Permanent Damage

Fri, November 27th, 2009 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A long time ago now, I ran into Gary Groth at a party in Los Angeles or somewhere thereabouts (Thousand Oaks, it might have been), and put him off with the comment that I'd rather watch an interesting movie, or read an interesting comic, than a good one. He looked at me in disbelief, as though I'd just declared myself a complete imbecile.

But it's as true now as it was then. Most works acclaimed for technical near-flawlessness and critically lauded as great art – say, Ivory-Merchant films, or David Lean films – I find tedious as hell. I'm very plebian that way. I couldn't care less about the soul-crushing inner torment of the modern American housewife or social mores of the Edwardian upper crust. Something that gives me something to grab my imagination, or presents a skewed vision I'd never entertained before, that I can sink my teeth into, as long as the execution isn't too inept. Give me an episode of LIFE (the recent NBC cop show, not the current BBC biology snoozefest) over MASTERPIECE THEATER anytime. Of course, "good" is subject to interpretation, and it's certainly possible – preferable, even – for works to be both "good" and interesting, but in my experience that's pretty damn rare. Bear in mind that when I say "critically acclaimed," we're talking about a field, comics, but also film when I look at the current state of film criticism, where the general level of critique is roughly equivalent to "But, paw, ah luuuuuuv him!"

So the following is likely more about my own biases than anything else. I freely cop to that.

We were discussing graphic novels. Comics are often likened to film (and, as I've spelled out before, there are ways to profiteer on that wrongheaded perception) but this is mostly due to a misunderstanding of similar form, amplified by the storyboard. It's easy to look at film or TV storyboards and think, "those are just like comics," but they're not. To the extent they are comics, storyboards are generally about the most boring form of comic there is. Partly because, like screenplays, they're not intended for consumption but are roadmaps toward a final product realized in a different medium. While that might also be said of a number of comics produced today, in theory the comics themselves are designed as finished products; any further media exploitation of the properties is superfluous to the comic book, and the comic book stands on its own regardless of other exploitation, the same as a prose novel would. The storyboard does not stand on its own, and is generally absent most characteristics besides art and a storyline that would qualify it as comics.

Yes, comics also have art and storyline, but that's not enough.

To draw an equivalency between comics and film is to overlook the unique aspects of comics that separate them from everything else. Comics people do this regularly, so everyone else can be forgiven for it. It's still wrong. Emphasis has traditionally been placed on art (understandably, since traditionally the writing in comics has been perfunctory, but that's more of an editorial choice than a necessity) without much understanding of how writing and art work together in comics. Certain biases have crept into the conversation over the years that are rarely addressed because those biases are now considered the nature of things when they aren't.

Narrative is the aspect of comics that has suffered the most for this.

Narrative in comics isn't much understood. Narrative in most comics generally ranges from minimalist to mechanical, with the latter being the dominant mode in "commercial" comics and the former dominant in "art" comics. Narrative isn't exactly story, and it isn't plot. It isn't exactly storytelling. It's how the authorial voice – in comics, this means both writer and artist – interacts with the audience and guides their perception of the work.

Good comics - interesting comics – demand a lot of elements working in unison. A good story. Good writing in terms of both intellect and craft. Expressive art. All these things merged together. But put them all together and a key element is still missing. The great comics, the really great comics, don't simply tell a story well. Really great comics create an experience for the reader, and preferably an experience they can't get elsewhere.

Narrative is how a story becomes an experience.

To a great extent, narrative is subject to space, the main reason it hasn't traditionally been explored. Comic strips mostly had, and continue to have, very simple narratives, mainly because they couldn't accommodate anything else. (It's instructive to compare Sunday strips from the '30s, when the comic strip was ascending to its closest claim to art and before editorial fiat damped things down for good, to daily versions of the same strip, and see how much more the same artists could accomplish in their still relatively primitive narratives with the additional space.) "Simplicity" has been a byword of comics since the heyday of the comic strip and straightforward narrative, everything contained in pictures and dialogue, and the occasional caption sputtering "And then...", is the traditional default for comics. There are huge schools of thought dedicated to crushing variation from straightforward narrative and condemning it as pretentious and self-indulgent.

