Feb 27, 2013

Pop Medicine: Three Myths

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

Three Myths
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Stallone fucking punched through concrete, grabs the dude with the scars, and dares him to blow up the building while they’re both still in it! Then Spider-Man shows up and… That happened because I wrote it, and you read it. Did it canonically happen? Depends on your canon. It didn’t authorized happen, but it’s in your head and mine now.

Fiction is artificial. (Nonfiction, too; check four journalists covering the same ground for different news organs, or three autobiographies about the same events, and you find discrepancies in actuation, significance, characterization, the whole shebang. But that’s touchy, so let’s stick to what it says on the tin fiction. So let’s start this again, while still really starting up above.)

Fiction is artificial. To make something up is make something. Fictional writing, fictional art, conscious communication is engineered. We forget that too easily We don’t say “Stallone pretended to be this cop and he acts like he’s punching through a solid wall to stop Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s character, who’s got this makeup on to look like scars…” we say “Stallone fucking punched through concrete, grabs the dude with the scars, and dares him to blow up the building while they’re both still in it! Then he breaks his neck. It was fucking awesome.” I have never before this said anything like, “John Romita drew the idea of Peter Parker being embarrassed, but even more enthused, by how beautiful, forward-moving women would just buoy him along to dance clubs or the movies. He uses lines to make you think you’re seeing Parker, seeing him more confident and huskier, but you’re just seeing lines, man! Lines! And someone colored them in. It’s fucking amazing.”

We don’t want to think about that. Heck, we don’t want to think of pencilers or colorists as fiction-makers, anyway. Nine times out of ten, when you criticize a commercial visual artist for a call they clearly made, like, say, tits-and-ass-forward martial arts poses, or a rage-filled, screaming superhero portrait in a series where everyone else is stoic and calm or the Hulk, someone will come to their defense as if visual art is reflexive, impossible to craft, dumb to think through. (I’ll put real money down that someone reads this, and when they hit this spot, they start mentally arguing that exact point.) We don’t want to think of commercial anything as having craft to it, having intent or shape other than the commercialism.

Which, brings us to our first myth about crafting comics:

1. Artists Aren’t Writers

This can become “Why is that artist trying to be a writer?” or “That comic was so cool, how come everything that artist does is cool, but the writer’s other stuff is so weak?” It can also turn into “Who’s more important: artists or writers?” And all those are missing the point, which is that comics don’t live or die by the writing or the art, they have to have both and it’s impossible to separate them into two categories simply because one person does the heavy lifting in one area, another in the other respect. Like a good script and a great director can make a subpar actor shine like a genius, an awesome comics script might make a penciler a better symbolist or structuralist, and a cool enough colorist can make a writer and penciler look smarter than they are. Collaborators, at their best, are supporting each other to be greater than the sum of the parts, and all that beautiful optimistic jazz.

People aren’t machines, scripts and blue line art are not programs you run through automation that kick out dialogued, colored, drawn and plotted comics. A penciler may leave color notes, a writer may ask for a particular bodytype or hairstyle, a penciler can control the pace or emphasis of a scene. Most of the stepping on toes in comics happens when collaborators don’t have clear enough bounds for where they should do some work and where and when, in the course of making a comic, the other factor should have final say. I’ve seen artists draw things that derail what the writer had in mind, and I’ve seen writers enforce unworkable designs and pace on artists who by all evidence can handle that part themselves.

You cannot draw a comics page, you can’t even draw a comics panel without telling some kind of story, without narrative and world immediately present. The way someone draws Judge Dredd or Daffy Duck is characterization, every single time. The divisions of labor do not change that. When I say that my favorite bits of Watchmen are mostly Dave Gibbons, I don’t mean because he draws well, I mean that in terms of story and atmospheric elements he contributed stuff I dig. Laura Martin made The Authority for me, and that’s no slight on anyone else who worked on that title, and yes her colors change how I perceive that entire comic, her colors controlled whole scenes and brought something to them that’s not there in the black and white art or the scripts.

