POP, JAMES MILLAR-WATT, (1946)
The comics of Greenock-born James Millar Watt have what you could term ‘rhetorical beauty’ – they convey an idea with particular neatness, aptitude or symmetry. This is taken from a 1946 Pop album I bought on eBay. In its day Pop was a
Millar-Watt worked largely in four panels, by then the fundamental grammar of a newspaper comic strip – but his particular genius was in the way he altered that grammar. Most comic strip panels present a different landscape or background in each – or, as with photography, a wholly different ‘take’ of it. Millar-Watt’s continued a single landscape across all four panels (although this example slightly breaks its own rule).
In a typical Pop cartoon, panel 2 and 4 would show the initiation and conclusion of its joke – its call and response – but it is the people, not the setting that shift position, as if a double-exposed static camera had caught them at two separate moments. In its newspaper form Pop appeared as a single line and its effect is altogether more elegant and harmonious, but even disrupted as it is here, this example captures much of the essence of Millar-Watt’s style. The narrative elements in a Pop cartoon share a single space and time moves within it. Each drawing is an artefact of the story – or joke – Millar-Watt is telling. Each iteration of Pop and his deuteragonists are placed within the space, and the reader unlocks their story by engaging with them in the allotted space.
Millar-Watt was gassed during world war one. Like Jack Kirby, who served in the next one along as a reconnaissance artist, Millar-Watt’s war (where he himself drew diagrams for instructional manoeuvres) shaped his sensibility; Pop is neither a superhero or crease-trousered operative of the Empire (a-la Dan Dare). He is fat, bald and droll, a middle class middle-manager. He is the kind of protagonist made by someone who’s had all notions of easy heroism thoroughly knocked, shelled, shocked and choked out of him. If you like, a more benign version of the Haigs and Kitcheners who pen pushed so murderously at the Western Front.
Millar-Watt also served in World War 2 via Pop, switching the enthusiasm of service for the world-wearysardonic patriotism of Pop’s clown-invincibility (a famous strip from 1946 has Pop’s life-raft sailing towards an Allied battleship as Pop drolly quips to his fellow survivor ‘Say – ‘is there anything we can do for you?’).
It is the essence of its form; a complex world rendered into simplified iconography, Pop himself functioning as an abstraction to be decoded. His shape, deportment, actions within the frame all indicate a certain class, a certain middling type found…everywhere. Middling is intrinsic to comics – to its DNA, its base vocabulary. This is what Comics theorist Scott McCloud terms its middle ground between the immediacy of image and the perception demanded of writing. Pop is a comic and all comics, a middling middle-ground resident possessed of surprising reserves of strength and endurance.
Interlude – EISENSTEIN and GODARD in the AUTEUR’S POSE
Images such as these, in which a film director gazes intently at a celluloid strip have become important props for the mythology of the cinematic auteur. This, we are told, is the master of the medium in action –not just as a patrician who delegates, but someone with profound technical knowledge who gets his hands into the very guts of the thing.
By looking at ‘their’ film in this way the director is looking at it in a very odd way. Cinema’s core mechanic – photographs taken 24 a sector, then spooled before a light source so that a single image seems to exist and actually move – requires us to ignore the frames of these celluloid strips, to ignore the separateness of the images. In the auteur’s pose, the director displays themselves engaging with the esoterics of the medium.
In comics however, the frame is exoteric – it does not delineate a space within which action plays out, but a space around and through which the action happens. As the French theorist Thierry Groensteen notes, the panel asks to be read along with the images inside it. It reassures the reader that between one panel and another, things occur in-between them to explain what is causing the action in each panel. In Pop it does not matter that the landscape does not change yet the people seem to somehow move across it – the frames of each panel assure us they have moved, and we are seeing the same space at different points of time.
We can just about discern this, playing out at treacly speed, in Godard’s film-strip. But we are still a long way off at this point, from being able to see what he sees – to imagine with him, what will happen when the strip is loaded into the sprockets, and the camera rolls, and the image is thrown out onto a screen. .
Based on its principle of speed, cinema truly is a modern artform. It relies on a whole apparatus around the film strip in which each part is shaped to a precise function. At its core is the understanding that cinema manifests through the obliteration of the previous frame by the next one along; that is, its past must cease to exist for the sake of its presence.
To read a comic is however, to read across such a sequence, as Eisensten and Godard do here, but without the handicap of a form that does not really suit such a hands-on function. Were they reading a comic they could read down, across, often, back again, to engage with the arrangement of the sequence in space because, as Scott McCloud noted (with classic cartoonist’s simplicity) ‘Space does for comics what time does for film’.
