Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Struggle Of Memory Against Forgetting: Value For Money And Bang For Your Buck (Part 3)

In which the blogger continues his discussion of "value for money and bang for your buck", the first two self-contained pieces of which might be found here and here;
       

5.

Search The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street from Fear Itself # 3 for a theme and it's practically impossible to identify anything more substantial than "very powerful super-villains can easily kill significantly less powerful costumed heroes." At a considerable stretch, the reader determined to lend some greater weight to Bucky's apparent passing might decide that it's a story designed to express the essential meaningless of life. After all, Bucky dies without achieving the slightest success on the battlefield of the MU's Washington D.C., while the various concerns of his life lie unaffected and thereby unresolved by his death. An existential statement, if you like! Or perhaps a more cynical mind might suggest a theme of "over-confident soldiers who ignore military science by engaging with superior firepower while dividing their forces run the risk of a hammer through the chest", but it's hard to imagine that that was the intended meaning. To have meant for the reader to note that Bucky's strategic skills were as qualified as his death was purposeless would've been just too cruel an intention for a comic so concerned to celebrate with fetishistic fidelity the superhero as a symbol of all that's good and true and fascinating. How are we to be all choked up with the melodrama of Bucky's death, after all, if Mr Fraction meant for us to note how James and allies fought with all the tactical sophistication of a gaggle of Homeric warriors bent on personal combat while trapped on a hi-tech, magic-saturated killing ground?


It’s a measure of the utter failure of craft that is The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street that it is such a hollow narrative. Scratch the surface of it and there’s quite literally nothing there to see, let alone to think about or be affected by. In short, there’s no engine under the bonnet. For, as we’ve discussed before, Fear Itself # 3 is a story which assumes that spectacle alone will both thrill and touch its readers, and so it contains nothing but spectacle. A superhero is killed, a superhero is mourned; these facts alone are assumed to be compelling and stimulating in themselves. Indeed, there’s a fierce sense of a fundamentalist's passionate belief in the absolute virtues of the few plot-beats which are present in Mr Fraction's script, and his pages read as if the Passion of a superheroic death works as the most powerful of dramas even when its central conventions are completely isolated from all other traditional mechanisms of text and sub-text. And so, as if they were decadently wasteful indulgences distracting the faithful away from the essential exhibition of The Superhero's Suffering, The Hammer Which Feel On Nancy Street strips away anything of character and purpose from the tropes of the noble costume's death-scene and presents us with nothing but a catechism of dogma; the fight, the bravery, the heinousness, the slaughter, the last words, the dying breath, the sorrowful allies, the devastated lover, the brave man brought low by heroic sacrifice.

        
This is a comic book story for the faithful, for the committed, for the folks who already know everything that they're going to experience and who regard the repetition of the articles of faith as a comfort and an inspiration, rather than as examples of storytelling to be judged on their particular virtues, or any lack of such.

And that's why, of course, comics don't sell to anyone beyond the Rump of the hardcore audience. Because they're mostly written, without anyone ever intending to do so, to exclude everyone else except the long-committed acolyte of the capes'n'chest insignia comicbook. If you don't already know, if you don't already believe, then what can these comic-books possibly have to offer?


       
6.

To suggest that many of today’s creators need to pay far more attention to the craft, the ambition and the achievement of the best of their predecessors isn’t to imply that they ought to be producing facsimiles of yesterday’s comics. For all that we constantly read on that blog and this board of how yesterday’s comics were better in such a wide variety of ways, there’s a notable lack of a consensus about when exactly this specific point of graphic excellence existed. Was it 2002 or 1986, 1975 or 1962 or 1940? The Holy Fandom Flame Wars which might be fought over the precise definition of when that definitively wonderful yesterday was don’t bear the imagining. What’s more, any obsessional focus on replicating the assumed virtues of a particular past would ignore the fact that there’s a considerable degree of worth that’s being produced even in today’s troubled mainstream.

    
But it’s surely the responsibility of today’s creators to build on the knowledge that yesterday’s writers and artists developed. Rather than constantly seeming to be striving to reinvent the wheel, and to create comics which seem to often bear little relation to the best of the past where their craft or content is concerned, the creators of the modern-era might recognise that they are indeed, in the words of Bernard of Chatres rather than those of the Gallagher's, standing on the shoulders of giants. It isn't that there’s not a great deal still to be discovered, but there’s is a critical mass of learning and skill which has already been developed and codified, and it should surely be part and parcel of the tool kit and mind-set of everyone that’s working today. To take but one example of a topic which we could quite literally discuss for decades, and discuss productively too, we might consider the lack of thematic content in Fear Itself # 3. What’s most shocking about that, and about the many books today which share such a fearsomely hollow structure, is that much of the best of the sub-genre’s heritage self-evidently uses theme, and uses it well, as part of its narrative armory. Given the canon of comic-book excellence which displays a mastery of such storytelling conventions, how is it possible that so many of today's creators seem set on ignoring the lessons learned by the writers and artists of the sub-genre's past?

          
After all, it’s simply inconceivable that a writer might deliberately choose to avoid strengthening their work by ignoring such a fundamental matter as theme. That would make no more sense that an attempt to produce a better chocolate without cocoa, or anything which tasted in the slightest bit like it, or an effort to create a stronger foundation for a home by intentionally failing to pay attention to the detail of how the concrete’s being mixed and placed. To leave the thematic content of a work to chance is either an abdication of opportunity or an expression of ignorance. Either way, it’s another sign of today's Common Comics Culture deciding that the discipline of graphic storytelling is whatever it wants it to be, when the truth is that 2011’s books exist as points in a long-established tradition of comicbook craftsmanship. For whether the theme of a story is designed into it from the very off, or whether it’s recognised and accentuated at the close of a final revision, its presence can significantly inform and amplify the worth of a story. Why would anyone not pay adequate attention to such a fundamental matter? What could they possibly gain from doing so? Can it be that there's a something of a generation or two of creators who don't know how to thematically inform their work, or who simply don't care to?

      
It's a concern which becomes all the more baffling when the strengths of just about any of the sub-genre's finest stories are considered, or at least it does if we assume that today's creators are actually actively studying those comics and doing their best to learn from them. And yet, given that that tradition tells us so much of how to create stories which are at the least competent and entertaining, how is it that so many of today's books appear to function not even in the terms of their own content, but rather in the context of how they contribute to line-wide crossovers and other company "events"? The reader shudders to imagine, for example, how the quintessential run on Batman in 1977/8 by Engelhart, Rogers and Austin might now read if it had had to be constructed according to the Common Comics Culture's current rules of engagement. Gutted of much of its depth and detail, with key plot aspects hived off to line-leading books and its thematic depth dispersed because, presumably, of its capacity to bore the spectacle-obsessed reader, well; I wonder if we'd remember those stories as being of any importance, or indeed as having been such fun, at all. I doubt it. Yet since the form and content of Mr Engelhart's scripts weren't determined by a belief that surface is mostly all, and that complexity and depth are a commercial disadvantage, perhaps we might tomorrow take a look at the surprising and subtle thematic content of "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign Of The Joker", and consider how the craft, achievement and ambition of the team who created those tales still ought to be influencing and inspiring the comics of today.

       
That those six stories, since collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions, couldn't simply be published in today's market as they originally appeared is a point which is inarguable. There are indeed aspects of storytelling present on those pages which have become quite rightfully superseded to a greater or lesser degree by subsequent innovations. But this isn't, and shouldn't ever be, a matter of a debate between yesterday and today, but rather a question of thinking of comics as an ever-developing tradition, as a decades-deep body of detailed knowledge which should still be informing today's work in a fierce and inspiring fashion  It shouldn't be possible in 2011, for example, to read comics which can be processed in a matter of a mere 120 seconds, as if a more satisfying reading experience can be created by the most drastic pruning back of content, or to realise that there's quite literally nothing but the slightest of sub-text under-pinning a major company's line-leading titles. We know better than this. We certainly know, for example, without the slightest need for a debate, that the likes of a placeholder of a story published in a comic in order to kill time while the company waits for its next event is by its very nature a waste of the reader's money, just as we know that tales unconcerned with anything but the grimmest and slightest of punch-ups aren't anything other than industry-undermining rip-offs. For it's one thing for publishers to print such work when a medium and a sub-genre are young, and when there's so little history to be learned from. But the superhero book has been in existence for more than seventy years now. The simple mistakes, and a great many of their more complex cousins, simply shouldn't be being made anymore.

