19 January 2004

A Personal Journey in the World of Comics - II

So, as I said, I basically stopped drawing after UKCAC 1995. Not entirely; I did the odd poster or birthday card - sometimes even toying with drawing on the computer - and of course did all the drawings in my book. Not the cover, of course, but everything inside. Aside from that, though, I hardly picked up a pencil save to doodle.

Why? Well, a large part of my stopping was simply due to the fact that my studies were taking more time; I did well in my finals, and carried on into a master's degree, and since into a doctorate, and all the time drawing seemed to become less and less important. Looking back now, this seems very odd; as far as I was concerned back when I left school, I was going to college in order to have something to fall back on if drawing comics didn't work out. What was it that John Lennon said about life being what happens while you're making other plans?

That wasn't all, though. The desire to draw comics shouldn't have dampened in the way; distractions alone wouldn't have achieved that. No, it seemed more that there was no point.

It wasn't the issue of employability that bothered me, even in an industry which was about to undergo a rather tight contraction. It was the fact that something in me found the idea of spending long hours slaving over a drawing board to illustrate somebody else's stories to be, well, insane. That's not to insult any working comic creators; there are plenty of people who tell the sort of stories I'd love to draw, but the odds are that if I was lucky I'd wind up illustrating The Interminable Adventures of Henman! or some such guff.

Some people would love to do that, which is fair enough; hell, if they like that kind of stuff that'd be wonderful. But for me, no.

I think my sensibilities regarding storytelling in general and comics in particular were changing. My cinemagoing and constant viewing of classic films on video and television were accompanied by my ransacking the film section of UCD library, so I'd thought more and more about how stories could and should be told. In doing so, I'd read and seen more and more stories that couldn't be classed as genre fiction; even those that could were usually excellent examples of genre work.

Watchmen is a perfect example of this. It's undoubtedly one of the finest comics ever created, and one of a handful that can credibly be held forth as an example of great 'art'. It's genre fiction, there's no doubt about that, but genre fiction being used to dissect that very genre. Extraordinarily clever, Watchmen analyses almost every convention of the superhero genre whilst demonstrating what comics are capable of; the comic folds in on itself like an origami labyrinth with panels evoking other panels, comics within comics that illuminate the overall tale, and symbolism run riot.

It's a comic that's open to endless interpretation and yet is not merely a comic about comics and a techical masterpiece; it also a damn good piece of genre fiction - several genres, in fact, as it's not merely a superhero story but a thriller, a detective story, and a work of science fiction - which is well told and built around characters who are often far from loveable, yet who we learn to love nevertheless. Nobody, after all, is ugly on the inside.

One of the most graceful features of the comic, which I think could never be achieved so elegantly or effectively in any other medium, is the recurring patterns that punctuate the text. Most panels in the comic are the same size, each page being built around a straightforward nine-panel grid. This allows Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons to design panels that echo previous ones, allowing us to see the patterns that underly the tale they tell.

Rorschach, the least savoury of the comic's heroes, at one point makes a grim observation that might seem to deny this.
'Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion, bear children, hellbound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for two long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not Fate that butchers them or Destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.'
Is Rorschach's bleak worldview plausible? Certainly not in the world he lives in. Images and patterns occur and reoccur too frequently to be accidental. Rorschach's world has a God and his name is Alan Moore. The cover of the first issue of Watchmen is an extremely close-up drawing of a small badge; the yellow badge bears a smiley face with a splash of blood across the right eye. The first page of the comic begins with a shot of the same badge but from slightly higher up; the seven panels of that page draw higher and higher until the puddle of blood in which lies the badge is a mere dot viewed from the penthouse suite of a skyscraper.

That image, first seen on the cover of the comic's first issue, recurrs constantly throughout the series, though rarely appears directly; rather the basic iconic pattern is evoked. We cannot help but see the Comedian's badge whenever the elements conspire to evoke it. Just as every child responds naturally to an image of two dots and a line, seeing it as a face, so do we, faced with a curve and two dots, one blemished in some way, see the bloodied badge of the Comedian.

It's not the only such pattern, however. The image, first seen in silhouette, of two bodies pressed against each other, is at least as frequent as the Comedian's badge. First noticed by Rorschach, who comments on a spray painting on an alley wall as being evocative of the charred images at Hirsoshima, the image constantly recurs, whether in dreams, or in memories, or in reality, even ultimately on the ever shifting blots that distinguish Rorschach's mask.

This is something that could hardly be done in another medium - if it were tried at all it would either be imperceptibly subtle or blatantly obvious. In Watchmen, however, it is just subtle enough that on a first reading you might notice some recurring imagery, but each time you reread this astonishing book you'll see more and more. Despite what Rorschach believes, the patterns are there; it's not that we imagine them.

That's one of the real delights of Watchmen; like Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan more than a decade later, it absolutely revels in the fact that it is a comic, and makes a point of demonstrating how good comics can be. No attempt is made to hide the fact that when you read it, you're reading a comic. Almost like Citizen Kane, it's an energetic box of tricks that shows just what comics can do, and it does so while discarding some of the more embarrassing comic conventions - there's not a thought bubble to be found here, and not a Kapow! or Kerrrash! in sight.

