Monday, 30 May 2011

On Secret Six # 33:- What Is A First Page For? (Part 2)

Continued from yesterday's discussion concerning how welcoming the first pages of recent comicbooks are to the casual reader, with a look at the most recent issue of a comic much loved around this neck of the woods;


To write for the trade or for each individual monthly issue? It's a false dichotomy, of course, and yet far too much energy is still on occasion frittered away in squabbling over this imaginary either/or situation. For as with all serial fiction, the challenge for the comic book scripter isn't to write for the single episode or for the competed narrative, but for both. It's an obligation that's often perceived to be both far too arduous and counter-intuitively unnecessary, with the eventual collected edition being seen more and more as the context in which the success of each individual issue should be judged. Yet to avoid grappling with both aspects of this dilemma is to sidestep one of the essential responsibilities of the writer who's producing work for two separate audiences at the same time, namely that of not cheating the one in favour of the other.

Producing work that will be serialised brings its advantages as well as its profoundly exacting technical challenges. For the writer who's open to the opportunity, there's a chance to review future intentions in the light of both reader's feedback and sales figures. (If Dickens was willing to revise his work on a month-to-month basis according to his audience's responses, then I'd imagine that modern-era superhero writers might want to do so too, even given the far more protracted turnaround for today's comics.) Similarly, the conflict that's always present between crafting both the satisfying individual chapter and the accomplished collected edition can be put to use to drive writerly innovation, can inspire new ways in which to keep the audience informed while constantly propelling the narrative forward.

         
There appears to be the evidence of a writer wrestling with this conflict on the first page of "Secret Six" # 33. For there's a clear break between the storytelling choices used at the end of the previous chapter of "The Darkest Hour" and here, where Scandal Savage's first person narration has been introduced to compliment and ground the events at hand. This in itself is hardly typical in the modern-era superhero book, where such a shift in authorial technique between one chapter and the next is very much the exception rather than the rule. (Perhaps the general assumption is that the reader may be alienated by the introduction of different storytelling approaches from one chapter to another, although a contrary view might be that variety and cleverness would increase the pleasure of the reader's experience.) It seems to be that Gail Simone has here decided to frame the final chapter of this rather complex story in terms of Scandal's emotional response to the disconcertingly absurd and deeply hurtful circumstances surrounding her. In doing so, Ms Simone is explaining to the unfamiliar reader a great deal of why this opening scene is important in terms of Scandal's feelings rather than with reference to any mass of backstory, the repetition of which might weary the reader who's already consumed previous chapters of "The Darkest House".

Wasted space: move the bouquet and the blurb upwards and nothing of visual importance is lost.
       
As an approach to snaring the reader's attention through inspiring an empathetic engagement with Scandal's predicament, it's a clever strategy. We're immediately made to understand that something exceptionally shocking and upsetting has occurred to the tale's point-of-view character, and any such awareness inevitably motivates the reader to plough onwards. And as the narration locks the reader emotionally into associating with Scandal, so the next two panels reveal more and more of the physical circumstances informing her situation. The second panel shows her surrounded by her teammates, and the third presents us with both her opponents and something of the stakes for which this conflict is being fought. But the problem is that although the narration inspires both emotion and curiosity, neither the art nor the dialogue functions precisely enough to deliver the bare minimum of the information which the new reader needs to hit the ground running. Much of this results from the problems Mr Calafiore has with presenting the basic information informing the confrontation between Ragdoll and Scandal. For example, there's

Very much not wasted space; a very impressive establishing shot might have been built up around the above as its centre-piece.

no establishing shot on this page, and so the new reader is quite lost as to the essential business of  where the events are occurring and of how the characters spatially relate to each other. It seems obvious that the third panel was the best opportunity for the placing of such an establishing shot, but Mr Calafiore has made a series of choices which make it exceptionally hard for the reader to grasp what's happening on the page. For one thing, Mr Calafiore's decision to arrange his panels in such an unconventional and awkward way makes it hard to the eye to work its way around the page. It's hard to grasp, for example, why Knockout and Ragdoll have been placed in that strange pentagon of a frame, because although their size means that we immediately grasp their importance, the situation they're being pictured fails to carry any sense of why we should be paying attention to them; they dominate this strangely-shaped panel, but the characters are given so much of the space that's available that all context is lost. And although this composition does allow a sense of claustrophobia to be created from the way in which the two leads are crammed over to one side of the page, much of the design is wasted on showing Knockout's garter belt and Ragdoll's knee. In truth, all the visual information that lies beneath Ragdoll's right hand is irrelevant to the meaning of the scene, which stands as a terrible example of wastefulness given that several other panels are crowded and, through absence of space, lacking in clarity and purpose. Indeed, placing Knockout so far out to the left of the page quite disastrously unbalances the composition, because the eye struggles to want to travel back to the last two, disconnected tiny panels placed so oddly one above the other far over to the right. In short, the reader who wants to quickly pick up the essential business of who, where and why on this opening page will first face the challenge of making sense of an unnecessarily turgid design and a confusing lack of transparency.

         
It's very hard to grasp why Mr Calafiore didn't simply arrange his page in the form of three tiers, with the middle row being used as a panoramic establishing shot. It's certainly difficult to understand why those final two frames stand where they are, given that even the presence of the lone bar of guttering on the page between them sticks out as a mark of compositional clumsiness. For it's difficult not to conclude that the page seems not to have been composed and executed with clarity as its main purpose. And so, there's also a puzzling lack of continuity here. Bane only appears as a hairy shoulder far off to the left of Scandal Savage in panel two's line-up of the Six, but in panel four he's moved right behind his colleagues to stand to Savage's left, having apparently pushed Deadshot quite out of the way. These are, surely, basic and easily recognised and resolved storytelling issues.

          
This whole matter of the lack of artistic comprehensibility is all the more to be regretted because Ms Simone's script, focusing as it does more on emotion than plot specifics, places a great deal of responsibility upon the art to explain who's present and how they relate to each other. Yet even where the art delivers something of this, the idiosyncrasies of Mr Calafiore's design choices distract the eye and obscure the text's purpose. No-one could deny Mr Calafiore the effort and attention he's paid to the detail of his work, and much of what he presents is energetic to say the least. But without further attention being paid to the basic compositional organisation and structural meaning of his pages, his art work will rarely stand as even the sum of its often-laudable parts.

But there are problems with the transparency of the script too. For example, although Ragdoll declares "This marriage is necessary." in panel 3, there's nothing on the page to indicate who that marriage is to be between. (*1) The reader not already up to scratch with the backstory of "The Darkest House" will be left trying to deduce who's supposed to marrying who. Similarly, Kay is referred to as "the property of my associate" by Bane, but that's not going to help a reader who's only lightly marinated in the history of the Six. Essential information is here delivered in a way that avoids clogging up the page with exposition, but there's a lack of a twist of precision which, to give but one instance, would've made the relationship between Scandal and Kay easier to grasp. Similarly, the adding of the two words "in Hell" to Ragdoll's page-turner of a declaration would've intensified the force of the cliffhanger for a newcomer, while clarifying for them exactly where these events are taking place.

            
In the end, the question is what would've been lost by making this page just that touch more welcoming to the unfamiliar consumer? As a reader who experiences "Secret Six" in trade form, I was myself quite seriously baffled by this tale, and I had to go back and buy up the preceding issues simply to grasp the basics of what's at stake here. Yet this page was in its fundamental properties remarkably close to carrying those qualities of entertainment, explanation and enticement that we were discussing yesterday. Scandal's narration certainly anchors events in a fascinating and involving manner. There's conflict in play and jeopardy too. And yet, the page remains relatively opaque even to a keen fan of the Six who's as yet only familiar with the last trade paperback collection.With just a touch more attention being given to the neophyte's needs, this page could've retained all of its potential and achievement - there's a clear and intense air of threat and loss radiating from these panels - while adding the storytelling clarity which the casual, and sometimes the not-so-casual, reader requires.

