Master Of The Obvious: Issue #39

Wed, April 26th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A few weeks ago, I recalled a scene from Louis Malle's MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a strange little film of a dinner conversation in New York City between (at that point mostly theatrical) actor/directors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. Unlike most films, it's pure talk.

There's a running presumption in film, as in comics, that "talking heads" are death. When I took a screenwriting course in college (my major was communication arts: film-TV-radio, if anyone cares) virtually the first thing the professor said was, "Make it visual. Let the visuals carry your story, if you want everything in dialogue, go write plays." This turned out to be good training for comics, where an editor insisted about as soon as I started working professionally, "No talking heads!" Meaning, roughly, "Conversation chases readers/viewers away, put in lots of fight scenes." Despite many fine comics relying heavily on dialogue published in the last 20 years, this remains standard operating procedure editorially, and much of the talent doesn't question it either.

[Talk Radio]

We have it drummed into our heads that film, TV, comics, etc. are "visual media" until we simply distrust speech. Oliver Stone made a film of TALK RADIO, a play by Eric Bogosian based on the murder of radio talk show host Alan Berg by white supremacists in the '80s. Bogosian's a terrific writer, with a great ear for dialogue and rhythm. He's also a pretty good actor, who fills even the most innocuous line with the intensity of his personality. (If you haven't seen TALK RADIO or the other film he scripted from one of his plays, SubURBIA - don't confuse it with Penelope Spheeris' SUBURBIA - go rent them. Good stuff.) At the end of TALK RADIO, starring Bogosian as the DJ, Barry, there's a monologue that goes on for maybe 20 minutes, in which Barry vents, unfettered, his contempt for his audience, for the whole culture that made him possible and even necessary, for the political beliefs of his enemies, and even for himself for taking part in which he knows is a charade of "conversation." It's one of the most audacious things ever put on film, just 20 minutes of Bogosian talking. It's riveting.

And it's where Stone lost his nerve. As Bogosian speaks, the camera begins an extended 360 degree crawling orbit around him. And around him. And around him. The set is totally static, except for Bogosian speaking in his desk microphone. Bogosian himself barely moves. If there was ever a scene that called for a stationary camera, that was it. Stone could have framed Bogosian and let him talk, and it would have been just as powerful. Possibly more powerful, because then Bogosian would have been speaking right at the viewing audience in a way the orbiting camera makes impossible, it would have been more immediate, more intense, more threatening. Stone's decision puts up a comfort zone between us and Bogosian, reminding us that it's only a movie, while Barry's speech is so full of bile it's like the character is aiming for scorched earth, to leave absolutely nothing standing. It's as if Stone wanted to reassure his viewers that Barry wasn't talking about them, but about those other people out there. You know: the ones Barry's talking about. The bad people.

Or - and I believe this is the reason, though Stone does like to wink at his audience - he just didn't have faith that a monologue, no matter how powerful, could hold an audience that long without camera movement.

We're trained to reject talking heads as a possibility. There's good reason for this: most dialogue, regardless of medium, isn't good enough to sustain it. In film and TV, most actors aren't good enough to pull it off. I'm not advocating the widespread use of talking heads. But when the definition of the term dilates to include any extended use of dialogue as the primary narrative tool - even when it's good enough to render other tools superfluous - to the point where dialogue itself becomes suspect, things have gone way too far. That's where we are, not only in comics but in media at large. (Except in ghettos like sitcoms, where the only relief from banter is slapstick or, in "very special episodes," bathos.) Big booms, big boobs, big fights, fast action: eye (and ear) candy ber alles. The notion that all action is physical is especially ingrained in comics. It's understandable: by the time you learn a movie's visually "quiet," you've paid your admission, and while it's possible to ask for your money back on a film you didn't like, almost no one ever does. Even at the prices they charge these days, people will still go to a movie on a whim, because the poster looks interesting.

