Saturday, 26 May 2012
On "Grifter" #9 & "Cradlegrave": What's The Point Of An Establishing Shot? What's The Point Of A Story?
What's an establishing shot for? It does sound like the stupidest of questions. It's for establishing stuff, isn't it? Time, place, cast, situation; the establishing shot at even its most basic grounds the reader in the fundamentals of what's to come. There's an example of the most meagre type of scene-setting leading off Scott Clark and Dave Beaty's artwork for This Means War!, from Grifter # 9, where an extreme long shot lets us know that we're looking at a chain of snow-covered mountains. The location's defined by the caption at the top right of the frame - "The Swiss Alps" - and the action itself kicks off in the sketchy high-angle long-shot which follows. Clark's obviously as little concerned with the setting as Rob Liefeld, the story's plotter, is. Just as This Means War! uses this fascinatingly extreme environment as nothing more than a flatly generic stage-set to play out some moronically over-familiar sub-Bond low-jinks, so the art shows no curiosity at all about the world in which the coming by-the-numbers firefight will take place in. In short, Clark first tells us that we're looking at "snow" and "mountains" in the most general of senses, before giving us a super-bloke speeding across them while being followed by super-baddies, and that's all he tells us beyond implying what an awesomely cool dude Grifter is. What the scene might actually look like in any detail and specificity, what it might feel like to be there, what thoughts and emotions might be inspired from a smart-minded manipulation of the material on the page; these simply aren't things which Clark and Liefeld are concerned with.
It's not just that Clark seems to have no interest in the backdrops he's presenting, with their embarrassingly thin details apparently constructed from vague memories of Christmas wrapping paper and a postcard image generated in less than 0.33 seconds by Google. No, his fascination appears to lie solely with the secondary-art-market-friendly, full-figure posing money-shot which dominates his design to the degree to which we're not even shown Grifter's snow-board in the third panel, which is actually intended to show, yes, Grifter snowboarding. The heroic frown, the obsessive attention to the folds of the hero's trousers, his beautifully wind-tussled hair; these are the apparently vital issues which Clark frets over. All the while, the story itself appears to be something which the reader is expected to work at constructing for themselves from the few hints given on the page and whatever similar scenarios can be dredged from memories of other narratives from other fictions. Whatever, the establishing shot of this sequence doesn't just lay down the - very - basic context of what's to follow. It also summaries the scale of ambition and the sense of storytelling responsibility that Clark and Liefeld seem to share.
By contrast, Edmund Bagwell's establishing shots of the sink estate in Cradlegrave are so rich in information that the purposeful despair expressed in John Smith's script fairly radiates off of the page. Has there ever been a panel which could make a reader shudder at the inescapable, soul-corroding reek of a scene as that of the frame above? From the litter that's scattered across the landscape to the newspaper hoarding declaring "Refuse Collectors Strike Enters Fifth Week", from the dog pissing on the concrete bollard to the mass of folks going shirtless in the heatwave, everything about this scene evokes how terribly trapped the people of the Cradlegrave Estate are in this specific situation during these particular circumstances. It's a claustrophobic hopelessness that's set up perfectly by the narrow-cropped horizontal panel, within which we're denied the sight of the horizon or the broad arc of the sky, and by the quietly audacious use of a shattered concrete post as the focal point of the frame, and by the choice of a worm's eye camera angle to place the reader in the position of a powerless, crushed-down-to-the-ground onlooker. Without a word having to be used beyond the five presented on the hoarding, Bagwell and Smith establish far, far more than just a vague sense of where the reader is. Instead, they've delivered text and sub-text, emotion and sensory detail, a deeply political sense of outrage and a fundamentally respectful attitude towards the literacy and intelligence of their readers. In this single panel, Bagwell lays to rest whatever's left of the myth that comics art which involves computer-generated imagery can't be deeply soulful and moving.
Yet what's most notable and admirable about the panel is how it never allows the poverty of the sink estate to eradicate the reader's empathy with its inhabitants. Quite the opposite is true. It's the easiest thing in the world to achieve, whether accidentally or not, to present those living in squalor as either nothing but the welfare-robbing architects of their own impoverishment or the mindless culture/gene-scum who deserve nothing better. Yet this frame accentuates both the humanity of those it depicts and the constrictions of the landlocked world they're doomed to. Bagwell places his cast at the far edges of the frame, separated by the dead-hearted destitution of the scene as the eye sweeps from right to left. These are isolated, atomised clusters of individuals living at the margins of things, and that's where they're shown; the boys playing football while largely obscured by the news of political affairs way beyond their understanding or control, the two chatting adults seen only after the eye moves past the urinating hound.Yet each group are actively trying to make something better, something more human, of their situation. The boys are playing sport, the couple to the frame's right are talking together out in the sunshine as neighbours will. While Cradlegrave never under-estimates how humans conspire in their own ill-fortune, or skates over how they can act to drag others down with them, it's primarily a controlled howl of fury at the conditions under which we expect our fellow citizens to live. In Cradlegrave, the environment corrupts and human beings are often exceptionally corruptible, yet Smith and Bagwell are always driven to emphasise that their characters are, regardless of how they act, anything but the "animals" they're accused of being.
I'm not suggesting that the solution to the ineptness of Grifter #9 is a whole-hearted embrace of social realism on the part of Clark and Liefeld and their various collaborators. The very idea of a Liefeld-driven Grifter tale powered by the need to express a complex social agenda is of course as disturbing as it's entirely unlikely. Whether the man has any such convictions is beyond my knowledge, but the evidence of his work is that he lacks the chops to express even the boy's-own punch-ups which he specialises in. Nor am I suggesting that Bagwell's meticulous comics-realism is anything more than one of a thousand thousand different approaches to storytelling. But Cradlegrave is, for all its despair and anger, a fundamentally inspiring example of how comics can be created so as to exploit rather than ignore the possibilities of the medium, and its lessons can be applied, as so many examples in comics history will testify, to the action-adventure tale as much as to the psycho-drama. Why is it then, that so much of what's being sold to us is so pathetically malnourished when it comes to storytelling? Too many of today's books are being produced by creators who are either uninterested in anything but the most facile of tales, or, more disturbingly, shockingly ignorant of the fact that anything but is possible. The comic book can - of course - express so much more than just the barest details of plot spiced up with a stabbing and an energy blast or two. Indeed, a single brilliantly created establishing shot can suggest a whole world of experience and political conviction, just as an entire comic book can be nothing more than an expression of either cold-hearted take-the-money-and-run cynicism or disturbingly low self-expectations bordering on ignorance.
But then, we know that. And yet the system still generates a critical mass of industry-shriveling, audience-alienating pap.
The next set of reviews in response to the second round of Reader's Roulette will follow soon. My thanks again to every one who nominated a comic.