Panel Discussion: Reading Between the Lies

lone-wolf-and-cub-1619201

By Allen

I’ve been trying to branch out more with comics in the last few months now that I have a commute again, which has led to me reading a weird amalgamation of stories that I’ve meant to for years like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, cult classics like Lone Wolf And Cub, and indie outings like the fantastic Alex And Ada. If there’s any quality that connects these disparate stories, it’s a disconnect between what is implied and what is in the panels.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman  can best be described as Justice League starring characters from all across literature through the lens of Alan Moore. It’s easily his second most well-known work after Watchmen, and it shares his fondness for creating universes through implication of a broader world than what is seen. In Watchmen, every scene is filled with grunge and darkness that permeated late-80s postmodern art and media. Even when the story shows something like a dead dog or a man committing suicide with cyanide, the world around these scenes breathes with life and realism. This is much more apparent in League of Extraordinary Gentleman. At least in the first volume, it feels like almost half of the story is establishing shots and splash pages. And even though these scenes show the scale and scope of the novel’s many settings, they are drawn in such a way that each splash page tells a story. In one, the heroes sneak through a street of the homeless and ill, masking their faces so as to avoid detection. But what’s more interesting is what isn’t shown; the children of these homeless people, how they got there, and where our heroes came from. In this way, the establishing shots become about not what is, but what isn’t seen. These little details fill in the background of the world, and use a single page or two to tell an elegant, broad story.

If League tells its story through gaps and false framing of scenes, then Lone Wolf and Cub depicts the repetitiveness of violence exclusively using its context clues and the assumptions that the reader brings. The 1970s Japanese samurai story about a samurai assassin and his precocious baby son relies heavily on the classic “Exposition, fight scene, moral, repeat” formula for most of the early-goings. With every battle that Ogami Ittō gets into, the swipes and slashes of swords are represented by the same five or six frames of gore and mutilation. It’s a weirdly gruesome type of scene in a mostly slow, measured comic. However, since it’s almost the same series of frames every time, one would think the artist got lazy and didn’t want to draw new fights. However, this seemed to me like a deliberate choice. Even though the fighters and setting are always different, the battle itself is relatively the same. It’s the context from earlier scenes and past reader experience that envigorate these fights. When Ogami Ittō fights female samurai warriors, it looks the same as when he fights the bulky bodyguard character or vile bandits. However, when one realizes that these women are being treated as equals in Shogun-era Japan (at least in combat), the narrative is reframed to almost be about feminism and the way that these women use their weapons as much as their bodies to fight. And, like a good horror film, the implication of violence between frames is much more horrifying and brutal than what is ever shown.

There’s something almost false and deceiving about the way that comic book art is used to tell stories. Half a hand in one frame can represent an entire body, and word bubbles symbolize speech and action. But even the writing can hint at a greater world than what is shown in each panel. Alex and Ada, a new comic from the Luna Brothers (writer and artist combo that did indie horror masterpiece Girls) focuses on the relationship between 20-something Alex and his synthetic android Ada. For such a small-scale story, the implications of the universe around these characters is massive and detailed. The first example of this is a news report recounting a classic “supposedly subservient robots turn sentient and kill their masters” factory incident. The specific details of this story, like who created the androids and how they gained sentience are slowly explained to the reader and Alex through the story. As the world around him unravels, so does the pace of the story. Early issues spend a lot of time explaining this strange future, but as it grows more comfortable with its universe, Alex and Ada uses subtle, unspoken drama and pathos for world building. Nobody sits down and explains the virtual reality Internet that people browse;it is simply shown as is. This suggests that the world has been the way it is for years, and nobody within it needs to function as a reader stand-in.

Scott McCloud spends an entire chapter of his famous graphic art book Understanding Comics on the idea of storytelling happening off the panels. This is not only a well-known technique discussed in comics, but a staple of classic works in the medium. However, not many people view the panels themselves as a selectively permeable veil; See this, ignore this. Like a cell membrane, the art hides what needs to stay out, and shows what needs to be seen. But sometimes, it’s the stuff that doesn’t make it in that develops the world the best.

