Monday, August 23, 2004

Forgive Us Your Sins

Last Friday’s posting on the subject of future comic remixes bore some interesting fruit. I wouldn’t look for another one of those for the near future, but expect an interesting announcement on this subject before too long.

Money is tight lately so I don’t often get the chance to try out new comics. But I was buying a pile of books the other day and found myself irresistibly drawn towards this cover:

I do not usually – actually, I usually never buy comics based solely on the cover. But you would have to be a much stronger man than I to resist that.

Sure enough, it’s a pretty decent book. I don’t know what – if any – connection this new character will eventually be revealed to have to DC's other various Manhunter concepts - hopefully nothing besides than the name, because that brings up painful memories of Millenium. My hopes, after reading the first issue, are that this book will remain exactly what it appears to be: an action-packed trip into the world of violent moral vagaries with a strong independent female in the lead role. This is one chick I really don’t want to see end up mangled in a refrigerator – but this is DC, so I will try not to get too attached.

Travels With Larry Part XX

Demo #8-9

I think I missed an issue – ah yes, looks like I did. Oh well, lets see where things pick up here . . .

Plunging back into Demo after a couple months has had the unfortunate side effect of exposing some of the series’ weaker points to the light of day. The experiment that lies at the heart of Demo has produced some powerful work from both Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, but it has also illuminated some of the places where the two are most vulnerable to criticism.

Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed both of these issues. But the series was conceived as, basically, a laboratory for the two creators to stretch their wings over the course of a twelve-month period. Every month a different story. New characters. New world. New style. It is a testament to their enthusiasm that they had the presence of mind to accept such a challenge in the first place. Producing what amounts to a new, 26-or-so page graphic novel every month for a year would be a daunting project for any creator this side of John Byrne. Demo puts off enough ambition and potential to gag a horse, and considering the sorry state of most mainstream or semi-mainstream comics, that alone is reason to celebrate the project.

But ambition’s a bitch. Sometimes you reach exceeds your grasp. I’m not going to write off Demo, but I am going to offer some constructive criticism.

  • Every character, and I mean every last one of them, looks kinda the same. Cloonan is spending a lot of time on her formal technique, but most of her faces have a sameness to them. Everyone looks vaguely Chinese, with flat, broad noses, huge flaring nostrils and wide catfish mouths. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Chinese, but not every character in Demo is supposed to be Asian, and aside from facial features, many of them are obviously Caucasian.

  • Wood seems to have a strong grasp of a very specific character type. Perhaps the goal of Demo was to examine multiple characters in a similar demographic, I don’t know. But the overall effect of reading a dozen stories featuring gen-Y hipsters in emotional crisis is for me to want to run my Taurus into a Starbucks in the hopes of taking out every last one of them . . . OK, that was a bit harsh, but the point remains: his characters all seem to experience similar epiphanies. Perhaps Wood is doing this one purpose, perhaps he isn’t. Loathe as I am to recommend anything from the overrated McSweeny’s canon, I would like to recommend Michael Chabon’s introduction to McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, in which Chabon gently reminds the reader that there are more types of stories to be told than the prosaic epiphany. Although Demo isn’t nearly as guilty in this respect as, say, your average New Yorker fiction writer, its still obviously a factor in the story’s conceptions.

  • Cloonan’s formal experimentation is one of the most gratifying facets of the Demo experiment. Just looking at issues #8 and #9 is enough to convince me of this. Issue #8 features multiple pages established as collages, with smaller inset panels put against larger thematic illustrations. There are numerous jagged and slanted panel configurations. Additionally, the story unfolds in a world of gray-tones, what an older generation would have called zip-a-tone but what is probably Photoshop. In contrast, issue #9 consists entirely of square panels, usually in a modified but very sedate grid. The story is told in stark black and white, with thick brush strokes and great swaths of black ink. Two issues, two very different approaches to telling a story.

  • But at the same time, as much as Cloonan changes her approach to storytelling from issue to issue, some things remain stubbornly similar. Her figures retain a similar weight and use similar gestures and facial expressions (although I mentioned that earlier). Her figures are usually too big for their panels: they are often seen jutting up against the borders of the panel at obtuse angles. This type of crowded composition lends the stories a particular intimacy, and that is something else that I think both Cloonan and Wood are going for here: a level of emotional intimacy that is unusual for American mainstream comics.

  • I would characterize Cloonan’s work as manga-inspired not because of any overt technique (there are no speed lines here [at least in these issues]) and we have yet to see a giant robot or futuristic ninja) but because of her approach to storytelling. Generalizations on the nature of American comics in contrast to manga are usually foolish and fruitless, because there are as many types of manga as there are American comics (or don’t you see any difference between George Perez and Seth?). But Cloonan seems to share a certain Asian perspective in the manner in which she constructs her pages. The page as a whole is constructed for readability and ease of communication, whereas American comics place a high premium on the panel as an distinctive unit of storytelling. This is why a lot of manga utilizes unusual (to Western eyes) panel configurations and page designs: they are more interested in the process of moving the eye from one panel to the next than in lingering on any specific panel. The page is the unit, and not the panel. This is why it’s so often quicker to read manga than most Western comics. Maybe Cloonan should spend some time deconstructing just how she approaches the architecture of the page. Confine her figures to their panels. Tell a whole story with a single panel, instead of allowing the composite effect of the whole page carry the emotional weight. Its obvious she’s mastered the one technique, lets see her try the other.

  • In the “liner notes” to issue #8, Cloonan states: ”There is no doubt some of it [manga] is a major influence in my work; I love the cinematic storytelling and pacing.” It seems to me that she has absorbed enough manga that her storytelling seems influenced on an almost cellular level. She’s obviously a very intelligent and precocious storyteller, so may I suggest that she spend some time as far away from manga as possible? Pick up some Tintin or even Louis Riel. I would be very interested to see what roads that would lead her down.

  • I think I liked issue #9 better than #8. Despite my qualms with Wood’s characters, I think #9 might be one of my very favorites of the series so far. Despite the sameness of some of his characters, there is no doubt that many of them are very vividly drawn (both figuratively and literally). Neither character in #9 is a saint, and they both come off rather badly over the course of the issue. Just like a real relationship, it all comes out in the wash at the end. Some very nice storytelling here, and it’s a testament to Wood and Cloonan’s synthesis that I can’t quite figure out who is doing what.

As Demo approaches its conclusion I think every issue reveals more and more about the caliber of the creative team. They are both going places, even if their ambition might occasionally betray them. But that’s OK – they’re still young. If their making these kinds of mistakes now, I can’t wait to see what kind of mistakes their making in ten years time.

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