The comic strip was thus, never truly modern. It was always contemporary. Cinema has followed its course of somewhat self-contained technological innovation, whereas comics fed off of and retrofitted the innovations of its context; improvements to newsprint, developments in literacy, the availability of paper and, critically for Scotland and the wider UK, the crates of American comics used as ballast for American merchantmen all fuelled what could be done. The graphic and the cinematic are often compared, emerged at much the same time, but they are simply not the same.
BUILDING STORIES, CHRIS WARE, (2012)
As above, so below the alchemists said. Within the comic page itself images are contemporary with each other. As Pop starts to walk away with his friend we still see him in the corner of our eye, leaning on his umbrella. Grant Morrison (no stranger to his own auteurist poses) likens this element of comics to time travel; ‘We can’ he tells us in his book Supergods ‘control time in a comics universe. We can stop at page 12 and look back to page 5 to check a story point we missed.’
It is perhaps more accurate to say that time is not creatively destructive in the comic; what happens in the previous panel continues to exist in our own space, we can revisit it as an artefact of the narrative we are following, even curl back pages 11-6 and look at them together, creating, in the space left between them, our own plausible fictions as to how these connect. These are not, as I have been trying to show, superimposed on the author’s narrative, but a very part of how we are supposed to read it.
This spatial-temporal awareness, this process of reading and flicking occurs through the unit of the panel which is, as Thierry Groensteen, points out, the comic’s rhythmic element, the thing that signals the direction we read, and above all, the pace in which we do it. Small, tight panels, as favoured by Chester Brown, pick the pace up, demand that we hunch over and focus on events. The ‘splash’ page is however almost a suspension of time, an invitation to sit back and luxuriate in an often, spectacular moment – think for example, of Herge’s great reveal of Tintin’s moon rocket.
The image opposite is taken from the press and publicity for Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a graphic novel presented in fourteen bits – small booklets, large tabloid sheets, even game boards (most of them reminiscent of forms comics fans are very familiar with) – collected in a box. Ware usually garners a sympathetic critical consensus but Building Storiesdivided opinion. Many took against the audacious presentation of a small, intimate story of a Chicago women moving within and between different spaces in the city in such an aggressively deconstructive form –they felt the story did not match the sheet spectacle of the printed object(s) itself.
The layers in the box unfold the (non chronological) story through its layers of artefacts. We are far in before we get any complete sense of how our character’s timeline might fit together, and it takes a while to realise that the literal gap between putting down one part of Building Stories and picking up another forms much the same function as the ‘gutter’ in a comic strip itself, the interruption point where we reassure ourselves there is a credible causal link between what we have just read and are about to read.
We are beset with narrative choices in Building Stories. Should we read in the presented order, or dive in anywhere? Should we attempt to reconstruct its timeline for ourselves – reshuffling the elements and in the process, risk losing the author’s original preferred order in so doing? How much should we ourselves, curate this? Ware seems to intend Building Stories to spread out into our space and let the reader worry about how time should be ordered. This is even the basis of a joke on the back ‘cover’ blurb, appearing as a map suggesting all the places in his reader’s living room they might choose to lose, misplace, or scatter its part- by littering your home with them, it becomes a display space for a very singular set of narrative artefacts. Whether spilled from a box or tightly packed into Millar-Watt’s four frames, the comic operates as a museum of its own narrative.
LOUIS RIEL, CHESTER BROWN, (2003)
What do we mean by this? Louis Riel is a graphic biography of the Canadian Metis who led armed insurrection against the Canadian government in the 1885 Northwest rebellion.
As one of very few popular English language works to treat with the subject it is in itself, a notable artefact. Heavily annotated, drawing on extensive documentary research, it’s hybrid nature led to bestseller status in Canada. Brown’s copious notes archive his own attempts to stick to the historical method, but also the licences and occasional speculations taken to stitch the narrative together.
The style of Louis Riel borrows heavily from the French ligne claire style, with a nod to the naïve, feral line of Fletcher Hanks, an outsider artist of the 40s who flared and burned out in what was already outsider art. Each of the characters in Louis Riel is simply drawn, some heavily caricatured (Exhibit A: Prime Minister John A. MacDonald’s nose). Riel himself is just a few lines and block shading for the fervent, devout glower delivered over his moustache.