      
And it's been more than three decades since those six fine issues of Detective Comics by Mr Engelhart and his colleagues. Yet in the years since, much of the sub-genre and many of its creators have at least in significant part regressed rather than advanced in terms of those key issues of craft, achievement and ambition, and that's surely something to be deeply concerned about. The work of Engelhart, Rogers and Austin wasn't in any way typical of its period, of course. In fact, it was profoundly untypical, and it could be argued that none of those creators ever collaborated on a project which was ever so successful again. But the fact remains that their stories, their achievement, exists in the canon today, and the lessons they can teach us remain in plain sight, for everyone to learn from. The influence of their craft should still be informing today's work, even as all the other influences, all the other achievements in the years from before and since, should be acting in combination to inspire comics which are in many ways quite different and distinct to anything produced in the past. So many of the superhero books of today, which so often offer stories which are incredibly thin and poorly told, quite simply shouldn't be possible, because a detailed working knowledge of the history of the sub-genre should make it impossible to present anything as lacking in content and depth and value for money as the unfortunate The Hammer Which Fell On Yancy Street.

            
But to look and see so little in so many of today's comics of even a touch of finely-tuned thematic content, to take but one single example of the craft, is surely a mark that something's gone seriously wrong with how the Common Comics Culture respects, studies, learns and evolves from the sub-genre's past successes. It's not a matter anymore of thinking of the superhero comic as an insular endeavour which pays attention only to its own heritage, because it now seems to be becoming more and more oblivious of even that. In its unintentional arrogance, the sub-genre is forgetting even its own history ....

       
To be continued;
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Sunday, 28 August 2011

"If It's A Cheap Trick, It Will Lose Steam Fast.": Value For Money And Bang For Your Buck (Part 2)

In which the blogger continues his discussion of, in Mark Millar's words, "value for money and bang for your buck" begun here, although the browsing reader is assured that what follows is, regardless of its other sins, also complete in itself;

 
3.

According to James Gartner’s CBR report from yesterday’s Fear Itself panel at Fan Expo ’11, the decision to kill Bucky Barnes in The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street was inspired by a suggestion inadvertently made by an immediately regretful Ed Brubaker at a Marvel Comic’s writer’s retreat.

"When 'Fear Itself' started, we did a retreat where I was kind of pitching it all … The thing about Blitzkrieg USA is, we've never seen Cap fight a modern war on US soil and I wanted it to be in DC so it was it American institutional icons and things like that. This is where we get the taste of how big this is. And Ed, in his very Ed way, turned and said, 'Yeah, this is where the Red Skull kills Bucky.'"

Mr Brubaker’s misgivings were, we're told, trumped by the “enthusiasm” of Mr Fraction, whose account of his response to his friend’s brainstorm may well go a long way to explaining why Bucky’s death scene in Fear Itself # 3 ended up as such a flat and uninvolving affair;

“You do that and it is the all-time greatest Captain America story. Put it up in the rafters. No one is going to ever touch it. You are Frank Miller on Daredevil if you have the Red Skull kill Bucky when you’ve done with Bucky.”

          
It's a strange thing to have said, for all that it's rather charming in its fanboy enthusiasms, because Mr Fraction seems to have been confusing a plot-point with a story, and, as modern-era corporate comics so often do, spectacle with value. Because surely only someone who's quite swallowed up by the Common Comics Culture would associate the value of the killing off of a popular, if undeniably second-string, superhero with that of Frank Miller's sub-genre transforming run on Daredevil . For Mr Miller's work on Daredevil is, in Matt Fraction's phrase, "up in the rafters" because he was both an innovator and an entertainer. In hybridising pop-noir with some of the conventions of manga and the Lee/Ditko tradition of the Marvel Revolution, he succeeded in producing on a month-to-month basis a sequence of exceptionally enjoyable comic books. His success wasn't founded upon the shock of a supposedly unexpected and shocking death or two, for all that Elektra's assassination by Bullseye, for example, remains a flashbulb memory for those of us who experienced DD # 181 at the time. If we're ascribing to Miller's Daredevil the status of an untouchable accomplishment, and I think it'd be perfectly reasonable to do so, then we're surely not making any such a judgement on the basis of a few moments of comicbook strum und drang. Rather, Miller's workat Marvel remains a highwater mark of the superhero book because he was at that time a quite brilliant and ingenious storyteller. To compare the worth of those 40 or so monthly comics with the idea of a story characterised by nothing more substantial than Bucky Barnes's banally heroic passing is a patently ludicrous business.

      
4.

Mr Fraction appears unaware of the irony of his comment that Ed Brubaker would become the equivalent of "Frank Miller on Daredevil if you have the Red Skull kill Bucky when you've done with Bucky." Because if killing off the Winter Soldier was going to elevate Mr Brubaker's Captain America to those rafters, and Mr Fraction's own words say that it would have, then why was Bucky Barnes's death then appropriated for Fear Itself instead? Nothing speaks more of the fact that so many of today's editors and creators value the shocking moment over the well-worked narrative. For in convincing Mr Brubaker to hand over Bucky's death-scene from the Gulag storyline in Captain America to the pages of Fear Itself, the death of the Winter Soldier was cut loose by Mr Fraction from the situation it was intended to work within and placed into another, if albeit associated, train of events. In essence, Mr Fraction seems to have mistaken a beat of a specific story for a transferable absolute value which would make any tale substantially better simply by its presence on the page. And yet, to take by point of comparison Mr Fraction's gold standard of Frank Miller's Daredevil, the reader need only imagine Elektra's assassination by Bullseye being removed from DD # 181 and remounted in some Marvel crossover of the period in order to understand how counter-productive this whole business is. For, of course, Elektra's killing in Last Hand would have been largely meaningless in any other context other than that of  Mr Miller's Daredevil itself. "Ed saw a moment to contribute to the greater good of the Marvel universe." says Mr Fraction of the switching of Bucky's fate to Fear Itself, but it's hard to see what's been gained for Marvel and, in particular, its readers from the limp and tediously predictable events of The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street. The death of a prominent super-heroic supporting player is in 2011 nothing more than a wearisome commonplace, no matter how much magically-powered hammer is rammed explicitly into said costume's chest, and the idea that any such single moment could ever stand as a satisfying narrative in itself betrays a mind that sees value in the creation of a headline-grabbing event rather than in the weaving of a story per se.

           
And yet, Mr Fraction's apparent conviction that the fact of Bucky's death alone was the equal of a well-wrought tale can be seen in how Fear Itself # 3 is structured. For there's no attempt at all in his script to present the murder of James Buchannan Barnes in anything other than the most literal and indeed stereotypical fashion imaginable. It's a short-falling of authorial ambition and competence which we've discussed here before, and it can only reflect a belief that, yes, the very business of a superhero's horrible end is so particularly compelling that it need only be presented in its most basic terms for it to be worthwhile. And so, Bucky is shown fighting as a grumpy and brave warrior, and then Bucky is shown being horribly murdered, and then Bucky is shown dying while surrounded by grieving friends and a mourning lover. It's a sequence of events so unimaginative, so utterly-by-the-numbers, that it quite literally beggars belief. Indeed, the events of the story are so dull and lacking in character that Barnes and his murderer Sin could have been replaced by any pairing of hero and villain and nothing about the events would have needed to have been altered beyond the role of the tiresomely mournful woman-friend who kneels by his side as he dies at the tale's end

           
Yet remove Bullseye and Elektra from their showdown in Daredevil # 181, by comparison, and the story collapses. There literally cannot be an alternative version of Last Hand in which any two other super-people fight to the death in the same narrative. The death of Elektra was embedded in a specific and long-prepared-for sequence of events and Ms Natchios's substitution by another character would leave nothing but silliness behind it. How, for example, would anyone else's last-minute refusal to murder Foggy Nelson make the slightest sense, since only Elektra could be made to waver in her psychotism by a past association with Matt Murdock's oldest friend? Yet by contrast, replace Bucky by any other superhero in the Marvel Universe and nothing need change in Fear Itself # 3 at all. The conflict, the resolution, the epilogue; it could all remain the same. In that, it's obvious that The Hammer Which Fell On Yancy Street isn't about Bucky Barnes, or indeed any individual character, at all. His life, his personality, his own mission and his personal redemption; none of these quite vital issues matter in the slightest in what we see of Bucky's last few moments, for all that counts in Mr Fraction's script is that someone whose both wearing a costume and well known to the readers fights and fails and falls.

