I was surprised by how incredibly sweet the comic is. I wasn’t really expecting that. The basic premise, for those not in the know, is Lex Luthor finds a way to essentially give Superman fast-developing cancer, leaving Superman to do a lot of bucket-list things: give Lois Lane the chance to experience his powers for the day; nail one last scoop for the Daily Planet; go back and visit the grave of Jonathan Kent, his adopted father; save the world one last time.
However, the hallmarks of Morrison's work, according to renowned comic scholar (and Alyssa's occasional interlocutor) Douglas Wolk, are:
reality-bending metaphysical freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag; metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative; a touch of feel-good self-improvement rhetoric; faith in the the power of pop and popularity to do magic; and skinny bald men who are stand-ins for Morrison himself, heroically conquering sadness and making the world evolve. (Reading Comics 258)
If those two descriptions seem at odds, that's because they are. Morrison is a talented but unintegrated artist. What do I mean? He can be as aggressively annoying as Wolk's flattering account of him suggests. Incorporating proxies of himself into narratives about the nature of narratives and claiming that magic makes these metaphorical selves visible? That is, to quote my advisor, pure "postmodern gee-whiz wankery." It's cleverness for the sake of being hailed as King Clever, and it grates on my every last nerve because it's so clinical and intellectualized.
I came to graduate school to study the works of James Joyce, whose complex wankery far outstrips anything Morrison's attempted, much less accomplished. So why does Morrison bother me in a manner Joyce doesn't? The short answer is that, at his best, Morrison doesn't bother me at all. When is he at his best? As Alyssa notes, it's when he's stripped a story to its emotional core and presented its complexities not as worthy subjects in and of themselves, but as natural consequences of a human narrative. Of course, the protagonists of these "human" narratives are rarely human: in All-Star Superman, it's Superman; in We3, it's a trio of weaponized house-pets.
That is to say: Morrison seems to have a problem elevating actual humans to a position worthy of simple human sympathy. A kidnapped pet or an orphaned alien are worthy of sympathy because they aspire to be more than their outsider status allows them to be. But an average human being? He or she is what he or she is—short of a magical authorial intervention that's as likely to land him or her in Sade's castle as provide anything resembling hope or help. The only transcendence average people can acquire is by proxy, e.g. Lois's "acquisition" of Superman's powers on her birthday.
In short, I don't find in Morrison much in the way of human sympathy for ordinary humans. This is where—their shared love of verbal and narrative pyrotechnics aside—I find Morrison lacking what Joyce possessed in abundance: because behind the modernist wankery that is Ulysses is a simple story about a man dealing (poorly) with a crisis he knew was coming but couldn't avert. It's a powerful story because of its fundamental humanity, not, as would be the case with Morrison, despite it.
I'm transitioning from teaching film to comics in my unfortunately named "Slow Horror" course tomorrow and so I'm preparing to introduce my students to comic conventions using Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. Kirkman's wordiness works to my advantage, as with duo-specific word-picture relations:
Kirkman didn't need to inform the reader that Glenn returned with toilet paper because the paper is clearly visible. Because the characters are constantly carrying on, examples of them pointing out the obvious abound. The same applies for interdependent word-picture relations:
Notice the difference between the examples McCloud used at the link and Kirkman and penciller Tony Moore's panel? The examples use textual elements in a variety ways—be it thought balloons or captioned narration—but the Kirkman and Moore panel only uses them as a means for delivering direct dialogue. It wasn't until I wrote the previous sentence that I realized the same might be true for the entire run of The Walking Dead. After I flipped through the first few issues to confirm my suspicions, I thought about why he might have chosen to eschew one of the formal properties of comic grammar that differentiates it from televisual media: natural interiority.
Unlike first-person voice overs in television and film, thought balloons and captions provide a window into the mind of character without calling attention to themselves as narrative devices. In other words, there is nothing special about the audience's access to the mind of the characters because such access is a feature of the medium so ingrained as to be beneath notice. A comic book in which such access is never granted creates characters whose motivations seem cryptic despite the fact that such access is almost never granted on television or in film. To be uncharitable: Kirkman is writing a television show that happens to be in a comic book and the fact that it was adapted is a function of its easy adaptability.