In a typical ligne Claire series such as The Adventures of Tintin these iconographically drawn main characters are inserted into extraordinarily realistic and detailed backgrounds in order to place the reader there. McCloud attributes to this a clever use of the ‘user-identification’ inherent to the cartoon; the reader cannot resist organising lines and blobs into faces, and so by the time they have decided the dots and blobs of Tintin blobs represent a young man, they are already heavily invested in him, and are thus with him. The rich detail of Herge’s backgrounds then serve to propel the reader into the settings of Shanghai, the fictional state of Syldavia or Tibet. They are garbed in what Grant Morrison calls the ‘fiction suit’, McCloud the ‘mask’, accoutrements that allows the reader to travel in an imagined space.
But the landscapes of Louis Riel are not richly detailed, but abstracted almost as much as the people – a few lines against white for a snowdrift, neatly drawn and unfussy blocks for villages and trading stations. Brown it seems wants some degree of user identification, but does not want us to enjoy this world, or revel in it; he is trying, I think, to encode critical distance into his imagery through the genetics of the medium. The panel scheme is incredibly restrained, even academic– six even-sized boxes to a page so that even when the setting takes us to expanses of the Canadian northwest, it feels claustrophobic.
And never more so than in its political segments, heavy stretches of conversation and dialogue that explain key moments in Riel’s life – the backroom meetings, closed sessions and especially, his trial. In these segments all background detail is blotted out in solid blacks, the focus directed to the action. The approach seems clinical but in truth creates considerable emotional tension. In this sequence, the six panels are bisected between two time zones. The first and last panel explain the other – in fact, a quick glance upwards from the last panel clarifies the seriousness of the issue, what is at stake for the unseen accused and the pivotal, Riel himself, and the maintenance of his authority against Gilbert Scott, a ranting, racist prisoner who continuously screams insults at him from his cell (pointedly ‘x’d’ out in Brown’s speech bubbles).
While just seeing these in sequence tells us a great deal we are able to gain other forms of understanding when we can range freely across the space of the page – recognising a sequence that has been programmed for us, heavily suggested to us – but still navigable in ways of our pleasing. It is a narrative that doesn’t unfold but is (di)splayed.
YOUNG AVENGERS, KIERON GILLON and JAMIE MCKELVIE, (2013)
We could call this narrative as display, or if we prefer, narrative through history. In Louis Riel Brown has recognised the genetic historicism of comics, which operates on the one hand, from its deepest to its surface levels, where comics are placed in the hands of readers and become a social phenomenon.
Mainstream comic publishers such as Marvel or DC fold a sense of history into their multi-billion dollar properties. Chester Brown’s scholarly footnotes are not that much of an ask to someone who cut their teeth on Spider-Man; Marvel editors would regularly insert footnotes into a story to help the reader put the events of that issue in context, especially when a villain returned or a crossover interrupted the usual flow of the comic – ‘see Amazing Fantasy #15’ and so forth.
It was one of many canny tricks well suited to its audience, a culture of playgrounds and blue-collar workplaces where comics were collected, swapped and loaned and people needed to keep track and wanted to follow up, find the origins of these stories. Like a historian, the curious comic book fan had to go in search of the sources, take them in, reconcile the new information with the old. And as historians, fans of comics drawn in the Marvel Way were familiar with a visceral, immediate style where – as the comics researcher Nick Dodds puts it – the page is composed to ‘exaggerate the spectacle and the shifting power dynamic between […] two combatants’. Many a military historian has occupied the selfsame position as the archetypal kids and construction workers who read the stuff.
As Brown has shown, there is more than one or indeed two ways to look at conflict and power through the graphic – the repertoire is much wider than it was. And the Marvel way has duly responded. Young Avengers is very much a product of comic historicism – a spin off from the grown-up Avengers (a book that has spin-offs firmly embedded in its DNA). The central characters are all teen versions of the adult Avengers – Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Hulk, Hawkeye and the original Captain Marvel – and each, in some respect, subverts their source. For example, ‘Ms America’ replaces ‘Captain America’, the 1940s ideal of American manhood, with a brusque Latino teenager who can literally, kick holes in reality.
Gillon and McKelvie thus demand their readership read out from and connect to outside sources, other spaces than the comic itself (not least a celebrated series of the same name that had finished about a year earlier) in order to appreciate how theirs is taking its own path. Writer and artist revel in such paradox. Young Avengers has a long continuity encoded into it channeling many messy strands, yet their particular intervention was planned as a short fifteen-issue run that plays out a
There were plenty of potential excerpts offered up by Young Avengers. Among them is a marvellous two page spread where a daring rescue is turned into an exploded diagrammatic map, with captions, cutaways and ‘fig numbers’ – a particularly glorious long wallow in what graphic spaces can do. This one, where the characters, Billy and Teddy are rescued from a monster called ‘mother’ and are rescued by their team mate Kid Loki, is much more instructive of what the authors are doing.
