Jul 3, 2013

Pop Medicine: Modern Comics Could Use These More

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

Modern Comics Could Use These More
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

I’m reading Ed Wood’s I Want to Die in Drag and (partly out of laziness or haphazard writing habits, I’m sure) it makes you pay attention in some interesting ways. A section of past-tense writing will suddenly shift to present tense in a passionate moment. Sentence structure occasionally breaks down with lower cast words running straight after a period. Words may be capitalized for emphasis. Hyphens follow ellipses following more hyphens with the occasional exclamation mark in the mix. People lie in text. People tell us what they think or wish happened in events they don’t actually know the truth of. We may leave someone at a juncture, only to pick up with the again five or twenty pages later, abruptly. Everyone has private and public agendas, even the bit players. These things change the context of scenes, often scenes already passed, and make an otherwise straightforward narrative dizzying in that “the audience would rather be confused than bored” way, to quote Hitchcock.

And, I realized, reading this book and flipping through a Batman and Robin collection for a particular image, I want comics that make me pay attention. I want comics that, even for a moment, arrest me. Superhero comics, monthly issues, or daily newspaper strips may be disposable fiction, but disposable need not mean dispensable. Soap operas are disposable entertainment, too, but they’re designed to keep your butt in the seat until the show is over, and if they’re really reaching, to prevent you from channel surfing during the commercials. Pop music is disposable, in one ear, out the other, but you shouldn’t get bored with it twenty seconds in. Asking that a song stick in your head for days may be a lot, but asking that you’re interested in hearing the whole song? Giving my nieces control of iTunes or an online player is great for me, just seeing what they want to hear all of and when they want to just hear the opening or a hook and then bam, skip to the next song.

With a lot of serial comics right now, the thing you have going is the hook. Period. If you’re lucky, there’s a little soap. Mostly? Mostly there’s filler until a crossover can happen. And, that works for some people. No “maybe”; that works for some people. I would whine until they don’t get the comics they want in the hopes things will go my way, instead. That never works. That’s like the argument of “If the didn’t publish seven Batman books a month, we’d get a new Plastic Man series and Hellblazer would still be running.” No.

But, here are some techniques I would like to see used more, that might bring me – and likeminded audience – into more of these already-running comics.

1 Scene-stitching

A scene ending abruptly to shift to another scene that then unexpectedly bleeds into the earlier should have a name and probably does. I am calling it scene-stitching, but remain unhappy with the name as I am pleased when the technique is pulled off elegantly.

I crack up reading either end of The Rescue of Howard the Duck unofficial crossover, because it’s so integral to one and so out of the blue in the other, but that’s in two comics that will likely never be collected together and not telegraphed in-story. Doing it in-story is best. It’s something Guy Ritchie and a number of crime shows in the last decade like to use, to keep all the characters in an ensemble cast in the air without having them all walking around as a pack. When Morrison opened the modern day parts of Final Crisis with it, I think it was in homage to those kinds of crime shows, since it’s explicitly sets of police and investigators (ex-cops Dan Turpin and Renee Montoya and space cops John Stewart and Hal Jordan).

It seems to genuinely confuse some people. I have seen a ton of folks complain about its use in Final Crisis, and at least one time each, saw someone watching Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels go “what the –” after the interrupting scene reconnected with the earlier. The less you are paying attention, the more wtf it can be, I suspect, but once I know it can happen in a story, I start to pay more attention. It corrects and dictates my behavior as an audience.

2 Field of Insets

Twenty little panels laid over a big picture, showing details, symbols, before- or after-images. I absolutely adore a spread of insets. I love the range of information you can get, the intensity of that many varying aspects on a page, and the fact that you usually do have no clear indication of what order to read the panels in, especially if they are also stacked on each other or interlocking. You take it all in if you want to take it in at all.

Frank Miller and Grant Morrison have been doing these for about fifteen years, and probably someone did them before then, too. Miller and Morrison are the first to have got my attention with it, and still, today, they seem to be the guys who do it the most.

Why? It’s a beautiful method, it’s so useful. Why just them?

3 Text You Have to Read

Common wisdom sometimes holds that nobody reads the captions. My intuition says we don’t read most of them, and those we do we glance over. Most short captions are entirely perfunctory, sticking the name of a city onto a panel showing some unmistakable landmark, throwing everyone’s names next to their heads in a spread, even though they’ll probably all be named in dialogue as well, anyway. We can follow comics without the captions, most of the time, even the narration captions. Captions and background/in-world texts are treated, similarly, as a reassurance, valuable for existing, not for what they contain (which is why so much in-world text is usually senseless letters or scribble filler).

