Feb 17, 2016

Delicious Artifice

Delicious Artifice
Travis Hedge Coke

Comics can and should affect you (as should songs, movies, poems) to the point of tears, rage, or cries of joy, but even when you read a comic about a real person, like Feynman (Ottaviani, Myrick), hear a song about a real person, watch a documentary, you are not experiencing something real.

Well, you are, but the real thing of a comic is ink and paper or color and emotion. You are seeing something real, but responding to artifice and experiencing narrative and impressions. You are experiencing understandings.

Most of what we get worked up over and talk about as if real are entirely imaginary. We ascribe agenda to characters as if they are responsible for their actions or decisions. We believe - against all logic and evidence - that the consequences of actions in a story are the natural and irrevocable outcome. That what excites us is more what happened than whether a character truly chose their path or a writer wrote it, an artist drew it fails to factor into our primary processing of the story, just as the lack of agency itself often fails to come up.

This might not even matter, in an optimal world, because we do not only consider things once and never again, but rethink and revise our awareness, but there are two hangups that make this initial misreading a danger. The first issue is that we do not, in general, revise our understanding of entertainments as we do with, for example, workplace scenarios or sandwich toppings. The second, the existence of a vocal and corrupting subsection of comics fans, in particular, who just cannot or will not process fiction and metaphor as distinct from reality, or to prize reality above fiction or opinion-rooted entertainment.

Do we really blur fiction and reality that much? I can use a rhetorical device like asking this question to prompt a conversation I want to have and make it appear a natural consequence, rather than an engineered excuse, so yes, yes we do. Not only comics fans, or geeks, or whatever other niche: everybody. We don’t say, “And, an actor ran across a set and pretended to jump through a window but it was sugar glass and fire guns that are really fake at two extras,” but “Jimmy ran straight through a plate glass window, guns firing, and offed two cocaine smugglers in the koala preserve at the Wild Palms Zoo.” When we talk comics, any one of us can be guilty of blaming a character for a particularly dumb action or defend the consequences they face as if X caused Y, when we do know better.

Anthropomorphizing characters, in the sense of ascribing to them agenda and independence is a reflex action for most audiences. Meet-their-author stories may make this more apparent than usual, but it is always in play. We can process it to smaller degrees when we intuit a character is misunderstanding another, or when things are overtly cartooned beyond the general cartooning of any representative art. The dramatic increase in line density employed at key moments by Gary Erskine in City of Silence enhance their emotional energy and aesthetic intensity (and the deliberately unrealistic color schemes employed by Disraeli and Laura Martin turn the punch into a knockout). The superdeform moments in Kate Leth and Brittney Williams’ newly-launched Patsy Walker: AKA Hellcat cue us to interpret the lead character’s dialogue and emotions differently. Using faux lofi reproduction to signal that a scene is set in a specific period of history is a technique called for often by Warren Ellis (the writer of City of Silence), and though we don’t reflexively associate those faults in comics from the period as affecting their veracity, the mimicry of them evokes a sense of rightness that feels as if they were first printed or actualized in that period and being simply presented again to us now. All three of these techniques are not identifiable to anyone in the scenes nor are they naturalistic or do they have a causal effect in-world, but we take it in, we believe it, we feel it.

To make a face more empathetic, we cartoon it to simple and open essentials. Extremely simplified cartoon faces or objects are identifiable instantly even when the simplification is done to cultural expectations foreign to the audience.

As Hannah Miodrag more eloquently puts it in Comics and Language, “Facial expressions then are motivated just like other aspects of the cartoon lexicon. They may develop into familiar signs, as successive artists reuse the engaging shorthand discovered by others, but their effectiveness - the instantaneous efficacy Hochberg describes - is due to their amplification of characteristic details. The most schematized expressions are evocative precisely because we are already highly sensitized to human expressions, and recognize in these simplified forms an equivalent stimulus. Thus, contra McCloud’s and Cate’s suggestion that increasing abstraction is an automatic route towards arbitrariness and symbolism, requiring a great degree of knowledge and interpretation on the part of the viewer, empirical evidence shows that reduction to core defining features in fact renders these abbreviated signs instantly decodable.”

Audiences, particularly comics readers, are more intuitive than we often give credit. Frank Miller’s Sin City yarns, for example, were adapted into two feature films and often had been, years before that, described as cinematic or movies on paper, the adaptations are called “shot for shot” or perfect, but when you read the comics, when you look at actual pages, you can see how extremely cartooned and abstracted the art and pacing actually are. Some of the most beautiful and evocative pages, indeed yes cinematic in atmosphere, are essentially squiggles and streaks.

We are able to find in streaks all sorts of emotions and conflicts, dangers and figures that are barely hinted at by chiaroscuro or narrative. This, far from being a demand on the attention and interpretive faculties of the audience, is a beautiful trust and complicit respect exchanged between Miller and the reader/viewer.

And, would Sin City be itself without the myth and legend of Miller, the man and artist?

For all my annoyance and confusion with parts of Lost Girls, I love that Melinda Gebbie and Alan Moore did it, that they did it together. They took years and years to make this sex comic together, and along the way, fell further in love and eventually married. That is cute, and definitely sexier than the dead soldier in the snow that closes out the comic. But, The Adventures of a Lesbian College Schoolgirl simply purports to be the product of Petra Waldron and Jennifer Finch who are, also, the main characters in the comic, wherein they fall in love and have lots of exciting sex, because like Lost Girls, it’s a porno comic. Purports. And, I still find that situation cuter and sexier than any scene in the comic. Whether or not Waldron and Finch exist as real people, who the true author or authors of the comic are, how likely any of the (as you can assume by the title ) highly unlikely comic is, none of that changes how adorable the idea is to me, of a loving couple getting together to bash out a happy-go-lucky dirty comic full of jokes and costume changes and playacting. That narrative that attracts me much more than the ostensible stories of Lost Girls and Adventures. And, it, too, is still a narrative, in one case nonfiction, in the other a subtle fiction.

