Nov 29, 2012

Pop Medicine: All the Fancy Artistic Goals

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

All the Fancy Artistic Goals
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke


“The real story was people who started breaking things.”

“You’ve got to be outside it, to see it for what it is.”

Just how realistic and direct is Marvels? Much is still made of Marvels as the breakthrough moment of Reconstruction, a supposed opposition to Deconstruction in comics. The moment comics gave up trying to be artsy and meta and went for genuine-ism, for naturalism. Marvels has been held up as a return to older styles of storytelling and the presentation of ethics. It has been lionized for its glorification of the superhero in their simplest and distanced presentation, as well as its consideration research and arrangement. It’s been praised for not being too meta or symbolic, but foregrounding realistic portrayals, for its direct artwork and clear, unpretentious script.

The four issue (and one zeroth issue prologue) comic by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and diverse talented hands, was a watershed for painted comics, which had previously been less than commercially viable even when as awesome as the Lazarus Churchyard shorts by Warren Ellis and Disraeli. It was a watershed for wold newtoning in comics, which already had shared universes at various publishers, but tended to be haphazard and carefree about the contiguity of events and individuals as they related to chronologically simultaneous, but narratively separate stories. And, it did a lot to push to the fore the idea that Marvel’s superheroes were inherently awesome. Its place, historically, is pretty sound.

But, is it as straightforward and unpretentious, as un-artsy and hard-hittingly realistic as so many seem to believe?

D Aviva Rothschild called it out for being unrealistic in terms of dialogue (no hardcore swearing) and for scenes of characters looking up at superheroes doing amazing stuff overhead (which, I can’t rationally judge, since I still look up at clouds and airplanes and neither of those might throw a pumpkin bomb at me). She also had trouble with how many other stories and characters were referenced in passing and compares it to trying to cram the entire American Civil War into two hours of musical, when, really, if we’re going to extend the during wartime metaphor, here, this is The War At Home or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore not Patton or the aforementioned Robert Wilson musical, The Civil War. The superheroes are background here, the events of previous comics are treated as historic incidents, not as the central plot here, which happens to be occurring simultaneous to those old comics, but with our protagonist and his family at the fore.

Marvels is not, I think, ever meant to be accepted as a true fairytale, to coin a phrase, a story which though fiction we are meant to believe happens the way it does by nature and necessity and not craft and puppeteers. Marvels is puppeted by Ross and Busiek, but also by the entire backlog of comics to which it owes its structure and earmarks. Deconstruction is, at heart, a series of techniques for identifying the elements or perspectives that are privileged, which are erased or ignored, and Marvels, at its heart, draws to light much of what is subject to erasure or privilege in the comics and eras with which it is dealing. We are meant to know it is the product of many influences, many many authors and controlled not by any inherent nature or moral framework, but by the caprice of decades of old comics by so many of those authors.

Marvels is not a history book. And, it behooves me to say that firmly, not simply because of Rothschild’s criticism but also for the many critics who praise Marvels as if it is so. If it was a history book, it’d be a terrible one, for moving events around, exaggerating or shortchanging them as it helps the story at hand, the comic that is Marvels. But it pretends to be historical, to have a historical setting, even though that setting is an imaginary and unplotted history of a thousand different comics rubbing against one another in a shared universe. And the references and research can be intimidating, just as it might be welcoming to others. Further, it by necessity makes Marvels as meta as all get out.

Metatextuality is a kind of intertextual discourse in which one text, such as Marvels, makes comment or causes us to understand another text differently, as Marvels does with the hundreds of comics it references, alludes to, or otherwise connects by nature of its setting and intent. There’s not a page in Marvels that does not refer to another comic. Some refer to several other comics all at once, and so, too, are there references and direct relations to films and novels that go back and forth, one coloring the next perception of the other.

Marvels does not strive to make us forget that this is the result of a thousand single issue comics, decades of publications. Marvels reminds us on every page, with each step, that this is a metatextual and experimental game, part pastiche, part chronology establishment, part social commentary, part comics commentary, and part detournement, reversing the looser abstraction and hard lines of inked over pencils with gouache and realistic lighting effects while flipping the focus from the all-too-human superheroes of the Marvel Universe to the all-too-not-super man on the street in that same world. The great Stan Lee innovation of two-dimensional characterization in superhero stories is flipped so that superhumans are seen for the most part only at a distance, as forces of nature or otherwise dehumanized entities, while not surrendering the technique entirely, and instead transferring it to Phil and his family. That’s a radical departure from the traditional Marvel methodology and it does, again, draw attention to this comic as an artifact.