Which means that the story itself isn't a story at all, but a attention-gathering event. A spectacle. A great empty, noisy indulgence, or, as the Bardism goes, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Where Last Hand is laced with imaginative storytelling and specifically relevant and moving character moments,  Fear Itself  # 3 is as predictable and hollow in its content as can be imagined.

It is not, in any way, an example of a piece of work which can be compared in anything other than the most derogatory way with Mr Miller's achievements as both artist and writer on Daredevil.


       
5.


Somewhere along the way, it seems, the many and absolutely well-intentioned members of the Common Comics Culture have unwittingly conspired with themselves to confuse today's commercial dogma with the quite distinct virtues of the greatest works of the sub-genre's past. And so it has become possible to imply that Frank Miller's runs on Daredevil are as highly regarded as they are because at least in part of the audacity of the unexpected and brutal plot twists on display there. That these moments were part of a far greater whole, and that they were woven into a series of stories which excited and involved and moved their readers, seems almost irrelevant at times when the matter of who got killed off and how it was done remains so apparently compelling and important. If the very best of the past of the superhero book can be understood in such a debased light, then, yes, it must seem quite plausible to suggest that greatness can be achieved through the killing off of a prominent superhero in an unexpected and bloody-handed fashion.

“You do that and it is the all-time greatest Captain America story. Put it up in the rafters. No one is going to ever touch it. You are Frank Miller on Daredevil if you have the Red Skull kill Bucky when you’ve done with Bucky.”


         
Yet rather than ensuring that "No-one is ever going to touch it", in Mr Fraction's words, surely a story sold on the back of yet another hyper-violent example of super-death will simply encourage creators, according to the eschew logic of the C.C.C., to fill the next great event with even more blood, even more loss, even more grim tragedy for its own sake. If it's believed that those rafters of Mr Fraction's can be reached through a well-chosen killing off of a superhero or twelve, then we can be sure that there'll be a great many more costumed and broken bodies when 2012's crossovers appear. If that's how to match the achievements of the likes of Mr Miller, then that's a prescription which'll endlessly be followed, for who doesn't want to be great?

Because the problem with the Common Comics Culture isn't so much that it denies its own history so much as it re-interprets the sub-genre's greatest accomplishments in the light of today's corporate-fanboy obsessions. And so, yesterday's stories as well as those of today really can be reduced to a matter of spectacle and show, and the brutally unexpected becomes by the very nature of surprise the absolutely worthwhile, and the whole business of constructing a narrative becomes nothing more than a question of just stringing together a sequence of eye-catching moments which are important only to the degree to which they catch the eye.

             



The title quote - "If It's A Cheap Trick, It Will Lose Steam Fast." - is again one of Mr Fraction's and it comes from the report on the same panel from Jonathan Ore at Newsarama. Both the reports of the Fear Itself panel linked to here are of course well worth the time visiting.

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Saturday, 27 August 2011

"Value For Money And Bang For Your Buck" (Part 1)

From Millar and McNiven's "Nemesis" # 3
1.
     
“Yes, I hang my head in shame with the rest when I say it takes longer to have a pee than read the dialogue in one of my books.” – Mark Millar (9-3-2010) in the afterword to Turf # 1

There are creators, of course, who clearly don’t produce what Mark Millar has called “books you can read in the store”, although strangely enough, in the light of the above quote, they don’t at present include Mr Millar himself. But the majority of today’s superhero comics are indeed characterised by, as in Mr Millar’s own words, “action-driven, decompressed story-telling that’s been oh-so-fashionable in comics since the turn of the decade”.  In short, the consumer is perpetually being served up with a remarkably expensive product which takes an astonishingly brief amount of time to consume, making today’s comics quite self-evidently the worst of both worlds.

In his afterword to “Turf” # 1, from which all the quotes here have been taken, Mr Millar praised writer Jonathan Ross for his decision to saturate the panels of his pages with a great mass of text. This was, Mr Millar wrote, a deliberate return by Mr Ross to the type of work once produced by the likes of “Don McGregor and Alan Moore and all those guys who used to give you value for money and bang for your buck”. Or, as the old rag-trade sit-com once had it; never mind the quality, feel the width. How heartened Mr McGregor and Mr Moore would be, were they to hear of their work being praised not for its artistic qualities so much as for the time-consuming, attention-absorbing number of words which it contains. 

From Superior # 1 by Millar and Yu
         
Of course, Mr Millar was being disingenuous in his “Speakeasy” column. As a man who’s discussed his commitment to Catholicism in a great many public forums, Mr Millar knows very well that shame is the first step towards recanting and reformation, and yet his work shows little if any sign of his doing so. And so, we're forced to presume that Mr Millar’s not ashamed at all, and we might speculate that that that's because he sees much of the value of his work lying in the complexity and the spectacularism of the art which adorns it. He, as the writer, provides an unchallenging and focused distillation of the superhero’s mythos, while his hand-picked artists flesh out his summer blockbuster conceits with a mass of fine rendering and, every few pages, an attention-focusing explosion of a water-cooler moment. That’s the formula, and it’s done exceptionally well for him; detail and intricacy for Mr Millar, it seems, lies in the mass of visual information on the page rather than in the script or indeed the plot and the sub-text of much of his work. If he's ashamed of the paucity of his scripts, and by his own words we have to accept that he is, then that's obviously a burden that's ameliorated by the virtuous comic-book realism of his co-creator's artwork.

From Bruce Timm's "Two Of A Kind"
         
2.

Of course, we can no more praise a comics writer for the time it takes to slog through their work than we can laud a film-maker for the difficulties which their audience may suffer in trying to process an overload of information on the screen before them. If that was a criteria of excellence, then we’d all be rushing to praise Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies for the fact that they’re crowded with mind-numbing, brain-seizing excesses of action and noise. No, the time spent slogging through a product is anything but a measure of its worth as an entertainment, and only the most wretched of snobs equate the challenge posed by a text with its quality. The number of pages, the number of words; these aren't anything more than the most scarlet of herrings, and it’s perfectly possible to wade through a great value-priced doorstep of a double or even triple-sized annual or anniversary edition and feel just as ripped off afterwards as might happen after investing $2.99 in a typically thin and disposable copy of, to take but one example, Ultimate Avengers III.

From Green Lantern # 188: "Mogo Doesn't Socialise" By Moore & Gibbons
       
By contrast, there are a string of shorter-length stories in the superhero tradition which I’d happily invest a considerable amount of money in despite their comparative lack of pages, let alone, in certain cases, the notable lack of wordage invested into them. Indeed, I’d be ecstatic to swap any number of Fear Itself or Flashpoint tie-ins in return for a thin little comic containing nothing more than the likes of  Bruce Timm’s Two Of A Kind (8 pages), or Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Terrible Threat Of The Living Brain (16 pages: ASM # 9), or Mike Mignola’s  The Baba Yaga  (8 Pages), or Moore and Gibbons's Mogo Doesn't Socialise (6 pages), or Morrison and Swan’s Ghosts Of Stone (14 pages), or, as was recently much praised by Mr Millar himself, Lindelof and Sook’s 10-page Life Support. (*1) These are tales which thoroughly entertain despite their lacking most if not all of those qualities which currently constitute the dogma informing what Mr Millar described as “action-driven, decompressed story-telling”; they lack the obsessional focus on the tie-in and the crossover, the deliberately and often quite implausibly shocking surprises, the gratuitously full-and double- page money shots, the hyper-violence, the thinnest of texts, and so on.     