But to say that would be to miss the point, which is that the ease with which it could be adapted obscures what has been lost in the translation to the small screen: because interior access is only very rarely granted, whatever is gained by withholding it in the book is lost in the transition to the screen. The characters will no longer be ciphers whose thoughts must be inferred from their words and actions: they will merely be characters on a television show. The implications for the television show are obvious: recreating the suspicious atmosphere of the comic must be done by other means ... which I will discuss when I teach the show next week.
Returning to the panel above: the wordiness of that specific panel and the book generally creates some interesting formal difficulties, the most interesting of which relates to the disconnect between the single expression on his face and the time it would have taken him to speak all those words. As represented in that panel, time is both slowing to a halt (visually) and speeding up (verbally). Moreover, Shane's face must adequately account for all of the emotions he communicates in those text balloons because the fact that some of them are burst means that some will be more strongly felt than others.* It must account for both the double exclamation points in the first balloon and the ellipses that trail off his his quieter remarks in the third.
How did Moore accomplish this? He draws very well. How was Kirkman complicit in this? By joining the balloons directly instead of connecting them, Kirkman creates the impression that this entire speech is the articulation of a single train of thought. It clearly isn't: his fear for his life intermingles with his need for a family and those two intertwine with his desire for creature comforts, but they are all independent emotions that become entangled only when they all refer back to the same face. The wordiness works to Kirkman's advantage here: Shane becomes more psychologically complex because his single expression is associated with a host of conflicting emotion.
In short: time is out of joint and even the simplest characters seem psychologically complex simply by dint of the wordiness. The effect disorients the reader and leaves them unsure about their relation to narrative time or the characters—which is exactly the same situation in which the characters find themselves as they lose track of the days they've lived in a world in which they must suspect that the motives of everyone are more complicated than they seem.
*This and subsequent balloon images borrowed from Nate Piekos's excellent Comic Grammar.
would it be fair to say that white people stole superheroes from the Jews the same way they'd stolen rock 'n roll from black people?*
*Not really. This is territory is trod plenty and well, but it's worth rehearsing: Elvis Presley borrowed rock 'n roll from black people, and always returned as much of it as he could promptly and with gratitude. But he could never give it all back, because from the perspective of white America, it tainted him: anyone that the New York Times could call, as it did Elvis in 1956, a "blues shouter ... imbued with the spirit and style of those Negro singers" clearly had dangerous and unsavory associations. That same year, the Chicago Defender pushed the issue of this affinity to the fore in articles like "Arrival of Elvis Presley No Puzzle to T-Bone Fans," in which Presley's speech was rendered in Negro dialect: "Yew-oo ain't nuthin but a houn' dawg," the paper has him singing; later, he explains his style by saying "Ah'm jus' singin' the only way ah know how." Claiming, as Eric Lott did in Love and Theft, that Elvis was no better than a Nineteenth Century minstrel; or, as people generally do, that he stole rock 'n roll from black people, misses the point: many black intellectuals, following the lead of black musicians, not only praised Elvis for respecting their tradition, they loved the fact that, via Elvis, that tradition had been embraced by the sons and daughters of die-hard Dixiecrats. One editorial in the Defender (that I can't relocate at the moment) was a series of winks, nods, and nudges about ceremony in Tupelo at which John Rankin, reputed to be the last white man to utter the word "nigger" in anger at a black man on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, was forced to bestow some sort of honor on Tupelo's most famous son.**
**I'm not sure why the footnote is that much more substantial and academic than the post it qualifies, but I figure that if I can get away with it in a dissertation, I can get away with it on a blog.
(Because Amazon's taking away your almost-free books, I thought I'd offer up a free excerpt from mine. It's neither finished nor particularly good, but turning stacks of virtual notes into viable prose is a messy process and what's the point of even having a blog if you can't ask your readers to help straighten up your mess? It ends rather abruptly because I need to mark essays, but rest assured, it will arrive at the obvious destination soon enough.)
