Friday, August 27, 2004

Life’s Rich Pageant

Does the term “New Mainstream” mean anything?

Just about every genre tag we use here in comics is a relative. Superhero adventure books are only “mainstream” in reference to the direct market. The pejorative “alternative” appellation only makes sense from the standpoint of this definition of “mainstream”.

Both Oni Press and AiT/Planet Lar possess an infinitesimal share of the direct market. According to Diamond’s market share calculations for June of this year, Oni is at the very bottom of the “large” publishers, with .30% of the overall market. AiT/Planet/Lar isn’t even counted individually, but is instead compiled among the "other", the 7.50% at the very bottom of the direct market food chain. I have it on good authority from AiT/Planet Lar that a large percentage of their sales are made through outlets other than the direct market, but even given this, their market penetration among conventional comics readers is abysmal, and especially so considering the relative quality of many of their products.

It all comes back to one thing: hope. The direct market is sick, and it doesn’t looks like it is ever going to become the New Marketplace of the future. There are good retailers, oodles of good retailers – but they can still be counted on one or two sheets of typed paper. There just aren’t enough vigorous and enthusiastic independent retailers who are able to present the world with the vibrant public face that the comics industry desperately needs.

So, our “New Mainstream” is at present something of a chimera. Everyone who has some stake in comics, with the exception of the most hardened cynics and battle-scarred pessimists, wants the industry to survive. By “industry”, what do we mean? We mean the companies that we like, who produce the types of books we want to read.

Team Comics is an erroneous mindset, but there’s a germ of economic activism there that isn’t entirely misplaced. I champion AiT/Planet Lar and Oni because, ultimately, I see the success of these companies, who pay more than just lip service to the concepts of generic diversity, as intrinsic to the possible success of the American comics industry.

Domestic comics can’t survive as a boutique industry. Thankfully, the literate wing of the industry seems to be doing just fine for itself. The undeniable success of The Complete Peanuts, combined with the recent upswing in attention from cultural gatekeepers such at the New York Times seems to be sowing seeds that will be bearing fruit for many years to come. Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No-Towers is going to be the biggest book of the year, I anticipate. It had two full pages in this week’s Newsweek. I didn’t really understand how big it was going to be until my wife informed me that it was being offered as a main selection by the Quality Paperback Book Club next month.

So, what does this all mean? Nothing, intrinsically. But ultimately, I don’t think that it is in the comics industry’s interest to have success in the realms of literate and high-minded work, while a popular foundation of accessible genre fiction is overlooked. So the term “New Mainstream” is basically wishful thinking at this point, but it’s not crazy. If people like Larry Young can manage to keep themselves afloat and stay in the public eye, there is every chance that the kind of populist work that he champions could very well become the backbone of a new paradigm in mainstream graphic novels. Of course, Oni and Ait/Planet Lar and Top Shelf could all be washed out to see in the next tsunami and I could be left blowing smoke, but I doubt it.

I am not, by trade, an optimist. But, ask my wife, I am nothing if not patient and – in general – hopeful. I want artists like Chester Brown and Los Bros Hernandez and Chris Ware and Gary Panter to be able to keep doing what they’re doing for many years to come. But most importantly, I want there to be a next generation of cartoonists, and in order to attract the type of folks who have the level of talent and dedication to make truly inspiring art, the medium has to survive and thrive throughout the comings decades. This requires that the medium become a truly popular medium, and perhaps one day this too shall occur.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part III

Fortune and Glory

I’ve long been a fan of Bendis’ work, although I have nowhere near an exhaustive collection of his early material. The most impressive aspect of his superhero work is the formalistic rigor with which hhe approaches every script. Perhaps he may not have the frenetic ideation of a Grant Morrison or the exhaustive virtuosity of an Alan Moore, but he does possess something almost nearly as impressive: a seemingly intuitive understanding of the comic page’s rhythmic essentiality.

Fortune and Glory is the story of Bendis’ first and subsequent encounters with the Hollywood system, as his book Goldfish is optioned and put through its paces on the way towards development limbo (where, I assume, it languishes to this day). Besides the books usefulness as a cautionary tale (I would think that this has to be regarded as a primal text for any creative type contemplating a Hollywood deal), it is also serves as an interesting examination of Bendis’ unique narrative technique.

As a cartoonist of the funny “bigfoot” variety, Bendis is strictly minor-league. His figurework and faces are unspectacular, and his panel compositions are often confusing. But his strengths shine through despite the weakness of his line, and those strengths are essentially the same strengths that make any Bendis comic unmistakably distinctive.

Bendis’ numerous detractors often point to the fact that his books are singularly wordy. There are lots of people talking, and long conversations, and even surplus expository dialogue. This approach is a long way from the cut-to-the-bone narrative exigency of your average mainstream superhero comic circa fifteen years ago. The most important element in most superhero comics up to about the year 1990 was narrative expediency. Every iota of energy on the comics page was devoted to imparting information, be it expository dialogue or captioning relating directly to pertinent plot points, or artificially kinetic action sequences designed to communicate basic physical relationships at the expense of any nuance or texture.