Whether the Huntress stands with a straight back or Archie Andrews suddenly pops his collar and has huge eyes does change the way a story is taken. When the uncredited colorist on Gene Colan’s Daredevil used to color background characters with variety instead of generic anglo skintone #1, it added something and it changed the whole comic. The way Jack Kirby drew Black Panther and Wyatt Wingfoot, their design, their body language, the things he had them doing, assisted by Stan Lee’s dialogue, is massive, especially for the era, and just their visuals, stripped of narrative, is a wealth of communication, but I mean their presence as badasses alone is substantial. In the Black Panther’s first appearance, this super-rich, genius, suave, black king beats up the Fantastic Four in their own title, and it’s the Native American dude who’s just chilling the whole time, who saves them. And he does it without a faux-ethnicized “ugg white eyes” speech pattern or a feather in a headband.

2. Diversity for Diversity’s Sake

Nobody does this!

Now, I know, some of you may have justification for why you believe several writers, artists, publishers, and Zionist conspiracies do, but no. It doesn’t fucking happen.

And, not the least because it’s semantically null, as a statement. It’s a statement that means nothing and is designed to shut down any genuine conversation. Repeating it is you being afraid of actually considering what adding diversity to entertainment does.

The people adding it have things they hope it does, everyone single one of them. If they’re even thinking of it as “diversity” and not simply “the people and things I’m working with in this story.” Not everyone has an ethnically diverse cast of men and women (and green-skinned robots) because they are pushing an agenda or simply stumbled into it ignorantly. Maybe they resemble the kind of people that writer/artist is familiar with on a daily basis (yes, even the robot).

When Greg Pak was rocking Hulk then Herc, with Amadeus Cho often front and center, you couldn’t talk about the comics without someone worrying he was going to just fill up his comics with a bunch of Asians. No evidence of it, but the very idea was s appalling it was freaking people out.

The only thing that seems to bug more Archie fans to loud hating than Kevin Keller is Jughead gasp! tolerating women and shit. What’s up, Archie Comics? Lose your balls? Jughead hates women! It’s not false nostalgia for a term that’s increasingly going to be taken straight. You can tell by the fact he used to say it with a goofy look on his face while hanging out with women. Yessir, every single cover he and Betty have ever been on together is unquestionable evidence that Jughead is a massive misogynist and always has been until about three months ago.

Or, someone at Archie just put down a hamburger one day, looked across the table to whoever was sitting there, and said, “You know how Jughead still, in the 21st Century refers to himself as a ‘woman hater?’” And knocked it.

Jughead, hanging out with girls. Archie hooking up with a black singer. What sick future is Archie trying to sell us here? What are they forcing into their comics? What’s next, Archie Comics? Italians?

3. Exaggeration is Bad

I love Punisher vs Archie. The comic doesn’t even have to be good, the concept is that fantastic. But it doesn’t disappoint, either. Satirical Punisher is the only Punisher I can do, really, and even when you play him straight and to the letter, putting him in Riverdale satirizes, reflexively, both the Punisher and the Archie characters. Heck, Garth Ennis did it keeping the Punisher in New York City, just by having him loudly punching polar bears, mowing down every criminal he got near, fighting a massive fanboy, steamrolling a constantly monologuing Wolverine, by playing him straight without excuses, the Punisher becomes satire by his own actions. (The illusion of “his own actions.”)

That sort of thing can get right into the heart of some readers, like a poison knife. They hate when the absurdity becomes apparent. When things are just played loud. Some will self-blind, like people who insist The Dark Knight Returns is totally serious and respectful unless they’re a Superman fan and then they might self-blind to the fact Superman is calm, rational, supporting reasonable law when he goes against Batman and aids in his escape from capture at the end of the comic. But in Dark Knight Strikes Again, the sequel to The Dark Knight, Superman’s drawn all funny sometimes, and that is just too damned much.

Why would the talent draw so much attention to the big or goofy parts like that? Why was Garth Ennis making fun of Wolverine like that in his Punisher story? Doesn’t he know Wolverine has feelings? Why would Warren Ellis write a gay Batman and Superman riff as smart, caring, badass superheroes and not just a gay joke that would make the really real Batman and Superman shine? How can we never get confirmation on whether or not Hobbes is alive? Are we really supposed to read hundreds of individual Calvin and Hobbes strips just wondering? Think of the children, Mr. Watterson! Batman talking like a tough guy and wearing bright colors! Batman’s realistic, Mr. Morrison! Realistic! And, Garfield - Garfield? Quit making Jon Arbuckle look like a sadsack loser!

