Tuesday, September 21, 2004


I am here today to tell you about the greatest CD in the history of the universe:

Tell me your soul does not cry out to hear “If You Like Wolverine Clap Your Hands” (real song title! Could I make this up?).

I will even make it easy for you to add this CD to your collection:

Trust me.

If you haven’t been checking out what Jon at Mae Mai is up to lately, you need to go do so. He’s got an especially interesting post about how most people misuse the term avant garde, and how there does not seem to be an actual avant garde anywhere in comics. I don’t know about America, but I do know that Bart Beatty has talked about many things in his Eurocomics columns that seem to fit both the colloquial and historical definitions. Other than that – well, how about Garfield?

We’re going to try an interesting experiment here. I may not like it. I may discontinue it at any time. But we’re going to give it a try.

That’s right, we’re going to try some comments. We’ll see what happens.

Working permalinks and now a comment section? My God, we are truly living in the twenty-first century.

Travels With Larry Part XXIII

Last of the Independents

I haven’t seen Charley Varrick, so I can’t speak to any similarities that may exist between Last of the Independents and Don Siegel’s 1973 caper film. I have, however, seen about as many action/thriller/tough guy films as I can possibly stand, so I feel somewhat confident saying that there is really nothing new afoot in the plot of Independents.

The expectations of genre and the exigencies of plot ensure that Independents plays out with the familiarity of a medieval Passion Play. The characters are identifiable types, and their actions are set into irrevocable motion the minute the gears of the plot slip into action. You know, more or less, every significant thing that’s going to happen in the course of the story because the steps have been laid with precision. There aren’t really any twists to speak of. Things proceed with a grudging finality.

If this sounds like a particularly harsh criticism, it’s not, not really. The audience for these type of stories know exactly what to expect whenever they go to see a thriller of this type, just as audiences know and gratefully expect predictable thrills from their blockbuster movie franchises and their romance novels and their television sitcoms. There is a satisfaction in this type of repetitive storytelling that cannot be discounted. There can be no greater sin than flouting genre conventions when fulfilling genre conventions is your raison d'être.

I can’t criticize Last of the Independents for being overly predictable, because its obvious that the genre homage is the exact goal they were aiming for. If you like that sort of thing, you will like this sort of thing.

Where Independents really shines is in the obvious attention that has been paid to the formalistic elements of the comic in relation to its cinematic cousins. There are certainly many reasons to gnash one’s aesthetic teeth over the preponderance of literal imagery and narrative in mainstream and new-mainstream outlets. I may, for instance, find Brian Michael Bendis’ approach to temporal geography fascinating, but the fact remains that he is essentially using the comics page to replicate as closely as possible the effects of a motion picture. His narrative style, being as close to a “house style” as anything Marvel currently publishes, will probably be the most influential approach to narrative in the mainstream for at least the next decade. The legacy of nü-Marvel is an unfortunately literal one.

Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer have a similar but subtly different - and, in my tentative opinion, more successful - approach to their craft. Instead of focusing on a naturalistic passage of time, they are much more concerned with a naturalistic and unerringly cinematic exploration of motion and perspective on the comics page.

This book could easily be used as storyboards for a movie. (I wouldn’t, however, have any interest in seeing a movie adaptation of this, for the simple reason that the story isn’t very unique – it’s the exploration of craft in the static comics form that makes it such a fascinating artifact.) On the most basic level, the book is flipped onto its side. Each page is roughly 10 1/2 x 6 inches, which comes out to about the proportions of a cinema screen.

About half the pages throughout the book feature a sequence of images drawn from the same perspective and featuring sequential action in successive panels. There’s a particularly masterful sequence about a quarter of the way into the book (no page numbers! Drat!) featuring the two main characters (Cole and Justine) tossing in bed, unable to sleep after they rob the bank at the beginning of the book:

They’re both awake. He looks over to her. He moves to put his hand on her shoulder. He pulls his hand away. He leans back in bad and lights a cigarette. She rolls over on her back and looks at the ceiling alongside him.

It’s a very complicated and restrained sequence. The story itself may not be very interesting, but Fraction and Dwyer’s acumen is quite engrossing.