The inaugural issue of the British comic anthology Warrior, published in March of 1982, contained two stories scripted by a 29-year-old Alan Moore that could not have been more different in tone or conception. The first told the story of an attempted rape in a dystopian future: corrupt police accost a young woman, but before they can rape her, they are murdered by a man who explains, in iambs, why he came to her aid and why he is about to blow up the British Parliament. In stark contrast to the opening chapter of V for Vendetta, Moore’s second contribution comes from “an age of lingering innocence, an age of golden dreams,” and recounts how, in 1956, “the Miracleman Family” repelled the invasion of a terrorist organization from the future called the “Science Gestapo.”
These serialized stories represent two possible career paths for young Moore: he can become a writer who creates and develops original ideas, as he does in V for Vendetta; or he can become the kind of whose genius is particular to comics, i.e. one whose talent lies in the ability to transform a caricature into a character of compelling psychological depth. (Characters in mainstream comic books are, after all, a form of communal property: they belong to a company, and are subject to regular refashioning and repurposing.) Although its cartoonish art and quaint language could hardly differ more from the harsh lines and sharp tongues of V for Vendetta, the final eight panels of the Miracleman story depict the process that, over the course of the decade, will become Moore’s signature style.
Reunited after preventing the “Science Gestapo” from traveling to the past by defeating them in the future, the Miracleman clan shares a laugh: “S-so…Garrer was never here, because he never left 1981! It sounds unbelievable,” says Kid Miracleman. “Maybe so, Kid,” Miracleman responds, “But that’s the way it was…or was it?” As they laugh, the focus shifts from the family to Miracleman alone and the narrator, whose role up to this point had been providing linguistic gristle for the duo-specific word-picture relations—in which the words and the pictures say the same thing, as in books designed to teach children to read—begins quoting an ominous-sounding passage from Nietzsche:
As requested in the comments to my last post and via a couple of emails, here's a general outline of the course I teach on visual rhetoric. (If you find it interesting or just want to give me money, the book I'm co-writing with my course director should be available early next summer.) I'm more than happy to debate the merits of teaching rhetoric and argument through popular culture or the validity of any of the particular readings I put forward; however, keep in mind that those readings are presented in the classroom and, as such, are designed to be arguable instead of definitive. I want them to argue with particular statements because I'm teaching them how to argue, so there are moments (particularly in the readings of the films) that I'm deliberately wrong. Those moments will likely be obvious to you, but you're not an 18-year-old undergraduate on the short end of an institutional power imbalance who's afraid that, should they contradict me, they will fail the class, lose their scholarship and spend their days toiling away in the service industries.
That said, here are links to the analytic portion of the course:
*I've never written up my notes on getting them to think about structure via punchlines, which begins, not surprisingly, here with The Killing Joke. The gist of it is that jokes don’t work if you only provide the punchline, which is my way of introducing them to the notion of process: this shot in a film or panel in a comic or argument in an essay only works as a punchline if the joke's been properly set up. Basically, I try to get them to think about argument in terms they intuitively understand.
Two or three years back, tomemos and I were discussing Grant Morrison's The Invisibles and he said something like, "Morrison is the ultimate 'either/or' author writing today: you either love and appreciate him or hate and are incapable of understanding why other people appreciate him." Until this week, I never understood quite what he meant.
With most polarizing literary figures—Pynchon, Barthelme, Acker, Wallace, and so forth—even when a person chokes on the air of consuete affectation, he still understands why other readers happily inhale it. Pound might not be your bag, for example, but you understand why someone else would stick his head in it. It also works the other way around: I love Ulysses, but I can understand why an intelligent person would just as soon chute the book as read it.
Except with Grant Morrison.
The chapter Wolk devotes to him in Reading Comics scans like a fanboy's paean to a body of work he barely understands:
What can a critic do with a paragraph in which someone praises Morrison for writing an obliquely-allegorical new-age amphibian with a fun-button? Nothing. So this past week I sat down and read reams and reams of Morrison (about 70 percent of the material on this bibliography) and came to the conclusion that tomemos knows of what he speaks—because now I both hate Grant Morrison and am incapable of seeing why anyone appreciates him. Why?
Because in the end every Grant Morrison story is about Grant Morrison writing stories. Consider the final issue of his run on Animal Man (1990):