The first page of Chapter One, is our introduction to the wonkiness of Marvel-time, a pattern of progression that does not match our real world time and cannot. J. Jonah Jameson and our protagonist, Phil Sheldon, are alive and adult in pre-WW2 New York and by the last page of Chapter Four, Danny Ketch, introduced in our real-world Nineteen Nineties and the Marvel Universe’s Nineties, is a kid with a paper route, when Jameson and Sheldon are at best twenty, twenty-five years older by those last pages, and Jameson will be virtually unaged by the time young Danny Ketch has reached adulthood and become a Ghost Rider. The child of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, who arrives off-screen, but implicitly, towards the end, will not age more than a few years for the decade Danny Ketch will have weathered away before becoming possessed by the urge to ride through your town with his head on fire.

If that is not intentional, why draw attention to it? It is not naturalistic in the sense of forcing the conviction of a natural occurrence. It does not make the Marvel Universe “more like ours,” more realistic. It is detrimental to the mechanics of a naturalist story. I posit that it has to be intentional. And it has to come from the authors poring over various Marvel comics and recognizing the disjunction between how time operates in that shared universe and how it is generally acknowledged to function in our reality.

The second story page of the collected Marvels, opens with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that applies simultaneously to the character pictured alongside it (Jim Hammond), and potentially to the approach of the comic at hand, to the shared universe in which this comic takes place, and the era that in this comic will be called The Age of Marvels, but if also to those things, then the “I” of the quote is essentially the text itself, the comic, the universe, and the age speaking as if aware.

Two pages later, of the six overlapping sections that make up the page, one is given over to text with no representational illustration, and two are wholly symbolic, abstract to the events pictured in the other three but relevant to them and the story as a whole; da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and a schematic of blood vessels in ropy reds. Half the page is nothing inherent to the scene, nothing of an emic perspective.

The page between? A collage of three distinct moments in the creation of Jim Hammond, as Professor Horton extinguishes a cigarette and looks to the heart and lungs of the Human Torch he will present to the world. Oh, fraught with potential symbolism and relevance, to be sure, from fire to carcinogenic and of perspective, but nothing is drawn out loudly, so let that pass as a naturalistic, unassuming presentation. The pages delineated above, though? On either side of that possibly unassuming page, pages that cannot be read and still denied their exercising of non-naturalist techniques.

And, now, with the prologue completed, we have the first of several interruptions to the world of the comic, in form of commentary by the talent of our world (in order, essays by Stan Lee, Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, John Romita, and Marc McLaurin). These are lovely, and informative, with beautiful spot illustrations, but they do not take place in the world in which we are otherwise immersed, in Marvels. Each is a reminder that even the marvels and newsmen of the world are but tools for collaborative authors far beyond them. It’s a little bit creepy, but awe-inspiring too. In Marvels, intended or otherwise, we witness one godlike creator dedicate an entire chapter to another godlike creator. Too, one of these beings from beyond the Earth Marvels primarily deals with, looks down into that world and sees the death of a person he has been familiar with for more years than she has had, in her world, life, and finds that this death is wrong.

That cab driver is based on John Romita, watching the Green Goblin
carrying off Gwen Stacy.

The death of Gwen Stacy is wrong according to a being from beyond who had a hand in bringing her life, to the world. That’s immense. It’s immense, it hangs over the entire back end of Marvels, and it is not even generated by either of the two (as it is generally agreed upon) authors.

Perhaps not every disjunction of this sort is intentional by the authors. Why place the interrupting nonfiction throughout the story, if they are not part of, or meant to interrupt the story? Probably not planned as world-expansion or meta-reference. However, as the footnotes in the back show, and the extensive annotations folks not paid by Marvel have compiled, there is an awful lot of meta-referencing, allusions, borrowed characters (Clark Kent! Popeye!), and consideration to how chronologically synchronous but initially unrelated stories parallel and enhance one another when it is acknowledged that they happened simultaneously and at close distance. The majority of the allusions, deliberate detournements, reappraisals, valorizations, and attempts at differentiating cannot be disregarded as unintentional or unconsidered and to continue to do so is a disservice to the talent and efforts of all those who made Marvels what it is.

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