It's worth looking at Moore's earlier work to see where his techniques are coming from: V for Vendetta is similarly devoid of soundwords and thought bubbles, while The Killing Joke, written before Watchmen though published later, is a useful primer for Moore's mirroring of images and use of template patterns.

Watchmen dazzled me, and frankly as time went on it troubled me more and more. What would be the point in illustrating American comics after that? The vast majority of American comics, the only ones where there was any money, were superhero books, and Moore and Gibbons had dismantled the genre. As Moore put it, if Frank Miller's exhuberant and epic The Dark Knight Returns had been the brass band funeral for the superhero genre, Watchmen had been the autopsy.

So What Are You Going To Do About It?
Granted, there were some people out there who told the kind of stories I'd like to narrate myself, but with a few honorable exceptions such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Garth Ennis, they were almost all writer-artists, people who really created their whole comics, writing and drawing them.

I've never believed that art can only be created when it's the vision of just one individual -- after all, medieval cathedrals were effectively built by committee -- but it struck me that most of the best work in the medium of comics had been the brainchild of a single creator... George Herriman, Winsor McKay, Will Eisner, Walt Kelly, Karl Barks, Herge, Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, Gilbert Hernandez, Jamie Hernandez, Hayao Miyazaki, Chris Ware, Jason Lutes, Dave Sim, Scott McCloud, Jack Kirby when working on his Fourth World stuff, Art Speigelman, Eddie Campbell, Daniel Clowes, Lorenzo Mattotti, Frank Miller, Hermann, Joe Sacco, Hal Foster, Hugo Pratt, Dave Mazzuchelli, Seth, Bryan Talbot, Dave McKean, Charles Schulz, Jules Feiffer and so many more...

Well that was all very well, but they obviously had stories to tell. I had nothing to say. So I just kept reading, and thinking, and admiring other people's work. Sometimes I was really stunned by it. There's a sequence in Jason Lutes's Berlin, for instance,  that delighted me. In itself it might be seen as nothing too impressive; a man shouts through a window at a dining couple. But Lutes attempts to capture the difference in volume as the sound travels through the glass, with the pane itself becoming the gutter between panels. Bold print for the shouting outside the window; regular print for what the couples hear within.

You can think about the meaning of that in the context of the comic as much as you like, but what fascinated me was that here was Lutes experimenting all the time in tiny ways, constantly nudging the medium in new directions. Pick up Jar of Fools or Berlin, or even, if you can get a hold of it, The Fall, and watch as he gracefully does things with comics that nobody has dared do before.

The thing was that Lutes and others like him obviously had stories to tell and things to say; it struck me that there really wasn't any point in adding to the pile of crap out there if I didn't have something to say. That's not to say that all good comics left me feeling so impotent, just that they rarely hinted at the kind of stories that I might like to tell.

One that did make a difference, however, was Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's marvellous Violent Cases. The story is a strange one, as a Gaimanesque narrator remembers -- or tries to -- a period in his youth when he broke his arm and had to go to an osteopath who had worked on Al Capone. It's an odd story, made all the more wonderful and evocative by McKean's beautiful artwork and how Gaiman uses the tale as a meditation on memory.

The page above is one of the finest pages I've ever read in any comic, as the narrator stumbles in the middle of his story, and realises that for whatever reason his mental picture of the osteopath has changed radically; where previously he looked like some strange hybrid of Einstein and an Native American chief, now he looks like Sam Spade's partner in the opening scenes of The Maltese Falcon. It's a beautiful page, and something that I doubt would be anywhere near as effective in any medium other than comics.

What does this have to do with me? Well, in Violent Cases Gaiman purports to be telling a story of his youth; it may not actually be factual, but it rings true; it has a genuinely autobiographical tone. What's more, the narrator is unreliable, not in the sense of being dishonest, but purely in the sense that in some respects he is puzzled by his own story; he believes it's true, but has difficulty understanding why.

Take a look at my story of the dam made from lard, or my musings about how we remember our youths. Look at the story I relate about what supposedly happened at Dublin Zoo a couple of years ago, or what apparently happened in Sitia and in Winnipeg some years earlier. Hell, even take a glance at what I say about Herodotus. I like strange stories that are supposedly true. I particularly like strange stories where the narrator isn't sure whether things are true, or why, or how things happened, and where the narrator will digress at the drop of a hat.

I was wrong to think that I have no stories to tell. Until a few years ago I had been convinced that was the case, but in Greece in the summer of 2000 I realised that wasn't true at all. I don't know whether it was the night Andrea, Josh, and myself were lying in our Stymphalian tent and the others were begging me for a new story, or the day I was sitting on a milk crate in front of the tent telling story after story to a group of people who had sat in a circle to listen that I realised that I actually do have a bit of a talent for this.

I have stories to tell. Many are slight things, but that's no shame; much the same thing could be said of the 1001 Nights! And they almost all come from somebody else; either a tale I've heard or an incident I've read about, but then Chaucer would have said exactly the same thing. As Holly has remarked, my anecdotes are endless. But some... some are pretty substantial, and some actually happened to me, rather than to friends, or to friends of friends. The Paris Incident has been on my mind for the last couple of years, and I really think it would make a marvellous comic.

I'll have to get my skates on.

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