Friday, December 14, 2007

Pride of Armaghetto

Jimmy Olson is “Misdirection” in Countdown to Formal Criticism!?!

It’s birthday time once again, Gentle Reader, and unlike last year, I am not suffering from a terrible virus, complete with hospital stay (!!!). In fact, it’s lovely and cold here in The South, and Mr. Reads and I are planning a long day of playing Spider-Man: Friend or Foe on the Wii. Part of my birthday present included all four Wonder Woman action figures, and part of it includes the following from Dear Mr. Reads. He has written us Quite The Delightful Read and has been so gracious as to grace us with his cyber-presence. Please join me in welcoming him to Arrogant Self-Reliance, and thank him for picking up my Blogging Slack as a lovely Birthday Present!

Hey! This is the apparently-so-called Mister Reads reporting live from wherever I am. (Find me and win a shiny coin!).

In point-of-fact, my long-running e-dentity in has been “Mister Fiction,” which, I suppose makes my married name “Mister Fiction-Reads”. Apropos, that. By that same measure, you can also call me “Mister Poetry-Writes” and “Mister Argument-and-Literature-Teaches-at-the-University-Level”.

You know what? Don’t call me that. However, it is in that latter role that I have been thinking about our four-color friends recently. I have been experimenting with using the graphic novel as a topic of discussion and an artifact of literature in classes for a few years now. This started when I created a prompt which required my students to defend what they were a nerd about— any secret hobby or passion— against an oppositional audience. I am amused by how many to date who have admitted to secret readers, collectors, closet cartoonists, and so forth. This has evolved into a variety of assignments that either critically dissect a graphic novel or expand on arguments made in the text to...blah blah. Yeah, you don’t care.

The long, shortened, is that after looking at V for Vendetta last Fall as a political text (discussing not only the book’s anarchic arguments and incorporating it into a wider discussion of subversive argument, but also comparing it to contemporary political rhetoric, other propaganda-of-the-deed culture jammers like Adbusters, and the lessons of Nell’s Primer in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age), I decided to step back from heady political rhetoric and consider a lighter, “funner” book, like Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan and Nico Henrichson.

This is the closest you are getting to a spoiler warning: I’m not going to bother with spoiler warnings. The literature is in suspended animation on the page; let’s not concern ourselves with base worries about “surprise.” I’ve now read through the book two dozen times and I am still surprised by the end-- not what happens, but how and why. If you haven’t read the book, go read the book.

And here’s where I’m cruel. Not that I taught a book where Disneyfied, wholly humanized characters are killed because they ran into Man’s story of the current war in Iraq—killed by history in the guise of artfully faceless American soldiers. (It really is a powerfully realized scene, you should have read the book. Now it is ruined. Good job!) The cruelty is that I did everything I could to avoid lecturing on surface topics like “theme” or “plot”. I put this cunning book, with its complex, implicit political arguments, in front of students and would not untangle its sticky politics for them. For their papers (and, to a one, they outperformed my expectations-- good on them) they had free reign to look at what happens in the book and what it means, but for the sake of my lectures given and questions asked, I was more interested in the bare mechanics of the storytelling. The who, the where, the how seen. Why is the more “feminine” lioness the less maternal? Is the construction of the family in the story natural or artificial? Why is Safa's rape necessary to the plot? How is it more than a “women in refrigerators”-style attempt to achieve character-depth via rape? Why do we keep seeing the same panel construction at rhythmic intervals: the splash image of the lion straddling the reader's perspective, framed against a sky empty but for one bird, with a sprig of vegetation around the lion's foot? Why are the horses just dumb animals when all other animals are anthropomorphized?

Mini-lesson. To utterly mangle the basics of genre studies, as you'll see it in any literature textbook, stories can be broken down into constituent parts, mechanical structure without which there is no story. The common seven are (and usually discussed in this order) character, setting, point-of-view, plot, symbolism, tone, and theme. There are theorists who break this down and explain the mechanism, but what I have seen again and again, as a reader, a writer, an editor, and a teacher, is that, without the first three, nothing else works. You need one or more actors and they must stand somewhere—even a bare stage, even a foggy nothingness for them to flip coins in—and the audience must have a vantage. Without any of these three, there is no plot, no theme, no story. However, as long as these three elements are interacting, the rest just happens. It’s the basis of your local improv group. “Name me a profession.” “Give me a location!” An astronaut! In court! And the audience provides its own p.o.v. by sitting out of the lamplight, sipping overpriced microbrews or Italian Cremes and thinking “There is no way this will be funny.”