A comic you might pick up to flip through because you like the cover, but it's increasingly clear that comics are more viewed than read these days. (A minor storm recently occurred when Warren and I wrote a sequence in X-MAN #63 depicting the "death" of Forge. Suddenly we were deluged by e-mail, and newsgroups were filled with messages, asking why we "killed off Forge." It wasn't "our" Forge. It didn't even look like him, he's in a Manhattan that bears no resemblance to the Manhattan in the rest of the book, and we figured anyone who read the references to a queen of America and Forge having his arm chewed off by a drug frenzied French girl in Alsatia would maybe get the idea that this was a parallel world. We didn't paste up a big sign saying "NOT OUR FORGE," but in context it wasn't a secret. Apparently a lot of people looked just hard enough to see the name and skimmed over the rest of it. "Viewing" rather than reading.) So I can see where the "big bang theory" of editorial content has great appeal to marketers, at least.

In most literature, dialogue is a main vehicle of action. As derogatory as it is, there's a reason why film reviewers often refer to films as "comic book movies": when all important action is physical, dialogue has only two functions - exposition and bombast. That's what they mean. That's what we're good at, if you can call it good. It seems every third line is a threat or boast, something intended to "heighten tension."

Really good dialogue is very hard to do. The space pressures in comics mitigate against it, since dialogue is usually collapsed to make room; anything resembling real conversation sends editors, artists and readers alike running in panic over "talking heads." Paradoxically, some of the most acclaimed comics of recent years rely extensively and in some cases almost exclusively on dialogue and relatively static visuals. These have been considered exceptions that proves the rule, examples of artistic vision it would be unwise to try to apply elsewhere. But dialogue is character, and character is what ultimately makes readers care enough about comics to want to continue with them. Dialogue should be the most powerful weapon in our arsenal, instead of the deadliest.

Which brings us back to MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. I'm not a Louis Malle fan. I'm not even a MY DINNER WITH ANDRE fan. But the one thing I keep coming back to in my mind is Andre Gregory's description of New York as a huge concentration camp. It doesn't need guards. The inmates are the guards, and they won't even acknowledge they're in a camp. He sees it as the model for western civilization to come. It also makes a good analogy to the current comics market.

[The Dark Knight]In the last week, I've been deluged by requests from news outlets for my view on the recent announcement that Frank Miller's doing a new Dark Knight story. My view: while a lot of people consider Frank's classic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as re-energizing the franchise, I saw it as the apotheosis, burning out the remaining possibilities of the character. While Batman's popularity has grown since those days, very little has been done with him that hasn't reiterated what Frank did. I'm not saying the character is bad or liking him is stupid or anything like that, just that the concept hasn't generated anything new in over a decade. "New" may be an unnecessary pursuit in this case. And I wasn't sure what even Frank could have to say about the character that wasn't said in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but, having spoken with Frank, I can safely say, yes, he does have something. The story sounds like a hoot.

"...while a lot of people consider Frank's classic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS as re-energizing the franchise, I saw it as the apotheosis, burning out the remaining possibilities of the character."

I have nothing against Frank doing new Batman material. It's his business, he's doing it for fun, for the money, for a break from what he's been doing. I have nothing against anyone doing what they want to do in the medium. More power to them. I don't have a problem with anyone being excited about the prospect of Frank doing new Batman material.

The general reaction has been dismaying, however. Over and over I've seen and heard people speak of Frank's "return" to "real" comics. As if there's something more real about Batman than SIN CITY, as though 300 and MARTHA WASHINGTON never existed. Unrelated, I was told of a conversation in an online chat room where the theory was passed around that it's "rude" of talent to leave mainstream (i.e. work for hire and published by big companies) characters to pursue their own ideas, like it's our duty to make sure Spider-Man is really good and then we can apply ourselves to other things in our spare timeā€¦ ignoring that Marvel editorial determines who works on Spider-Man books and, given Marvel's current structure, determines the content. In other words, the proper place for top talent is in servitude to someone else's old ideas, without concern for their own creative or financial well-being.