*1:- This reader thought at first that Ragdoll was insisting Scandal Savage should marry her dead ex-lover, given that Merkel appears to be offering Knockout's hand rather than claiming it for himself. In fact, the matter of who's getting married to whom isn't clarified until page 11.

to be continued, though probably not until after a return to "Why I Hate The Bat-Man";
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Sunday, 29 May 2011

Alpha Flight # 0.1, Justice Society Of America # 51, & The Legion Of Superheroes # 13:- What Is A First Page For? (Part 1)

In which the blogger invests in a pile of recent superhero books in a guilt-motivated attempt to show some faith with the sub-genre he's so often baffled by. Hint; it doesn't end well ...


What's the first page of a superhero monthly book for? It sounds like a trick question, but I'm not trying to be disingenuous. It might be assumed that the opening scene of each new comic would be concerned with three vital functions, namely to entertain, explain and entice. To entertain would be to convince the reader, and particularly the uncommitted buyer, that the comicbook before them is without the slightest doubt well worth their time and money. In that, the first page of a comic should surely be the second swing in a purposeful and skillfully wrought one-two, following up the excitement generated by an eye-catching cover with a more substantial declaration of excellence. This, the first page should be declaring, regardless of where its mood lies on the continuum from misery to exultation, is just the first page of what's surely going to be a really fine comic book indeed. To  explain is to inform the reader of the basic terms of what they need to make sense of what's before them; who are they looking at, what's the conflict, what's at stake, where is the action taking place, why should anyone care, and so on? And to entice is, of course, to create a page which structurally coerces the reader into moving swiftly onto the next one with a sense of purpose and anticipation. To achieve that, we'd expect the presence of (1) entertainment and (2) key information to be supplemented by (3) enigmas designed to snare the reader's curiosity matched with an absolutely compelling page-turner of a final panel.

It's worth asking what the function of these irregular rectangles are in Mr Oliver's design? Is it the comic-book equivalent of shaky-cam used to make an utterly dull page more interesting simply because the eye can't rest in any logical way upon either the content of the frames - widescreen, widescreen everywhere! - or the progression between them?
           
Yet nothing speaks so much of the collapse of the intent to appeal to a broader audience beyond that of a title's committed fan as the strange inertia which marks so many of the first pages to be found in today's comics. There's a great deal of an obviously unintended but crippling complacency and craftlessness in a great many of them, and looking at them, it's hard to tell who they're supposed to be beguiling. In fact, there's a terrible sense that they're not being written to beguile anyone at all. Consider, for example, the first page of Marvel's new "Alpha Flight" title. (Above.) It's very difficult to imagine who thought that such an opening scene could lure and snare anyone beyond Alpha Flight's hardcore of readers. Given that those fans have for many years now proven too thin on the ground to support a regular title, we might be forgiven for assuming that Marvel would be intensely focused on broadening the properties readership. Yet, a scene composed of an angry would-be voter ranting against the receiving of a parking ticket simply can't be considered to be intriguing in any persuasive fashion. After all, there appears to be nothing immediately at stake here for anyone beyond an unpleasant and selfish driver who its impossible to care for. Certainly there's little that's promising at play here when it comes to inspiring the interest and the emotions of the reader. and it surely can't be argued that the end of the scene promises anything of a payoff where the matter of how Mister "I'm-Taking-A-Stand-For-The-People"' and his ticket-shredding act of defiance is concerned. (In fact, he disappears from the narrative completely, leaving nothing but a great big "why was this worth a page?" behind.)Why should we care about this crisis of car-parking, for example, when the issue at stake is so straight-forward and so easily resolved, and when Officer Mackenzie herself, the guardian of order in this scene, is so calm and unconcerned?

"Do you see this? Do you see what I'm doing?" Well, no, because (1) you're never actually shown ripping up the ticket, and (b) you're only presented here in silhouette, meaning that's it hard to make sense of anything at all that's going on. It actually takes a great deal of work to establish what's happening here! Does nobody edit comicbooks anymore? This moment is, after all, the most obvious moment of conflict in the whole page and yet it's squashed into a tiny panel showing nothing of the action involved at all. (With apologies for my smudging thumb-print.)
          
It's not that a first page has to be super-charged with violence or the imminent specter of the end of the world. Some of the most effectively engrossing opening scenes in the history of the superhero sub-genre have involved anything other than punches being thrown and energy-bolts being flung. Captain America and Bucky in a World War II bomber at the beginning of "The Ultimates", the Batman brooding while the Joker's deadline approaches and a storm gathers in "The Sign Of The Joker", a simple and yet menacing street scene at the beginning of Azarello and Corben's 'Cage'; it's not the presence of action that matters, but the creation of a sense of meaning, of a scenario where the outcomes are various and uncertain and meaningful, and where the reader as a consequence can't help but wonder "what next?".

Weird storytelling choices no 1235: Why is Officer Mackenzie shown from below when she's in control in the first frame of this extract and yet from the same angle when the lights go out and she's not? Why are policewoman and citizen's heads sticking out of the panel detailing their confrontation, and yet those heads so painfully cropped by the frame above? What of the environment is actually being shown being shadowed at the page-turner? Wouldn't it have made sense to have the last-but-one panel showing the scene with the lights on, for the sake of contrast with the final frame? Are folks making this all up as they go along? Seriously.
          
It's not that this opening sequence in 'Alpha Flight' fails to seed any relevant information as concerns the coming story, but rather that that's all that it does. There is an election running in the background of this tale, for example, and it's obviously one which is vital to the future of the book, but, in the context of the casual reader's first experience of "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, I've no idea who'd be fascinated by the fact of the exterior of a polling station in Canada per se. I'm a Politics graduate myself, but even I can't find too much that's compelling about a line of voters peaceably queuing to undertake their duty as citizens, or a grumpy single example of their number. For a rude and irresponsible driver, and a polite ticket-issuing policewomen, are in this context little but stock characters which express nothing that might grab at the reader's attention by the simple fact of their presence. Nor is it likely that the socio-economic indicator of Canada's unemployment figures, or the fact of its apparent economic crisis, will entice many of the prospective audience for this book to pass this threshold. Instead, the lack of any cleverly constructed drama to drive this scene forward leaves a page cluttered up with plot-points lacking the context to give them any sense of narrative worth. In such a way is any potential enticement to read on effectively neutered before the tale has even begun.

Similarly, a page-turner which consists of the absence of colour from the last frame while a character off-panel asks "Hey! What happened to the lights?" is hardly enticing, especially given that the previous panel inexplicably reduced the two characters in play to silhouettes anyway, meaning that there's little force being carried by a loss of light, since the story was already populated by shadows anyway! As page-turners go, this is quite honestly the least compelling that I can imagine short of that presented in this month's "Justice Society Of America # 51."

Her -- name -- was -- JENNIFER!
             
The first page of June's issue of the JSA carries even less of emotional weight than that of the curtain opener present in "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, which is as perplexing a truth as it is a depressing one, given that the Society's members are being shown discussing a slain colleague while being gathered around her body. This collapse of the will to Pop, of the responsibility to involve and intrigue and move the reader cannot be irrelevant to the matter of the superhero book's continued decline in the marketplace. If, as here, a comicbook presents characters debating the slaughter of a comrade without any significant emotion apparently informing their discussion, then what is it about the page that was supposed to attract and hold the reader's attention in the first place? What is it that was supposed to inspire the reader to choose this of all the comics on the stands on the basis of this page 1? Whatever that property of attraction was presumed to be, the fact is that the reader's first experience of "Weird Worlds Part 1" is a static four panels showing six nameless superfolk delivering a mass of backstory. Only if the uncommitted consumer is possessed of an extreme curiosity for the arcana of continuity can this page be regarded as entertaining. In addition to the absence of feeling and action, there's little of character on show here, with only Blue Devil's man-of-the-people spiel and "Ri"'s one-word anti-sexist response to him standing as a marker of anything of individuality. As a consequence, it's certainly hard to grasp that the members of the JSA are discussing a fallen, youthful colleague. It's as if they're discussing a plot-device, and indeed, that's exactly what they're doing. This regrettable truth is something which becomes all the more apparent when the reader twigs that everyone in the room already knows everything that's being discussed. They know that Lightning's dead, they know her spirit has survived, and I'm assuming that they grasp that the unnamed superheroine who's "relatively new to the team" has a "healing touch", since it's impossible to believe that new members get to join without their powers being explained to their teammates. In truth, there's no dramatic urgency to this page at all, because there's no reason for the events to even be occurring.