Advertisements

Panel Discussion: Hitting the Mark

arrow-first-image

By James

There is something about the show Arrow that really appeals to me. The dialogue is cheesy, the plot predictable, the stakes too low. And yet, there is something fairly addictive about the show that gets me to watch and rewatch episodes. I went through the same sort of fascination with the show The Cape, but in the end, that intrigue faded when the show was canceled. There is something about the concept of a superhero story told through television that I really enjoy. The concept of a serialized story medium appeals to my sensibilities and schedule. The format is conducive to that of comics themselves, complete with the one villain per story and the cliffhanger endings. And I think that that’s underrated.

Recently, there have been quite a few superhero films in theaters. Captain America, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Thor, the list goes on and on. It has become an imperative to release superhero movies on almost a bimonthly basis now. In television, the number of comic adaptations is surprisingly low. Arrow and Smallville are among a very small list of non-animated shows adapted from comics. Rather than focusing on a particular chapter of a character’s life, a movie chooses to focus on the growth and development over the course of a particular chapter of that character’s life. With a television series, the story that we see is more clear and complete. Although it takes more time for a television series to start and stop, and to remind the audience of the previous adventures, the result is closer to the comic format that I have come to know and love. The subtle references to characters and events within the larger DC continuum are huge reasons why I continue to watch Arrow. The self-referential characters, the small links to the larger universe, everything else adds to the comic book style that it borrows so heavily from.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy origin stories, Arrow does the job properly. Starting with the relatively unknown hero Oliver Queen, the show even explains how he developed his archery skills brilliantly. In much the same way that the Christopher Nolan Batman series started a gritty take on that particular franchise, Arrow creates a strong new take on a character, albeit a less popular one than Batman. The result is a movement into a brand new type of story. Relatively unknown characters are given a new life. This is a trait that I would love to see with Ant-Man, Marvel’s size-changing super hero. To serialize such a witty, real character gives the franchise a chance to appeal to a new audience. Although I am sure that director Edgar Wright will do a fantastic job with this movie, I think that the best medium for comics has now emerged.

 

Panel Discussion: What If…I Read More Comics?

What If...I Read More ComicsBy Magellan

It was tough, this week, to come up with an article to write. If I can pull back the mysterious Pop Modern curtain and ask you to pay a little mind to the man behind it, this wasn’t a week where I simply started with a lightbulb idea and ran with it. In fact, this was the opposite of that; I wanted to revitalize a column that hasn’t been given a lot of play. Eventually, I settled on our comic-book-centric column, Panel Discussion. What made it tough was that I haven’t read any comics in a while. In fact, I rarely read many comics to begin with. At most, I’ll pick up a standalone trade paperback that a friend or a podcast host says is worth it, but even then I don’t always have the time or the means to finish an entire graphic novel. Sure, I’ve read a handful of classics, like Watchmen or Y: The Last Man, what have you, but I’m still a comics novice at best.

Picking up individual issues won’t help, either. Not only are they an expensive proposition for anyone who wants more than twenty minutes of entertainment, it’s also nearly impossible to figure out where to start. And I know that’s a pretty hackneyed complaint, the image of a man with a Droopy Dog look on his face standing in front of some shelves and sighing “Oh gee, I’m lost!” But you know what? I am lost! And I’m the kind of guy that loves complicated continuity, that’s not a consumer turn-off for me. What is a turn-off is that I have a desire for completism when I consume something. If I watch a movie, I’m sticking through from minute one to closing credits. If I watch a television show, the creators pretty much have me on the hook for seven seasons. If I’m reading a comic book, I’d like to get a complete story from start to finish. And sure, there are plenty of self-contained stories in comic books, but not if you just jump head-first into what’s being released now. It’s nearly impossible to make heads or tails of how a person should start reading Marvel Comics. It would be easy enough to point to a great Iron Man story here, or a fantastic Fantastic Four arc there, but getting a comprehensive scope of the universe as a whole is a Herculean feat.