Walt Simonson, who is brilliant, did a time travel story in Fantastic Four that only comes together fully if you acknowledge the timestamps and that the story progresses both as it is sequenced visually and if you jump back and forth following the times chronologically. In his super-underrated Judas Coin, captions and text pages are used to set a tone and era, then evaporate as the scene at hand gets into motion, and during the modern day sequence, background newspaper clippings contain actual story information and are fully written out, no repetitions, no lorem ipsum filler. When I read a Simonson comic, I have to take time, not only to stare down through the details and thought of the art, but because the words give you something if you read them.

When a comic requires us to read the text to fully or functionally get it, I read them. When captions make themselves useful instead of simply reassuring, I read them. When a background document is shown and I can’t read it, it’s disappointing, especially if it’s half a page or highlighted. That level of laziness, quite common as it is, only encourages me to skim comics faster. Giving the words use shouldn’t be that uncommon.

4 Consequences

Causality is a thing. Actions have consequences, often unforeseen by those responsible for the actions, sometimes being not simply put into place by one action, but as a confluence of many otherwise distinct and separate actions. But, in comics, particularly superhero comics but not only, there has been a tendency to shave down the consequences to fit genre and audience expectations and so as not to derail a preplanned trajectory too far.

I don’t want to pick on Remender again, because I do enjoy some Remender comics, but the one thing from his Secret Avengers that I remember is Hawkeye shooting a teammate with an arrow to prove he is the leader and should be. And that’s it. It stops there. Is it a gag? Sure. But it’s not a slapstick comic. Everything else seems to be dealt with generally in a realistic way, at least as far as action superhero comics go. Emotional veracity. But, would you follow into battle a guy whose way to assert his leadership is to shoot you in the mouth with a comedy arrow after you’d been brought in under false pretenses?

When the Comics Code happened, Dr. Wertham, that villain of comics culture, was not pleased by its position on violence. The Code demanded a lack of serious consequences to violence. Combined with a commercial need for repeat villains, you see a move by the Sixties to so-called “honorable villains,” like Dr. Doom, who is often treated with a modicum of respect or said to be honorable or honest, when in fact, we’ve seen him not only lie and cheat, but kidnap, assault, blackmail, enslave, and murder. You are supposed to forgive those things and when a hero invites him to work with them or to live in their home, it is because his genius and integrity (the lying, cheating, assaulting, murdery kind, natch) outweigh is being a horrible monster of a human being.

So much handwaving. And, when it stops, it stops me from rolling my eyes and skimming to get past.

5 Good Lines

Tastes vary, but I cannot imagine someone would argue the majority of written lines in comics, both dialogue or non-dialogue text, are not perfunctory, but written for their inherent beauty or emotive quality. Words that carry scenes or enhance them are well and fine, but when a writer actually gives us sentences or phrases that are beautiful or amazing, it really rocks me.

The thing is, evocative wording seems to actively bother a number of comics readers, so I imagine that even if the writers are capable of such, they hesitate in commercial comics for commercial reasons.

Jason Howard and Warren Ellis are doing an online comic right now, SCATTERLANDS, purely buoyed by visuals and evocative captions. “And then, there are no hopes, no fears, no thoughts, and she is just an extended note in the songline.” “Half a mile inside a dead body and counting.” “Normal life is far behind her now, and thickly scabbed with old blood.” It is astonishing.

6 Women Standing Straight

How hard can it be for women to stand up straight? In comics, it is, seemingly, very difficult, indeed. It’s hard to find a comic with a woman standing fully upright at all. She has to, at minimum, cock her hips and bend a knee. And, to be fair, my hips shift all over when I stand, too; it’s a human thing. But it is not a heroic thing or a strong thing, it’s a sexualized thing. Look for an image of a dude with his hip cocked out sitting so we see his leg long and his ass pushed back behind his spine. They are considerably harder to find than similar drawings of women. Is it because women simply sit different, or because of biological curvatures? Or is it because a little emphasis on a rounded ass is sometimes fun to look at?

I’m not saying either is better or worse than the other, as that is obviously a case by case basis, but it is so rare to see a woman just standing upright, strong and as tall as she can be, that it does get my attention. It is sad that it gets my attention. It’s a special kind of dumb that makes it notable. But, notable it is, and I’d like to see more of it until it stops being so.

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