56 words!
         
As far as the information being delivered in this sequence is concerned, we are told in the first panel that a character has been killed. We're even told how she was killed, and rather callously too, but the writer never thinks to tell us the dead heroine's name until the third panel, leaving the impression that those who're discussing their fallen colleague care so little for her that she's little more than an object to them. Worse yet, even when she is referred to as "Lightning", the casual reader might be forgiven for wondering why they should care about her death, since no-one even thinks to talk of her in terms of her personal name. There's no mention of "Jennifer", or even of "Ms Pierce", meaning that anyone not already in the loop where "Lightning" is concerned will inevitably struggle to care about this person who no-one thinks of as having a name. We are, it seems, supposed to be fascinated by the comicbook question of  whether she's alive or dead, in 'another dimension' or whatever, but we're not expected to need to relate to her as a person. By the same token, it's assumed in the text that we'll be fascinated by superheroes discussing hyper-babble, but not be interested in how they feel about those obviously minor issues concerning mortality and loss.

But then,  it's not just Jennifer Pierce who goes unnamed on this page; everyone else does too, and there's no hope for the reader, such as myself, who has no idea where "Monument Point" is either.

Bigger panel, but less words; still, 48 words isn't bad for cramming.
         
The creation of this sense of alienation from this first page of JSA # 51 is only intensified by the decision to overload the last two panels of the page with so much dialogue that the reader inevitably struggles to process it. The tiny, penultimate frame is crammed with 56 words, while the fourth runs it close with a further 48. It's inevitably both hard work and dull work trying to process information dumped in this careless fashion, and that's especially so when there's no emotional imperative operating to motivate the reader in the first place.These are comicbook cut-outs talking about comicbook matters in comicbook voices. Who beyond the most loyal adherent to the cult of the costumed hero could possibly care?

The snares placed in the page carry little force too, again because the entertainment is so thin and the information so partial and so decoupled from character. Even the page-turner is bafflingly constructed. There's not a hint of urgency there in the slightest. "Ri has a healing touch. I've seen what she can do. It's impressive." declares Dr Midnight, in what's a statement unmarked by doubt. As such, his are words which inspires no curiosity. In fact, Midnight is so sure about Ri's abilities that the reader can have no doubt at all that Jennifer's body will be healed and all plot-complications resolved for the best. Instead of making the reader feel that turning the page is a priority, here turning the page is an optional extra if the will to do so can be found, if there's nothing better to do.

         
Finally, there's at least something more pressing at stake beyond manifestos, parking tickets and the continuity of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade on the splash page of "Legion Of Super-Heroes" # 13. Rather than the inconvenience of the lights going out or backstory chit-chat about souls and bodies and other dimensions, here we're shown Element Lad from behind jumping out of the way of a punch. Yet, for all there's at least a convincing sense of jeopardy here, in entertainment terms, the first page of "False Hopes" is incredibly thin. In relies at first on the casual reader being interested in the largely unadorned business of two superpeople hitting each other, and even those obsessively interested in hyper-violence would surely note that the tiny figures on show carry little of personality or power. Even the more experienced of Legion followers will surely need a more informing shot than this to inspire any significant degree of concern for Jan Arrah as he faces off against Immortus. We can't even see Element Lad's face, and his body language doesn't at this distance seem to be that of anything other than a competent costumed bloke in a fight. In fact, the composition of the page focuses our attention not so much upon the people before us, but upon what the text declares is "1 000 Mirror Lake on the Planet Colu". To the reader who knows nothing of what that is, or why it matters, all that's before them is a profoundly dull and technically unconvincing depiction of slabs of green glass radiating out in irregular circles from what appears to be a metal coffee-table from some kitsch nightmare of an easy-listening past. It's a terribly demanding task to set an artist, to create an impressive and moving splash page from such an uninvolving example of sci-fi architecture. Of all of the Legion's past illustrators, there are few beyond Forte, Gibbons, Sherman and, at his very best, Giffen, who might be capable of achieving the unlikely goal of making lime-green mirrors and a single tower utterly involving on their own terms. As such, it seems a task that had best not been commissioned at all in the first place, for the matter of the fate of  "1 000 Mirror Lake" is hardly a fiercely-motivating reason to sign up for the story's remaining 19 pages.

            
Still, at least we do know where we are - a planet -  and what's happening - a fight with things being broken - and who the two characters on stage are. There's even a little blurb about the Legion itself at the left-hand bottom of the page to lend the slightest of hands to the neophyte. Beyond that, there's nothing of emotion or character on show. As for enigmas, the 1 000 mirror lake and its destruction seems too visually dull and textually empty of meaning for this reader to care a whit about it being knocked about, and I can see nothing about the page which suggests any single reason beyond the question of who wins a standard-issue knockabout to make me want to read any further.

Whyever should the 1 000 mirror lake matter? What should it make us be feeling, and thinking, and why is it there?
There are times when I despair that the industry won't target its books to an audience beyond its die-hard consumers. But here are three books which seem to have given up trying to attract readers who are anything other than the most unthinking of pre-existing fans for these very titles. In short, not only aren't these books which could possibly increase the sub-genre's readership, but they can't even sell to superhero fans of other titles, which surely speaks of a catastrophic diminution of an already disastrously attenuated degree of ambition. Now even the readers of other superhero books are being excluded from specific texts in the sub-genre! In order to be enthralled by the splash page of LSH # 13, for example, the causal reader would have to find the fact of two blokes hitting each other in a bland sci-fi landscape compelling of itself. To be captured by the opening 4 panels of JSA #51 would surely require a fascination with the very fact of superheroes talking in a largely bland fashion about events which everyone present on-panel clearly already knows about. And to feel enthused by the first page of Alpha Flight 0.1 would be to give away a strange interest in the policing of minor parking offences, or in the admirable but undramatic ability of modern police officers not to care about the rudeness of the general public.

Yes, it's worth saying again that "Alpha Flight" # 0.1, the first issue in a new series starring a perpetually unsuccessful franchise, opened with a scene in which a largely-unidentified major player in the series didn't get involved in any measure of conflict, and triggered nothing but good for herself by doing so!


Next month; a superhero! But what if the simple fact of a superhero fighting someone else wasn't enough in itself to sell a book? What if there was something else that might be placed in an advert to attract a wider audience, and what if that something could make the reader think, or feel, or even, perhaps, both?
          
To be continued, with a questioning look at - it had to happen sometime - at Gail Simone's Secret Six and and a positive tip-of-the-head to an aspect of Geoff Johns Flashpoint too. No, really. I have no friends and I don't mind playing on my own.



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Thursday, 26 May 2011

"The Silliperation Of Moon Knight":- Six Introductions In Search Of An Essay


Being fair to "Moon Knight" # 1 isn't a problem. It's a conspicuously thin, often poorly-crafted, and largely empty-headed comic book, and I'm absolutely confident that that's a reasonable judgment of its worth. No, the problem is that it's so poor a piece of work that it's hard to want to do anything other than savage it, because, after all, Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev are outstanding professionals and they really shouldn't be peddling exploitative piffle such as this at $3.99 a hit.

But a blogger that's little but constantly crabby is of no use to anyone at all, least of all himself. Even the entertainment value of watching a grown man spluttering and steaming up his glasses about the travails of reading superhero comics quickly palls, as I'm sure you'd agree. Invective isn't analysis, and a sneer and a spit and a "how could they do this to the children?" spirit of outrage doesn't help make sense of  "Moon Knight" # 1 in any productive way at all.  Of course, I know this. And so, I've spent the past week trying to write about Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev's tale in a series of ways which might involve more than self-righteous carping and a know-nothing amateur's misappropriation of his old notes from Comics 101.

