May 22, 2013

Pop Medicine: Fast Like a Train

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

Fast Like a Train
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

“I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, Honey.
I wasn’t born no yesterday.
I got a good Christian raising
And an eighth grade education
And there ain’t no call in y’all a treating me this way.”
           Billy Joe Shaver, “Georgia on a Fast Train”

"Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928!”
             Bob Wills, quoted in the Tulsa Tribune in 1957

I’m losing my patience with the folks who complain about storytelling techniques that have been around for twenty years, or three thousand. I’m tired of people complaining that a comic is moving too fast when it’s static words and static pictures frozen on a page that never changes. My tolerance for people who complain adamantly about the unfairness of being expected to actually read some words in a comic or look at what’s going on in a panel, is lessening. It’s not unreasonable to expect a reader to intuit that when you see a train speeding towards a bridge and then someone duck with someone else gone, they were knocked off. That stopping a largely action-to-action story to show thirty pages of tidal waves and decimated buildings, it could, just possibly, be because the destruction is important, that the destruction is immense and not a blip but a lasting, unending terror.

I’m burnt out readers on who demand their comics go I Can Read mode, who insist the comic flinch for them, because they are too lazy to flinch for themselves. They don’t even want an I Can Read book, because even little kids’ books don’t always tell you the moral of every moment. I’ve never read a little kids’ book about Batman –I’ve read a few; I like the simplicity of children’s literature, not young adult, but books for the three to twelve market, the openness, the way it’s pared more than coiffed – I’ve never read a children’s book with Batman that felt the need to detail an exercise regime for him, or provide the name of everyone he studied under, to present the CV of Batman. CV of Batman, or an un-messy biography of Batman isn’t I Can Read, it’s I Have No Imagination Only a Feed In and Store Feature.

I like a guidebook, a trivia list, or fictive diagrams and family trees, but I don’t care if the family tree actually lines up so long as it looks like it lines up. It’s in the service to something, for me, in the service of a fictional lineage, with the lineage mattering, the idea and the characters, more than the actual dates and branching mapped out. I’ve known this ever since, as a teen, my friends and I tried to actually play some of the RPGs we used to pick up at used book stores and we realized that playing a Palladium game is time consuming and strict and nearly as much fun as extrapolating mad shit based on the half-formed suggestions they make in those books, the prompts they give. Sabermetrics, stats guys, that’s all good, and I’m happy for you having fun, but it isn’t my world. I don’t want to know the weight of the USS Enterprise, I want to see it kick into warp and then maneuver like a glorious albatross while incredibly naïve Shakespearean future people engage in single-shot unarmored conflict on her whatever-deck-they-happen-to-say-it-is.

I’m not criticizing folks that want a fully-built world or who enjoy fiction that makes lists or diagrams, like Richard Condon or Alan Moore. But Condon doesn’t slow up The Manchurian Candidate to detail every minute of Major Marco’s training when he’d first enlisted. Condon, Moore, Michael Crichton or Chuck Dixon use semi-facts, maps and figures to establish veracity, not because the figures themselves are useful. I doubt Chuck Dixon cares if the tensile strength or burn-resistance of materials actually bears out, even if he gives an exact figure, because the figure isn’t being applied to a scene, it’s being used to gloss over the scene.

The worst thing Alan Moore’s ever done, in fiction, is in my favorite Moore comic of all time. Black Dossier has a ton of excellent pastiches, including a cod-Shakespeare who writes pretty accurately cod-Shakespearean plays, and a fun Jeeves, Wooster, and Lovecraftia story that kills itself by spending its last paragraph or three explaining the final joke. It’s poor pastiche (Wodehouse would never have done that), it’s bad for the humor, and it insults any reader paying attention.

But, I can’t help but suspect there’s a very real audience who need that explanation. They can’t have jokes that aren’t explained. They can’t even have policies against killing or bowties in their fiction without having them explained, in detail, ad nauseam. They need reassurance on exceptional levels.

