Friday, August 20, 2004

I Never Worked A Day In My Life

Looking back on things, I’d say Monday’s rather oblique review of Identity Crisis #3 was quite a success. Or rather – looking over my hits for the week. It seems that this was quite a popular feature. I mean, it just about tripled my usual hits for a single day (that would be Monday), and it had a similar boosting effect throughout the rest of the week as more people linked and tuned in.

I’m not stupid. People rather liked it, I guess. So – how about we make it a semi-regular feature? I won’t promise to do a "remix" like that every week, but I’ll try to have one up every now and again. It’s just too fun not to. I had a blast doing it, and everyone seems to have at least got a chuckle out of the "I go stabby" line. I tell you, sometimes the best jokes are the stupidest ones. I have a similar feeling about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force - sure, it’s monumentally stupid, but its stupid in a way that only very, very intelligent people could have managed. As such, it somehow manages to cross the line into Sheer Fucking Brilliance.

There is one bad side to doing the remix features on a semi-regular basis. The hosting for the rather large .jpeg images in the articles is given to me at the pleasure of my dear Wife, who actually has the space to give. But she has informed me that she can’t be filling up the space intended for her music with my comic stuff. So, in order to host a new feature, I have to take the old one down. So, if you like my bootleg of IC #3, please take advantage of it now, before its gone. Because I don’t want to test the wife’s patience!

But, if some kind soul were to offer some nice empty space on their server, perhaps I wouldn’t need to tempt the wrath of The Wife . . .

Part Four – The Power of Caricature: Part One

It was extremely gratifying to receive an e-mail on this series the other day. (Quite honestly, I didn’t know if anyone was paying attention, or if you all just called in sick for this one.) This letter had been sent by a fan who had recently completed Louis Riel and was, quite frankly, a little bit disappointed. So, the question was asked – just why do I think Louis Riel is so damn good in the first place?

It’s a complicated question. Getting to the heart of why anything is considered good or great or mediocre is an extremely difficult proposition. There’s a reason why academia has evolved an opaque and hideously self-referential dialect to discuss these matters – because quantifying aesthetic decisions is hard work, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

At its best, criticism provides a peek into the mechanism of art, and lets us better understand the ideas and concepts at the heart of our understanding of the world. There’s a popular – and not entirely unearned – prejudice that critics as a lot are a group of professional sourpusses, frustrated artists who get their kicks out of pillorying the work of other, far more talented creators. There are certainly enough critics who fit that description, especially in the notoriously superheated world of comics (where seemingly everyone either wants to be, used to be, or is actually a creator). And outside of that pigeonhole there are certainly a few critics in the classic Pauline Kael intellectual-tyrant mode, or the more recent but no less persistent Roger Ebert critic-as-celebrity mode. (I should point out that this is a not entirely fair characterization of Ebert, as he has produced some very interesting critical writing over the years. His celebrity has not necessarily been deleterious to his critical acumen – but then, an argument can be made either way.)

In any event, all this serves as a very roundabout way of bringing us home to my actual point. The best criticism reacts to art in such a way as to enlighten the scaffolding behind the great works of art, to allow the reader (or viewer or listener) to understand how the art they love and respect works, and how it makes them feel and respond the way that they do. I feel that Louis Riel is such an amazing achievement for the simple reason that it exposes with an almost painful simplicity the singular strengths of our comics medium.

Chester Brown made a very deliberate choice at the onset of the project to rein in his characteristically expressionistic tone, and exchange many of his stylistic tools for a very sharply defined set of limitations:

  • Every page, excepting maps, would have a six panel grid. There is only one exception to this in the entire book, and it occurs on the epilogue page.
  • Every panel, as printed, would be exactly the same size: roughly 2"x2".
  • The entire story would be scripted ahead of time, a technique not previously used by Brown but adopted as a response to Underwater’s unwieldy demise.
  • The entire story would be drawn in a style evocative of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie.

Brown’s previous works had been stylistically unrestrained almost to the point of incoherence. Previous works like I Never Liked You Anyway had toyed with panel placement almost to the point of dissolution, with pages sometimes containing single panels floating in seas of inky black. Coupled with an extremely organic line, his work represented one of the most emotionally expressive oeuvres in modern comics.

What, then, was to be gained by straightjacketing his traditional narrative approach to such a rigid and arbitrary set of rules? Just about everything.

The artistic function of Louis Riel, for Brown, was to almost entirely change the focus of his art. Instead of using a very expressive line to communicate emotional stimulus, Brown eradicated this technique from his vocabulary. The endlessly and exquisitely delineated crosshatching and perfectly proportioned figurework was designed specifically to suppress any overt emotional evocation. Brown had a much more complicated goal in mind.

The history in Riel is intentionally transparent. Everything that occurs, occurs in an extremely forthright and linear manner. A precedes B precedes C, and the causes and effects of actions and reactions are minutely documented. Where the history fails or offers only supposition, Brown in most cases hews closely to orthodoxy – there are no strange YHWH-like interventions at any point in the process. When Brown makes a leap in his reasoning, he painstakingly documents these leaps in the back of the book.

The actual purpose of the story is not, as some would suspect, to create a polemic on the nature of history. The purpose of Louis Riel is instead to plum the nature of character, to examine and plumb and explore the unknowable texture of conscience.

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