          
I've failed. I've started six different essays at six more-or-less different starting points and each one has ground to a halt. Some of them were complete except for the need for one last pass, and some stalled after four or five paragraphs. For the truth is, there's no compromising with "Moon Knight" # 1, there's no apparent point in trying to engage in a debate with it. It's a comic which defeats any attempt to open up a dialogue, because it's only concerned with the narrowest of audiences and the most parochial of standards. As a text, as a comic book, "Moon Knight" seems to shrug its shoulders when approached with even the least invasive of questions, self-satisfied and safe in the knowledge that it'll be book of the week and first choice on the podcast menu for a great swathe of the comics blogosphere. Speaking to no-one who isn't already a committed soldier-consumer in the hardcore audience, ambitious for nothing beyond delivering more of the same with a tiny little twist of ersatz-difference, "Moon Knight" provokes negativity in the uncommitted because it doesn't seek to speak to anyone other than its mates. It simply doesn't care what anyone thinks beyond the ranks of those who are already pre-programmed to applaud it. Because of that, the most positive response that anyone not sold on the typical Marvel Comics product of 2011 can generate is apathy.

           
For "Moon Knight" # 1 is the exact opposite to a comic book seeking a broader audience. Indeed, it's a comic book that effectively, and very efficiently, tells everyone beyond the adept that they're not welcome here, that they can either applaud or get lost, and that's a very strange attitude to be taking when launching a new book in an industry marked by an ever-decreasing audience for its monthly product.

Below are six introductory sections from my six different stillborn reviews of "Moon Knight" # 1. This isn't, as I'm sure you'll realise, a tribute to the fractured consciousness of Marc Spector and his incredibly suspect super-power of mental illness, but it is a marker of how so much of the modern-era superhero product defeats the will to engage with it. Fans will put up with just about anything, of course, or at least they will right up until saturation point arrives and they just walk away, but there's a far, far greater audience out there who might just want to read a superhero book or two if they were given equal time with the elect. If only folks could just find a trace more evidence of comics which speak inclusively to them rather than exclusively to the hive mentality of the entirely-habituated superhero devotee.


             
1The One In Which The Blogger Tries To Talk About Social Representations

It seems that nobody at Marvel Comics was remembering to think about anyone other than white blokes on the morning that "Moon Knight" # 1 got the go-ahead. And no-one, it appears, has thought anything more about the whole business of who does and who doesn't get invited to appear in the pages of "Moon Knight" over the past year and more that Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev have working on this series. And so, regardless of why it is that such things keep happening in the product shipped by Marvel and DC, that fact is that the only person of colour in the whole of "Moon Knight" # 1 is a black actor shown playing a corrupt mercenary, who, having fulfilled his role of protagonist-maiming bad guy, disappears in a helicopter by the third panel of page 3. Thup-thup-thup-thup-thup-thup goes the sound effect as the only non-white figure in the book escapes from admittedly-playful stereotype into invisibility, and there's nothing but Caucasian folks for the 30 pages from then onwards.


         

Given the chance to completely revamp a superhero book, it might be imagined that Marvel would have taken the opportunity to think about more than just elbowing the likes of Logan and Peter Parker into one more monthly comic. But, no, faced with an almost blank canvas, Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev have decided to present everything - including the super-heroics - in as whitebread and malestream a fashion as can be imagined. Perhaps this is a situation which will change with issue 2, or issue 6, or whenever, but, taken in isolation, just as it was bought and read in isolation, "Moon Knight" # 1 is a book which just doesn't seem to care about being seen to care where race and gender is concerned. And so, even the three costumed identities which have been given to Marc Spector as part of his comic-book madness are as white as they can be. Did no-one consider that Luke Cage or T'Challa might have been chosen as one of the triumvirate of disordered alters, was no-one feeling a touch more ambitious when it came to the matter of who was given panel-time in this book? Well, if they were, they weren't listened to, or perhaps their imput will only register in the months to come. But for now, it's Cap and Spidey and Wolvy and Moony, and the all-white line-up in the forefront of the book is mirrored by the all-white supporting roles and the all-white walk-ons in the background too. For people of colour don't even get walk-on parts in "Moon Knight" # 1. Of the twenty distinct women and men at Marc Spector's party, for example, as you can see below, not a single one is anything but conspicuously white. 


       

Women, however, do have a substantial presence in "Moon Knight" # 1. In fact, there's lots of women featured at the afore-mentioned elite gathering on pages 6 and 7. That they're all white and sylphlike and beautiful and largely hanging onto the arms of status-saturated men, that they're representative of no-one but media-lovely white models and actresses, is something of a drawback where any claim to being socially inclusive is concerned. But, at least there's not just a single stereotypical white woman in the entire book. No, there's lots of stereotypical white women, silent and pretty and nought more than window dressing.

Regrettably, those people-who-aren't-blokes swiftly disappear from "Moon Knight" # 1, never to be seen again, after the end of page 7. Having added that apparently vital element of traditional glamour to the gathering, and with no other narrative function for them to fulfill, they snap out of existence. After that, it's 26 pages of the white fellas.

          
Did nobody notice? Did nobody care enough to notice? Did Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev, who have of course produced a significant body of work that's clearly socially inclusive, not think to ask themselves what "Moon Knight" # 1 could seem to be saying about who does, and who doesn't, get to appear in today's superhero books? Was there no one making sure that the wrong impression, that an entirely-unintended impression, wasn't created, especially given how similarly careless so much of today's comics product can be where race and gender are concerned? Was there really no way to tell the story of Moon Knight - to indeed launch a new series of Moon Knight - without being so apparently unconcerned about anyone but the white boys?

No, it's nothing to do with Political Correctness and the dreaded quotas and the freedom-devouring Thought Police, and everything to do with kindness and respect. Not the kindness we show when we're conspiciously expressing our dearly-held convictions, or the respect that marks our behaviour when we're determined to make a point, but the conscious lack of carelessness which we work to constantly maintain when it comes to the matter of remembering that everyone deserves to be at every party, and that everyone always ought to be invited. 
                

2.: The One In Which The Blogger Tries To Be Funny And Fails 

My Business Studies Homework, by Brian Michael Bendis (aged 43)

"Describe how you might create a demand for a commercially unsuccessful superhero." (10 marks)
  • Super-hero fans only buy franchise books.
  • The Avengers are Marvel's biggest franchise.
  • Moon Knight is a sort-of Avenger whose solo books don't sell.
  • Moon Knight is a solo character with a loyal if small fanbase.
  • Moon Knight's solo book might sell if it was a clearly-branded Avengers title which also appealed to his fans.
  • Moon Knight is a mentally ill superhero with comic-book schizophrenia and many different personalities.
  • Being mad is a Unique Selling Point (USP). Very few books have totally insane leads who can look moody and threatening too.
  • Moon Knight could be rebooted as a mentally-ill superhero who imagines himself surrounded by The Avengers when he's actually on his own. He could even imagine that he is several other superheroes at different times. Moon-Knight could be his own team-up book!
  • This Moon Knight's book would be an Avengers comic and a solo book, attracting two different groups of fans simultaneously. There can be lots of scenes of Wolverine and Spider-Man and Captain America, but no-one can moan that the book isn't about Moon Knight. 
  • So, Moon Knight can be different and exciting and surprising and funny too, because mentally ill superheroes are different, and can be exciting, surprising and fun too.
  • Yes, Wolverine and Spider-Man and Captain America would be in Moon Knight all the time, shifting units while adding variety to the Marvel Comics line. (239 words.)

3. The One In Which The Blogger Tries To Find A Way To Talk About Dysfunctional Behaviour
                        
It’s hard to say whether the defining characteristic of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s new “Moon Knight” book is silliness or desperation. Perhaps a comicbook which is so marked by an excess of both qualities demands the invention of a new term to describe such a manically futile situation. Might I suggest;

Silliperation (noun) - the condition of behaving in an unconsciously silly and desperate manner in order to survive in a hopelessly incestuous and collapsing marketplace.