But there are only so many things the straightforward narrative, as understood in comics, can accomplish. Besides restricting types of stories told, it's so repetitive, so much a part of the landscape, that while many comics readers find it pleasantly comforting, like an old teddy bear, it makes reading many comics a monotonous experience, which is to say no experience at all. It's the flatlands. It's like continuously driving through Nebraska and never quite reaching Colorado.

It's one thing to read 8 or 16 or 22 pages of straightforward narrative - cause and effect, this thing happened and then that thing happened and then that thing happened etc. – but stretch it to 88 or 128 or a couple hundred pages plus on a regular basis, and that's the death of novelty right there.

Some explanation here. I started paying serious attention to literature right around the time in the '60s that literature was blowing up. For many decades, there had been enforcement, by critics and publishers, of "naturalism" in fiction; its equivalent in film was the social drama of the '50s, the overwrought, overpraised message clunkers like HIGH NOON and ON THE WATERFRONT. Representational fiction, whose function was mainly to replicate the world in all its gravitas. But by the 1950s, many writers, inspired by psychiatry, drug experiences, the sciences, and other arts like painting and poetry, of modern experimental music, and the example of crazy rebel writers like Kerouac and Burroughs, started looking for new modes. Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelmew, John Gardner, these were the writers I was reading then and in the early '70s. They sought various things: the destruction of the authoritarian omniscient voice and the questioning of form, the creative interaction of author and reader, the erosion of certainty, to make the design of the physical type as integral to the story as the content, of applying implications from advances in other forms and disciplines like psychology and physics to the content and form of fiction, to use words and language not simply to tell the story but to create an immersive experience. The experience was the story, the real story. The "story," as we think of story in comics, was often something of a metaphor for the real story. To the horror of many science fiction readers, many science fiction writers leaped on board, to extend the imagination of the genre to the techniques used to tell the story, and writers like J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick invented new techniques themselves.

There's always a risk in literary invention, and the likelihood of alienating readers accustomed to "accepted" forms is fairly high, especially in genre fiction. It wasn't too long before publishers turned away from "new technique" fiction (if I may coin a phrase) and began enforcing, mostly by what they purchased for publication, a return to "safe" fiction, the straightforward simple narrative, splintering "art" writers off into "literary" fiction and nominating them for National Book Awards while putting their marketing resources behind things like THE DA VINCI CODE.

This sense of an immersive experience has consistently eluded comics. Creators, maybe, are too aware of the existence of comics as lines on paper to really take them seriously, but as pictures comics are one step less removed from experience than type on paper is. Still, we obsess on the straightforward narrative, lionize it as the "right" way. "None of that artsy-fartsy stuff," a phrase I've heard time and time again. Comics, and graphic novels, have been largely built on the straightforward narrative, and the price we've paid is a dull sameness of approach across the board.

Not that the immersive experience is unknown to comics. Alan Moore specializes in it, especially in collaboration – real collaboration – with artists like Dave Gibbons who are equally willing to treat the work as an immersive experience rather than simply an art job. WATCHMEN's strength isn't its story or even its characters, but its creation of an immersive world that pulls the reader in and challenges him to decipher patterns and the world's implicate order (or disorder) for himself. There's a richness to it that's hard to find elsewhere in comics, whether comic books or graphic novels. Since WATCHMEN was first published, many comics talents have, well, let's be frank, ripped it off - but nobody rips off that most important aspect! Maybe because they don't have the tools or the skill, but I'd guess because they don't realize it's there. On the other end of the scale is Harvey Pekar, whose natural raconteurial approach creates an oddly immersive experience, both immediately recognizable and strangely alien, helped by art that's often so superfluous it's almost transparent, throwing almost the reader's entire attention on Pekar's writing. Tellingly, Pekar's work is most effective when he's observing/narrating someone else's actions; his best narrative work is in the second person, an almost unheard of approach to comics. When he slips into the first person and makes himself the center of the narrative, his work suffers. Pekar's strength is as a raconteur, not a confesser, and it's when taking the role of narrator leading the reader through observation of someone else's behavior that his work is most compelling. Though ostensibly documentary in nature, Pekar's work is really docudrama, recreations deftly controlled by Pekar for effect: reality as fiction.

