Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Narratives and panels and plots...ah hah...

I mentioned my distaste for a number of recent mainstream comics, in the post on American Splendor. Of course my reading habits have changed since I was a kid and I would no longer go into a comic book store and steal the comics I couldn't afford to buy (just had to have them), but the list of titles I would avoid like the plague has never been so large. One of the reasons I hate a lot of today's stuff is the colouring, it is just plain horrible. I think Brian (Mom's Cancer) Fies described much of it as 'garish', that is certainly an apt description. I really find it offensive, and I just won't read stuff that looks like that. There is no excuse for it.

That said, I'm also put of by all those muscles, and not just on the men, some of the sweater-meat has bulging man-muscle behind it, it's very scary.

I think though, it is more often the ridiculous writing that really grinds my gears, I just put the comics down or throw them across the room.

Thankfully, by allowing Yoshinori Natsume some creative freedom, Batman, Death Mask, avoids all three of my bette-noirs, and I have just been in Seventh Heaven pouring over the work. It is, for me, not just the best Batman in a long time, but one of the best comics I have ever read.

I was always going to be hooked by this page. I am interested in masks, not just literal masks but masks as a metaphor. Of course here, in Edinburgh, we had two famous historical 'masked' figures, Deacon Brodie, and his literary likeness, Edward Hyde. This was looking very promising.

The moment I saw the cover I recognised the creator's name as the man behind Togari, and when I realised that the comic was to be a real manga/Batman hybrid, uncoloured and with each page reading right to left, I had to have it (relax, I bought it). I was not disappointed, right from the start the symmetry of the work, its easy flow, hooked me. Even familiar material seemed more exotic and the reading pattern seemed clearer than much of the western comics that I am supposed to be more easily familiar with.

The Batman origin again? Yes, but look how well told it is; in 4 panels. See how large the first panel is, it's around half the page. It is not the costumed Batman that makes the most impact, it is the moment of his birth in the young boy above. It is a sombre scene that is depicted and even if the grown man has put the memories of that dark night behind him - it must forever weigh heavily on his psyche.

I read somewhere that some mainstream comic editors want to remove thought balloons from comics. That has to be the stupidest idea I have ever heard mooted. One of the triumphs of the best manga, and best Western comics (like American Splendor and Ganges), is the inner-life of the characters, the inner thoughts that can propel them through page after page of wordless stories. And Batman, himself is forever toiling with his past and his inner-demons. Here (above), Batman ruminates on the existence of super villains, many of whom appeared after Batman was created. Would they have existed to threaten Gotham if Batman wasn't around?

I hope the Japanese-style layout will not put anyone off buying the comic, because it certainly does not detract from understanding the story; quite the reverse, in my opinion it aids the reader. For instance, take a look not at the way the story is to be read, but how the story is read with the drawings working in tandem with the words; illustrated in the pages above. The flow works quite naturally and this is not always the case with today's Western comics which often mistake wordiness, crammed in all over the place, for sophistication.

We are clearly in the hands of a master of the genre here. It's not down to chance that I enjoyed this story, take a closer look at the way the reader is being led through the adventure.

This is, I think, an important element in any story. An appeal to the senses. One of the reasons The Portrait of Dorian Gray was frowned upon was because Wilde mentioned the unmentionable; 'smells'. It doesn't matter that the smells were pleasant, well, some of them, just that they were smells (coincidentally, there is much talk of masks in that story 'Dorian lit a cigarette and walked over to the glass and glanced into it. He could see the reflection of Victor’s face perfectly. It was like a placid mask of servility. There was nothing to be afraid of, there. Yet he thought it best to be on his guard'.). There is a lot of noise in your average mainstream western comic book, but that is all. If thinking is cut out of the things there will be very little left in, apart from the over-muscled, garishly-coloured drawings, that is.

Of course it helps that the character, Batman, is strong enough to be reinterpreted in this manner. His resurrection over and over again is testament to his durability. Indeed, Bob Kane's creation seems bulletproof, given that not even the camp TV shows and dire Batmovies could sink him.