Extreme circumstances create remarkable and previously unimaginable adaptions. The fantastic ecosystems clustered around deep sea hydrothermal vents. The arsenic-DNA of the bacteria which thrives in Mono Lake, its waters three times more salty than the ocean. The quality of silliperation which marks the work of many superhero comic creators, who toil in the most inbred and demanding of  economic circumstances, tasked with selling more of the same to a profoundly conservative audience already saturated with largely interchangeable product. (see: Moon Knight # 1)

This is a full-page shot of Moon Knight falling into the ocean hoping to avoid being incinerated in an explosion while carrying the severed head of a robot. Note the playful absence of any context at all, such as that which might help the reader get a sense of place, jeopardy, narrative or character.

4. The One In Which The Blogger Tub-Thumps About Slack & Poor & Empty Storytelling

Is it possible that "Moon Knight" # 1 is at least in part meant as some great ironic comment on the current state of superhero books? Or could it even be a precisely-framed metaphor for creative and commercial entropy, given that any publishing endeavour which requires this degree of effort and ingenuity in order to sell comics is already expending far more energy than it can ever possibly hope to generate. "Moon Knight" # 1 is, I would suggest, definitive evidence of the heat-death of the superhero comic's current status quo. 

A double page spread of a man resting his left elbow on his left knee, bereft of foreground or background beyond the top of a big sign.

But whatever it might be that "Moon Knight" was intended as a metaphor for, it surely isn't a very good comic book in itself.. A depressingly thin tale when stretched out unnecessarily across 33 pages, it has none of the depth and detail which made Mr Bendis and Mr Maalev's "Scarlet" such a worthwhile, if rather deliberately cold-hearted, read. In truth, all that "Moon Knight" # 1 seems to be is a race to the last-minute reveal that the title character has been imagining the presence of the Avengers he's apparently been talking too. Page after page of basically contentless, unremarkable, poorly-designed fight scenes and chit-chat follow one after the other, and in the best/worst traditions of Marvel's recent years, the book is packed out with redundant full page and double-page splashes. For example, I've placed a scan above of a two-page shot of Moon Knight in which the superhero is shown leaning his left elbow on his left knee. And that really is all that that particular one-sixteenth or so of the comic is showing us; a big bloke dressed in a white costume leaning on his knee. There's no text beyond the three words "You're not alone.", which will, it's true, pay off 20 pages down the line.. But that's a tiny amount of content for a double-page spread which could and should have been used in a way that respected the readers more. (Surely a compact, intense and effective 17 page story is better than 33 pages of relative waffle every


time?) Perhaps we're being shown Moon Knight rising to the responsibility of patrolling Los Angeles, spurred on by the imaginary Captain America's words. But if we are, why are we given nothing of L.A. beyond parts of four of the letters of the Hollywood sign? And why has Moon Knight been shown in such a way that we can gain no sense of character, or of Spector's relationship to his new stomping grounds, beyond the fact that he's so big that the artist had to cut him off so awkwardly at thigh and calf? With no hint of scale or meaning or plot, with no foreground or background of any substance, this is a quite literally empty dollop of spectacle.  It's art which could've been used to show Moon Knight in any situation at all; simply snip out the insubstantial sections of the Hollywood sign and insert a hint of any other tourist trap and - voila! - instant superhero eye-candy! Yet remove these two pages and the story in "Moon Knight" # 1 suffers not a whit as long as the key three words - "You're not alone" - are placed somewhere else, somewhere appropriate in the text..Can there be any more telling example of narrative indiscipline than a double-page indulgence which contributes so little to a tale that it could be removed and no-one could ever suspect it had existed in the first place?

Here we can see the next step into the abyss which superhero books have been stumbling towards for more than half-a-decade at least, namely the creation of the comicbook which in large part doesn't even numbly rehash old forms and conventions, but instead rather vaguely and limply simply refers to them. Remember, this book seems to say, all the things you liked about Moon Knight and superheroes in general? Well, we liked them too, and if you wouldn't mind using your own experience to flesh out what's before you, we think you'll have a really good time. And so, this really isn't a well-wrought tale of Moon Knight. Rather, it's the  comic-book equivalent of a faded reminder on a post-it sticker reading, in tiny handwriting; 

"Please add your own memories to flesh out what little is before you, and hang on until the big reveal, because that'll give you something to chat about afterwards."

2 pages delivering just 2 plot points: bad guy kills men, Moon Knight attacks bad guy. When CBR declared MK # 1 would be double-sized & that 'Bendis & Maleev's story will fill the space between the covers", I never thought that could be meant so literally. Technically, the pages really have been filled.

5. In Which The Blogger Attempts A Snide Little Swipe At The Absence Of Characterisation In "Moon Knight"# 1 

It's far too easy to moan on about the absence of emotion and characterisation in Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's  "Moon Knight" # 1. Anyone noting how empty of human, rather than superhuman, experience the tale is might make the mistake of rushing over one of the great character-establishing lines in modern-era comics. Now, although I don't think that the combination of these 5 words and the book's final reveal was quite worth $3.99 of this consumer's hardly-disposable income, it is worth noting here the following statement of intent from this issue's bad guy;

"I will liquefy your head!"


       

Now don't tell me that that's not great satire, as well as being the closest to characterisation that the nameless supervillain of the piece receives in the 11 pages he appears in. However, that doesn't mean that he's not given any other markers of individuality. at all.  Oh, no. He has a lovely little short cape, as if his shirt's shrunk to the point where it's just a shoulder-wrap, and he says "Aagh!" and "Rraaggh!" too. 

Obviously, there wasn't time or space in those 11 pages to establish anything other than a grunting, intimidating, by-the-numbers tough guy. Even giving the reader his name would've obviously got in the way of whatever it was that it would've got in the way of.


          

6In Which The Blogger Wonders About Superhero Fun And Psychological Disorders

The accounts of the Marvel press conference thrown to publicise "Moon Knight" # 1 are far more of a hoot than the comic itself. I was particularly amused by how several pieces placed Mr Bendis's fear that (1) some readers might be offended by Moon Knight's madness next to (2) the writer's concern that folks would object to his removal of the occult aspects of the character's set up. That the issue of showing disrespect to the mentally disordered might not be one to bracket with a matter of magical continuity seems to have escaped quite a few folks struggling to grapple with the big and lil'issues at play here. Still, a significant number of bloggers, podcasters and forum devotees did indeed pick up on the pertinent issues concerned with representations of mental disorder being used to sell superhero comics. Not that many of them were concerned with the social justice of it all, but a good few were somewhat irate that Moon Knight's current cognitive problems aren't consistent with his previously-shown psychological issues. Let no-one say that many fans aren't interested in the key issues where the arcana of the sub-genre is concerned.

        

In truth, there's very little of the matter of mental disorder on show in "Moon Knight" # 1, and it should be said that, so far, nobody could mistake the title character's cognitive problems for anything other than a disadvantage. He's obviously a man who's isolated by his condition, but the problem is, what condition is it? The press have referred to Moon Knight having Multiple Personality Disorder, but it's notable that BMB is never quoted using that term, What Mr Bendis is quoted as saying is that he's "studied it over the years", so he's evidently aware that MPD is an anachronistic term once used for what's now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Strangely enough, the appearance and disappearance of the illusionary-Avengers in "Moon Knight" doesn't seem to match any reports I've come across of D.I.D., but then, I only had to study the condtion in order to teach it. There's a very great deal of material I've never read, let alone studied, concerning D.I.D., and given that Mr Bendis has declared that any use of mental disorder in comics has to be "based in reality, even (in) the silliest of stories", I look forward to learning more and more about D.I.D. as "Moon Knight" continues.