From Damon Lindeldof and Ryan Sook's "Life Support", a fine example of some of the modern-era's storytelling  conventions being applied to excellent, and touching, effect
       
By contrast, trying to establish any common and easy-to-identify "bang for your buck" features between the shorter-length stories mentioned above, beyond the fact that (1) they’ve all got superfolks in them and (2) they’re all not what we’d today regard as full-length features, would be a futile business. Life Support and Two Of A Kind, for example, are serious minded stories which are almost entirely lacking in action, and yet the comicbook realism of the latter is quite distinct to the former’s cartoon-noir. (Both, however, would appear to be the kind of tale which the storytelling precepts announced by Didio, Johns and Lee for the New 52 books would disqualify from publication.) By contrast, The Terrible Threat Of The Living Brain and several pages of  The Baba Yaga are saturated with dramatically kinetic set-pieces, although the ur-superheroics of the first and the gothic horrorisms of the second would help to defeat any over-simplistic attempt to reduce the two to a blueprint for comicbook do's and don't's. While several of these tales are, in today's terms, rather word-heavy, others are notably text-bare and largely reliant on their artwork to carry most of their meaning. While some rely on but a few panels on the page, others work from a traditional nine-frame grid. Obviously, if there’s a set of common features which might explain the appeal of these highly-regarded super-people stories, then a facile compare’n’contrast exercise isn’t going to reveal it.

From Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's "The Terrible Threat Of The Living Brain"
            
Yet what we might politely call Mr Millar's playful reductionism is mirrored in so many of the prescriptions offered today on the question of how to improve the popularity of the superhero comic. To read, for example, of Dan Didio's insistence that DC's New 52 books won't feature page after page of talking heads anymore is to shiver with a hopefully unjustified foreboding; surely the issue isn't a Manichean one of talking heads or no talking heads, but rather one of hiring competent-at-least creators who know when and how to use such conventions in an enjoyable and meaningful fashion. (The Dark Knight Returns, for example, is quite literally full of talking heads, and yet I've never heard of it being criticised as either an unpopular or even an undynamic text.) To bureaucratically reduce storytelling to such banally rigid principles would be as senseless as the Emperor Joseph II’s declaration to Mozart that his work had “too many notes” in it, and just about as productive a business too. Mr Millar may have been playfully trying to shield Mr Ross's work from criticism for its excess of wordiness when he suggested that value for money and decompressed, action-based storytelling were in some ways incompatible. Yet his analysis is no more absurd than most of those we hear rolling down from the Olympian heights of the Big Two's board-rooms. More action, less talk! Less panels, more splashes! Write for the trade, don't write for the trade! More detailed rendering, more overpantsless costumes! More continuity in crossovers, less continuity in a rebooted universe! 

Mike Mignola’s  "The Baba Yaga"
          
But a detached look at the very best work in the genre's history would uncover just one single common feature between all of the excellence that's been produced since the beginning of the Silver Age, and that's a simple but fundamental one; the writers and artists involved knew what they were doing in terms of their craft. This is as true for Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates as it was for Gardener Fox and Carmine Infantino's Adam Strange. The creators who produced the work which has proven to be of lasting value beyond the undeniable charms of nostalgia brought to their work an individual sensibility matched with a fierce control of the discipline of their art. From their command of the minutiae of the technical issues involved in storytelling, to their idiosyncratic approaches to what to others was a matter of creating-by-rote, the best of the craftsmen and women working in the superheroic sub-genre have matched ambition and enthusiasm with a phenomenal degree of skill  In short, they understood their responsibility to their readers. Just as they understood when an establishing shot was required, or when a page-turning closing panel needed to be constructed just so, so also infused their work with their own particular characters, with their personal tastes and aspirations and beliefs.

And no amount of facile prescription, no checklist of 3 or 5 or 10 key factors, can create a lastingly successful comics industry if a critical mass of creators and editors either simply don't understand the basics of their craft, or won't put their individual fusions of talent and skill to use in contradiction of the least productive of the storytelling orthodoxies of the present day.

From Grant Morrison, Curt Swan and George Freeman's "Ghosts Of Stone"
         
*1: - Bruce Timm’s "Two Of A Kind" (Batman: Black and White volume 1): Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s "The Terrible Threat Of The Living Brain" (ASM # 9): Mike Mignola’s  "The Baba Yaga"  (Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Other Stories): Gibbons and Moore's "Mogo Doesn't Socialise" (Green Lantern volume 2:188 and a dozen TPBs): Morrison and Swan’s "Ghosts Of Stone" (Secret Origins volume 2:46): Lindelof and Sook’s "Life Support".

To be continued, with a look at the strangest of newly-orthodox storytelling conventions as it's appeared in recent issues of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan, The Secret Avengers and the FF ...

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Friday, 19 August 2011

And So Farewell .... Until Next Friday, Of Course!

      
And then it was almost autumn again ….

Given that even the teachers of the Educational Psychological Service get to enjoy a summer holiday of sorts, the house is currently alive with the twister of activity that is the Splendid Wife and her constant companion, Eyebrow Girl, the Hound Supreme. And beginning tomorrow, the holidays will become The Holidays, in which your blogger and his small but perfectly portable family will be off to enjoy the likes of very long walks, very protracted lunches and blissfully elongated afternoon snoozes.

         
I write this not because I imagine that it’s of the slightest interest to anyone in itself, but simply as a way of saying that, should anyone pop over this way to kill a few minutes over the next week, there’s unlikely to be anything new appearing until Friday the 26th August. So, my apologies, but if you’re trapped in an office and killing a few minutes on the blogopshere until lunch, or surfing on a sleepless night, or caught in any situation which relies on page-hopping to pass the time, this blog will sadly fail in its duty of providing even a minor distraction for another seven days.

         
I hope that anyone stumbling across this is having a splendid time, and that all will be well until we might perhaps meet here-abouts again to think too much about comics. I suspect that there’ll need to be significant changes to this little blog when I return, or very soon afterwards, and so it’s with a mixture of enthusiasm spiced with a touch of confusion and trepidation that I wish you hail and farewell and good fortune too.

Stick together!
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Thursday, 18 August 2011

On "Judge Dredd:The Family Man" by Al Ewing & Leigh Gallagher: "Almost A Happy Ending ..." (Part 2 of 2)

In which the blogger finishes off his discussion of Al Ewing and Leigh Gallagher's splendid "Judge Dredd: The Family Man", the first part of which can be found here. As with Tuesday's piece, there are spoilers and yet more spoilers in what follows;

          
The fascist state of Mega City One is threatened, the fascist state is restored by Judge Dredd. The very perdurability of the Judicial regime gives it the illusion of being a fundamentally stable and even rather conservative one, being as it’s nearly always shown to be a slightly-less odious alternative to the antagonists which threaten its existence anyway. And so, nothing much ever seems to change where the Big Meg’s government is concerned over the long-term, no matter how many millions of folks are eaten alive by aliens or vaporised in atomic attacks. The Judges at the top of the top of the tree are shifted around, but Mega City One’s own particular brand of fascism remains fundamentally unaltered and the fact that it does so is often central to the satisfaction that the reader's offered at each story’s end. No matter how satirically it’s framed, Dredd’s efforts are nearly always directed to

      
preserving the Blackshirted state, and its ubiquity combined with his successes mean that the very fact of that fascism can become less and less remarkable, receding with familiarity as it does into the taken-for-granted background noise of the strip. It can be hard at times to notice or care that Mega-City One is a cancerously despicable state from helmet down to jackboot and back up to shoulder-eagle icon again. For we know that the Hall Of Justice will remain in control no matter what, just as we can be sure that Dredd will survive as both hero and villain of the strip, an example of an appalling Blackshirt who in some ways isn’t quite as appalling as most of his fellows. From this comes a sense that the future of 2133 is, quite contrary to all of iys block wars and political-infighting, a rather cosy and predictable dystopia. Where we should feel at least something of a sense of the transgressive and the threatening when we visit the fascist Mega-City One, we’re perhaps more likely over the longterm to feel really rather secure and unchallenged by what we’re seeing. Stability and familiarity can, it seems, breed a kind of complacency.
        
