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Monday, 26 October 2009

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Jeremy

"Unlike film, in which closure is made unconscious by the persistence of vision and the limitations of our perceptual apparatus (such that twenty-four frames per second is automatically perceived as motion), closure in comics is a collaborative effort between author (or artist) and reader."

But in film something similar can be attained by cutting away at the last moment, can't it, and so we're left imagining the murder, prompted by that flock of birds taking off or something.

Anyway, I liked this post. I always thought we were all sociopathic voyeurs, watching the story play out with detached interest like Dr Manhatten watched that murder.

JPool

In film this, or it's nearest equivalent, is a jump-cut, isn't it? It has a different effect though. Since film is already in motion, a sudden cut is disorienting. Too many of them in succession creates a feeling of motion sickness. In sequential art were used to making the transitions between panels (btw, closure is a poor name for that), so the effect is only jarring when weactually surprised or confused by what comes next.

Meanwhile, visualizing something makes you complicit in the act? Really? Literature really does have a lot to answer for.

Doug M.

I always thought McCloud was exaggerating for dramatic effect there. We are not complicit in any moral sense. How could we be?

Furthermore, the McCloud statement is actually wrong. Reading that panel sequence, holding the axe and choosing my spot is exactly what I /don't/ do. I can't speak for anyone else, but my brain processes that sequence as "okay, axe guy just killed the other guy" -- *without* providing a visual image to go with it.

In fact, I'm more likely to generate such an image from a purely textual input. There's a scene in Stephen King's 1975 vampire novel, _Salem's Lot_, in which a husband catches his wife in flagrante delicto with the telephone repairman. He holds the repairman at gunpoing and convinces him that he's going to shoot. Then... the hammer clicks on an empty barrel. The repairman faints. And then the husband flips the rifle around, holding it like a club, walks into the room where his wife is cowering naked against the wall, and says lightly, "Ready or not, sweetheart. Here I come."

Cut.

I submit that's a more powerful, more /invasive/ scene than almost anything you could do in a comic. Because we've had to imagine everything up until then. And the imagination develops a certain momentum; it wants to keep going.

Comics, TV and movies are actually at a slight disadvantage here, because they have to show you stuff. And that constricts or at least focuses the imagination. This is particularly true when the creator is trying to evoke horror; it's true that nothing can be as awful as our imagination, but that means our imagination has to be given just the right amount of fuel, viz., just enough to work with.

In this context, I think the Watchmen sequence is a bit of a red herring. Because Moore is actually going for a very careful balance here; he wants us to see what happens, but we're "seeing" an internal flashback, so he wants us to understand Dr. Manhattan's passivity and emotional distance as well. Imagine this scene if it were being flashbacked from (say) the Silk Spectre's POV, or Rorschach's. Very different, no?

Poing being, this scene isn't intended to evoke pity or horror. It has an almost clinical intent: Moore wants us to know the Comedian is a killer and an utter bastard. Neither the Comedian nor Manhattan care much about the Vietnamese woman. And, frankly, neither does Moore -- having died to show what sort of fellow the Comedian is (and, since this is Moore, to set up various textual and metatextual tensions, like rocking back the reader's expectations about what sort of comic book experience this is going to be) she disappears from the narrative, never to be seen or mentioned again. It's not a scene we're intended to dwell on much, I don't think.

Anyway. To get maximum imaginative involvement in a comic (I would say), you have to move the scene even further offstage. An example from early-period Moore would include Swamp Thing's discovery of the truth about himself in "The Anatomy Lesson"; it takes place completely offstage, with only Woodrue's caption boxes to suggest what's happening. It's a bit more obscure than _Watchmen_, but it might be a purer example of what you're after.


Doug M.

SEK

But in film something similar can be attained by cutting away at the last moment, can't it, and so we're left imagining the murder, prompted by that flock of birds taking off or something.

Absolutely. I actually key the kids into the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker isn't shown slashing a mobster's throat via a quick cut away.

Too many of them in succession creates a feeling of motion sickness. In sequential art were used to making the transitions between panels (btw, closure is a poor name for that), so the effect is only jarring when weactually surprised or confused by what comes next.

