Thursday, August 19, 2004
The White Elephant
This comic tries something different, and I have a great respect for anyone willing to try something different. It only partially works, but when it works, it works well.
The book’s central conceit is that the flipped-format long pages are meant to approximate a stage, and that the events in the book are meant to evoke a stage play, both in terms of dialogue and staging. It’s an interesting format, and it offers any number of fruitful metaphors hanging from very low branches. Some of these fruit are plucked, some aren’t, but the creators get credit for trying.
The theater, at is has come to be defined in the preceding century, is a medium of limitations. Whereas movies and television offer a more visceral approximation of reality, theater offers an intimacy and spontaneity unattainable in recorded medium. The limits of any given production are the most basic physical limits possible: the size and dimensions of a stage, the definitions of reality. We’re not likely to see any CGI on Broadway, at least not anytime soon. Although the mega-productions of the last thirty or so years have brought a previously undreamed level of spectacle to the theater, even morbidly obese productions such as The Lion King are restrained by the physical limitations of stagecraft.
In translating the particular limitations of the stage to the page, Damon hurd and Christopher Steinenger have made some interesting choices. First, the dialogue is presented side by side with the panels, in the form of a typed script. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to follow the narrative, as certain storytelling decisions seem a bit counter-intuitive. The story flows best when the artist uses wide-shot long panels to define the entire page as physical space. Whenever the story depends on close-up views of faces and people, physical relationships can become blurred and muddy.
Steininger’s art is effective, but there were many times I found myself wishing for a less sketchy style. I can understand what he’s going for here, but there are too many indicators here that Steininger doesn’t have the firm grasp of fundamentals that would enable to him to stretch out on such an impressionistic limb. Artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Ashley Wood had to learn how to crawl before they could sprint, and often times Steininger gives the impression of wanting to seem more accomplished than he is.
Hurd gained quite a surprising following after the publication of his mini-comic My Uncle Jeff, which was subsequently reprinted for a wider audience by Alternative (also the publisher of this volume). His comics specialize in a rigorous emotional honesty based on a traumatically unpleasant upbringing. The autobiography in The White Elephant is thinly-veiled (it even says so on the back of the book.) As an aside, I don’t really understand the purpose of adopting a roman a clef if the author admits up-front that everything is true – it seems kind-of besides the point, but if Hurd is more comfortable working on these terms, so be it. Eddie Campbell was Alec McGarry for a while, after all, and it seemed to work for him after a fashion.
There’s a level of emotional intensity in this book that belies the occasional lapse into melodrama. If there’s one narrative weakness here, I would say that there are quite a few characters to keep track of, and their inconsistent portrayals makes it difficult to differentiate certain characters.
I don’t think that Hurd has really come into his own yet. This is a very raw book, buoyed along by rage where technical proficiency proves inadequate. The creators’ willingness to take some very interesting risks with the material bodes well for their future endeavors – its always a good sign when young cartoonists are eager to explore the formalistic constraints of the medium. That tells me that despite the somewhat mixed results on display here, these two creators are already thinking about the medium in terms of a long-term creative engagement.
I have to say that this is a surprisingly good read. This comes about as close as you can get to a "bolt from the blue" for me. I don’t think I’d ever read more than two lines about Mad Yak Press before, and I certainly knew nothing about any of their books. Based on the example of Subatomic, I don’t think their company is going to remain secret for much longer.
First, they have put together a really impressive package here. Most small- and self-publishers use black and white as their primary format - primarily, I imagine, for economic reasons. Everything I’ve seen from Mad Yak is in glorious color. This pays surprising dividends. The fact is that even among upscale publishers such as AiT/Planet Lar and Oni, the majority of books published in black and white don’t really seem to be distinctively black and white books, so much as books that merely weren’t colored.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that cartoonists have radically different approaches should pick up any of Marvel’s Essentials line. As much as I love getting a big fat fistful of comics for a great price, there is no denying that the stories lose something when the color is subtracted. This is especially true when you look back at Silver Age giants such as Kirby and Ditko, artists who depended on color to provide textures that their own impressionistic understanding of form and figure did not account for. By that same token, if you look at artists such as Jaime Hernandez and Jim Woodring, these are artists who take full advantage of the stylistic possibilities open to artists who chose to work with black & white. Their design is much stronger because they have to rely on black & white contrasts as their primary tool for creating depth on a flat page. Then, of course, there are artists such as Ron Rege and Gary Panter who play with the possibilities of an artificially flat surface by using mannered approaches to an anti-perspective, subtracting a full millenia of artistic advancement and manipulating their black & white figures on a sloping, depthless plane.
Um, where was I? Oh yeah.
Subatomic is presented in glorious color. I am almost tempted to say that Anne Marie Horne’s subtle palette is the best thing about the book – it would hardly be an insult to the other two members of the creative team, considering how damn fine her colors look. A lot of computer coloring can be garish and ugly, but Ms. Horne has concocted a consistent – and consistently interesting – palette. This is especially impressive considering the fact that most of the book takes place in drab gray government institutions and darkened winter cityscapes. There’s a brief section in the middle of the book set in the midst of the country, with green fields and blue skies, but the dichotomy doesn’t jar the reader because there’s a consistent tonal vocabulary that creates a continuity even between the insides of a drab military barracks and a wide-open cornfield. I don’t have a doubt that based on the evidence of Subatomic, Ms. Horne could find a job coloring any comic published by any publisher, anywhere. She’s that good – and how often do you hear anyone raving about how good a colorist is?
I don’t mean to imply that the rest of the book deserves short shrift, far from it. Patrick Neighly has crafted an interesting tale that should appeal to the paranoid conspiracy theorist in anyone. I can see how the story might first have occurred to him – by taking the tropes of comic book and movie spy stories and inserting them into the realm of workaday bureaucracy. So, you have the fabled SHIELD helicarrier reimagined as a drab floating office building, and Steranko’s famous flying chairs remade as nothing so interesting as a bulky black suitcase. It may seem ironic or unlikely, considering that comics are a relentlessly visual medium, but the invariably bland imagery succeeds quite well. It’s supposed to be boring, and it does an excellent job of evoking the world we’re placed into.
The story itself is fairly simple. Mark is an employee of ATOM, the top-secret government agency entrusted with spying on the American citizenry in order to protect it. They accomplish this by keeping tabs on pretty much everyone, and they do just about everything necessary to invade your privacy, from reading your mail to inserting spies throughout the populace. These elements of the story aren’t as fulyl fleshed as I would perhaps have liked, but the point of the story isn’t to explore the mechanics of ATOM’s fascistic enterprise, its to follow Mark as he decides to rebel against the system and leave the organization.
It’s a futile gesture. He stays out of trouble for about a year but the organization is constantly on his tracks. Finally, he’s caught and restored back into the organization. The final act is particularly effective because it is implied very strongly that the organization, in the end, has no real reason to exist other than to propagate its bureaucracy. Its hardly a new idea, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.
Jorge Heufemann is a name I am unfamiliar with. His art is prosaically competent – and for a story that places a high value on drab utilitarianism, it is oddly appropriate. But again, the art in this book is a true collaboration. Heufemann trusts Horne’s colors implicitly, and she doesn’t let him, or us, down.
Subatomic is a great book, all the more interesting considering the challenges facing any self-published book in today’s market. This is the type of smart, well-produced and entertaining yarn that would captivate the mainstream audiences who eat up inferior product like Robert Ludlum movie adaptations - if they knew it existed, that is. I predict bright futures for everyone involved in the production of this book – but especially Horne.