       
But there most certainly is a sense of uncertainty and foreboding in “The Family Man”, and that’s in large part because of the malignancy of  Judge Bachmann’s extreme right-wing fusion of the pulpit and the fasces. The quasi-religious ideology being used by the Justice Department’s Black Ops Division to brainwash its cloned assassins is a profoundly irrational and incendiary strain of fascism, and in that, it stands far closer to the very worst of Nazism than does any other ethos more typically expressed in Mega City One. Just to imagine the Judicial State incorporating such an impossibly unstable and virulent form of fascism is to find any cosily familiar picture of Dredd’s future world being eaten away by some exceptionally unpleasant thoughts. To strip away even the vestigial traces of the law which have permitted Dredd to parade himself before us as the Good Fascist, and to replace them with an ecstatic religion based on the all-justifying pseudo-sacred principle of “preserving Mega City One’s interests”, would be to recast the Judges as Priests, their state as a Theocracy, and any perceived violation of the law as a sin rather than a crime. In such a way would the already entirely despicable state of Mega City One become something far, far more extreme, unpredictable, and, inevitably, destructive. For if there's been anything that's limited the corruption of the city to the slightest degree, it's been the obsession of the Judges with order as an end in itself rather than with any more abstract and purposeful mission.

          
To the Judges of a Big Meg where the dominant ideology was one of the "God City", the likes of the good citizens of Township Three and their nascent civil society wouldn't be just the burdensome responsibility that they are to Dredd. No, they'd be heretics and their heresy would lie in the fact of their unalterable difference and the ungodly cooperative spirit which they're forging.  Dredd may perceive the likes of Old Doc and his glad assumption of civic responsibility as an irritating if regretfully necessary matter, and we may find that a rather amusing marker of what an old reactionary grump he is. But what to Dredd is a minor vexation would be to a far more radically-fascist mentality a blasphemy, a challenge to the orthodoxy of the God-City, and a profanation to be stamped upon, and savagely too.  As such, there's a sense of horror topped up with despair in Bachmann's comment to Dredd that the "hardliner" Judge Duryea has been given Township Three to oversee. Whatever the liberties which had been won there by Breyer and his "family" simply aren't going to survive, let alone prosper, and any sense that this is an unchanging and unchallenging future, in which Dredd's relatively benign authoritarianism will always eventually win out, simply evaporates. 

Mr Gallagher's take on Judge Bachmann manages the profoundly un-21st century trick of presenting an exceptionally strong female character defined predominantly not by gender, sexuality or age. Instead, Mr Gallagher's Bachmann's neither a stereotype of a teenage girl unconvincingly aged with a few crows-feet nor a prematurely wizened old hag. She's fiercely and fascinatingly intelligent, brave and not a little cruel, handsome with the most infuriating of smiles, decidedly powerful and quite confident in her capacity to see off that old conservative Joe Dredd.  In truth, there's been no-one to match her as an antagonist in any action-adventure strips from either side of the Atlantic since at least the turning of the year, and probably for a long time before that too.

Whether Mr Ewing meant for “The Family Man” to work as a broad, playful and yet fundamentally despairing allegory of contemporary politics in the West is of course entirely beyond the blogger's capacity to know.  It seems, of course, an incredibly over-sincere and over-serious presumption to suggest any such a thing, and yet it really is incredibly hard not to see the story as being structured so. It's not so much a matter of the appropriately late-night-TV pop-satire jibes aimed in the direction of a few of today’s politicians and their grand, cruel and ill-conceived social programmes. Rather, it's because this story of a powerless community relying so futilely for its protection upon impotent and even largely-uncaring authority figures carries something of a sense of what life back here in 2011 can feel like for many of us. Most of us are powerless, most of us attempt in our everyday lives to contribute what we can to a civil society, and most of us are faced with a choice between representatives, between protectors, who are at best mild-minded and unambitious conservatives, or, at worst, their insanely irrational and self-interested brethren from the badlands of the ideologically committed. (The choice between the slightly-nicer bad cop and the just-plain bad cop really isn't much of a choice at all.) In real life as in “The Family Man”, the evidence which might be put to use in order to make things just that little bit better counts for nothing when all that ideology and power's in play, and the best that many of us can hope for is that we’ll be permitted in our irrelevancy to keep on struggling exactly as we are. Grud help us when all that faith-based politics starts to swell and roll and roar in our direction.

         
Yet it’s not that “The Family Man” is anything of a kneejerk polemic attempting to spit at the modern-day right with a fever-dream of a sickly and perfect left-wing utopia. In many ways, Township Three is a model of a community which the right as well as the left could without the slightest qualm claim, and in the town’s acceptance of traditional authority and in its gratitude to Breyer can be seen something of a conservatism running quite counter to any socialist critique of society. Instead, Township Three stands as an example of how practical and humane solutions to social problems can be developed when those with ideologies antithetical to any such thing are looking for the moment in the opposite direction.  As such, this isn't a story of the good folks and their evil persecutors so much as it is a tale which expresses the truth of Zimbardo's findings; "... good people will become 'evil' if you put them in an 'evil' environment". For “The Family Man” draws a clear distinction between those folks who're trying to be kind to others in a situation which encourages them to do so, and those who quite frankly aren’t, and the blame for the latter lies not so much in the individual concerned as in the situation in which they've lived out their lives. On the one and more beneficent hand, there's Breyer, his auxiliaries, Old Doc, and those of the community who turn out to create an ad-hoc fire service when Emily Prentiss's hut is torched, all of them learning how to be human again out in the wilderness of the Cursed Earth. On the other, there's those whose thinking has been profoundly and definitively shaped by the physical circumstances and the ideological culture of Mega-City One, such as Dredd, Maddox, Bachmann and, in an admittedly more ambiguous sense, Ruskin and Powell and their fellow run-away, me-first intellectuals.
         
  
If there was the slightest doubt that Mr Ewing was peddling any kind of them/us, right/left, bad/good allegory with “The Family Man”, then the presence of a cadre of self-interested and somewhat bigoted bourgeoisie intellectuals in the tale would surely put paid to it. They do at first appear to be no more than victims themselves, disguised as they are as mutants so that they can perhaps steal “a month, six months, a year living in a real society”. But then the unfortunate Rita Hammond expresses her illiberal and yet undoubtedly sincere contempt for the mutants she’s been hiding out amongst, for to her they can't be said to be entirely human and deserving of all that she and her fellow norms apparently are. In the manner of so many of the supposedly educated and progressive classes of the West, who seem to find it remarkably easy to refer contemptuously to their fellow citizens as chavs and hicks and trailer trash and worse, the Township Three
        
If there's any more chilling antagonist of any gender at work in today's action/adventure comics than Bachmann, I've not come across them. And she's quite terrifying without ever getting up from behind her desk.
          
Five's sincerly humanist convictions seem strangely uninformed by any liking or even respect for their supposed equals. She and her fellows may have downloaded copies of “banned material” concerning the corruption of Judicial society, but they don’t seem to have been inspired to do democratic anything about it beyond helping themselves in a pique of entitlement to the meagre resources intended for the Mutant Townships. No samizdats, no underground debating societies, no free-thinking networks of activists; in short, nothing except an understandable but hardly laudable excess of self-interest. In a story that's already honeycombed with the evidence of how impossible change for the better is in Mega City One, the presence of a gaggle of selfish "dissidents" in Township Three only raises the sense of frustration, of a bafflement as to where a better world could possibly be coming from. Of course, it’s a necessary irony that Rita’s something of a snob and a segregationist, because that stops “The Family Man” from reading as if its author only ever felt disillusioned, if not thorougly antagonised, by the Right. In fact, the moral divide on the page is a much simpler business; liberalism, as much as any other value-system in Mr Ewing’s tale, serves as an excuse to commit appalling acts while enabling its believers to feel perfectly justified in doing so.

          
"Shows they accept me.":- From the moment Judge Breyer associates himself with a community of outcasts rather than with the ruling power of Mega-City, we know - we just know - that he's doomed.