Presumably in comics, writer and artist are unified in their narrative structure, but that's a pretty big presumption, and doesn't mean writer-artists necessary have an edge. (Even writer-artists often find themselves sacrificing one aspect to the other.) Aside from space considerations, the dominance of the straightforward narrative – let's call it vanilla from now on – is partly a byproduct of a system of production that traditionally separates writer from artist entirely, aside from the script, virtually ensuring narrative limitations. The vanilla narrative, relatively accessible but not especially deep, is the easiest structure to passably accomplish in such a system.

As I mentioned above, lack of structure put a crimp in narrative complexity in comic strips. Comic books fared better and better as longer story length became customary, but have also hit something of a ceiling, though the possibility of even great narrative complexity in comics still exists. (By complexity, by the way, I don't mean greater confusion but greater narrative density and more sophisticated narrative, extending stories into multiple storytelling dimensions.) In theory the length of the graphic novel offers comics narrative possibilities the comic book can't. There are obstacles, though. The general trend in the "literary" graphic novel has been toward a sort of schism; whether it's been influenced by book editors or the talent themselves I'm not sure. But art and writing seem rarely understood as a unit. Instead, where the writing is perceived as the dominant focus, the art runs toward the simplistic, even primitive. There's a huge difference between simplicity and simplistic, and the theory seems to be either that the art shouldn't be allowed to draw attention from the story, or that the more simple the drawing the more "iconic" and "symbolic" the art. Or there's simply no thought behind it at all, or no more than commonly found in many superhero comic editorial offices: the artist was available. The trend has been away from complexity in American comics art since manga became an important influence, but this is also misguided; while there are schools of art in manga, there's so much of it that art complexity and styles range all over the map.

In fact, if we want to achieve greater narrative complexity in our stories – and there are reasons WATCHMEN's in its umpteenth edition beyond simple marketing and reputation, and reasons it stood out among all other comics in its original publication – it's going to require greater collaboration between artist and writer, with both bringing greater complexity to their own contributions as well. Greater complexity in art doesn't mean more cross-hatching, it doesn't necessarily even mean more elaborate art, as greater complexity in writing doesn't necessarily mean more words on the page. It simply means, in both cases, better design and more thought.

At this point the discussion would go better with examples, but the column's already running long and that turkey's got to hit the oven. So next week.

Come this time of year, if you live in the USA, people start asking what you're thankful for. (Canadians ask this a month earlier, I understand. Any other countries have national days of thanks?) Thanksgiving always struck me as something of a silly holiday – not that I ever thought much of holidays in general as a kid, since they mainly meant no mail would be delivered and I had to sit around with my family and pretend I was interested instead of doing what I wanted – and in my experience no one, short of surviving some sort of catastrophe, ever really expresses thanks. They just mention what they're glad of, with the sincerity of Catholic grade schoolers making up sins to confess at Confession. Most don't understand that too constitutes false witness, they just understand you're expected to take Confession, it's a sacrament, you shouldn't take the Host at Sunday mass unless you've confessed first, and when you enter the Confessional you are expected to confess sins. So it becomes a sort of game: "Since my last confession, I lied to my mother once, I got angry at my sister three times, I said bad words twice." Ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys and try not to sin anymore, off with you. Thanksgiving always sounds like that to me: "I'm thankful Susie and Bobby Jr. are doing well in school, I'm thankful Bob Sr. didn't need to take time off from work for a hernia operation after all, God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food, let's eat!"

But, in a way, if you start talking about it as it's (supposedly) truly meant on an occasion like Thanksgiving, giving thanks is pretty hubristic. It's not only bragging masquerading as humility. (Can a public announcement of all the great aspects of your life be anything but bragging?) Bringing God into it is really hubristic. It's the same as saying "The Supreme Controller of the Universe has chosen me to receive special benefits," i.e., "I am a Chosen One." And it's not just the random happenstance of life that caused things to work out a little in your favor, God wanted you to have what you've got. So if everything is according to God's plan, what you have isn't so much for your benefit as for his, and if you're of a particularly Calvinistic bent, as a number of Christian cults are, thanks is not only totally unnecessary but utterly irrelevant, since God has always chosen you and you will always be Chosen no matter what you do, so what you've got isn't a thankable offense because in the grand scheme you always had it and were always meant to have it, and if other people don't have what you have it's because they were never meant to have it, so stop asking. So why Thanksgiving?