Its interesting to note that almost every sequence plays out in obeisance to an imaginary camera. Usually, if the angles change, the panel retains a focal point. There’s a sequence about two-thirds through the book where the male protagonist (Cole) is being ambushed in an auto parts store. Pay close attention to how the panel perspective slowly wheels around to give the reader a view of everything in the scene, and the specific physical relationship between Cole and his attackers. There’s a quick cut to show Justine’s reaction from a hidden vantage.

There’s a page towards the end of the book where Cole is being pursued through the burning amusement park by a group of mob thugs. The top of the page is a long establishing shot, showing Cole being chased and returning fire. The bottom of the page is a sequence of three wordless panels: Cole jumps a turnstile. There’s a cut away from Cole as we see one of the goons shoot. Then we cut back to Cole, a close-up shot with most of his body and half his head cropped by the panel borders, as the bullet that was fired in the previous panel hits his shoulder.

There’s a great deal of interesting things to learn from Independents. Certainly, I don’t think I can recommend this book any higher to anyone interested in an intimate look at the nuts and bolts of narrative storytelling. Larry Young could publish a totally wordless edition of this book and the essential story would be perfectly intact: there aren’t that many comics you can say that for.

I question their dedication to the goal of replicating the action movie experience on paper, however. It seems like an essentially limiting excercise. Last of the Independents works well as a formal breakdown of cinematically-influenced comics narrative, but in all honesty the plot is about as interesting as a sack of rocks. If Fraction and Dwyer re-team anytime soon, I will expect them to raise their stake significantly. Their notable storytelling acumen cries for a keener application.

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart Part IX

Spaghetti Western

Scott Morse suffers from the fact that I have always mixed him up with Scott Mills. I dislike Mills’ work intensely, and anything that makes the association is automatically tarred by that brush – sorry to say, but people are arbitrary bastards, and I am no exception to this rule.

This book gets another strike against it because of the fact that – oh, come on people. It’s a sideways-printed modern-day Western with sepia-toned art. It was published almost a full year after Last of the Independents, so you can't argue that they developed the idea simultaneously. Now, people swipe ideas all the time: sometimes its movies about giant asteroids, sometimes its reality TV shows about up-and-coming boxers. But you can’t expect people not to notice.

But, all things considered, there are significant differences between Spaghetti Western and Last of the Independents. For one thing, whereas Fraction and Dwyer were feelin’ nostalgic for a certain brand of gritty modern caper flick, Morse is concerned with paying homage to Sergio Leone’s famous – ahem – spaghetti westerns, right on down to the grimacing, poncho-clad cowboy with the permanent squint and a thin, hand rolled cigar between his teeth.

But it’s a somewhat strained nostalgia. The book owes less to the actual thematic content of Leone’s films than something like The Sunshine Boys: an ultimately sympathetic and overly sentimental approach to the idea of “one last heist” by two aging desperados. The two protagonists just dress up like Clint Eastwood on account of the fact that they like Eastwood better than John Wayne – which is certainly understandable.

Morse takes a different tack on the cinematic format. Instead of divvying up the action into panels and sequences, every page is treated as a full panel, or a “movie screen”, complete with black bars running across the top and bottom. I will say that Morse makes better use of the sepia tones than Dwyer does in Independents. The book looks to have been illustrated with colored pastels or chalk – if not some computer process that approximates the effect.

Morse presents an interesting alternative to the overly formalistic narrative. By presenting every page a completed panel, he allows every panel to become more significant, and design therefore becomes a much more communicative element than in a strictly narrative book. Unfortunately, Morse’s highly stylized approach is only partially successful. For one, I read the book in less than five minutes, which is hardly a good thing when discussing a $12 purchase.

There seems to be a group of younger cartoonists who are applying the highly stylized tools of graphic design to their comics work. It’s not as if this is a new phenomenon, but the fact is that some styles tend to overwhelm the narrative. For me, Morse’s very broad and blocky style just didn’t click. It seems as if he had more fun drawing the pictures than in communicating the story, and I can’t help but feel that his distraction comes through in the finished product.

Of course, there are a few more books by Morse in my box, so I will have ample opportunity to discover whether this is merely a singular antipathy towards Spaghetti Western or a larger discomfort with his chosen style.

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