There's a range of political stances on offer in "The Family Man" extending from Breyer's burgeoning liberalism through the authoritarianism of Dredd to the nascent Nazism of Bachmann, and through the presence of those quite distinct agendas, we're made constantly aware of how unstable this world is, and of how vulnerable the powerless mutants of Township Three really are. For despite all their effiorts and achievements, there's no one there to formally represent them, and so there's no-one to protect them once Breyer and his deputies have been murdered by Maddox in the name of the God-City. Yet on the surface of things, “The Family Man” is a straight-forward and entertaining tale of how Dredd comes into conflict with extremists in the ranks of the Justice Department, and as that it works very well indeed. There’s a mystery to be solved and there's the requisite suffering and showdowns, the tensions and reversals and the moments of  wit and black comedy too. And in the anything-but-gratuitous deaths of some of the most admirable characters on display, there’s a sense created that what’s being read counts as something far more moving and weighty than a standard-issue Dredd tale. Yet underneath all of that is the constant sense that even the tiniest step forward towards decent-heartedness in 2133 will inevitably be stamped upon, because Dredd just isn't a powerful enough influence even within his own Party, and Breyer's out in the Township on his own with no influence at all, while Bachmann's burrowed down in the Halls Of Justice with a football team of Nazi assassins sracked up behind the cupboards of her office. Trapped between the causes of others without any measure of power themselves, it's patently impossible that the modest little Prague
      
It takes a genuinely sensitive artist to produce a drawing of a man with a fish head getting shot which inspires pity and horror rather than a chucklesome sense of the the ridiculous. Huzzah for Mr Gallagher!

Spring of Township Three can end in anything other than repression. In that, this seems to be less of a story designed to satisfy the reader with any neat trick of closure and more of one written to quietly unnerve and provoke. It’s a tale concerned with a fundamentally cruel and unstable future world of 2133 which has been designed to be read in a challenging and desperately unpredictable present-day of 2011, and all that effectively-placed political sub-text charges up “The Family Man” with layers of frustration and distrust and anger which colours it without obscuring the grim fun of the text. The fellows in the white hats all end up murdered, Joe Dredd's outmaneuvered and proven to be  ineffective, and in the distance squats the tyrannical Mega-City One, which seems to be being eaten out from within and transformed into something which is even more corrupt than it was before.. And so, to see the genuine respect being shared between Old Doc and Judge Breyer, for example, is to be aware that something terrible is going to happen to at least one of them, because no truly fascist state can afford any such tenderness to develop between the soldiers of the ruling elite and the supposed dregs of the underclass. Everything about “The Family Man”, whether it's immediately obvious or not, is signalling up that things are never going to end well, because they simply can't. In such a way are the dubious pleasures of a happy ending in a fascist future avoided, while what's transmitted isn't the sense of the virtue of any one cause or character so much as that of the wretchedness of Mega-City One's comicbook fascism itself. From Bachmann scheming in her office at the Hall of Justice, to Dredd patrolling the streets of Mega-City One, and out into the hinterland beyond where Duryea's now the party's man in Township Three and the Mutie's are struggling simply to survive, there's nothing good and nothing that's not disturbing about this future at all.

A world whose fundamental principles are well worth the working to avoid, then .....
       
    
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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Some Thoughts On Al Ewing & Leigh Gallagher's "Judge Dredd: The Family Man" (Part 1 of 2)


In which the blogger discusses "The Family Man" from Judge Dredd Megazine # 312 and 313. Please do be aware that there be spoilers below;
  
Mr Gallagher's art in "The Family Man" is wonderfully disciplined and effective. In the above, for example, each panel is carefully filled with telling information and there's not the slightest sign of the artist avoiding the challenges of the script in favour of any personal indulgences. For example, on the left, there's the tenderness of the two men's handclasp, the telling pre-fab sparseness of the surgery with the everyday tech of the terminal on the wall, and the vanishing point which carries the eye from Breyer to Dredd to the door and out into the world of the next panel. What there isn't is any evidence of the all-too-common business of an artist side-stepping the responsibilities of storytelling in favour of short-cuts and money-shots.

As supposedly with horses and water, so with fascists faced with a genuinely civil society. For neither equines, it seems, nor the congenitally Blackshirted can ever be relied upon to notice a thoroughly refreshing prospect before them, and that's despite the fact that it might just be the very thing that their lives depend upon. It’s certainly that way in Al Ewing and Leigh Gallagher's “The Family Man”, where Dredd simply can’t grasp what it is that Judge Breyer’s telling him, despite the fact that the evidence is right there before his bionic eyes; the mutants who’ve been expelled from Mega-City One and dumped into the Townships of the Cursed Earth’s badlands are creating a genuinely inclusive and civil community for themselves.. Look at you. Been here an hour and you’re ready to crawl out of your skin.”, Judge “Sherrif" Breyer says to him, noting how uncomfortable his colleague is with a society which runs so counter to Dredd's authoritarian principles. Yet Breyer himself, parcelled out by the Grand Hall to Township Three for the thought-crime of  being “too liberal by half", is perfectly content to drive helmetless around the uncovered

I adore the care taken with character in Mr Gallagher's work. Here Dredd's ubiquitous grimace is counterpointed with the top two-thirds of Breyer's face in profile, allowing us to note the latter''s wonderfully relaxed expression , with those smile lines make such a contrast with ol'stoneyface's scowl. I also admire how the word balloons have been placed to emphasise how very apart the two men are in terms of their characters and beliefs.
streets of the settlement in a way that Dredd would never consider doing, because Breyter feels that he's become part of this community rather than its jailer; they “accept” him and he in turn is beginning to regard them as his “family”.  Well, why wouldn’t he? Why would he need to hide himself away from them, and to pretend that he's representing something other than his value as an individual member of the community? For both mutants and Township Judge alike haven’t responded to their exclusion from the Big Meg with resentment and aggression and a capitulation before the harshness of the challenges before them. Instead, they’ve accepted that Township Three presents something of an opportunity even as it’s undoubtedly a great deal of a purgatory too, and they’ve constructed a tiny and yet robust state of 33 000 souls that’s far more fundamentally humane and decent than that of the city-state which they were expelled from. As Rita Hammond, who’s disguised herself as a mutant in order to crash the Township explains, they're all sharing “a real society - - (with) a real legal system, full employment, fresh air …” With a little more living space and a touch more responsibility, with the freedom from the cultural toxicity of Mega-City One’s media and in the absence of its citizen's inexhaustible racism, the folks of Township Three are learning how to express themselves as social animals, as citizens of a genuine polis, as people. But Dredd simply can't perceive anything but the emasculating absence of the Judicial State’s nightstick from the collective windpipe of the Muties in their exile, and it fundamentally unnerves him. There stands before him the modest and yet all-too convincing evidence of how his city's people might be saved from barbarism and squalor, but all Joe Dredd can see is the absence of that which he understands as order.

           
Yet at least Dredd can grasp that the Muties are a strata of individuals who deserve the minimum of protection, and at least he is concerned with their welfare to the degree to which he feels obligated to ensure that their Townships don’t degenerate into concentration camps. It’s a fact which doesn’t make an honourable man of him, although by contrasts with his fellows it often seems to, but it does at least give the reader the comfort of knowing that there’s some fragile slither of what we’d interpret as human decency surviving in him, and, by extension, in the Judicial State too. In Dredd’s refusal to accept the very worst extremes of what's already an appalling and protracted campaign of apartheid against the mutants, the reader can't help but imagine, there’s a hope that he'll perhaps one day turn against the fascism which he’s so long served. Yet the presence of the dauntingly formidable Judge Bachmann and the cloned assassins of her “Black Ops Division” in “The Family Man” present the reader with another possible future for Mega City. For Bachmann is a far more of a recognisable fascist in historical terms than Dredd is, and her particular interpretation of the Blackshirted cause is one which promises nothing more cheering than the fanatic's thousand years of fascist/religious totalitarianism. In that, her presence in Mr Ewing's tale argues for anything but the promise of a few steps back in the direction of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

 
Where it's sometimes far too easy to regard Dredd as little more than an incredibly tough-but-honourable future-cop, or even as an indomitable protagonist bordering on the superheroic, Bachmann's fearlessness and competence reduces him to what he undoubtedly is, namely, just one more cog in a thoroughly unpleasant and almost inconceivably massive state machine composed of millions of indoctrinated fascist soldiers and apparatchiks. The very fact of Bachmann’s presence and of the threat which she embodies helps to strip Dredd of the aura of invincibility and decency which he so often carries with him. If he’s a senior representative of a state that’s as labyrinthine and poisonous as this, then how decent and powerful can he possibly be? In providing us with the suggestion of a fractured and politically dynamic Justice Department in which a host of factions are constantly jostling for power, Mr Ewing undercuts the reader's ability to believe that events will inevitably turn out somewhat for the best as long as Dredd around. More telling yet, we’re reminded that even a nobly reformed and proudly democratically-minded Dredd simply wouldn't have a change of restoring a saner and more humane government to the Big Meg.
           