Politeness, I suppose. It's polite to say thank you. Or so I've been told. Since plenty of thanks to God goes on in America these days – as I mentioned, thanks aloud to God is how the self-proclaimed religious brag – and politeness seems increasingly at a premium, maybe it's time to completely secularize Thanksgiving and rename it Politenessgiving, and Americans can then celebrate by taking one day out of the year to be polite to each other.

I don't see it going over big in New York, though.

But this year I do have something for which I am not just glad but truly grateful:

I'm thankful I don't live in Great Britain now.

Much has been made here in America of Britain's nanny state, mostly as a warning against having "liberals" (the word seeming to mean something rather different over there than it does here, but that's one of the great ploys of modern political rhetoric, to use words with disparate meanings so that your opponent responds to or attempts to justify one meaning while you're hanging him with the other) "in charge," but very little has been made of its unnerving slide into outright fascism. We periodically flirt with fascist values in the USA – the country's size and disparate population tend to be a braking force on such things, even when the powerful dearly want them – but in England the flirtation seems to be at an end, while a torrid affair is heating up fast.

No, it's not the revelation that British police routinely arrest people, mainly minorities, on bogus charges just to get their DNA into a national database that has never really been authorized by Parliament. It can't really be said the cops are abusing the database, since that seems to be the database's purpose, but it's a good example of the new truism that any tool provided to police will be mis- and/or over- used, especially when misuse is the tool's raison d'etre. It's Britain in this instance, but American police, esp. the FBI, are no strangers to that mode. That the general make-up of the British National DNA database – effectively criminalizing young black men in England - largely falls in line with policies promoted by the National Front, Britain's homegrown fascist movement, doesn't make it de facto fascistic, though it's beginning to look as though the National Front exists mainly so the British government can claim they're not fascist because they're not the National Front.

What is overtly fascistic is Britain's proposed Digital Economy Bill, perhaps the most blatant Internet control measure to be proposed by a major government outside of China. As Cory Doctorow points out in his article, the measure is for the most part a gift to the entertainment industry, with an eye toward halting online video/music piracy in the UK, but it reads like more of a stalking horse for a wider agenda, which seems to be establishing government control over what British citizens (and, arguably, the whole world, since the Web connects us all) are allowed to see and do on the Internet. Though it's well in keeping with standard British law, the proposed measure treats all accusations as convictions without the bother of due process; banishes whole households from the Internet, again solely on the strength of accusations; and forces ISPs to actively and constantly not simply invade but demolish the privacy of all customers, and become in effect de facto secret police, or pay crippling fines (roughly $500,000 American) if they refuse.

Worse, it places in the hands of the government's Business Secretary honest-to-god dictatorial powers over Britain's Internet users. The current BS, Peter Mandelson, has already announced plans to use mercenaries funded by the entertainment business to search high and low for media pirates, with the power to cut off Internet service, spy on whomever they choose (all they need is "suspicion"), and interfere with the operation of websites at will. To back them up, Mandelson – this is the truly scary part – claims the power to create any fine, penalty, jail sentence, etc. that he can impose at will and without due process on anyone he feels like, if he feels they're criminal, negligent or obstructive. Oliver Cromwell never had that kind of power.

In other words, the bill creates an Internet dictator, a living embodiment of Internet law as he sees it, with his own private militia, an Internet Gestapo that coerces cooperation. The government's justification for all this? The war-on-terror maxim that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear – from semi-deputized vigilante squads running roughshod over your rights and a government minister running his own star chamber. It's the ultimate outcome of anti-terror philosophy: everyone is considered a terrorist unless they can prove otherwise, and the only acceptable proof is complete submission to government will. The equation Internet file sharers=terrorists is effectively complete the moment this legislation passes.

Thing is, once this principle gets established, what else do they decide they can grant dictatorial powers over, complete with private armies to compel obedience and no legal recourse? By the way, I'm not playing fast and loose with the word fascism here; fascism is corporate government, not only structured like a corporation with orders raining down from the man on top to be fulfilled by various levels of "employees" (i.e. citizens, who in fascism are considered the property of the state, which is how British citizens have customarily been viewed by their state throughout British history) but serving the needs and desires of corporations over the needs of the citizens. The "Digital Economy Bill" is, pure and simple, about testing the reach of power, and what the public will tolerate. It's a time-tested fact that populations will become accustomed in times of "crisis" – and everything now is positioned as "crisis" – to practices previously thought unacceptable, but that once the formerly unacceptable becomes accepted, it gets applied to new contexts, on the theory that what's acceptable in one circumstance ought to be acceptable in a similar circumstance. Guess who gets to determine what constitutes a similar circumstance? Hint: it's not you or me.

