Saturday, August 08, 2009

Comics and The Con

It’s time for one last post on San Diego Comicon. I’ve read a bunch of great coverage about the con, a lot of which centers on the idea of what places do comics actually have at the event. With the big Hollywood presentations drawing all the press attention, and everyone talking about Twilight fans ‘ruining’ the con, where’s the discussion of comics themselves? People seem indignant that ‘their’ con has been stolen away by all this Hollywood stuff.

Having actually been there, I think they paint a kind of fatalist picture of the situation. Now, maybe it was really different in previous years, but the way I saw it, there’s essentially two cons. There’s the con that draws all the media attention, the Hall H stuff, the movie studio presentations, all of that is out there, but so is what was likely the same con from the 80s, the comics publishers and creators, still out there selling their wares and meeting with fans.

I think the central flaw in most peoples’ writing is the notion that the media would be covering comics stuff, and people would be going to the comics booth if only that Hollywood stuff wasn’t sapping the attention, that you’d have 100,000 fans buying comics if Johnny Depp hadn’t shown up. But, the reality is, without those Hollywood stars, you wouldn’t have nearly as many people in attendance, nor would you have anywhere near the media presence. The Hollywood section of the con has latched itself on to the existing comics con, and become its own promotional event.

So, it’s illogical to criticize the media for not focusing on comics when they’re not really there to cover the con, they’re there to cover Twilight, or Lost or whatever it is. Comics, despite being a key source for film concepts, still don’t have the cultural cachet that most people would be particularly engaged in whatever news comes out of comicon. The biggest comics story, Marvel’s acquisition of the Marvelman trademark, centers on an influential, but obscure comic that hasn’t even been published in fifteen years, and a character who even most comics readers don’t know. So, if you’re saying the media should cover the comics end of things, what should they report? I suppose there’s always the general check in with various creators, but that’s not news, there’s no urgency to report that someone just showed up to the con, and I don’t think there’s really a mainstream audience out there interested in it.

Back when I first seriously got in to comics, about ten years ago, there was a constant dialogue about trying to “save” comics, to get them cultural respect and mainstream acceptance. The strange thing is that it’s happened to a large extent, every movie seems to be based on a comic, superheroes are cool, and “graphic novels” definitely draw respect from people. I saw people all over reading Watchmen before the movie came out, and Alan Moore has become almost a household name.

The problem is, that apart from reading Watchmen, more people seem to respect comics than actually read them. And, even the people who read Watchmen don’t generally seem to branch out much further beyond the obvious classics like Maus or Dark Knight Returns. Those are nearly twenty-five year old books, surely people should be reading something more current.
So, even if people don’t support comics that much directly, isn’t it good that all these people are cool with going to an event called comicon? I’ve never read Twilight the book or seen the movie, but I love the fact that it’s cultivating the kind of fervor in young female fans that something like Star Wars did for me as a kid. If you’re going to comicon, on some level you’re still that kid who’s just an unabashed fan of something, and it’s great to see properties reaching girls on that level. And, the relative quality of the property doesn’t matter, it’s seeing people engage with something so strongly. Why are the same people who’d camp out for a Star Wars movie criticizing people for doing the same thing for Twilight?

After all, what comics, or any genre work, really need is that gateway work, the one that hooks you and makes you a fan for life. Get someone hooked young and they’ll keep coming back, and if Twilight leads to someone checking out Buffy, or if the Twilight comic leads to someone checking out more comics, that’s great. Isn’t that what ‘we’ always wanted, to see women and girls reading comics and engaging with genre material? To the fifteen year old boy carrying a “Twilight Ruined Comicon” sign, I can only say, where is your own self interest? Are you going to be more likely to get a girl who loved Twilight and thus accepts your comics or anime or sci-fi habit, or a girl who just looks down on that stuff. Twilight is the perfect gateway drug, be happy it’s out there.