Advanced lesson. Imagine a hungry rat and a sleeping baby in a canoe. There is a definite tension, but it never breaks. Where are you in relation to it? Is it coming closer to you? (Feel that anticipation). Is it moving away? (Regret, anger, desperation?) Is it sitting still in the middle of the placid lake, forever out of your reach? As soon as the reader can orient his or her relation to the story, plot just happens, tone, symbols, and themes start accumulating.

Take a basic character: The Flash. Put him in a setting that brings some tension: a crater blasted into a Keystone City street. Does the artist lift the audience's p.o.v. to look down at the wreckage, shrinking our hero in perspective to a red twist in the dark pit, allowing us to literally look down at him? Does the artist set us down, looking past the glowing bolt of iconic lighting on Wally's chest and up at his jaw's determined jut just before he...

And that's where I took my students, as best as I was able. Playing around not just with close readings of the text, genre theory, smatterings of deconstruction and feminist theory, and Scott Morse's “gutter”, but intentionally leading them away from discussions of patriotism, war, politics, and so forth in favor of looking at characters, settings, and our forced perspective on the story. Because that last one, right there, that's what comics do that other art forms can't. We are encouraged to help create and maintain the character in the fashion of prose and poetry (not relying on an actor's interpretation) and having your point-of-view mobile but forced on you (as in film, or carnival rides). Pride of Baghdad gets this right; the story is about the lions and their interaction with the history of Baghdad. The nature of war is lagniappe. America's pride, which many of my students wanted to their deep heart's core to be at the center of the story, is no great actor in this story, nor was meant to be; it is a functionary of the plot, like Fortinbras, like Polonius. Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, almost. At times.

This is what event-books like Countdown have gotten completely wrong. It has taken everything that comic books have to offer—visually strong, iconic characters, bold, imaginative, symbol-rich settings, and the aforementioned cinematic use of perspective—and thrown it away in return for that most mechanical of story-elements, plot. The dull accumulation of stuff happening. The slow arch—or in comics, the slow wave—of things going bad, getting better, getting worse, and a return the status quo. This is the process that even the writers themselves call “the illusion of change.” No one believes that Big Barda will stay dead, that The Hulk is “tamed”, that Black Bolt is gone forever, that Risk won't have revenge-fueled prostheses the next time we see him.

At some point, the writers and editors have cut corners or lost focus and misread that we would care about these things just because they happened.

Theoretically, we care about the characters and not the tragedy that befalls them. We care about Sue Dibny not just because of the wealth of stories in her past, but because we see the sorrow melt Ralph. I haven't talked to anyone who is upset about Bart Allen dying because it hasn't been treated as a real death, with real consequences for those around him.

It feels like it's just a plot, not a story.

I have had students over the years jokingly curse me because they can't just enjoy “good enough” anymore. They have to ask why there is so much anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Transformers movie, how the cases aren't thrown out due to the unjust behavior done in the name of justice on any episode of Law & Order, and so on. It's my favorite thing about teaching; I love being there when people teach themselves to ask questions.

I have to wonder though, as I read Countdown – Arena, exactly how we've reached this nadir again, where poorly drawn stories of interchangeable variations of recognizable icons stabbing each other in the eyes, posing, and shouting slogans can be “good enough” for anyone. Stuff happens, but we're never given reason to care. Following not just in the footprints, but in the same footwear, as the story-rich 52, Countdown seemingly is junking everything in the name of “stuff happening often.” The characters are two-dimensional at best, actions have no consequences, the settings vary between the middle of a deserted Metropolis street (“...A GOD DIES!!!”) to a deserted section of Apokolips, and our point-of-view is bleak.

There is a horizon, though, if we rise to see it. I just read Marc Guggenheim's Resurrection which is about anything but what you think it will be. And, at the end of issue #1, a book the author describes as answering the plotty question “What. Happens. Next?” is running instead on well-drawn characters reacting to their settings in a rich, intriguing way. I cherished much the same in the new Angel- After the Fall, The Goon – Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker, and (once you push past the discomfort of some of the textual tricks) Alan Moore's The Black Dossier. I really could just read continuations of these stories for years without any expectation of big plot payoffs. I just want to see more of their worlds and meet more of the people who live there.

Before I go, I also need to give credit to two recent books which have managed to create plot-heavy books which are entirely balanced are just telling nifty stories, DC's Booster Gold and Marvel's The Order—not necessarily my favorite two books in print, but the hooks I'm hanging my hopes for the future on.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Amy Reads. Thanks for letting me ramble.


SallyP said...

Impeccable. Your research is very well done. I've been reading Countdown, but haven't been particularly satisfied, I keep waiting for that "moment" when it will all come together and make some sense. I'm beginning to despair that it will ever happen.

Fanboy said...

Nice debut Mr. Fiction. Makes me want to go back to school again. Once you're away from academia for any prolonged period of time, you forget how fun it can be. Perhaps, I should teach that class at the community college next semester after all.