laudable vein ought to race off now and buy Generation Hope # 9 by Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie, in concert with a long list of collaborators and enablers from the X-Office. It's worth the investing in, I really do assure you, and we'll be taking a look at it in the not too distant future here.

Hope from the same week's Generation Hope by Mr Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. Why, she looks like a young woman and not a sex object. Human, fallible, charming, distinctive, and anything but objectivised. Gosh, it can be done. In fact, Marvel is hiring folks who are doing so already!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

On Two Quite Different Batmobiles

 By far the most successful panel in "Batman: The Dark Knight" # 3 is that showing the efforts of a nameless girl who's desperately trying to drive a stolen Batmobile through the nighttime streets of Gotham City. Such small mercies of storytelling are very much appreciated at first by the reader who's gullibly invested in a content-lite 20 page book bearing, for example, not one but two double-page splashes, carrying between them but 15 words and a presumably telling "Rarrrgggh!", all as part of a tale where few plot elements are explained and where most characters remain frustratingly unintroduced. At least the above frame presents a relatively compressed reading experience, marked by action and what at first passes for informing detail. After all, not every artist today would attempt to tackle such a mildly challenging scene as this, despite it being the kind of view which previous generations of less self-regarding creators might have considered something of a bread'n'butter shot. And Mr Finch's panel certainly does succeed in capturing the sense that a single frame of a crane-filmed movie sequence has been isolated and presented to the reader. We can note, for example, that the scene is set in a recognizably urban area, that the road is somewhat dangerously crowded, and that the Batmobile is moving faster than the vehicles around it, the illusion of speed having been created by the trail of smoke which pours behind it as if Batman had fitted a particularly faulty exhaust earlier that same evening.      

Obviously the content of this cropped version of Finch's panel isn't entirely appropriate to the new frame, but then, the original panel borders were clumsily filled too. Yet the simple point is that cropping the awkward great spaces in Finch's original at least increases both the sense of speed and the claustrophobic possibility of collision in the composition.

For an artist so expert that he's produced instructional DVDs designed to assist those willing to invest $49.00 in the mastering of the comic book visual arts, Mr Finch has made some very strange storytelling choices here. Perhaps most puzzling is his decision not to savagely crop the panel, leaving the overwhelming vertical emphasis created by the buildings at the back of the composition diffusing the intensity of the scene. The vertical lines of those functionally worthless city blocks drag the eye up and away from the action, and they diminish the sense of claustrophobia and of imminent disaster which the scene needs in order to make it compelling. Where we should be focusing solely on the probability of a shattering collision, we're actually glancing on a hundred other design elements too. As a result, the reader finds themselves wandering, focusing on a mass of detail which is not only unnecessary to the narrative, but actually counter-productive to its purpose. And it's that fetishistic love of stuff for its own sake which then compels the reader's to quickly note how poorly constructed the panel actually is. A less compulsively busy and more sensibly composed design would've made its point and then directed the reader on with some enthusiasm to the next frame. But here, with the eye snagged on this useless fancy or that unnecessary confection, all that's transmitted is the fact of how disastrously Mr Finch has managed to substitute

There's so much wasted space in the left-hand side of this panel. It would make sense to have less action here if the intention was to draw the eye over to the panel's traditional exit point over at bottom-right. But there's nothing going on there either, and indeed it's the green car which leads the eye downwards to the next frame. As a result, all we have here is the mass of the car, which is hardly swinging to its right with any drama, and that bat-smoke. Could a few folks perhaps have been shown leaping out of the way? Is there are reason why there's a neon sign at the panel-border which doesn't recognise the vanishing point? Why is there all that stuff in the panel and yet so little that increases the value of the story?
passivity for drama, agoraphobia for claustrophobia, and sense for empty spectacle. Note, for example, how Mr Finch has placed the cars on the right of the frame so close and parallel to the pavement there they appear at first sight to be either stationary or pulling calmly out of a parking space. Instead of having to swerve away from the Batmobile, these cars seem initially to present nothing more of a dramatic challenge than that of a stationary obstacle. Given that that convertible actually offers the opportunity for the reader to be presented with the jeopardy-intensifying sight of a driver with his arms in the air in horror, as well as with a shot perhaps of  his car mounting the pavement, the reluctance to so exploit the scene's potential is very odd indeed. Similarly, the figures to the right of the careering Batmobile appear to be barely bothered at all about the great speeding hi-tech beast that's just raced past them, nor are the figures at the street corner above them at all curious, let alone shocked, by what's just torn past them. But then, a second look reveals that the Batmobile has actually been placed on the page in such a way that a collision isn't particularly imminent at all, since it's heading towards a clear space opening before it. And even if the Batmobile does get pranged a touch, there's no sense in Mr Finch's art that something serious and memorable and significant is going to occur. There might be a bit of a bash, there may perhaps be some paintwork scraped, there may even the slightest if still somewhat painful degree of whiplash generated, but that's all. Perhaps the citizens of Gotham recognise dramatic fakery when they see it.