This kind of paralyzing fear of picking the wrong entry point into the continuity is what occupied me on those rare occasions when I had enough petty cash as a kid to traipse on down to the bookstore and pick up a trade paperback. I remember the first time this happened to me I thumbed through some Captain America collections, but those were full of black-and-white versions of early, text-box-dominated issues. Beyond that, pretty much everything on the shelf was a “Volume 3” or a “Chapter 6.” That is, until I stumbled upon a Marvel book called What If?: Event Horizon. Unlike the other books, this was something I could pick up and read right away. And it had all of the characters I’d heard about: Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Avengers crew, all of those guys. This seemed like a dream come true to me; it was a book that brought together all of the characters I wanted to read about and told a handful of one-off, self-contained stories about them. I didn’t have to know anything except their names, and even those were easy to pick up after a page or two. After I burned through the book, I felt a real sense of completion, but I still was tantalized enough to want to read wiki page after wiki page of convoluted continuity.

And, not only were the stories short and easy to digest, some of them were memorable and compelling. The one that sticks in my mind the most is the first one in that collection I mentioned, “What If Xavier’s Secret Second Team Had Survived?” I’m not going to bore you with a point-for-point summary of this story, but basically it concerns Vulcan, the mutant younger brother of X-Men frontman Cyclops. In the main continuity, Vulcan was the leader of a little-known team of young mutants that Professor Xavier sent to their untimely death. In this story, however, Vulcan survived and became the most important and heroic mutant on the planet. His hypothetical survival completely alters the face of human-mutant relations, and the ultimate revelation that Vulcan murdered the mutants he was supposed to save in a bout of sociopathic calculation makes the situation all the more interesting. Since he’s such a beloved public figure, Xavier can’t simply out him as a murderer, so Vulcan is forced to disseminate the cover story that he’s flying off into the sunset to fight aliens. In reality, he’s sequestered on a floating space rock, with nothing to keep him company but a DVD of his television biography and forced psychic visions of the crimes he has committed. As if that weren’t enough of a fascinating character study, the issue ends with Vulcan coolly reflecting “I’ve watched them die two hundred and seventy-three times. How many times do you have to see someone die before you feel nothing at all?”

The first time I read that story, I was floored. Granted, I was a pre-teen, but I was floored. The idea that a single issue could give me not only an interesting character to follow but also such a broad sense of universal implications made me ravenous for more. Now, I’m not saying that all comics should be one-and-done stories, or that every one should be some outlandish “What If?” scenario. What I am saying is that there’s something that comics at large can learn from the appeal of “What If?” stories. The advantage of writing within a detailed universe like that of Marvel or DC Comics is that there are plenty of existing characters to play with and any number of ways to go with the plot. The problem is that every story is weighed down by this mountain of continuity. Part of my problem is that I need to read more comics if I want to be up-to-date, but the other part of it is that the universe itself is fighting against me, when it should be working for the benefit of the story. The universe is a backdrop, and should never outweigh the priorities or the message of the story being told. And if that means that every comic book ends up as some outlandish “What If?” issue where Wolverine and Cyclops are melded into a single mutant life-form that wanders pre-WWII Australia and decimates super-powered, dingo-riding aborigines, that still sounds pretty rad to me.

Panel Discussion: Cliffhangers and Nocturnes

photo
By Allen

Panel Discussion is a brand new column on Pop Modern, where we’re going to discuss and dissect all types of graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and comic books. If you’re a devoted Superman evangelist, a big fan of Y: The Last Man, or somewhere in between, Panel Discussion is for you.

What better way to kick off our new column on comic books and graphic novels than with the Neil Gaiman classic, Sandman? Equal parts horror, dark comedy, and traditional fantasy, it set the bar for more mature graphic novels in the 80s and 90s. I just finished the first volume recently, “Preludes and Nocturnes”, and I absolutely loved it. However, I don’t know if I’m as excited to read on. Of course I’m going to read on in the future, because there’s nine more volumes of great stories to be told in that universe, but I feel like I got everything I needed to out of what was, in retrospect, a fairly small piece of an overall story.