Naturally, those complaints, all real, if paraphrased, complaints, aren’t from the same person. I hope they don’t reflect a single person even by chance. And, to a degree, we all probably do it, a little reflexively, if it’s a character close to us, close to our heart or something. Superboy punching reality until it broke, in Infinite Crisis, genuinely seems to still freak people out. Superboy sitting at a computer, typing out complaints about how the universe that replaced him sucks. Some people don’t want to see that lifting five hundred tons can’t cure world hunger on its own. They don’t want to know that people who don’t know Peter Parker is Spider-Man probably do think he’s a bit of a weasel for selling all those pictures to an outfit that just hates on Spider-Man 24/7. I know some Invisibles fans who can’t stand that by the end, King Mob’s whole identity of stylish anarchic assassin is taken apart and he’s just an aging guy who can’t face that his girlfriend left him, his cat died, and he’s getting old.

Why? I hate to turn this on you, the reader, and on myself, but we can’t answer for the other people. We can, hopefully, answer for ourselves. Why does highlighting absurdity or irony burn us so bad? I hope that I don’t, anymore, personally. I feign it sometimes, for humor, or to exaggerate a point, as anyone who’s talked with me about Minmei or Shiori, or Hellcat can attest to. I don’t actively freak the hell out, though, and I haven’t thought a character was, then, broken forever since I was a little… never. I never got that broken forever twinge, no matter what happened to any character, books, movies, comics, anywhere. And if the idea is that what Superboy can punch is enough to break him forever, or that a day without his cat to talk to is enough to destroy your faith and the entertainment-value of Jon Arbuckle, how strong was your connection to them, anyway, that it matters so much?

Captain America, dying, weakened, laughed at by the common people of America, dons armor at the end of Mark Gruenwald’s run, and it embarrasses him. Captain America is humiliated to have to wear this stuff, and it’s fitted full, too, every bell, whistle, and airbag you can imagine. He’s buried in that armor, and everyone’s laughing at him. Regardless, he continues forward, he never stops being a superhero, being a great superhero, and a good man, until he dies. And, he only dies, Mark Gruenwald only kills him, because there’s going to be another Captain America adventure a month later. He’s going to be revived. Gruenwald wasn’t breaking Captain America, he was taking everything away from him so we’d get pissed off and want our guy, the real guy, the good one back.

When Batman is dressed in bright colors in RIP and reminds himself Robin dressed that way all the time, that it’s a sign of confidence, that’s not to make fun of Batman and his dark costumes, it’s to highlight what a badass every Robin has to be, that these kids put on bright colors, minimal protection, and throw themselves headfirst at crowds of armed killers.

Drawing the cape on Krypto isn’t making fun of him. It’s not parodying dogs. It’s just what Krypto wears. Yes, it’s a little silly looking sometimes, and dog-Superman seems absurd, but it’s no more or less absurd than Superman. Once you’ve bought in enough that you can handle Superman, you should be able to chill out and appreciate dog-Superman. (Even, if you don’t like dog-Superman.)

Fiction is artificial. To make something up is make something. Structures and patterns will form despite you or with you complicit yet unaware. But fiction, all fiction, is entertainment. It can be other than entertainment, too, but it is, at it’s fore, entertainment. It’s not reality, it’s not remaking reality, it’s making something else. Treating it as reality is an indulgence we all permit ourselves at some points, we immerse ourselves in entertainments and empathize and feel everything as best we can because it is pleasurable and it does give us more meaning for our buck. But to forget that this is an indulgence is dangerous and dumb and probably many other words that start with d. Don’t do it. Stop doing it. Don’t let your friends do it. The moment you get more bent out of shape over fictional occurrences and imaginary people than you do the world that right now is touching you with its air and embracing you with its sounds, the one with actual people and real dogs and genuine events in it, stop.

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