My other favourite Batman tales are, in their own way, as experimental as Death Mask, and also involve reinventions and earlier incarnations of the character. Batman, The Golden Streets of Gotham, published by DC Comics/Elseworlds imprint and written by Jen Van Meter was one story that avoided all the horrors I mentioned in the first paragraph above, and the art by Cliff Chiang and Tommy Lee Edwards, the Colouring by Dave Stewart and lettering by John Workman all blended together to form a coherent work that was pleasing on so many levels.

This is a page of the original art, the coloured version is below. You can buy this, and other pages at this link HERE. Click for a lovely big view of this page.

One of my other all-time favourites is Eddie Campbell's spellbinding work, Batman, and the Order of Beasts. The comic is drawn, painted and co-written by Eddie Campbell and Daren White. I came across the comic after reading a review of it by someone who didn't like the artwork. It was a very strange review to read because I was looking at marvelous drawings from the book, and reading this oddly juxtaposed text telling me they weren't very good. What I was seeing was unrelated to what I was reading. Of course I realised that the reviewer was really a fan of the horrible stuff mentioned in paragraph one, above, so I knew then that The Order of the Beasts, was the kind of comic I would like.

All this has all helped me decide without doubt what I like and what I don't like in this artistic medium. I want drawings that please me. I want a good story well-told. And I don't mind experimentation. What I don't want is comic book cliche. I don't want muscle-bound anatomically correct (yeah right) drawings of 'money-shots'. I don't want a comic that wants so much to be a movie that it has forgotten to tell me a story. I don't necessarily like franchised characters but, I will read them when the writers and artists are given freedom to produce their very individualistic take on the character.

I would certainly like to see more of the Batman imagined by Scott Hampton and by Tim Sale, for the Solo series; which was a pretty great series, by the way. A Solo collection would be pretty nifty.

Just to round things off. Here is a particularly horrible illustration of what I don't like. This comic book, Megas, by Virgin, has every quality I particularly dislike; it is garishly coloured, and the panels and therefore the narritive is confused, you can see that from the first couple of pages.

However, I don't need the garish colouring to put me off, I can take an equal dislike to a black and white story, if the panels and the story make little or no sense to me. Resurection, by Oni, is an example of that, and it is particularly annoying because the cover promises so much. It's a really good cover.

That really irks me. There must be some alternative to cramming all that text into that space. There is a nice post about dialogue on the Comics Comics blog, and some of this crosses into territory that Derik A. Badman covers in Panels, Pictures and Text in comics.

There is a very good essay you can download in pdf form, on panels, covering the latest thoughts on this matter by Neil Cohn over at his site. I'd urge you to download and read more of his material. Meanwhile, I'd like you to go here, if you have the time, to enjoy the perfectly formed Lost and Found, featuring Glen Ganges, by Kevin Huizenga, and after you enjoy the story, nip out and buy his latest comic, Ganges 2.

Now that's a nice clean layout with neat clear writing - and it is visually stimulating. Not a muscle-clod twit in tights or a pair of unaturally large hooters in sight. Who would have thought...


Brian Fies said...

Wow, terrific analysis and great examples. I've got to admit I've never acquired the habit of reading right to left without a struggle, and don't really mind when the artwork is flopped for my benefit. I'm ashamed to say. But you've given me some good works to seek out. I'm particularly intrigued by what creators from other narrative traditions and background would make of something as stylized as Batman, and these look interesting.

Rod McKie said...

I agree Brian, it's odd how easy it is get used to reading the flopped stuff, and without appreciating the difficulties involved. I really quite enjoy reading R-L though and I'm surprised at how natural it becomes, now and again you forget, but you can look back and have another go; I can see it becoming quite natural to switch between the two diciplines. It might even add to the exotic appeal for the reading public.

A nice big Batman anthology with stories from across the globe might be very interesting. I'd buy that.