This is Britain seems wholly bound for now: overt fascism. But, of course, all strictly necessary. For the greater good, and all that. (And, yes, to my British friends, I am aware that the British government has been perpetrating all manner of petty fascism for well on forty years now. That this is just one more step in a continuum isn't exactly a comforting thought.)

Not that America has the liberty of sneering at this. At least since the Thatcher era and arguably going back as far as Churchill's imposition of worldview on the internationally naïve Harry Truman, Britain has been something of a petri dish for policies intended for eventual use in America. (Thatcherism was basically a test run for Reaganism, and many of the lessons learned from the Thatcher government were consciously applied by the Reagan administration.) Already, similar bills are sniffing around Congress, and similar measures are being called for by entertainment corporations here. (See below.) Should this "modular fascism" take root in the UK, it's only a matter of time before someone attempts it here.

Notes from under the floorboards:

One of the funniest things I've read online in a long time is this savage paean to DC's '50s series REX THE WONDER DOG. Rex is really the missing link in the Silver Age superhero revival, being the place where John Broome and Gil Kane came together to develop the style that would soon hit full bloom in GREEN LANTERN. Truly one of DC's great forgotten series, and one I unabashedly love. As the article demonstrates – though with nothing like the full force of the whole series – Rex's world is a mishmash of weirdness, in Rex's ever-evolving abilities, in the increasingly wild locales, and in the casual acceptance of everything by practically every human in the series were comics surrealism far beyond anything modern "mad ideas" guys have concocted. And reading the '50s originals just shows how badly off-kilter things went later with the DC universe, as editors and writers from the '70s on tried nervously to merge Rex into the DCU while concocting ridiculous (and not good ridiculous) explanations – no, make that rationalizations - for him. Frankly, explanations are unnecessary when it says THE WONDER DOG right there in the title. (The book also featured the equally wacky but less straight-faced Detective Chimp series.)

It's my new November tradition: seems every 22nd around 3PM I suddenly realize no one mentions it's the anniversary of the first Kennedy assassination anymore.

This is priceless. Seems in their panic over gay marriage, Texas voters may have ended up banning marriage altogether. Living in sin since 2005... Since they made it a constitutional amendment, it'll take another constitutional amendment to reverse it. And another interpretation indicates Texas may have outlawed recognizing marriage altogether, meaning nobody in Texas is married. Hilarious...

More pricelessness: turns out movie studios aren't fighting online film piracy for their own sakes, no; they're most concerned about the real victims of online piracy: independent films. High-rankers at Paramount and Fox seem agreed on this, anyway. Never mind that quite a few independent filmmakers are now distributing their own films via bit torrent, if Hollywood studios were really interested in helping and/or saving independent film, they'd make sure indie films were made easily available to theaters and cineplexes instead of the studio-release dominated distribution system that usually shuts out independent film entirely. (The head of Fox is also calling for laws booting off the Internet anyone accused of file sharing. To spare us all the expense and risk of trials and constitutionally guaranteed things like that, I'd guess.)

By contrast, in Spain courts are cracking down on anti-piracy campaigners for acting "in bad faith." This could become a trend as "rightsholder" (that's the new buzzword) claims get more and more ludicrous, hysterical and unprovable/dismissible.

By the way, if anyone thinks I'm kneejerk smearing the cops and the FBI by saying that they will always tend toward abusing any new police powers they're given, just the latest of a huge mass of anecdotal evidence backing me up: in Humboldt IA the police chief is now on suspension not just for "improperly" using citizen information from a law enforcement database but distributing it to third parties who had no business getting it. Plenty of other examples at the end of the article.

Want to crash a couple of galaxies together? Here's your chance.

Congratulations to John Parker, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "glass." John directs you to Existential Man, a blog written by his oldest friend, Ali Karim. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly, and incrementally, hidden somewhere in the column. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  permanent damage, rex the wonder dog, alan moore

Permanent Damage Home | Permanent Damage Archives

 
Permanent Damage

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.