How a comic is authored, both the true stories and the secondary fictions are transtextual narratives that shape how we respond to a comic. Second-level or sympathetic stories running alongside and expanding, mutating the comic. When you read a comic and things go the way you expect, you don’t cuss out the author, but if Odie gets kicked off the edge of the table in a Garfield strip and it bugs you: “*@&%$ing Davis!” If there are several authors, we more than likely pick the ones we don’t like, this editor or that penciler who also co-plots, the writer who thinks she’s all that and has a tumblr, and we fault them without evidence.

We pick our horses between authors, and we do so as well with genres, with books, with favored characters, almost the same way we would reactively defend an impugned friend before the facts were known to us. This is not about objective veracity or real authenticity. A Deadpool fan can loathe how wink-at-the-reader meta they perceive Grant Morrison or Simon Bisley to be. No version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is very realistic or careful in accuracy on a physical or sociological level, but a fan of one iteration may fairly be turned off by another version with more simplified stories or darker outcomes. Cartooning goes not merely in a light and silly direction or a grim and gritty one, but is the purification and amplification in any direction that distills out the countering tones and textures. Our cartooning-horse, our genre or metanarative of preference is not, itself, a point of risk.

When we cannot distinguish our horse from the race, though, or the race from reality, then we are a danger and an embarrassment. And, let’s be honest, it can happen to any of us, and if it has not already happened to you at least once, you’re due.

I understand, for example, when comics about homosexuals, particularly yuri, men’s love, bara stuff are accused of being an inaccurate reflection of real life circumstances or concerns of the same sexuality and gender as the main characters. As a generalization, that probably bears out. I think target audience is more important, in these cases, than the protagonist or antagonist’s gender, sexuality, age, nationality, etc. Our heroes and villains shouldn’t always have to be “us,” but they and their stories should work through our concerns. That said, Makoto Tateno’s Hero Heel does not reflect my life, being a rapey melodrama of power plays and naive hero worship during production of a TV show, but it does deal with my anxieties, whether it is aimed at men, or American men, and everyone is really pretty in it and drawn prettily, too. In the same fashion, I am not a Japanese schoolgirl developing a harem in a magic past that never was, but Yu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi can speak to my concerns.

As a critic and audience, I cannot functionally expect Hero Heel or Fushigi Yugi, or Moore and Gebbie’s Lost Girls to accurately and totally map onto real life or my individual, personal concerns and experiences. I can pick one, I can favor it, but they are simply horses running laps in the sub-genre of racy romance comics. To mistake the story developments or character dynamics of any of them for real life would be a mistake of mine, not the comic itself. If the author believes it firmly, that there is a 1:1 exchange or mirroring of information there, they are at fault, but the author is always another audience member.

People who ask if Bitch Planet is “true,” are missing the point both of the comic and of what makes it great. Or, “How can you take Lobo seriously?” “How can you take Batman seriously?” “You know if Charlie Brown really had all those days from the strip, he’d be like fifty-eight years old?”

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “The source of all pleasure and delight is the feeling of kinship,” (just before saying some other racist stuff), and that is true, but implicit in that in a way that Schopenhauer did not mean, is another, uglier truth: Knowing stuff in a dominant and dominating way is an immense source of pleasure for some people. They aren’t students of a thing, or fans, they are armchair and reactionary experts. They are not familiar, so much as they think they know better than those who do feel the kinship or those who know they are relatively ignorant.

When your favored genre’s expectations and tendencies begin to seem like genuine, inarguable causal effects, you need to step sideways and look at the thing from a refreshed perspective. Batman can temporarily trust the Joker because he knows him, and Venom can be a hero by moving to San Francisco and only murdering “bad” people over there, far from where the superheroes have to deal with him. Read all the goofy romance or porn comics you want, but don’t expect real people to follow, in reality, the narrative trajectories that eight out of ten of those comics do. Lobo is funny in comics, Deadpool is funny in comics, but in reality, you’d be dead. Not even a chance to tell them what a jerk they are, you’re already dead.

Further, the genres and sub-genres you do not enjoy or prefer, their particular narrative and causal tendencies, are not by and of themselves any worse or detrimental than those of the genres you do like. Nor, are they perpetuated to annoy or attack you, outside of actual hate speech. A romantic comedy may annoy you, but it was not made to annoy you or ruin your life. A superhero comic or a crime comic are not written, planned, penciled, embellished and published to attack you.

It is best for us all to remember that we are not the world, nor are our entertainments. We are not the only audience, or the primary audience for all comics, all entertainments. And, even those aimed at us are constructs. All stories, all art is constructed and developed, there is intent in every element and aspect, but interpretation can overtake any intent. And, what reaches and grabs the majority of people, in the comics we like and the ones we hate is not a close cleaving to real reality, but to our personal preferences, our secret, subtle wishes and our individual anxieties. It is the purifying of dynamics, the paring down to particular concerns, the enhancement of emotions and actions that excites us and works for us. What pleases us most and gets us coming back for more, leaves us feeling revived and immersed is not the reality, but the virtual, the delicious artifice.

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