Saturday, September 08, 2007

Why Comics Matter

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is the odd coincidence that the two most forward thinking, outside the box writers in any medium, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, both work in comics. I’m not saying they’re the best writers around today, though you could certainly make the case. It’s more that they are writing in a different way, engaging with bigger issues about the nature of humanity and the role of the artist in the world than other writers. I don’t think it’s so much that other writers aren’t capable of it, it’s that other media aren’t suited to deal with the kind of stories that Moore and Morrison like to tell, as film adaptations of Moore’s stuff clearly shows. Comics is a medium uniquely suited to conveying crazy ideas, for a number of reasons, both intrinsic to the medium and stemming from its culturally ostracized position.

Right now, few media have as little respect as comics. Sure, some alternative comics get respect, but the adjective comic book is generally used to refer to works that lack substance and are solely about action or thrills of the mindless variety. Now, a lot of comic books do lack substance and are worthy of the adjective, but they’re not any dumber than the vast majority of Hollywood films, just as formulaic and tethered to old concepts on an endless cycle of ‘reinvention.’ Plus, readers of comics, inherently referred to as ‘fans’ are considered socially inept and obsessively interested in pointless, bad stories. Again, this isn’t a wholly inaccurate characterization, but no one’s criticizing sports fans for being so interested in games that ultimately have no impact on their lives. Certain types of fandom are socially acceptable, others aren’t, that’s just the way things are.

Back in the French New Wave, a new generation of film directors sought to liberate film from its bourgeoisie concerns, this idea that a ‘quality cinema’ is one based around literary masterpieces and historical happenings. They put cinema on the streets, in the now and that led to a wonderful vitality and inventiveness wholly lacking in what was previously hailed as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. The vast majority of works that are lauded in our culture are ones that stick to that same old bourgeois set of interests, socially relevant movies done in a classical style. Crash is a classic example of this, as are previous recent best picture winners like A Beautiful Mind or Million Dollar Baby. What do these movies really have to say? What do they contribute to our lives, to our dreams? Not much, they may entertain and emotionally engage, but they don’t really do anything more than tell a good story. That’s what most people want from their entertainment, and it’s a valid pursuit, but it’s far removed from what the best works of Morrison and Moore do.

The thing that the best comics, and even the bad ones, do is engage with ideas and craziness in a world that’s run more by imagination than the limits of reality. I’ve been reading the Kirby Fourth World Omnibus and loving it because even though there’s some clunky dialogue, every page has some crazy concept and each issue a series of mind blowing set pieces that just put a smile on your face for their sheer insanity. What Kirby has done in that book is immerse himself in a very different reality from our own, and by writing the crazy stuff as normal, he forces us, reading from our regular reality, to stretch our minds and move into this new world.

That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about stories, experiencing a world that’s different from our own. It’s a large part of what makes Star Wars so enduring, there’s no tires to our reality, we’re just dumped in a different world and figure it out as we go. So much fantasy and sci-fi stuff spends the entire movie explaining the rules of the universe, Star Wars just let you catch up as you go along. What makes superhero comics special is that Marvel and DC stuff all becomes a part of a pre-existing larger universe. We understand who Superman is and what he can do, and we also accept that this is a world where scientists can clone a whole bunch of tiny Jimmy Olsens and set them loose on Superman. The story’s own kinetic vitality allows us to make that jump and just enjoy it.

Movies are usually best remembered for their stories, book for their characters, I’d argue that comics is the medium of ideas. The combination of words and pictures is generally considered the ideal way to convey information to people. More than any other medium, comics are able to break down complex ideas into an easy to understand model. That’s why Moore chose Promethea as the medium to explain his version of the Kaballah, and why Morrison chose to process his abduction experience through The Invisibles, and in the process create a work that function as a whole new cosmology.

A large part of this is the control of time that the reader has in comics. In movies, the time we spend in any given moment is controlled by the filmmaker, in books, we pretty much read straight through at the same pace, but comics invite a variety of readings. You can zip through, reading the captions and glancing at the pictures, or spend a lot of time absorbing the detail of the art and thinking about things. In The Invisibles, I would frequently spend a half hour reading an issue, taking the time to process everything along the way. That’s longer than it would take me to read 22 pages of prose.

This gets to the core idea of what the best comics do, present compressed ideas that can expand in your mind after the read. Comics are at a major disadvantage next to other media. You’re paying $3 for roughly 15 minutes of entertainment, not a very good deal. Compare that to a 45 minute TV episode you get for free. Comics can’t be as good as TV, they have to be much, much better. I always find it odd that people would consider it praise to call a book like Gotham Central as good as Law and Order when it would take three months and $10 to get from Gotham Central what we could get for free from Law and Order. Comics can’t be as good as TV or movies, they have to be so much better that they overcome the cost of the material.

Reading a Morrison comic, the actual read is a small part of the process. With Seven Soldiers, I would read an issue, then write it up, ponder its significance to the overall meta narrative of the project, consider the themes it explored in relation to Morrison’s other work, and frequently flip through again after reading some online commentary. That comic made me think so much, it was clearly worth whatever I paid for it. It was more than just an adventure story, it was a concentrated assault of ideas that possessed my brain and forced me to think in new and different ways.

As much as I love the medium, no film or TV show has done what Morrison’s work or Moore’s work has done, and that’s completely alter my perception of the world. Both The Invisibles and Promethea focus heavily on the notion that fiction is just as powerful as reality. I had previously had a strict distinction between stories and reality, viewing movies as great entertainment, and even great art, but ultimately nothing more. After reading The Invisibles, I recognized the ability of fiction to dramatically change one’s perception of reality, of the characters to take on their own lives and reality. That view of fiction is something you rarely see in TV or movies. There’s stuff like Adaptation, which plays meta games, but nobody just throws meta stuff out there and then moves beyond it like Morrison and Moore do it in those two works.