            

Yet, even with the faith that Mr Bendis has so carefully studied the mental abnormality concerned, and even given his stated determination to ground his representation of it in psychological reality, it is somewhat worrying to read the following, in which he states that Moon Knight; 

"...doesn't have full control over his personalities, which is part of the fun. Just because he wants Spider-Man or Wolverine to take over, doesn't mean that's what's going to happen .... I'm much more interested in his character as a pro-active Avenger than a depressive hero ... "

Finding the "fun" in D.I.D. is indeed something which both those suffering from it and those treating it might find a rather questionable idea. Yet it's hard to deny that Mr Bendis has a high concept to play with when he asks; "Wouldn't it be interesting to have a multiple-personality superhero who loved his personalities?" And there is some literature which suggests that a crowd of alters can learn to live productively with each other, but I've never come across a case study where it's suggested that such a situation is easy to produce and maintain at all. Mr Bendis therefore obviously has a few years worth of rather bleak stories before him explaining how Moon Knight and his alters learn to cope with their shared condition before we get to the "fun". (*1) Certainly, respecting the challenges faced by those diagnosed with D.I.D. would surely involve not turning their exceptionally difficult situations into entertainment just to flog a superhero book or two.

          
Perhaps if Mr Bendis and Mr Maleev had produced a comic book which was clearly cartoony and absurd in its depiction of Moon Knight and his condition, then it might be possible to regard the whole matter of his disorder as a very big fun-generating joke. But "Moon Knight" is anything but a broad and playful confection of a comic. Instead, it's grim'n'gritty, ponderously serious and not-a-little violent. Though future issues obviously can't be prejudged, Mr Bendis is setting himself a ferociously difficult challenge, to take a serious psychological disorder and present it as "fun" in the context of a pseudo-realistic superhero comic. That, I must admit, is the one narrative snare which really does inspire me to return to future issues, namely the matter of how Dissociative Identity Disorder can be presented as both true-to-life and fun, particularly as Mr Bendis doesn't want to represent Moon Knight as a "depressive hero". Ah, the happy-go-lucky, fun-inspiring form of DID is what's before us, cries the cynical centres of the blogger's mind! Yet, given that the content of future books can't be anticipated with reference to the evidence in a single comic and a few reports of a news conference, all I can say is I'm looking forward to what's a-coming with the keen sense of a man hopeful that a potential car-crash might yet be averted.

*1:- Of course, I've also come across literature arguing that D.I.D. is nothing but an iatrogenic condition, but since the issue is a live one, I'd say the best course is respect and restraint where the matter of those concerned is involved.

          
In Which The Blogger Tries To Add A Conclusion To Six Seperate Sections Of Six Different Essays

In the end, the modern-era comics industry always does win any debate that might be picked with it because it refuses to listen to any voices not engaging in applauding the emperor's new clothes. Though there are clearly exceptions to this rule, the sense of an oblivious enterprise operating quite independently of any wider discourse beyond "what's coming next month?" transmits itself from far too much of the Big Two's product. It's as if all that stuff about gender and race and value for money and characterisation and emotion was just a smokescreen being used by vicious and maladjusted folks on the net to disparage a perfectly celestial comic-book business. If you don't like it, runs the message, go away. We don't need you, we don't care.

And that's fair enough, although it's also somewhat rich for a business which is always declaring how it cares for its consumers and wants the very best for them to also seem to be so dismissive. But the market isn't growing, and the sub-genre isn't evolving so much as devolving in places, and there are tens of thousands of us who'd love to spend more of our money on comic books, if only they weren't so often poorly crafted, and socially careless, and concerned with costumes and punch-ups and spectacle at the expense of people and their thoughts and feelings.

If only the comic book industry and the hardcore fan-community clustered loyally around it weren't so impossibly exclusive and self-possessed. If only the very act of challenging the worth of the modern-era's product wasn't immediately considered an act of apostasy rather than the concern and passion of genuine and well-meaning friends.

            
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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Straight From The Mouth Of The Idiot Husband

                      
J. phoned. He enjoys forcing me to pretend that he hasn't wound me up.

J:- You're in trouble.
C:-  I'm always in trouble.
J:-  You're a bad feminist.
C:- No doubt.
J:-  I just read. You're insulting women. Flashpoint isn't sexist.
C:- I'm sure I did. Even if I didn't.
J:-  There's Flashpoint women who're strong women.
C:- Good for them!
J:- You're a bad man. You've insulted women.
C:- Oh ....
J:- Sexist!
C:- Because?
J:- Because Flashpoint's got strong role models.
C:- In Flashpoint? But ..
J:- Sexist!
C:- (Tired and rising stupidly to the bait.) Right. So the overall bias of 'Flashpoint', the structural relations of the female characters to the male ones, and their representations in terms of the male and not the female gaze, is all utterly transformed for the good because Iris West is a war reporter?
J:- You've read it then?
C:- I've read 'Flashpoint'.
J:- Not Flashpoint. The evidence against you. The stuff that's been written?
C:- No. (Beat. Unconvincingly;) Of course not. I don't get upset by ...
J:- Sexist!
C:- Whatever.
J:- And that "Splendid Wife" stuff?
C:- Let me guess.
J:- Gill's not your wife. She's a person.
C:- Well, of course she is.
J:- It's up to her.
C:- What is?
J: - Whether she's splendid or not.
C:- Oh, come ...
J:- Sexist!

An Idiot Husband, The Splendid Wife & Alf The Wonder Dog (R.I.P.)
           
So, for J., and at the end of the evening of Gill and I's Eighth Wedding Anniversary, which has been fine, can I just clarify? Gill isn't a bit player in my life, of course she's not. Rather, I am a supporting character in hers, and glad to be so too. If she's the Splendid Wife, it's because I'm the Idiot Husband. If our life was a comic book, she'd be the headline character, and I'd play the domestic support, the comic relief, the bumbling sidekick, and I'd feel privileged to contribute whatever I could too, just as I do out here in the real world. The Splendid Wife is splendid because she's smarter than I am, kinder than I am, stronger than I am, and endlessly more practical and creative.

If I'm sympathetic to the broad myths of matriarchy, perhaps it's in part because I'm a citizen of a profoundly beneficent matriarchy myself.

And so, after 2922 days or so of marriage, perhaps I might just salute the Splendid Wife, who not only saved my life, but made it worth the living too.

True story. Real life. Straight from the mouth of the Idiot Husband.
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How Can We Talk About Comic Book Art?; On Failing To Understand The Art Of Alan Davis In "Avengers Prime" (Part 2)

In which the blogger worries about his inability to explain why he's so impressed by one particular double-page spread by Alan Davis in "Avengers Prime", about the de-coupling of text and art in modern-day superhero comics, and probably, as his grandmother would have said, about the price of eggs too. It's one of those "notes to myself" pieces, I fear, and so perhaps you might instead consider, if you would, coming back for tomorrow's look at the new Moon Knight book and the old Flashpoint one instead, which I think might be just a touch more interesting, though I can't swear that interesting it will be.

In which the blogger suddenly, belatedly, realises that all the narrative theory in the world can't in itself explain the value of a wordless cover.

 5.

following on from last Thursday's piece, when the blogger hadn't seen the very-large flaw in his logic;

Kieron Gillen noted earlier this year than the superhero-comics blogosphere tends to discuss story far, far more than art. It’s a point that's undoubtedly true, and it's one that I’ve been brooding about ever since. For it seems to me that the need for us to be able to talk in a common and practical language about the ways in which art and text work together, or not, has never been more pressing. (*1) With each passing year, the degree to which story and art become more and more de-coupled in superhero books increases. It's now so commonplace to come across entire books where the artwork is composed of pin-ups, money-shots and narratively wasteful, if not entirely purposeless designs, that I suspect that folks are beginning to forget that such is a historical aberration, an indulgence of ill-discipline, ignorance and exploitation. We're starting to forget what good storytelling is, evidence surely of the world turned upside down.

The very fact that there was so little outcry about the self-indulgent wastefulness of books such as The Mighty Thor # 1 and the "Road To Flashpoint" issues of The Flash suggests to me that the problem isn't simply that we're not talking enough as a community about art (*2). It's that we're losing sight of the narrative function of script and art, in combination and in their own terms, in comicbooks in general.