      
This is especially so when Dredd's rather prosaic and unambiguous sense of what the Law and his duty to it is compared to that of Bachmann, for her take on what the state's ideology should incorporate contains one telling aspect that's been largely missing from that of the government of Mega City One since the Judges first assumed power, and that’s fascist mysticism. (*1) The Judicial system as originally developed under Chief Judge Fargo was a strangely pseudo-rational one. It appealed to a perversion of common sense and tradition, as we would expect fascism to do. But its call to order and obedience as an absolute good in itself was designed not to inspire a dynamically aggressive state, but to rather impose a system of the most oppresive social control under which the dangerously independent-minded masses could do as little harm as possible. In that, Fargo's fascism relied far less upon indefinable and rabble-rousing concepts such as the people, the nation, the race, the leader, the blood, destiny and the banner than have so many other far-right, authoritarian regimes. Indeed, Fargo and his successors have, with a few exceptions, always been far more concerned to make sure that the people of the Big Meg didn’t become aroused by an excess of political and religious fervor. After all, keeping just a measure of control of Mega City One's 400 million citizens is a challenging enough business even when they don't believe in anything much of a cause at all.

(*1) Readers might care to pop into the comments below, where Mr Ewing explains how that judicial mysticism was introduced into Dredd's world by writer Simon Spurrier.


To be concluded.
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Friday, 12 August 2011

On Jack Kirby's OMAC (Part 2 of 2):- Stay Awake ...

In which the blogger concludes the piece concerning Jack Kirby's wonderful and sadly short-lived OMAC, the first part of which can be found here;

     
It’s not that Jack Kirby isn't absolutely explicit about the fact of the murder of the hapless Buddy Blank. In truth, Mr Kirby constantly returns to the matter in the pages of Brother Eye and Buddy Blank, and the process by which the One Man Army Corps usurps Buddy's body and then extinguishes his mind is unambiguously detailed between pages 15 and 19 of OMAC # 1.  The boy is dead, there's no doubt of that at all, and it's Professor Forest, with the connivance of the Global Peace Agency, who has killed him. Indeed, we're even shown the final extinction of the last of Buddy's consciousness, which occurs during the scene in which OMAC encounters a disassembled Lila robot. Her securely-packaged head flanked surreally by two suggestively placed and disconnected legs, the Lila model introduces herself to OMAC with a pre-programmed spiel of “Hello ... put me together …. And I will be your friend …”, while the sequence's narrative captions explain to us that;

“Somewhere, inside OMAC, Buddy Blank has not yet faded completely …. The faint last vestiges of Buddy Blank seem to scream, his memories rise for one tragic moment in OMAC –“

It's both an appallingly disturbing as well as an amusingly absurd scene, in that the final thing that "the last vestiges of Buddy Blank" ever perceive is the image of the young woman he rather piteously loved reduced to the form of a distressingly suggestive model kit. This is especially true and touching in the light of the fact that Buddy had never seen "Lila" in her disconnected form before, meaning that he's dying not only with the knowledge that his body's been stolen, but with the realisation that his adored friend's form was indeed nothing more than a "programmed automaton"; everything, it seems, is to be taken from the entirely-luckless Buddy Blank in his final moments, and there is to be no hope of rescue.


Yet although Mr Kirby’s narration unambiguously describes the final dissolution of Buddy Blank’s consciousness, his artwork and dialogue can at first seem to be transmitting a far more conventional and reassuring meaning. In that, it's very hard indeed to believe that Mr Kirby wasn't playfully using the figure of the apparently-noble OMAC in order to challenge his readers to keep their wits about them when it comes to the matter of who it is that's being sold to them as the guy in the white hat, or at the very least, as the superhero with the great big Brylcreemed Mohawk  For to the experienced reader of superhero comics, it can be difficult to come to terms with the idea that the character in a narrative who most looks like a member of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade is actually anything but. This is especially true in OMAC # 1, for Mr Kirby plays his hand so well that the reader can hardly do anything but expect the triumphant entrance at the appropriately hopeless moment of a drama-closing, theme-settling super-man. We've been invited to watch on as the hapless and defenseless Buddy Blank is scorned, bullied and finally threatened with death. We've been told that Professor Forest is going to "change" Buddy into OMAC, who we've already briefly seen in a flash-forward prologue destroying the factory of the nefarious Pseudo People Inc, which assures us that everything is going to end up quite happily according to convention.


As such, it's impossible for the reader not to believe that Buddy will surely be rescued by fate at the last possible moment, endowed with the ability to batter the life out of his tormentors, and emerge as a champion of those who are still as vulnerable as he himself once was. In short, we're as sure as we can be that Buddy will become the gloriously powerful One Man Army Corps, and that he'll do unto others as the Buddys of the world have always struggled to, and with considerable force and aplomb too. In his turn, Mr Kirby both appears to deliver on our expectations, in that the text can seem to be providing those entirely familiar pleasures of salvation and justice and righteous revenge, while Brother Eye And Buddy Blank actually works in contradiction of convention, by making it clear that OMAC isn't the hero of the piece in any traditional sense at all. In that, one of the major themes of The World That's Coming is constantly being played out in the space between our preconceptions of the story and our actual experience of it. OMAC is nothing if it isn't a comic that's concerned with the difference between hyperbole and reality, between an almost-entirely convincing surface and the presence or not of something of moral substance beneath it.
        
        
It's this clever and entirely unexpected clash between what OMAC appears to be saying and the facts of its narrative which helps to make it such a fascinating comicbook. For example, the monologue which Mr Kirby has OMAC deliver over the unassembled spare parts of one of the Lila robots gives us at first the sense that there’s actually a far closer relationship between the murdered Blank and the thing that’s been created from him than is actually so. In having this new superhero express such regret and horror at the way in which Pseudo People Inc has preyed upon human vulnerability, and by implication upon Buddy himself, the impression's given that OMAC’s doing far more than simply mourning the exploitation of Blank and the billions of those like him. Rather, we're being given a sense that OMAC is actually accessing and sharing Buddy's experiences and his pain, which creates the cleverest illusion that Buddy and OMAC aren’t two different individuals at all, but rather one bound by a common set of memories and emotions. And so it really does appear that OMAC is actually still Buddy Blank, and that the latter's suffering is inspiring his newly-forged superheroic form to vow that “They’ll pay for this …”. Yet Mr Kirby's narration also puts paid in a quite definitive fashion to any such sentimental conceits, meaning that there's always a tension in OMAC between what's objectively happening and what the reader's expecting to occur. And so, when OMAC,  face-to-disembodied-face with the various and separate components of Lila, declares that “No one can put this kind of terrible thing …. together…”, we feel that he must surely be talking about the damage that’s been done to him, and that he must still be the Buddy Blank whose meaningless life and appalling death we’ve already been witness to. After all, why else would we have been shown Buddy’s thankless existence in such bleak detail if it wasn’t, in the way of an exceptionally familiar genre piece, to increase our pleasure when events finally turn his way?

        
But Buddy Blank doesn't have very much at all to do with the events in "OMAC" # 1. We're led to believe that the story is his, and that he's the protagonist of the tale, but he's really nothing more than an innocent victim of the powers which control the super-technology of his world. Whether Buddy was kind and caring or not, brave or cowardly, self-sacrificing or utterly selfish: none of that matters at all. To Professor Forest, he's just the best possible candidate for the OMAC, for a grand showpiece "force for peace!!".To the thugs of Pseudo People Inc, he's simply the subject of a "field test" into the plausibility of the Lila model. But Buddy Blank's life doesn't matter at all to these people, and his death counts for as little too. Nothing that he's ever done makes the slightest difference to the fate he falls to. We think that it will, because that's how stories so often work, but Buddy is just a powerless victim who dies in order for the story to begin. In OMAC's future, the individual counts for nothing, and all that matters is the power that technology can bring. Even the hope of finding somebody to love rests on being able to afford a "Build-A-Friend", and in the faith that the lover who arrives isn't primed to detonate when their head is attached and the foreplay begins.