Beyond that, comics just generally have a lot more freedom to indulge in craziness. There are surrealists in film, David Lynch comes to mind, but generally, he’s more interested in playing with mental perception and internal craziness. Comics in general don’t play structural games like he does, they just pile on weird stuff. As someone who’s been reading comics for a long time, it becomes easy to forget just how odd some of this stuff is. Claremont’s X-Men, the top selling book at the time, was full of just totally insane concepts ranging from the Phoenix itself to Storm being reincarnated in a space whale to the myriad alternate universes and odd characters.

This summer, John From Cincinnati was constantly maligned for its inexplicable odd characters and strange concepts. If you’d been reading comics for a long time, you’d just accept that John is weird, has some supernatural powers and can suddenly appear in their lives without notice. That’s a large part of why I loved the series so much, that it just kept piling on crazy ideas, that it really made you think. Like Morrison’s stuff, it’s a work that starts on the page, but really lives in your head. The works I really love are the ones that inspire a million different story ideas of my own. These kind of works are open ended, full of possibilities, and they can catch things in your life that inspire new ideas.

Ultimately, that’s why comics are important, because it’s the one medium where crazy ideas can flow and people just go along with it. Morrison is one of the best selling writers, but take this stuff out of comics and it’d all be avant grade. There’s something about these images on a page that frees people to deal with crazier stuff. Kirby’s stuff may be awkward at times, but it’s also a lot more exciting to read, and inspirational than a more ‘competent’ work like The Queen, or whatever work is a ‘quality’ film now. People who haven’t read comics aren’t as prepared to deal with odd ideas, and don’t have the same endless imagination that many comics readers do have. Sure, a lot of people end up just wanting to do the same superhero stories they read as a kid, but for others, like Morrison, like Darren Aronofsky, comics produce new ideas and exciting concepts that shape their creative output and open up new doors of perception.

In all the rush to do more realistic superhero takes, like Heroes, we’re losing some of the inherent craziness of the form. That’s what I hated about Batman Begins, the goal seemed to be to make becoming Batman a sensible decision when, in fact, dressing up as a bat and fighting crime is deranged and crazy. The best stories engaged with this nuttiness, and the attempt to make superhero movies and comics respectable leads to a loss of some of their best qualities. Morrison wrote Flex Mentallo as a manifesto, calling back the insanity to superhero comics, but now backed by the emotions of adulthood. That’s why his stories are the best out there, because they are simultaneously filled with the crazy adolescent inventiveness of the medium in its early days and very real emotional lives for the characters. Look at Flex or Zatanna and you’ll see exactly how comics, how stories, can be manically inventive and heartbreaking and joyous at the same time. Now, the other mediums just need to catch up and change what normal is in fiction.

The best comics force people to briefly visit a universe with different rules and different possibilities. If we can look at a fictional universe that way, it's not such a jump to think that our own reality can change and be filled with the same wonder of these stories.


Jacob said...

I agree with about 95 percent of this, especially as regards comics. But as for the French New Wave? I dunno. I don't think they were as in love with ideas and imagination as you think. I mean, they introduced new energy and vitality into film, but I think they eschewed traditional narrative out of the belief that narratives are artificial and constricting - i.e., "unreal" - rather than than to create a free-form playground of ideas. A lot of social realist artists think that works of pure imagination or flights of fancy (like, say, a lot of Morrison's writing) are indulgent and bourgeois - "how dare you dream while children are starving", that sort of thing. Take Alphaville, a science fiction movie obviously made by somebody who hated both science and fiction. With stuff like that, or The Discreet Charm... I always get the feeling (and I might be wrong) that they saw surrealism or unconventional narrative as a tool to freak out the middle class squares instead of something worth pursuing for its own insights.

Unlike David Lynch, who I love because his movies, no matter how weird, never feel condescending. He's very humanistic; you can tell he loves his characters and he loves the world and the human race and he really wishes we could be better to each other. YOu can tell he's still an Eagle Scout at heart. Part of the magic of Twin Peaks is that it shows these crazy small town people but (most of the time) doesn't feel like it was made by some big city jerk who's laughing at them; instead, it understands them, and tries to help us understand them too. I can't think of a higher purpose for art to serve.

And for me, that's a lot of what I like about Morrison - and Kirby, for that matter. The crazy ideas scare some people away but underneath all that stuff these guys are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They care, and they desperately want us to care too. Kirby's voice is sort of raw and inarticulate (I loved the Fourth WOrld Omnibus but it also, funnily enough, gave me a new appreciation for Stan Lee's dialogue abilities) but it's completely honest. I feel like so much art these days comes pre-compromised, not by money or by censorship or whatever, but by endless, self-defeating irony. Why should I care about somebody who only wants to show me how clever they are? But when an artist takes a chance, when they make themselves vulnerable to ridicule to make a point they believe in, that demands my attention.

Patrick said...

I didn't mean the French New Wave was in love with ideas, more that they sought to break from what was considered 'quality' cinema, and do something new and bold. Morrison and his crew do the same thing, making works that don't fit in what we are socially trained to view as worthwhile. New Wave movies are from what Morrison is usually doing, they don't have that same embrace of crazy ideas. Though, Kill Your Boyfriend and parts of The Invisibles have that same embrace of the energy of youth.

And I would definitely agree with the problem of too much irony in films. So many works seem to put up this blend of comedy/drama that's designed to allow them to write off anything that doesn't work on a real emotional level as "meant to be funny." The best works are the ones that fully commit to doing something, and even if they leave some people saying they're ridiculous, connect with others in a really profound way. So, yeah, Morrison and Kirby are just putting everything they've got into the books, and that makes them a joy to read.