Batman vs Storm
The Many Balancing Acts of Functional Art
Travis Hedge Coke
One of the most important - often invisible - differences between professional and immature art of any kind, in any media, is that the rougher art frequently lacks internal balances necessary to keep an audience and maintain interest. A seven year old's family portrait in marker, the sonnets written in Introduction to Poetry, the casual pitch for a surefire hit movie the guy at the coffee shop, with no screenwriting experience, will rattle off any time he has an opportunity, all tend to a similar, limited condition. One Punch Art feels like "the real thing" but often cannot sustain an audience, leaving the artist to wonder why.
When we nutshell art, we generalize into a one punch description. "It's about... BAM!" That's standard summary, professional or casual. But, if that was art, if that was entertainment, we would read summaries, we wouldn't watch movies or read whole comics.
This is not a low art/high art issue. Coffee shop guy's one line surefire hit pitch is okeh as something thrown out in conversation, not because we want to see that alone as a movie, but because we know it won't be a movie. It's grist for conversation.
There is nothing inherently high or low, commercial or museum in a family portrait. For-museum art is as commercial as anything designed for retail, festival, for newspapers or website distribution. This is about audience, the hooking and sustaining of audience.
One note, one punch art rarely, probably never sustains an audience. Audiences are kept at attendance by delaying their arrival at an exit point. By contrasting characters, by making sure the elements ricochet and contradict within the senses and intellect, refracted inside the parameters of the work, an audience can be driven to continue speculating and ruminating even after they have left the physical media that makes up the work.
Imagine a beam of light being bounced around a chamber, refracted and reflected, magnified, muted, always mutable, but never lost and never let out. That's as close to perfect art as you get but instead of light, a universe of elements. A successful song, novel, single panel comic, they are all and each a universe, bounded but seemingly quasi-infinite and at constant interplay within those bounds. Conflict and convergence inspire a seeming multiplicity beyond what variegation explicitly exists. An explicit duality implies middles and other dualities. A mirror implies both a mirrored and the unseen back of the mirror. And, most trickily, that which is not reflected in the mirror can also be inferred and either consciously discounted or deliberately considered.
A single image is not required to illustrate, but must always at least imply conflicting directives. A longer work must have multiple, interwoven conflicts and confluence. A single character can be in contrast to their setting, a setting, itself, can be conflicted in its elements even without a human or conscious presence. The flora in a field do not have the same innate direction as the storm roaring down upon them. But, too, trees and grass cannot have the same scale and do not share the same density as brick, glass, or dirt.
"There is a storm," is One Punch. Write it, draw it, a storm alone can be intriguing , but you spend to seconds, then you are gone. In and out in two seconds, because there is nothing to derail you. You need something to take you one way, then drive you in another, spill you in another. If it can turn land into debris, you have something. Get a person into it, dealing with the ground, acting against and acting on the storm; that's a story people might remember. Even if their actions against the storm are futile, the audience won't remember that. It does its work and the audience, worked upon, will forget it happened. The same immediate amnesia experienced when we see every detail of slight of hand tricks, yet only recall the magic, not the finger hiding a card or the slight glint of light off a concealed wire extending from the prestidigitator's sleeve.
Batman v Superman is an attractive enough nutshell to capture the imagination of people who've never experienced such a story. But comics, from Brave and the Bold to The Dark Knight Returns, cannot only illustrate one blow or even a unilateral fight and call it a day. Even if it is retold, remembered as one blow, it is recalled in that manner of a magic trick. There has to be more steps than the audience thinks they are privy to. We all see the movement, evidence of the setup, the distraction.
Notice, in The Dark Knight Returns, specifically, Superman is often infuriatingly right and ultimately Batman does everything that Superman asks of him. The "win" that people remember is a futile win. Batman, this old guy, hits Superman and Superman feels it. That is the sum total of the "win." Everything else is Superman getting what he wants, even though, and because, simultaneously, his position in the narrative is antagonistic.
Batman's win is to strike at something monstrously large. Even if a person's actions against the storm are futile, the audience won't remember that. Get a person into it, dealing with the ground, acting against and acting on the storm; that's a story people might remember. Refraction. Diffusion and magnification.
The one panel political cartoon, like the one act play, the pop single, is not about getting to the point, but establishing a point that is definitely wrong. The first thing someone says in a political cartoon has to be, by the end, wrong. As a protagonist traverses a one act, they should fail to get what they reach for. A thousand-page romantic thriller cannot begin with true lovers come together and never parted, who can handle all possible threats. Their love needs to be threatened, their survival must be put in doubt. Without those many maneuvers and that counterbalancing, the audience will not carry the one punch they all remember any further than the end of the work itself.
When things seem to be breaking in art, all the pieces are suspended in determined, purposeful trajectories. What in reality might be a fracturing is, in art, flowering expansion. And, flowering embracing. The petals and leaves, a caterpillar dissolving within a cocoon and reconfiguring into a butterfly, nothing is lost once it is in the art. Discarding is an illusion of art, as is all dissolution of transience.
The result is the trick, but the suspension is the actual work, the efforts and skills that leave them wondering, leave them feeling touched by magic so they cam clearly tell you what was achieved while being uncertain as to how, and in most cases no longer caring.