The comic book panels serve as prison cells, so when these characters seek their escape from the existential threat of ‘mother’, it is also an escape from a fundamental truth of their reality. Their jailbreak requires the characters to trespass on the white gutter space of the comic strip– the space where we trust, the causality between the images we see plays out. As with Pop we see a single space occupied by the multiple ghost images of the characters, but as we follow them, we must insert our own assumptions of time passing, of movement occurring in the space. In short, we overlay a ghostly set of panel frames to excavate a narrative (aided also, it should be said, by the speech-bubbles).
McKelvie disrupts the natural order of the comic, then forces us – the reader- to reinstate it – reincarcerating the characters in their reality.
McCloud, ever in search of the rhetorical, might say this is a shining example of comics’ guiding maxim; what you get is what you give.
MS MARVEL, SANA AMANAT, G. WILLOW WILSON and ADRIAN ALPHONA (2014)
Ms Marvel is possibly the most important American mainstream comic of recent years. Kamala Khan is a Pakistani American teenager from Jersey City who gains shape-changing powers from a mysterious green gas. She names herself for her favourite superhero, the woman who both inspires and daunts her, and engages in an empowerment fantasy made real, one that allows her to morph her body and kick back against the world.
Ms Marvel was created by Sana Amanat, a Marvel editor previously responsible for creating Miles Moralles, the popular, critically acclaimed Black Hispanic version of Spider-Man. Kamala is not only a brown person, a female brown person, and a Muslim female brown person, she is also an out and out nerd – a fan-girl, representative of the very demographic that sustains these comics. Its depiction of a Muslim American family has an authentically complex, layered feel, and Amanat has probably supplied much of that. Kamala is also someone firmly rooted in, and loyal to her place (the butt of all New Yorker’s jokes, New Jersey).
Ms Marvel: This guy thinks he can threaten us where live? Ms Marvel has a message for him…this is Jersey City. We talk loud, we walk fast, and we don’t take any disrespect. Don’t mess.
Like Ditko’s Peter Parker or to a lesser extent, Schuster and Siegel’s Clark Kent, Kamala is the awkward, yet courageous outsider of the popular imagination, juggling the sense of mission imbued into their heroic alter-ego with the chaotic reality of the everyday.
Ms Marvel is something of a deliberate provocation – in bonding Marvel Comic’s first Muslim superhero to Captain Marvel, it associates her with the company’s closest analogue to DC’s Superman. Ms/Captain Marvel has been an alien warrior, an air force colonel and in one incarnation, an African American from New Orleans. Always a self-consciously progressive character in her makeup, Captain Marvel has been a lightning rod to regressive pushback when the character – as is typical in mainstream comics – is handed over to less enlightened creative teams. The early 1980s writers of The Avengers has her raped and humiliated in a fashion designed to undercut the empowering elements of the characters. This was famously called out by the Marvel writer Chris Claremont, who rebuked his colleagues through the pages of his own X-Men title. Claremont’s X-Men is widely regarded as one of its greatest, most pioneering runs, during which it obliquely confronted issues of race, civil rights and sexuality.
Kamala Khan is also an intervention into an era where ‘geek culture’ has been massively monetised and mainstreamed – the first issue had many ‘variant’ covers, a customary tactic to maximise its sales knowing full well the power of the magpie-nerd-reflex. There are causes for celebration in this broader development but we must acknowledge that this exposure has also brought the occasional ugliness of nerd culture to the surface; the misogyny, the racism, the Randianism, the stubborn ideological blindness, once safely cloaked by its underdog status bubbles more readily to the surface in the internet age.
The keyboard or touchpad warriors who emerge are, like the Jock McLeish of Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, largely concerned with defending their right ‘to tickle themselves into a wank’ without repercussion by a nagging conscience – not in this case, a voice of God, but of analysts, many of whom are discerning fans of colour or LGBTQ readers looking to see themselves better represented. These fearless pseudonymous ‘#ComicsGate’ internet commenters fight to stem the tide of the ‘social justice warriors’ (as ugly a term as ever oozed from an internet message board) camped out on their groaning drawbridge). Female critics such as Janelle Asselin have received rape threats for criticising a comic book cover– one anonymous commenter opined ‘Women in comics are the deviation, the invading body, the cancer. We are the cure, the norm, the natural order. All you are is a pair of halfway decent tits, a c*** and a loud mouth.’