There is a lot less story in your average 2004 superhero book than there was in your average 1984 superhero book, but I do not think that any rational judge of content could say that, on the average, the latter is inherently stylistically superior to the former. The creation of the “arc” as the dominant storytelling mode has allowed the majority of mainstream comics to place a premium on once-forgotten virtues such as mood and pacing, two disciplines at which Bendis excels.

Many of Bendis’ sequences follow a similar pattern. In the course of a hypothetical two-page spread, the characters and setting will be established with a long-to-medium range opening panel. This context panel serves as the launching pad for the rest of the sequence, which consists of multiple smaller patterns juxtaposed at intervals sufficient to create the illusion of temporal dynamics in a spacial medium. Compare this staccato approach to pacing with the previous tradition, a large expository panel with multiple dialogue bubbles for every character. There’s no sense that the conversation in this latter panel has any temporal element at all. By using multiple panels in repetition to create the appearance of passing time, Bendis injects his work with the singular appearance of temporal plausibility.

Seeing these techniques manipulated in the context of his own simplistic cartoons allows the reader to examine them almost forensically. This is modern “decompressed” storytelling stripped down to the bone. You’ve got repetition of a static image to create conversational rhythm, you’ve got the enlargement of single panels to create a sense of contemplative reverie. Every one of these devices is used as a vehicle for communicating otherwise irksome exposition to the audience. If he didn’t have a knack for believable dialogue or an ear for palatable narration, these vehicles would fall flat. But they work.

An interesting side effect of this kind of formalistic autopsy is the realization that Bendis really is playing a different game than just about everyone else in modern mainstream comics, for better or for worse. Compared to traditional notions of utilitarian storytelling that have prospered in the mainstream for the last few decades, Bendis’ laser-sharp focus on pacing and mood to the detriment of almost everything else have created a stylistic schism between the kind of comics he writes, and the kind of comics everyone else writes. Bendis’ comics are distinctively branded by his preternatural disposition towards temporal exploration. He wants his comics to read with the rhythm of a movie, and to this extent his comics have absorbed the language of cinema to an almost unprecedented extent. Some would say that this singular preoccupation is a sharp demerit for a medium (mainstream superhero comics) so often associated with ideas and action – perhaps it is. But you underestimate his formalistic prowess at your own peril. If there is one thing of which Fortune and Glory convinces me, it is that Brian Michael Bendis is a dedicated and innovative craftsman, and his explorations of the medium’s formalistic idiom have done a great deal to broaden the language of mainstream comics.

Part Five – The Power of Caricature – Part II

This is a photograph of Louis Riel, courtesy of Wikipedia:

This is a drawing of Riel, courtesy of Chester Brown:

Photographs are a powerful medium, but they are limited by the bounds of reality. The cartoonist has a battery of many subtle and complex tools at their ready disposal, and one of the most nuanced tools of all is the art of caricature.

Conventional caricature is understood as an art of exaggeration: singular physical or contextual features are emphasized in order to make a broad point about a target.

This recent cartoon by Pat Oliphant offers a keen illustration of this phenomenon. George Bush is drawn as a small and pointed pipsqueak, in order to emphasize a lack of personal gravity and a questionable institutional dignity. Dick Cheney has a small, owlish face at thecenter of a rounded head with a high forehead. These features imply cunning, craft, and a high intelligence. Cheney’s imposingly stolid physical characteristics imply many things about his presence in the cartoon as well.

In this case, and as seen on hundreds of thousands of newspaper editorial pages across the world every day, the pen of the caricaturist is used to reveal perceived intrinsic truths about subjects that could never be as effectively communicated with a photograph. Even the most broad and simplistic caricature is a powerful tool, for the simple reason that its very hard to misunderstand the meaning of an obvious caricature:

It’s hard to even recognize Bush in this picture, so thick is the cartoonist’s loathing for his subject. But if you know who it is, it is impossible to mistake Rall’s intentions.

Chester Brown’s use of caricature in Louis Riel represents a sharp inversion of caricature’s accepted utility. Instead of emphasizing certain traits, as your average cartoonist would do in order to emphasize a point – say, the deep-set eyes or the look of fierce determination – Brown deemphasizes Riel’s personality, in order to ask broader questions through his narrative.

Instead of dictating the reader’s response, Brown invites the reader to fill the narrative void left by his self-consciously ascetic approach to character.

Take, for example, this sequence from Riel:

This portion of the story detail’s Riel’s studied inaction following his figurative exile from Canadian soil. We are not given any overt clues on Riel’s thoughts, no easy visual tics to make our understanding of his character any easier. We are essentially invited into the story, given by Brown a catalyst to insert ourselves into Riel’s thought processes.

This stands at odds with most conventional historical narrative. Most history, be it prose or film or comics, comes at its subject with a point. The point of Louis Riel is a lot bigger than whether or not the Metis cause was just (it was) or whether or not Riel was insane (he was sick). The narrative thrust at the heart of Riel is to explore the contradictory and controversial nature of history itself. There are no easy decisions or snap judgements which a perceptive reader can carry away from the book. There is merely an endless, overarching indecision, an indecision that serves as the keystone of Brown’s treatment of Riel and which demands the reader immerse himself in an endless, pulsating ambiguity.

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