This scene is so terrifying that the witnesses to it barely choose to notice that it's happening, let alone react to it.
In fact, the more the reader looks at the panel, the more unconvincing and poorly designed it is. The strangely archaic car to the left of the panel, for example, is no doubt supposed to be attempting to get out of the way of the Batmobile. Yet that car should never have been that far over to the right of the street in the first place, a point accentuated by Mr Finch's decision to leave all the barely filled and again-useless space to the far left of the panel so empty. If Mr Finch had wanted to create the sense of a narrow street where cars were compelled to thrillingly weave in and out of each other's way, he surely shouldn't have shown us quite how much free space there actually is there. Counting that empty pavement to the left and the absence of parked cars on the road beside it, there's plenty of room for vehicles to swerve and stay safe. Yet Mr Finch decided to diminish the tension in his own work by refusing to note how much cropping of the scene he might have undertaken. It's as if more is always more where Mr

Oddly enough, this section of the panel provides a measure of drama in the driver's response quite absent in the scene as a whole.

Finch is concerned, and his strangely undisciplined choices derail the panel's drama, and inevitably cause the reader to wonder about what's really going on there. Where we should be flinching in case two cars smash into each other, we're first strangely disinterested and then rather bemused. We ought to be being made to focus on the story, but instead at least some of us are going to be diverted into wondering why that green car was so far out of its own lane in the first place. Was it pulling out from the pavement on the right? Is its driver drunk? A panel which had been precisely composed and executed would've killed rather than inspired any such confusions, and in doing so ensured that the artist's intentions were the work's achievements. But Mr Finch's self-indulgence, his fundamental lack of discipline, constantly derails his own narrative, because it results in panels which combine two qualities which no sensibly composed frames should ever contain; an excess of extraneous detail and a deeply unconvincing grasp of compositional basics. And so, the compulsive faux-realism of this single panel ultimately destroys the very idea of a Batmobile operating in Gotham City in the first place. Take a look at that traffic, at those relatively impassable if rather broad streets, at those pedestrians, and at all that might clog up the City even at nighttime: in focusing on his messy comic-book verisimilitude, Mr Finch does little more than raise the prospect that the Batmobile couldn't ever manage to race to a crime, or indeed away from one, in a modern day metropolis.

Yet an exquisitely composed panel counter-intuitively often acts to close rather than to open up any such debate about how real and feasible the fantastic scenario being offered to the reader is. For a comic book story well told allows the reader to loose themselves in the imaginary world before them without their ever having to suspect that what they're staring at is as practically impossible as it is fantastically absurd. In Glen Murakami's frame above, from 1995's "White Christmas", the reader's left in no doubt about the essential reality of what's occurring.;the Batmobile is racing away from Arkham Asylum into a night lit by a full moon and swept by a snowstorm, and no-one's likely to be inspired to sit back and consider whether what they're being shown is feasible or not. By stripping away any unnecessary fancies, Mr Murakami has increased rather than diminished the authenticity as well as the pleasure of the work. Tilted to one side as it is, the panel emphasizes the askew and perverse nature of Arkham Asylum, accentuates its unsettling nature by placing it far away from any other mark of human culture while crowning it with a disconcerting full moon. There's nowhere to hide in the panel's design, and there's not even shadows for the Batman to skulk in under that 

moon, and because of that, the Batmobile appears as oddly vulnerable as it's so obviously powerful too. The forced perspective used to slightly elongate its already apparently-aerodynamic frame, combined with that leaning Asylum, also serves to add a sense of considerable speed and effort to the shot, for it suggests that if the Batman doesn't keep his foot down, he'll be dragged backwards into the uncaring underworld he's trying to leave behind, or even skid and tumble off of the steep road he's racing along. And even in purely functional terms, the panel succeeds in efficiently catching the reader's gaze at the entrance point of the panel - top left - and guiding it through the line of moon, building, road and Batmobile onwards to the exit point at bottom-right. In doing so, the fact that Mr Murakami has had to solve a particularly challenging design problem is effectively obscured. For without the creation of the steep hill on which the Batmobile rockets forwards, Arkham and it could never have been both shown as substantial objects in their own right while also creating that sense of distance traveled and speed attained. Without that hill, the Batmobile would either have had to be shown so close to Arkham that there'd be little urgency to the scene, or so far away that Asylum's baleful pull would be greatly diminished.