Diegetically, Ms Marvel reminds us we are still in a culture where it is not always safe to go in without masks. But if Kamala is a mask of sorts, a fiction suit of a new cut, then its savvy creators know she is one readers can’t resist trying on – and if they like the fit, will keep wearing it, whatever the self-proclaimed defenders of the ‘norm’ might say.
THE RULE, ALISON BECHDEL, 2001
The contemporary graphic is marked by its sheer confidence. As David N.Wright noted on the Graphixia blog, comics no longer need to prove the worth or heritage of their aesthetic in relation to other artforms – indeed, aesthetic ideas now travel happily between its mainstream and avant-garde entirely within its own context.
By way of example Wright pointed to the award-winning run of Matt Fraction, David Aja and Javier Pulido on Marvel’s Hawkeye, a strip evidently influenced in its colour palette, arrangement and narrative approach by the aforementioned work of Chris Ware. Ware’s characters are like Pop, puffy and middling (without that character’s imperviousness to time or death) so the translating of the stillness and intimacy encoded in his style (a style that is becoming, Wright notes, the ‘institution of Ware’) to a superhero comic had catalytic effects beyond an evident case of clued-in artists stealing well.
The Fraction/Aja/Pulido run propelled Hawkeye from long-standing B-List status to the top tier of the Marvel line-up and did so by imbuing mainstream forms with the depth and expressive volatility of the independents, through lines, colour and lettering (Gillon and McKelvie both got their start in independent, creator-controlled comics). When Stephen Walker invokes Walter Benjamin in saying that we look out from a graphic artefact over our social context, rather than into an object, as is the case with ‘proper art’, we can start to see some of the inherent value of such cross-fertilisations beyond more pleasing visuals – there is no group for whom looking out from an object is more useful or needed than angsty fourteen year olds.
But we could all benefit from it, and fortunately the social life of the contemporary graphic affords more opportunities to do so than it ever did. We are now at a point where Ms Marvel and Ms America stretch or kick their way into previously forbidden spaces, and we can see Chris Ware’s formal innovations spread far beyond its original audience of hipsters and genre refuseniks.
Whether they like it or not, readers of mainstream comics are routinely encountering characters that are gay, of colour, even of proscribed faith. Comics display the sort of dramatis personae one once had to reach for Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s masterful Love and Rockets to find (not that that would ever be a chore).
It is not all peachy of course – there have been more than a few retrograde steps in the name of both money and guarding against checks to the privilege of the ‘norm’. The contemporary graphic is – like any museum – one that has shoved some of its nastier colonial displays into deep storage, but still displays some unfortunate appropriations.
The gains on the battleground of the mainstream would quickly atrophy without a healthy independent sector to challenge and interrogate the medium – and the independents owe much to the cheap, cheerful and flexible ground the mass element of their medium laid down.
This final exhibit is an example of how the middle ground between these two positions offers paths, rather than compromises. It is not Alison Bechdel’s finest in the artistic sense – her graphic biographies Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) are largely unmatched as deep interrogations of self, sexual identity and family dynamics through the displayed narrative that defines ‘the graphic’.
But the nine panels of The Rule will rule Bechdel ‘s legacy for some time, not least in terms of the social impact that comes when a rule becomes a [Bechdel] test, the widely applied indicator of gender bias in film, originated. Bechdel’s graphic rendering of a complex issue is like all elegant things, problematic in its very simplicity (as is the case with all rhetorically beautiful things). But what it generates in terms of debate among comic readers and filmgoers offers its own justification. The Rule is in itself, worth revisiting because of what happens in the narrative corners around its central three point list; note for example, how two gay women ponder going out into a public place to eat popcorn but ultimately, decide they might as well go back into the domestic, and do it at home.
The Bechdel test has itself moved into multiple conceptual social and political spaces beyond the graphic; it is now part of the rating and submission processes for a number of European film schemes such as Sweden’s Viasat Film and the Eurimages network. The Rule can be remembered as a developmental marker in the career of a graphic artist – but also for its collective impact, a Catwoman among the pigeons, lobbed by Bechdel as a parting gift from comics towards the recurring clichés of its sister medium. It symbolises comics’ claim to independence through its very particular capacity to affect the world around it.