And this was something we (by which I mean, "my class") just discussed last Thursday vis-a-vis Superman Returns. How Singer's violations of, for example, the 180 degree rule are intended to disorient.

Reading that panel sequence, holding the axe and choosing my spot is exactly what I /don't/ do. I can't speak for anyone else, but my brain processes that sequence as "okay, axe guy just killed the other guy" -- *without* providing a visual image to go with it.

In my non-pedagogically-oriented, lit-crit life, I'd agree with you. Moreover, I'd say that what we have here is a classic example of what happens when the theorist is theorizing their own medium. McCloud visualizes the murder because that's what he does for a living: he takes scripts and chooses which moments to depict and which to leave to the reader's imagination. I don't doubt that he processes that gutter in the way he claims; that said, I don't doubt that many readers glide over it and, sometimes deliberately, don't process it precisely because they'd rather not.

Even so, the point of presenting this argument to the students is that it foregrounds the interpretive work they have to do in order to move from one panel to the next ... even if, as in your case, you're not doing that work visually. The distinction between film and comic is still made, and that's what I'm hammering at here.

This is particularly true when the creator is trying to evoke horror; it's true that nothing can be as awful as our imagination, but that means our imagination has to be given just the right amount of fuel, viz., just enough to work with.

Absolutely. That's one of the fundamental weaknesses of horror comics: unlike novels, you're not forced to imagine; and unlike films, you control the pace of revelation, so it's impossible to create the sort of narrative tension you find in a well-paced horror movie.

Poing being, this scene isn't intended to evoke pity or horror. It has an almost clinical intent: Moore wants us to know the Comedian is a killer and an utter bastard.

The clinical bit is the more thematic discussion I mentioned moving into at the end of the post, as the reading I dual readings I give of the novel focus on either 1) Manhattan as a figure of the author, in which case, he can change the course of events but chooses not to, or 2) Manhattan as a figure of the reader, in which case, his passivity is structurally similar to that of the reader, in that he can manipulate the order in which he views the disparate scenes before him, but he can't change them.

It's not a scene we're intended to dwell on much, I don't think.

It's not, to take the other Comedian-as-a-rank-bastard example, depicted with the same ferocity as the rape scene, but that's because it's not meant to, I don't think---the point here is the casualness of the Comedian's violence, which counterpoises the clinical concern of Manhattan.

To get maximum imaginative involvement in a comic (I would say), you have to move the scene even further offstage. An example from early-period Moore would include Swamp Thing's discovery of the truth about himself in "The Anatomy Lesson"; it takes place completely offstage, with only Woodrue's caption boxes to suggest what's happening. It's a bit more obscure than _Watchmen_, but it might be a purer example of what you're after.

I'd love to incorporate that scene---and just might, for the book---but here the classroom economy dictates how much I can do, as there are only so many texts I can teach in one quarter. (I up that number dramatically by using films and comics, but there's an upper limit to how much material they can handle critically in a given amount of time.)

Martin Wisse

Your students are still complicit: all they see is the gun being fired, not where it hits the woman....

SEK

Point taken. (By me, not my students, who, as I predicted, were upset by being called murderers, and fought viciously against the calumny I hurled at them. Did I mention how much I love teaching this particular lesson? Because I really, really do.)

Batocchio

Sek, this stuff is ridiculously up my alley - this post and some of the earlier pieces you linked. Please keep the posts on this stuff coming, and I hope to have more time to comment in more depth later. I'm sure the class was lively, and per Matt's comment in the other thread, being provocative to start is a great trick. (When I was teaching, I tried the same thing at times. Whatever gets them engaged and thinking.)

liberal japonicus

Huge fan of your pedagogical comic posts. This discussion reminded me of the House MD episode where House is trying to remember the bus accident to save Amber's life. Part of the power of that episode is that it seems House realizes his culpability in what happened, even though he is viewing the event as an outside observer. Of course, being series TV, the characters return to their orbits after a sufficient amount of time of being perturbed, but what the series was trying to do at that point is remarkably similar to what McCloud gets at.

anonymous

I don't see it. I'm not a murderer. (If you must press the point, have you not witnessed whatever I've done, and so taken on the obligations and penalties following from that? Here, if you stop remonstrating with me in order to dial your attorney, I'll grant that you're in earnest; otherwise it's clear now that I'm falsely accused, isn't it?)