I found it appropriate to read Sandman before bed every night. The story focuses on the life of the God of Dreams after he is released from a spherical prison that held him for almost half a century. An issue a night meant I had time to appreciate the art, coloring, and writing of each chapter, and immediately going to sleep after reading about the lord of sleep felt right. Every chapter deals with Dream (who goes by several names) recovering one of his stolen tools of the trade. In one chapter, he wins his dream helmet from a demon in Hell after a storytelling battle. In another, he battles through the dreams of all of humanity against a demented doctor who plans to use Dream’s magical amulet to bring about the apocalypse. The unique blend of surreal art and Gaiman’s trademark fantasy wit are what carry the story along.

So if it is so good, why don’t I want to read more? It’s for the same reason I stopped reading Bill Willingham’s Fables after one volume, and the same reason that I prefer collected paperbacks to purchasing individual issues. The way that we read comics directly contributes to a feeling of being lead on. As my eyes dart from panel to panel, word balloon to word balloon, I don’t stop progressing until the story is over. There’s always another bit of story and another frame of art just an eye flicker away. That immediate, hyperactive nature of comics makes appreciating the art very difficult. How can comics creators expect the reader to stop and appreciate the combination of art and visuals if there’s constantly new material to read a few inches to the right? This problem has been slightly alleviated with the introduction of splash pages, which are massive two-page spreads of art that force the reader to stop for a moment and absorb that moment in time. The idea is explored in detail in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn about the techniques creators use to tell stories in comics. But all the splash pages in the world couldn’t get me to keep up with more than a few comics every week. I like to feel like there’s a definitive end to what I’m reading. An open-ended, ambiguous climax like that of Sandman serves the purpose of tying up all loose ends, while also enticing some readers to follow up with the other nine volumes.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reading an incomplete story. I recently finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, which is the fifth of seven planned novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. That’s a perfect example of an incomplete story, but I can wait a few years for that story’s end because of the scope of the series. With such a grand narrative, it takes time to flesh out the world, characters, and do all of that while telling a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. The focus on a single character gives Sandman a much smaller scale, and as I finished the final issue of “Preludes and Nocturnes”, I felt like I read enough about that world. Dream finds all of his tools, and his sister Death takes him on a trip as she does her job all around the world. That feels like an ending to me. There are nine more volumes of Sandman that I could read, but why should I? There are countless issues of Fables for me to read, but why should I if all I wanted to know was who the murderer was? The universe interested me enough to consider reading more, but it was the struggles of the characters in that specific scenario that had me hooked. One of my biggest problems with comic books today is the feeling of being lead on by individual issues. Very few of the average superhero comic issues end definitively, opting to set up a larger story. The bad guy was still alive, the hero suffered a mortal wound, or the giant monster was way bigger than expected. This was the way of things for a while, and although the industry is slowly shifting away from that, it’s still a problem. Some would argue that this is to entice readers to keep reading a series, but it ultimately devalues the individual issues. Instead of making each issue a standalone story, why not deliver a complete slice of a grander universe? Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga does this well, with each issue developing the universe, continuing the story of previous issues, and setting up the next issue without feeling incomplete.

Some of the best stories of all time ended on ambiguous notes, be they films like Chinatown or The Thing, two films whose ambiguous endings actually provided better closure than more explicit climaxes. This applies to all mediums of storytelling, but the shorter form, easily-consumed nature of comics leads to a lot of what I call “carrot on a stick” endings, where closure is replaced with a dramatic end, and the reader is supposed to want to follow up on that end in future issues. No matter how good the art is, no matter how beautiful the writing is, there’s another issue that you have to buy. And for an industry that has been struggling with sales for so long, it’s refreshing to read comics like Sandman that can establish a world, give it depth, and tell a definitive, standalone story. Don’t make the reader feel like they HAVE to keep reading, make them want to.