The characteristic fussiness and lack of clear purpose in Mr Finch's can be seen again in the panel above, where the still nameless thief of the Batmobile is shown making contact with Alfred. And it's worth asking here what the point of the panel actually is. It can't be to highlight the emotional state of the thief, for she's being shown at such an angle that her expression escapes us. Similarly, what we can see of her body language actually creates a sense of calm that contradicts the panic expressed in the contents of her word balloons; her posture appears relaxed, she's only the one untroubled hand on the wheel and, in truth, no-one looking solely at her could ever guess that she's in a state of considerable distress. What is it that we're supposed to be focusing on then, if it isn't the sense of jeopardy that the point-of-view character is supposed to be feeling? Strangely, the panel's design draws the eye to the dead space occupied by nothing but the balloon containing Alfred's dialogue, which then carries the reader to the appropriately blank screen to its right. Could there be a more oddly passive and meaningless area of art to direct our attention to? It actually takes the reader an effort of will to ignore the panel's composition and to look up and 'through' the Batmobile's windscreen, where it appears that the world's largest trash can is being effortlessly and unthreateningly smashed away. Obviously, such a collision poses no danger in the slightest to the car's occupant, because there's not a hint of the Batmobile shaking or shuddering, let alone of the thief even flinching in the most passing and least engaging fashion. Consequently, the panel serves to defuse any jeopardy in a whole series of ways while leaving it to the dialogue, such as it is, to further the plot. Indeed, the whole of the art in this panel could be removed and the story wouldn't be affected a jot. We learn nothing new, we see nothing that visually furthers the plot or even compels our attention, and Mr Finch even manages to make the inside of the Batmobile look little more fascinating than that of a mid-range hire car. 

Yet even a considerably less hectic frame from Mr Murakami succeeds in achieving a significant clarity while also intensifying the mystery and unease woven throughout "White Wedding". Of course, these two panels are dissimilar in their meaning, but they're both concerned with events as seen from inside the Batmobile and they're both trying to put to use a view of the comicbook world as seen through its windscreen. And while Mr Finch has struggled with all the fixated minutiae of his art and failed to further his story not a whit in either emotion or fact, Mr Murakami has achieved exactly the opposite. There's an elegant use of negative space here, which creates a layering effect suggesting a sequence of planes in the panel without ever distracting the eye with extraneous material. The reader is carried into the frame from Batman to windscreen to frozen police car, from cemetery gates through the snow storm to the lightless towers of Gotham beyond. The elegance of the colour design is as

outstanding as the pen'n'ink work itself; the muted blues of the dashboard creates a sense of beneficent technology peering out into the dark, the pale yellow of the Batmobile's headlights suggests the recent arrival of the Dark Knight at this crime scene and the inevitable discovery there of this terrible act. And Mr Murakami's control of form matched with his conspicuous rejection of profligate detail renders the fact of a squad car encased in ice immediately recognisable and convincing. There's such an untypical quiet and yet compelling drama being summoned up here, such an air of a superhero closing in on his prey with determination and perplexity, but with no bravado or angst. This is the Batman as a fearsomely competent professional, as a man entirely driven and yet characterised by restraint and intelligence, which allows the reader to take his part in anticipating the coming conflict rather being compelled to indulge in his modern-era emotional excesses at a voyeuristic distance. Put simply, for all that the artwork here is apparently simple, and is almost abstract in its simplicity compared with Mr Finch's fill-up-all-72 tracks approach, it's incredibly productive where the telling of the story is concerned. How easy is it, after all, to stare at this panel and imagine sitting behind this Batman, and anticipating just how cold the night beyond the Batmobile must be, and wondering with no little trepidation what's waiting just ahead in Gotham Cemetery, and being fascinated by the Dark Knight's reserve and deeply curious about what it is that he's really thinking and feeling. By barely telling us anything at all, and yet by showing us everything we need to see, Mr Murakami  ensured that Paul Dini's fine script for "White Christmas" was brought to life in a way that no excess of comic book 'realism' ever could match.

It might be noted in closing that the first of Mr Murakawi's panels above took up but two-thirds of the space given over to the scene of a speeding Batmobile from Batman: The Dark Knight # 3 with which I matched it. Similarly, his frame of Gotham Cemetery as shown through the windscreen of the Batmobile took up but 40% of the page-space claimed by Mr Finch's bafflingly purposeless shot of a thief's view from the Batman's driver's seat. In short, not only is there a far more able application of craft to be found in White Christmas, but there's also far, far more of a story on show there too. Less waste, more narrative, more heart; why would anyone choose to aspire to anything else?

Should anyone hear of Mr Murakami ever producing another comic book story, given that his time and his considerable talent is currently being invested in TV shows such as Ben 10, I'd appreciate you letting me know. And if there's ever an instructional DVD from Mr Murakami on the matter of comicbook art, at $49.00 a pop or considerably more, I'll happily invest in it. I really will.

nb: My own editorial skills being none too bright either, the blogger would like to apologise to anyone who came across this piece before 18.25 on the day it went up, for I allowed several draft paragraphs into the piece and really shouldn't have. Of course, no-one who read anything so awkward will be back to read this, but, on well, my own incompetence does oblige an apology.