"I was told of a conversation in an online chat room where the theory was passed around that it's "rude" of talent to leave mainstream (i.e. work for hire and published by big companies) characters to pursue their own ideas..."

If this is really a predominant attitude of the industry and readership, we've become more decadent than I've guessed. The future of comics depends on bringing in bigger audiences; it's the only thing that makes economic sense. (I know for readers, this is a hobby; for us in the industry, it's a business, and in business you make economic sense or you don't stay in business.) A widespread view is that if only a larger audience got exposed to The Flash (just to pick a name out of the air) the Flash's audience would automatically grow, but it's pretty clear the public at large has already rejected the Flash and most of his costumed confreres, and to draw a larger audience we must produce work that might interest that audience.

(Aside: hasn't anyone ever figured out that if The Flash were written properly, his adventures would last five, six panels tops? The man can move as fast as light. Everyone else would be statues to him. Even the golden age Flash could move fast enough that he could convince everyone he was an entire baseball team. Captain Cold's got his cold gun? Voom. Captain Cold doesn't have his cold gun anymore. If the Flash were written to the logic of his powers, what could possibly be a threat to him?)

Presuming an audience must adapt to the product instead of the other way around is elitist and complacent, a presumption that reality doesn't apply to us: decadent. The notion that work isn't real unless it involves long term mainstream characters is, frankly, sick. It guts any possibility of evolution of the medium or the art, guts the ability of comics to adapt to a changing world and puts everything in bondage to the past. It turns the industry into a concentration camp where the inmates are the guards, where laborers labor with no hope of escape until they drop and are replaced by other laborers who labor with no hope of escape until they drop and are replaced.

Starting this week on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: the question of the week. Pop on over and tell us what you think.

More new stories up at @VENTURE.

Remember THOSE ANNOYING POST BROS., the anarcho-sf strip writer-artist Matt Howarth started in self-publication and in HEAVY METAL before launching it as a comics series first from Vortex and later from Aeon Press. It was funny as hell, and in some ways the best comic book ever done. More about THOSE ANNOYING POST BROS. at a later date (except to say you should scour any comics shops near you for back issues), but Matt, who always used his filler pages to review and promote independent music, particularly experimental, electronic and synthesizer music, now writes a music review column, Sonic Space, for Space.Com. Get thee hence.

And Larry Young recently sent me trade paperbacks of his series ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE: LIVE FROM THE MOON. (AIT/plaNETLar Books, $12.95) If you haven't seen it, it's a good approximation of the "paper movies" I was talking about a few weeks ago. Good characters, nicely paced story about a rich man starting his own space program, good art by Matt Smith, Charlie Adlard and Darick Robertson. I don't recommend too many comics because I rarely spend my own money on them these days (and I don't want to be deluged with people sending me their self-published comics because I don't want to have to ignore them if I don't like the books, which is what I'd be likelier to do than plug them or give them bad reviews) but if I were going to spend money on a comic I'd spend it on this one.

Still no word on how the hit campaign is going, since we only get reports once per month. The idea, for those new here, is that Warren Ellis and I are trying to raise money to self-publish comics by encouraging people to encourage everyone else they know, whether comics fans or not, to check out our columns (Warren's is COME IN ALONE) every Friday and Wednesday respectively. We get paid by the hit, so the more people who visit here, the more money we raise. The more money we raise, the more we can funnel into our own projects. But we need a lot of hits. It doesn't cost you anything, the advertisers get the ad exposures they're paying for, everyone's happy. Tell your ma, tell your pa, our love's a-gonna grow oo wah wah.

In case I haven't said it before, thanks for reading. I appreciate it. I know there are people who think I'm just being a crotchety bitter old crank here, but I'm just trying to be an irritant in the oyster: all I really want at the end of the day is more pearls.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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