Everyone likes a little reassurance in their entertainment. It’s good to be sideswiped or feel left alone in the cold once in awhile, with entertainment, but if every movie, every song, each television program and short story we encountered was wildly unpredictable and constantly felt alien and risky we’d probably drop dead from anxiety. Or, stop reading and watching that stuff for a bit.

I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s Batman movies, but what he did get right isn’t that the movies are realistic – they are not realistic, not in any mature sense. What he got right is that he reassures us of things just enough to skate us over the chasms of doubt before we even notice there’s pitfalls there. In Batman Begins, Batman says aloud he doesn’t kill at least twice, in memorable moments that occur right before he very directly assists in the deaths of others, first with a big fight and explosion and later by point blank refusing to help a man about to die when we all know he could pull it off. He refuses to save a man just to prove that he can refuse to save him. But, we – the average moviegoer sitting watching this scene – don’t care, because what we heard was “I won’t kill.”

Movies are generally very good at reassuring the audience this way, and of reiterating information over and over, but they have to: once a line of dialogue or a visual has passed, it has passed. Movies are, traditionally, not designed with rewind or pause in mind. Movies developed a set of techniques very good for coping with that temporality, but also use it as a strength. They can use a line of dialogue or a cut to obscure something questionable or too intense that’s going on, such as the aforementioned intentional deaths in the aforementioned Begins.

A common technique in Hollywood movies is to remind the audience of important information a minimum of three times in short succession, to make sure it is lodged firmly in the short term memory of the audience. That’s more and more going to change (Hello, Twixt and your shortchanged home version release!) as movie-makers have ceased so much to be filmmakers and are embracing the fact the home player, and sadly, probably the cell phone is how people are getting their movie fix more and more, not the theatre. But, it’s still part of our training, on how to enjoy movies. When Luc Besson’s adaptation of the comic, The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec came out, several critics were concerned that it’s outright comedy was not treated more seriously, such as Adele not being arrested for putting on funny costumes and breaking into a prison repeatedly or the first resurrected Egyptian mummy speaking flawless, contemporary French. No matter how ludicrous, if they’d shoved in a snippet of dialogue saying the mummy had overheard so much French from museum patrons, those critics would probably have been satisfied.

But, comics are not movies. A comics page makes it very easy to glance back a the previous panel. When you pause a movie, you lose the sound, including dialogue, but when you stop and have a longer look at a comics panel, it’s just there, all of it. Everything you can see in a comics panel is there every single time you look at it, no matter how you look at it (unless there’s a glow in the dark or 3D effect that isn’t being looked at in the dark or with glasses on, but pretend I’m not that pedantic and didn’t distend this sentence just to include a parenthetical about glow in the dark interiors and 3D glasses).

If you are unsure of an important piece of information in a movie, traditionally you couldn’t go back and check just that bit. This has never been the case with comics and it never will be. It is not in the nature of the medium to be transitory in that sense. You can always flip back a panel, or flip back seven pages, and reread to remind yourself. You can sit with a single scene, a solitary panel, for as long as you like. You don’t have a preset speed at which you must read a comic or any part of it.

I spend part of every week at a local children’s library, with the little kids. Just today, I sat with a little girl and, together, we read about half a dozen books about girls who are flowers, and we read a couple about airplanes who are people, and a robot Christmas parody with mechanical milkmaids and steel reindeer she assured me go “Whiirr. Click. Destroy.” These books, lamentably, never once try to explain in serious diagrams why a robot milking device need to be shaped like a woman or wear a costume, never justify a bipedal flower’s decision to wear blue jeans with flower patches on the knees. And, somewhere in the midst of reading these and throwing stuffed bears at each other, she explained to me step by step, how you figure things out you might not get the first time you read them. You’re supposed to consider each one, and if it helps you, stop there. If you need more, proceed.

Step 2: Read it again.

Step 3: Sound it out and think about it in context. Maybe it only seems like something you don’t understand.

Step 4: Look in the dictionary or online for more information.

But, it was Step 1 that put the smile on my face.

Step 1: Do you need to know right now? Or will we find out on the next page?

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