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.

Friday, September 07, 2007

X-Men: The End: Book One: Dreamers and Demons

Chris Claremont’s X-Men: The End sounds like a dream project for a lot of people, myself included. After being so rudely jettisoned from the book he made into a legend back in 1991, he failed to make much of an impact since his 2000 return. Has time passed him by, or is the marketplace just different? This project, the hypothetical last X-Men story, would seem to give him free reign to create something interesting and unique, to finally wrap up the story he started in X-Men #94. Now, I’d argue he already gave us the perfect X-Men: The End story, back in Fall of the Mutants, when the X-Men sacrificed their lives to save the world, and changed peoples’ view of mutantkind in the process. But, the series has obviously gone on, and now we’re back for more.

Because this is such a long series, I look at it more as something like the Morrison run than a real ending, a creator given the freedom to make changes and do what he wants with the book. I went into the series with modified expectations based on the generally negative reaction the book received from critics as it ran. I think that helped me enjoy it more than I otherwise would have, but by the end, I really started to agree with the criticisms, mainly that there’s way too many characters and too much cosmic space stuff, taking the focus away from both the characters and the thematic heart of the X-Men.

That said, I really enjoyed the first two issues. While it was frustrating to start with Aliyah, Bishop’s daughter, and her adventures in space. Much like the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me opening, it’s annoying to have to go through this seemingly unrelated prologue before getting to the meat, but when we finally do get to the appearance of the Phoenix, it’s a dazzling moment. The Phoenix emission brings all the characters together for a central event, like the frogs in Magnolia, a way of connecting the many different pieces of this massive narrative.

That worked well, as did the next issue, in which we catch up with a bunch of different characters and see where they are at this undetermined point in the near future. I love the scene with Gambit and Rogue breaking into some facility, it’s fun and energetic, with beautiful art from Sean Chen. Throughout, Chen makes things look great, it’s a really slick, epic production. I also liked the fact that Wolverine and Storm wound up together. Claremont always played the two of them as close during the post Mutant Massacre days, when they led a team of new recruits. It was implied they were friends with benefits then, and this plays that out to its logical end.

The tough thing about the book is that it features such an absurdly huge cast. It feels like Claremont threw every single character that ever appeared in an X-book in here. Now, I’ve read every single issue of Claremont’s original run, the Morrison run and a bunch of New Mutants and X-Factor, but even with that I found it hard to keep up with the barrage of characters. When 90s era people show up, I get a bit tripped up, and that particularly hurt me with the issue that focuses on the cast of X-Force. I recognized Boom Boom from X-Factor, but the others were all early 90s Lielfield crew.

The first three issues are fairly tight despite the many characters. Sinister is the central villain, he’s got a scheme against the X-Men and it’s centered around Jean Grey. There’s a few running subplots, but it’s manageable. However, as the book goes on, it just becomes tough to keep track of. The aforementioned X-Force issue was really tough to follow, and having to go on Wikipedia to identify the characters takes out any emotion the story had.

It was nice to see Maddy Pryor back, but unfortunately this was lame villain Maddy Pryor, drawn in a way that didn’t look like the character. Eventually it turns out that she, like many of the random people in these last few issues, are warskrulls. This trick gets old, and though I was thankful for it here, it didn’t work elsewhere. If this is The End, let’s play things out to their logical ends and put the real characters in jeopardy, don’t hoax, dream or imaginary story me.

Though things get a bit convoluted in the back half, the end of the last issue brings things back together. The destruction of the mansion, conveyed in a double page spread with the lone caption “They saw it in Washington” is extremely effective, and will hopefully give all the characters an excuse to come back together.

It’s interesting to see how Claremont created a new version of the X-verse, cherrypicking elements from across the mythos. There’s obviously a lot of his stuff in here, but plenty of Morrison too. Scott and Emma are together, the junk sentinels return as does the focus on the school side of things. One of the most interesting things for me is the meta commentary in the captions. I’m not sure who’s supposed to be talking, but each issue begins with a narration that talks about the X-Men. Technically this is talking about the characters within the world, but it feels meta. The most notable one for me was the idea that people forget there are people behind the myths, a reference to the way they are now seen more as a brand than as characters.

I’m curious to see where things go. The first three issues had me hooked, but things slipped off since then. Still, if he tightens things up, or at least clarifies where the narrative is going, this could be a great farewell to the X-Men. If nothing else, it’s nice to see Claremont able to sculpt the entire universe again, and not be subject to the random whims of nonsensical editorial decisions like Decimation. With his health in decline, Claremont may never write a core X-book again. So, even if this isn’t really the end for the X-Men, it could be his final major statement in the universe. I hope it lives up to what’s come before.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Info Roundup

2 Days in Paris

I saw Julie Delpy's debut film a few days ago, a clear descendant of the Before duology. I have a lot of respect for Delpy as a writer and actress, but I think it was a mistake to make something that's so close to her career defining role. It's a pretty good movie, well shot and funny, but it never quite becomes anything more than just entertaining. There's a lot of indie movies like this, that are just sort of there, they have their moments, but don't become anything more. I prefer this to the contrived obviousness of a lot of mainstream Hollywood cinema, but indie really has become just as much a genre as action or sci-fi. I really enjoyed the movie, but it didn't stick with me in any meaningful way.

The New Yorker Festival

The New Yorker Festival lineup leaked a couple of days ago and it's quite well stocked. There's a panel on TV with David Milch and Ronald D. Moore among others, as well as a panel on superheroes with Grant Morrison. I went to Grant's signing last summer and it was an incredible experience, so I'm eager to hear him speak and hopefully get a chance to talk with him again. I'm also looking forward to seeing Milch speak, he's a phenomenal interview and will hopefully get the chance to go in depth on some John From Cincinnati stuff. I want to give the show some support, since I'd guess the vast majority of fan feedback he hears is asking for Deadwood to return. It's always frustrating when a challenging work like John From Cincinnati or Miami Vice fails to connect with an audience. It makes me fear that the artist isn't going to keep experimenting and will instead retreat back to something safer.

Upcoming Comics

I've got a whole bunch of comics in the queue to read. I'm almost through the first volume of Chris Claremont's X-Men: The End, a book I'll write more about once I finish the trade. It's a crazy mess, but has moments of genius. I'm just hoping the sheer amount of characters doesn't overwhelm the narrative. After that, I've got the first volume of Jack Kirby's Fourth World omnibus. Grant's introduction has me really psyched to check it out. I read the first trade of New Gods a while back, and liked it, though it is tough to adjust to the 70s writing style. Grant says Kirby was emitting ideas like gamma radiation at that time, a great metaphor for what the book is. The joy of it is the sheer assault of crazy concepts, something Morrison clearly picked up on. I'm hoping that reading the book will help me raise my game and get the creative juices even more flowing. One of the reasons I love comics as a medium is the unhinged nature of the reality. Fans are much more accepting of insanity than people in other mediums are, so the work ends up more creative and exciting. Nobody makes me think like Morrison and Moore do, nobody's throwing out as many ideas as Kirby is.

My New Project

Right now I'm working on developing an internet TV series based around some ideas similar to those crazy ones I was just mentioning. I've become so hooked on serialized storytelling and the way TV as a medium is able to develop ideas in a way that film just can't, so I wanted to do a project to take advantage of that, and it's easier to tackle a large scale story in small chunks. That's still a couple of months away from launch, but be on the lookout, I'll definitely post links here.