*1:- KG made no such leap of illogic. His words got me thinking, but my thoughts are nothing he can be blamed for. Having been quoted out of context quite alot recently, I thought I ought to be careful here!
*2:- I couldn't think of a better word than "community", but I'm well aware that "community" simply doesn't cut it. Your suggestions for a more appropriate term would be welcomed.

             
6.

Perhaps one of the many reasons why we talk so relatively rarely about comic-book art is rooted in that very business of its declining importance in the pages of so many of today's comics. There's a sense in which many of the mainstream's superhero books are evolving, or rather devolving, into illustrated pamphlets, where the text carries the headline issues while the art presents scenes which draw off of a common, unspecific store of genre imagery. The twain, it seems, may indeed somewhat rarely meet. And so, in "The Mighty Thor " # 1, we're never shown in the art where Galactus is sitting when he's introduced, but we are shown him dribbling great rivers of celestial-saliva while being lit by a meaningless selection of light sources. Similarly, we're never shown, or even given, an explanation of how he gets to the Surfer's side at 1.3.1, but we are presented with a panel in which he's shown dramatically tensing his muscles while Norrin Radd poses characteristically before him. It's as if a comic book can now be reduced to a few water-cooler moments - a surprise, a reversal, a shock or two, an eye-catching panorama -  and a series of ballyhoo-points explaining why the non-story in hand is absolutely vital in the broader context of a to-be-collected story, or a grand crossover, or both.
 
Because of this, there’s an awful sense that the superhero book is becoming more and more of a shouting match between ever-more shrill publishers and consumers in which the story itself matters very little. The former strives to establish that each thin combination of textual hype and flaccid visual spectacle is far more important than any other comic ever, while the latter make their judgements based not on the narrative at hand, but according to how much absolutely vital continuity can be said to be at stake. Be amazed! Be horrified! Be prepared to buy a hundred other comics just to discover why this mattered! And accompanying these really important and very big indeed moments are the often-tenuously associated images, often appearing to have been lifted from another story entirely, pieced together to provide some visual colour for this month's advert for next month's product. This isn't so much comic book storytelling as the production of monthly catalogues advertising the coming attractions of future monthly catalogues.

Avengers Prime; something more substantial than a monthly advert for next month's monthly adverts.
         
In so many ways, it often seems as if each individual comic book is now designed to work like a mini-Previews, the pleasure of consumption related far more to the matter of what each single comic sets up than what it delivers in its own terms. Here will sit a reference that alerts the reader to a wider arc, here will be the enigmas that can only be explained by buying another string of titles, here are placed the scenes which makes no sense at all unless the reader is totally plugged in to an entire line of products. These snares have been placed in comic-books ever since Stan Lee's Marvel Revolution of the turn of the Sixties, of course, but they were always merely part of the package before, and an auxiliary aspect of the experience rather than its central, defining characteristic and purpose.

And the more that each mainstream book becomes a wearisome collection of two or three attention-catching moments and little else beyond great dollops of product-puff, the more we either learn to regard that as normal or we give up and abandon the marketplace. In such a way does flemmy (*3) Galactus pass largely unmentioned in the blogosphere, because the very idea that text and pictures should work together to make absolute sense has too often been abandoned in favour of a clamour of A GREAT DEAL OF SHOUTING!!!! We’re so often presented with spectacular-for-their-own sake moments, narratively-useless pin-up pages, “I’ll-sell-it-later-for-a-fortune” butt’n’breast-shots, and thin widescreen paneled pages, amongst a host of so many other storytelling sins, that what’s disappearing at a rapid pace is the whole business of comics themselves.

What I've written above is, of course, an exaggeration for the sake of argument, but it’s also not so much of an exaggeration at all. Of course there are fine books out which stand in absolute opposition to this trend, and few comics could be said to consistently to the worst extremes of this tendency. But all too often the traditional relationship between script and art, or story as we used to know it, has been replaced by a simulacrum of a comic book, which, because it still contains elements of both story and art in it, appears to be the very thing that it's supplanting. These cuckoos, these empathy-less androids, look like comic books, but they're really just adverts, snake-oil salesman's carny-pitches promising that next time around, all the set-up and all the hype-hype-HYPE really will pay off.

Buy this!!! Buy this and next time, when you buy something very much like it, the experience will be FANTASTIC!!!!

And so Asgard and New Genesis fall, and fall again, and yet I can't recall being moved at all by the experience, except to recognise that I'm supposed to be feverishly asking "what next?" when I'm actually wondering "why?".

*3:- 'Flem' simply can't be spelt with a 'p', an 'h' or a 'g'. That has to be a totally unnecessary continuity implant.

            
7.

One problem with trying to engage with the superhero books of today, simulacrums or not, is that of  finding a common language in which to do so. So much of what we’re given by folks offering us technical terms and often pseudo-academic paradigms to fit them into seems to me to be unnecessarily complex, jargon-heavy and patently impractical. There is, of course, an irony in my noting any such thing, since that’s something I’ve been accused of not just once or twice in the past. But I do worry very much about any critical language which strays too far from the everyday, because in doing so, it inevitably excludes the broad mass of folks from the debate while promoting in an apparently-informed minority a conceptually-closed shop, in which those who know argue the finer points of theory with each other without ever affecting the craft itself or touching the audience for it.

There are learned papers up on the net and learned treaties available in the bookshops offering to explain how to read or even create a graphic novel, for example, and so many of them seem to express nothing more notable than mystification, the mark of a small number of pundits carving up the limited cultural capital available while charging everyone else for the privilege of learning how to chit-chat with the self-appointed elect. But a few notable and honourable exceptions aside (*4), too often all I find is folks struggling to tell me why a single panel of comic book art works in a way that's both convincing, instructive and entertaining in itself.

The opinionated amateur waffle I can do myself.  It's help that I'm in need of.

               
In truth, it's really tough to find any great measure of evidence of common and useful critical criteria being in shared use where the evaluation of the worth of comicbook art in the modern-era "heroic" genres are concerned. This problem becomes all the more pressing where the matter of how such art combines with script to produce a successful piece of work is concerned. Of course, a mass of individual takes where the analysis of comic books is far better than a monolithic approach  imposing a faulty method on the discourse, but a babble of gossip and a few highlands of informed judgement isn't proving particularly helpful when it comes to the general debate. It's a situation made all the more challenging and worrying by the apparent contempt with which the monthly adventure book is held in by some of the elect who'll pontificate upon anything but. Take a look at many of the "best writing on comics" lists for the past few years and there's often, though not always, a sense that almost anything but the heroic-derring-do genres are worthy of considered, credible attention. To some folks, "comics" seems to mean by definition "anything but action-adventure tales, and especially not those %"*! super-heroes", which is fine as a statement of taste, but a shame when it comes to sharing practice and opinion. In this, the comics blogosphere seems bent on aping the British musical press of the early '60s, where Jazz and a touch of Blues was considered the serious stuff, and Pop wasn't worthy of attention. Yet the lines between the genres were anything other than distinct and impermeable, and all the different schools had a great deal to teach each other.

But then, I can hear the laughter now; the superhero book, teaching us what exactly?

Three cheers for the writers who do engage with the despised as well as the supposedly legitimate forms of graphic storytelling. I'm grateful for the inspiration and the insight, I really am.. But given the power and influence and potential of the mainstream adventure book, doesn't it deserve a touch more attention that's not sniffy or pretentious?

No, I'm not suggesting that there isn't a great deal of good writing out there about the superhero sub-genre, let alone its heroic cousins. But as a fraction of all the writing and analysis that's going on, how much of what's around is essential, is entertaining and illuminating? By which I mean, I'm looking for a few more role models, because I know I'm not doing the job, and I'd like to be put right and fired up by more than the few good folks who are.

And that's especially true where the matter of comicbook art is concerned.

*4:- I'd love to know the sites and texts which you find useful, which help illuminate the craft of comicbook storytelling without all that irrelevancy and mystification. I can think of several, but if I mention them, I'll immediately seem to be slagging off everything else. Of course, who would ever know or care, but even so, I'd rather avoid seeming to be rude when I'm not intending to be?