  
Each Lila model may appear to be a beautiful and kind women promising happiness while wired to explode, and OMAC may look very much like a fearless and powerful hero set on saving the world, but in so many ways the two of them aren't opposites at all. OMAC is no more a mark of the ethical and life-enhancing use of technology than the Lila's are. He's not a sign that science and comicbook hokum can save the wretched of the Earth anymore than she's a symbol of the possibilities for finding true love in a self-assembly love'n'sex robot kit. For OMAC's not a force for good so much as a weapon which might just be used for it, and he's not a person so much as he's a thing, an object, a way for the men with knowledge and power to stamp their authority on the affairs of the Earth. Yet if Buddy's life mattered not a whit to anyone but himself, he did at the least have a kind of life. It was a meager, loveless and thoroughly alienated existence, but Buddy was still self-aware and capable of reaching out for affection while trying to work through his quite appropriate despair. By comparison, OMAC is designed to simply do whatever it is that he's told to, and the "faint memories of being -- someone else" that he'll continue to be vaguely aware of are things he'll be ordered to ignore and bury away. "Forget who you were." as Professor Forest tells him,"The world needs you as you are."

     
The truth is that OMAC’s confused and dejected response to encountering the Lila automaton, to meeting that "tragic product of man", marks the last, the very last, of Buddy’s existence. In that, what we're watching there on the page is the disappearance from the narrative of the only person who seemed to have had the slightest understanding of how cruel and excluding and exploitative this future really is. As such, there’s no suggestion on Mr Kirby's part that Buddy's relationship to OMAC is that of Steve Rogers to Captain America, let alone that of Billy Batson to Captain Marvel. But the "last vestiges" of Buddy Blank do constitute a moment of maximum vulnerability for OMAC's new programming, and they inspire a confusion and sorrow in the blue jump-suited ordnance the likes of which he never comes close to displaying again. Indeed, even the assassination of his creator in OMAC # 2 brings little but a moment’s disconcertion and a few ironic platitudes about how Professor Forest had “used his genius in mankind’s service! But the sight of Lila so shakes the disintegrating remnants of Buddy that OMAC himself comes incredibly close to realising exactly what it is that's really wrong with his future world. Of course, nothing of the sort should be happening during the process set in motion by Professor's Forest's "electronic surgery", and yet, in the soon-passed confusion caused by that "scream", OMAC seems inspired to grapple with the idea that the tragedy of his world is not that of the warlords and cabals who challenge the Earth's fragile geo-political balance of power. Suddenly cognizant of tragedies he's barely capable of proccessing, the not-yet one-hour old OMAC sinks to his knees and begins sketching out an understanding of a social catastrophe which, for all it describes the activities of Pseudo People Inc, also applies to the designs of the Global Peace Agency and Professor Forest too;

 “They’ll pay for this, Lila .. They’ve done more than trifle with human life … They’ve made a mockery of the spirit …"
     
         
And that mockery is exactly what OMAC symbolises every bit as much as Lila does. Indeed, OMAC is in some ways far more of an example of moral corruption, for she’s nothing but a machine designed to exploit human loneliness and lust, a product crafted to seduce and, when it's thought appropriate, destroy. What 'she' isn't is a creature whose very existence was founded upon the deliberate slaughter of an individual human life. Her purpose is on occasion murder, but her existence in the first place doesn't depend on it. It's a fact which OMAC himself seems to be grasping for in the confusion and insight inspired by Buddy's quite horrible extinction;

 “Where does humanity stop and technology begin? We no longer know, Lila … I’m no longer who I was … and you, Lila  … you … you and all these other … things …. must be … destroyed!”


It’s hard not to presume that the moment at which Buddy Blank's brief influence passes, and indeed the last of his very existence, can actually be seen in the spaces between the second and third word balloons scanned in above. Between “and you, Lila … you ..” and “... you and all these other … things … must be destroyed.” lies the moment in which Professor Forest's programming of OMAC reasserts itself after a passing moment of confusion, and any suggestion of existential despair is there firmly stamped upon and replaced with the tyrant's sense that opposition ought to be not worried about, but rather quite simply "destroyed". The brief chimeric possibility of OMAC developing free will disappears with the last of the appropriately-named Blank, and his sense that the world is utterly confused and fundamentally broken is stamped upon and large;y erased. From this point onwards, the One Man Army Corps is ready to unquestioningly do whatever it is that he’s told to, and that’s exactly what he does in every single issue of OMAC from this point onwards. For he too really is an example of that inhumane and insidious blurring of technology and humanity; in the world that's coming, so the tag-line for the series might have ran, lovers and superheroes alike will be replaced by soulless monsters created in factories and by "computer hormone" surgery too, and nobody will be able to tell that this has happened.


In the light of this, it’s worth returning to the second scene in Omac # 1, where Professor Forest and two operatives of the Global Peace Agency meet to discuss Buddy Baker’s fate. It’s a scene of bureaucratic terrorism, of the banality of evil, and in that it seems to carry far more of a sense of an intimate lunchtime consultation at the Wannsee Conference than it does of a meeting between, for example, the virtuous likes of Professor Reinstein and Mister Grover's F.B.I. agents from Simon and Kirby's Meet Captain America from 1941. For neither Forest nor the GPA men mention Buddy’s interests or reference any concept of his rights, and it's quite obvious that they’re simply not interested in him as an individual at all. Forest moans that it’s taken the GPA a long time to find Blank while the faceless GPA agents mouth their politically-correct platitudes about their mission and their virtues, but no-one cares a whit about the fact that they’re planning to kill an innocent boy. Indeed, the closest that any of them get to even admitting that Buddy is to be murdered is when a smiling Forest declares that Blank is to be changed into OMAC. Not 'killed', 'murdered', 'annihilated', 'assassinated', 'eradicated', or even

      
'snuffed out'; but 'changed'. That's the way that despots and their lieutenants ensure that they sleep at night, and it’s impossible not to believe that Mr Kirby had very much wanted us to notice how the powerful promise one virtuous good after another while committing sin after terrible sin. Everything about OMAC seems to challenge the reader to pay attention, and to not trust the tales that the folks in power are telling us. Yet it is undoubtedly difficult to hear of a Global Peace Agency, and to read of its masked agents claiming that their faces are kept hidden so that they can best “represent every nation”, and not, after the way of superhero comics, simply assume that "Peace" really does mean "Justice" and "Global" truly indicates a mission that's "For Everyone, including Buddy Blank". Similarly, to read of a GPA operative declaring that his agency is set on “keeping the peace in a world that can’t afford violence.” is to risk falling under the spell of a secret agent's hokum. We might hope that the likes of the innocent-sounding Young Pioneers, Ministry of Peace, and the Free Society of Tuetonia have inoculated our thinking against assuming that a self-proclaimed Global Peace Agency is anything of the sort, but that's sadly simply not often so. Yet if these faceless men were anything but selfless guardians of the community, they’d hardly have decided to openly and self-incriminatingly name themselves, for instance, "Those Slimy Assassins Who Don’t Care A Whit For The Rights Of The Individual As Long As They Get Their Self-Righteous And Bloody-Handed Way". Of course they've called themselves Peace Agents, and of course that's why we mustn't trust them even as they're condemning Buddy Blank to his death.

           
The reader who takes a moment to step back from the surface of OMAC may well find themselves suddenly regarding Professor Forest's self-obsessed excitement at Buddy's coming execution as an utterly repellent business. Yet Mr Kirby effectively masks Forest’s mendacity for those reading OMAC # 1 for the first time by attaching what appears to be a host of commendable qualities and achievements to him. Forest, we’re told, is brilliant. Forest has been waiting patiently despite himself for this world-transforming opportunity. Forest is a loving father, as we can see in the way that he orders Brother Eye to “always help” OMAC. Forest is a patriarch and a dispatcher and a big, big daddy, and, it follows, he must also surely be a very good chap indeed..

But of course, Forest is the man who organises the details of the murder and the subsequent recycling of Buddy Blank into an obedient weapon of mass destruction. Similarly, the men from the GPA are the lickspittles who enthusiastically and diligently narrow down the candidates for the killing to one blameless Buddy Blank. In doing so they establish themselves as drones of an organisation that's exceptionally good at facilitating the brutality of others while protecting its own good name for non-violence. As is so often true in Jack Kirby's OMAC, what we seem to be being shown and the reality of the events before us are two very different things indeed.

Stay awake .....


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