If I'm not a murderer, to call me a murderer is bullshit of some kind. I'm not a fan of the "ah, but what kind of bullshit is it?" school of pedagogy.

Doug M.

If we're going by great comics from the 1980s -- and why not? -- I'd take a hard look at the last few panels of the fight sequence here:

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2009/04/27/a-year-of-cool-comic-book-moments-day-117/

Pre-crazy Frank Miller, and just perfect. The panel transition between "fist" and "red splash" may not make us accomplices to murder, but it's IMO a lot close to what McCloud was claiming. The absence of any features in the two red panels kicks off our imaginations in a way that no illustration, however good otherwise, possibly could.

(And that final panel! A lesser artist would have done solid black. That would have been... plausible, but much weaker.)

(Hell, that whole sequence. The cuts to Karen Page are done at exactly the right moments. And you could write an entire post on that one panel with the Kingpin grinning past his bloodied nose.)

Ahem. It's a good point, about McCloud taking too much the artist's view rather than the reader's; and another, about horror comics. It would be worth thinking about the rare horror comics that have worked at provoking real horror. There have been a few. I'd very tentatively say that horror in comics is more likely to come from the journey than the destination; compare (for another '80s example) the truly creepy and disturbing Swamp Thing story with the first appearance of the Invunche ("Growth Patterns" -- also the first appearance of John Constantine IMS) from the rather more disappointing appearance of the Brujeria in issue #48 of that same run. We saw the Invunche, but it was still creepy as hell because we had no idea what we were looking at, why it was there, or what it could do. (Minor but lovely point: Totleben's art left unclear whether the creature pushed her out the window, or whether she jumped in pure terror to escape it.)

There's also the Grant Morrison route, in which the horror opften is not so much what but how, but I don't know if you've read, say, his X-Men run, where Cassandra Nova (at least at first) stands in for Moore's Ozymandias. Nova does exactly the same thing, but it's horrible because she never stops smiling. But maybe that's a story for another post.

Comedian as rank bastard: one of the best "show, not tell" moments in that comic is the penultimate scene when Sally Jupiter kisses the photograph. We know by now that Sally is nobody's fool. So there's a whole world of reconciliation and forgiveness and intimacy and tenderness there that's oh-so-just-barely hinted at. The Comedian clearly has a not-bastard side, but it's almost entirely left to our imaginations. I can't speak for other readers, but that scene made me stop and consider it.


Doug M.

Doug M.

What am I saying? Of course you've read all the Morrison stuff. Horror in Morrison would be a huge topic, but something of a red herring in this context. (The worst is, of course, the big reveal of the Chief in his Doom Patrol run. Just so... awful.)

Cassandra Nova as Ozymandias, clarification: she isn't, but OTOH Morrison was clearly riffing on Moore's work for an issue or two there. Villain calmly kills plump sidekick(s) just before the two heroes, Straight Man and Psycho, show up. But they don't remotely understand what's going on and are too late to stop the genocidal destruction of a city, which has already been set in motion before they arrive. Also, pyramids! Even the inversions (male/female, golden/drab, Antarctica/equator) seem very deliberate, in almost a Structuralist sort of way.

To loop it back: reading that old Daredevil sequence again, I do feel Miller does a much better job of putting "blood in the gutter" than Moore did. The end of the fight sequence makes us complicit, if not in murder, than in beating the crap out of Matt Murdock. It's even stronger because the previous panels have been blow-by-blow; the sudden transition to panels without illustration leaves our minds groping to fill the blanks. And then, a page later, the beautifully pulpy text brings us right into the submerged taxicab for both attempted murder and escape. (As someone or other once said, chained adverbs are always a bad idea. Except when they're not.) Did you pause to imagine how Murdock got out? I did. He had to slam his head against the windshield until it broke, fumble underwater for a shard of sharp glass, saw and saw at the seatbelt... and we /are not told this/. And that makes it so much better.


Doug M.


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