              
8.

Ever since Mr Gillen offered the straight-forward observation that he did, I’ve been worrying away at this business of how to talk about art in the context of the action/adventure comic book. It's no mystery, after all, why folks find chatting about comic-book stories an easier business than analysing comic-book art. Discussing big reveals and the authenticity of the behaviour of super-guest stars requires nothing more than the same kind of language which we use to describe any kind of everyday narrative. We can blather away about Dr Doom dropping a skyscraper upon Ant-Man in pretty much the same fashion as we might the morning when our cat ran up the neighbour's cherry tree. And we can discuss how convincing Booster Gold’s appearance in the Titans was just as we might tittle-tattle about how “X” behaves when his new boss is around. Such elements of a story require nothing more than our being conversant in the business of gossiping, and human beings are, as anthropologists and sociologists have long been telling us, social beings whose cultures are created and maintained in large part through gossip. We’re good at it because we do it all the time, and because we have to be good at it. Talk to anyone who faces the challenges of autism in whatever form, for example, and they’ll tell you that the cognitive inability to engage unconsciously and effortlessly with everyday chit-chat is one of the most overwhelming and alienating of the trials they face. So, please, I fully accept that gossip is an absolutely central and vital business. And I fully embrace the undeniable fact that discussions of the worth of comics framed only in terms of gossip are absolutely valid and often incredibly entertaining and illuminating.

But personal opinion only gets us so far, of course, and that’s one of the reasons why discussions of art are far rarer than discussions of plot. As someone who’s been trying for four days to frame a response beyond “I like!” and “Wow!” to a particular piece of work by Alan Davis, I’ll readily admit to membership of the ranks of those who find it far harder to express why they enjoy an example of art rather than whether they do or not."I like!" and "I hate!" are stances far easier to express than "I loathe this for these four reasons, and with a grasp of these four principles, I might even be able to hack out an amateur-esque work of art myself."

          
Yet if we can't constantly and clearly express ourselves in a common and accessible language why flemmy Galactus and his purposeless chums are a very bad idea indeed, or perhaps counter any such contention in a reasoned way, then there is no real measure of debate. Without that, there's no way to suggest in a convincing fashion to the audience for mainstream adventure comics that it doesn't have to become more and more used to, and happy with, thinner and more exploitative fare. Human beings make the vast majority of their judgements unconsciously, as we know, and the whole purpose of some debates is not to establish that one point of view or another is more correct, but rather just to highlight the fact that a debate exists in the first place. The absence of any great debate about the monthly fare across the gossipy-sphere worries me. At the very least, it prevents me seeing why folks do enjoy wave after wave of monthly product which I find impossible to understand the appeal of. I'd like to grasp more of what I'm wrong about.

As with so much of social life, the problem isn't that folks will opt for the illustrated-catalogue approach to monthly comics consciously, but rather, that they'll fail to be able to recognise that there's any alternative to that because there's neither a common language or a welcoming forum for any relevant debate which might challenge received opinions.

It's a utopian - it's a silly - ideal, of course, but ideals serve their purpose if they keep open an awareness that the way things are now isn't necessarily the way that things have to be. (Of course we can't all speak the same language, let alone get on with each other too. But we might do just a little bit better than we are doing.)

And although I'm very much hi-jacking Mr Gillen's straight-forward observation to serve an argument that's very much my own and no-one else's, the business of engaging with the craft of storytelling, in order to support the debate about what that actually should involve, surely requires that we know something of how to discuss art itself.

After all, if we can't discuss the art in its own terms, then how can we debate the ways in which it's combined with story?

Which, in my typically roundabout way, is why I'm writing this. Because I've found that I can generate reams of notes about, for example, Alan Davis's double-page spread of Hela's armies on the rampage, but I can't express the most fundamental truths about how the art on those two pages works at all.

         
9.

Trying to write about this one single piece of Mr Davis’s art has revealed to me how much I rely upon story in order to formulate judgements of the worth of art. Even there, Mr Gillen's point is reinforced. Even when I do discuss comicbook art, it's always in the context of the script it's associated with. And so, my default method of trying to make sense of the worth of a piece of comic art is to begin by asking how well it seems to serve the reason d'etre of the narrative, meaning that I’m in essence (1) creating my own take on what I believe the story’s purpose is, and (2) comparing the artist’s work to my understanding of the writer’s intentions. In this, any unit of storytelling, be it a panel, a page or an entire graphic novel stands or falls on my entirely subjective understanding of;

  1. whether the art appears to carry the meaning and detail of the story clearly (transparency)
  2. whether the art appears to do so an appropriately persuasive fashion (effect)
I don’t that’s such a bad place to start, although it’s at the same time a hopelessly unobjective one. How do I know what the story was intended to mean? What about tales constructed using the once-Marvel Method, where the layouts at the very least came first? What about a situation where artist and writer are at loggerheads? What if the story is a rat-bag of mindless grand moments in the first place?

But as a critical approach, it’s absolutely blown out of the water by Mr Davis's double-page spread of Hela's attack, because the narrative content of the work is so limited, and yet the appeal of the work is so immense. I have no idea what Mr Bendis’s plot description for this spread might have been, but, given that he's repeatedly expressed how great his admiration for Mr Davis and his work is, it could’ve been as simple as;

“Hela and her army of undead Vikings and sundry mythical beings attack.We see this from the POV of the front line of Thor's army. Hela carries a sword and rides on great fiery-eyed dragon.”

         
Faced with such a remarkable tableau and yet so little plot-detail, my approach is shown to be patently inadequate. Whatever it is that Mr Davis is doing here, its success plainly isn't dependent upon the plot-points being expressed. The piece is indeed transparent – no-one could doubt what’s going on – and the effect is significant, but that doesn’t explain how such little data could be transformed into such a tremendous piece of fantasy art. It certainly doesn't even begin to help this blogger explain why this particular example of spectacularism is to be applauded while flemmy Galactus isn't. All criticism eventually falls back upon "!I like because" in the end, but it strikes me that mine's very often starting out at that point too. If this panorama of the dead is a fine example of splendid comic book art, and I'm absolutely uncertain that it is, then why does it work where similarly narratively-thin pin-up pieces come across as wasteful indulgences? It's obviously a matter that's got very little to do with the script of "Avengers Prime" at all.

Which is why a passing knowledge of comicbook narratives and narrative theory in general just isn't good enough where the analysis of Mr Davis's work here is concerned. Taking a position that's an alternative to gossip where this spread is concerned is a far more complicated matter than that, just as it's far simpler a business too. To know something of how the art in comics work, as I know has been obvious to everyone else but me, the blogger has to know far more of the fundamentals of how art itself functions. Not art solely in the context of graphic storytelling and the sub-genre's traditions, but art in general. Perspective, colour, balance, technique, line, cropping and so on; all the basics are of course of vital importance here, just as the flim-flam and mystification most certainly aren't. It's an apparently-unmissable truth that I surely should've remembered, given that I taught Art History several decades ago, and even worked as a graphic designer for a short while before that.

     
But I think I forgot because it's easier, and on the surface more fun, to take the apparently more sophisticated, more complex, more personal approach, and it's certainly safer to do so in terms of protecting my opinions from criticism. Because it's hard for someone to challenge a statement such as: "The presence of the oppositions of life and death in this composition speaks of blah-blah-blah", both because there's hardly anything there to argue with and, well, who'd want to bother to debate on that point anyway? But a naked statement such as "the vanishing points are at 'y' and 'x'", for example, is far, far easier to demolish. 

Three days trying to write about Mr Davis's art and all the time my mind knew that I wasn't up to the job, knew that what I was writing was piffle.

to be continued;
  
                   
If you've arrived at this point of the page, thank you for doing so. Perhaps you might like nominate those writers on the net, and indeed in the unvirtual world too, who write well and illuminatingly about comic book art in the comment box below. I'd appreciate being able to publish links to good work there.