I guess the problem is, people want others to engage with comics or genre stuff, but only in one specific way. So, superhero fans wouldn’t want to see someone go and snap up a bunch of Fantagraphics books, any less than someone would want to try to push Jimmy Corrigan on someone and see them go over and read a Geoff Johns comic. I definitely evangelize Morrison’s work and the TV shows I like, but on some level, you’ve got to realize, not everyone is going to engage the same way you are.

The problem for comics is that, particularly on the monthly level, readership levels are so low, and with rising prices, the question becomes, can the medium as we know it sustain itself? When an issue of Seaguy, a comic by the biggest writer in comics, sells 9,000 copies, it raises some questions. Comics may have to die and be reborn in a cheaper, more efficient format.

In the end, the comicon I went to was an amazing experience. Sure, the Hollywood parties may be out there, but the comics parties were there too, and it did still feel like a community. There’s a million things going on, but the con that was is still going strong in its shadow.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Films of Kenneth Anger: Vol. II

Over the past two days, I watched all the films of Kenneth Anger Volume II. I got the DVD from Netflix, and I’ll admit it sat on the sidelines for a few weeks, but after checking it out I was shocked by just how good all these films were. I’d previously been familiar with Anger’s work from seeing “Scorpio Rising” in Intro to Film Part II in my days at Wesleyan, and I really liked it, but it turned out to be only the start of Anger’s work.

The thing that makes me like Anger’s work so much is the fusion of pop iconography and mystical imagery in an avant garde structure. Anger is one of the all too rare artists out there who manages to skillfully jump between low culture and high culture styles, making things that could seem pretentious, like Scorpio’s cuts to Jesus, work because they’re mashed up with the over the top sounds of an early 60s pop song.

Bringing in the magical component makes him even more like Grant Morrison, another artist who incorporates the style of low culture into avant garde narrative structures. The distillation of narrative to a series of iconic images and pop moments in Final Crisis feels like comics’ answer to the sort of jump cutty visual language Anger employs here. One of the major problems with most avant garde films is that they forget that on some level every piece of art is meant to entertain. It can be thought provoking and challenging, but there should be that visceral spark of fun, and all of Anger’s work has that.

The first couple of films in the collection are scored with the same sort of 50s and early 60s pop songs that David Lynch used to such wonderful effect in many of his films. Even after hearing it a bunch of times, a song like “Blue Velvet” feels utterly alien, I really like the song, but it feels like a transmission from another world. These pop songs are caught at the crossroads of a changing culture, moving from the crooner era of the 40s into the rock era of the 50s. Pop music essentially coalesced into the film it now inhabits with the arrival of The Beatles, who laid the groundwork for basically everything that’s followed. So, the more prog sounds of the later films feel more comfortable and familiar than the songs in “Scorpio.”

“Lucifer Rising” is the other long work in the set, and it’s a really fascinating film, a more concise and effective version of a lot of the themes that Jodorowsky explored in The Holy Mountain. I have a soft spot for the sort of mystical imagery that I’m sure a lot of people would call pretentious wank. I think film does have a legitimately mystical component, and the best filmmakers are the ones who manage to turn cinema into a kind of religious experience. Telling a story is fine, but casting a spell is much more challenging and ambitious. Malick is a filmmaker who does this, as are more recently Gaspar Noe and Wong Kar-Wai.

Anger draws on religious imagery as a way of building a cosmology within “Lucifer.” I’m not sure exactly what the film is saying, but watching it, the combination of images and music succeeded in drawing me into the world of the film. I love the visuals, particularly the astounding on location shots at the Sphinx and pyramids, as well as the arrival of the UFO at the end.

Grant Morrison has talked a lot about how his comics aren’t about magic, they are the magic, and that’s how I feel it is with these films too. In neglecting traditional narrative, Anger targets the subconscious directly and is able to draw you in. It’s the kind of filmmaking I love to see. Film can do so many things, it’s tragic that it’s been trapped in this prison of the three act narrative, composing the work on a page not on screen. I think that’s one of the things that makes filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Malick so significant, the fact that they work off script so often, and actually build their films out of images not just translating the words on a page, and Anger does the same thing here, creating works that are distinctly cinematic and enthralling.