Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on a few Comix and the Kindle Panel Viewer

Most of the comics I’ve read over the last six months were on the Kindle reader.  The “Kindle Panel View” presents first the full page of the comic, and then you scroll through each of the individual panels on that page. It’s fascinating, and has both benefits and negatives. On one hand, it’s difficult to see the complete picture that all of the integrated panels construct – which can be a problem when reading Alan Moore comics, or comics where the layout contains unusual panels. On the other hand, zooming in on some of the smaller panels provides an intense focus on the brushwork details of the (for example, some of the amazing inking in the Swamp Thing's Floronic Man).  Overall, I still find myself wanting to read comix in their original format, but I imagine if I had a larger color screen I’d feel differently.

So what have I read? Let’s start off with the most recent: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1, which contains issues #20-27 of the series run, starting from when the imitable Alan Moore took over writing the story of this strange plant man. The first issue is a creepy but pretty straightforward closing of plot lines from the previous writer blatantly called “Loose Ends.” But with the next issue Moore started to put his stamp on the story, taking us into a trippy world where the Swamp Thing is more than just a cheesy monster but something of great power and beauty. Moore takes us on a journey, showing us how Swamp Thing realizes that the bio-restorative formula accident (a formula "that can make forests out of deserts") that that everyone thought  turned scientist Alec Holland into Swamp Thing in reality simply put Holland’s consciousness in some elemental plant-thing. (It’s much more interesting than I’m making it sound.) Despite the stories’ cosmic and epic nature, Moore's writing remains very human – giving us a depth of feeling and motivation behind most of the major characters in a way that most major label comics simply don’t have. Does it all work? No – cameos by the Justice League are strained, and the later issues where Swamp Thing confronts the bizarrely-clad demon Etrigan aren't nearly as moving as the issues without the rest of the DC Universe. Still, Moore’s immaculate pacing and creepy sensibility shine through, supported by Stephen Bisette and John Totleben’s detailed and creepy drawing. Their art - a strange mixture of awkwardness and twisted beauty – consists of lots of crosshatching flowing together in fascinating ways. It’s not at it’s best when depicting action sequences, or traditional “men-in-tights” superheros, but then that’s okay, since at it’s core this is a horror comic par excellence.

(As a side note, since I was reading this on the kindle it was black and white. I've since taken a look at the colored version on the iPad and it was a MUCH lesser experience IMO - the garish colors overwhelmed and took away from the mood and the beauty of the art. Be warned.)

Now the term "horror" is overused these days – it’s more of a genre description than a description of a feeling. Take Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, for example. Uzumaki  (“spiral” in Japanese) tells the tale of Kurôzu-cho, a Japanese town that is haunted by the pattern of the spiral and is touted as “a masterpiece of horror magna”. It’s a fantastic comic, one that’s genuinely creepy, disgusting, and macabre. But the book as a whole I can’t promote as true horror because the stories don’t combine to tell a complete tale. In reality, after the first few issues honest characters would have run screaming from the town, or crumbled into insanity under the weight of what they saw and their inability to escape it. But this is due partly to the episodic nature of monthly comix: Ito sets up his theme and explores it in inventive and genuinely creepy ways. (The man’s ability to generate genuinely horrific and disturbing images is uncanny.) But like weekly tv shows, the characters needed to be reset before each episode, or change so incrementally that they’re essentially the same. It's only as the series starts to reach its conclusion in the last few issues that it starts to really tell a cohesive tale. In short, despite many excellent moments, it doesn't have the depth of character to inspire the same levels of horror as Moore. But some of those images will just not leave my mind.

I should say that it's unfair to compare any other comics to Moore’s work. His ideas that span multiple issues or volumes seems to rise up out of him fully formed. For instance, check out Watchmen, and how single graphic frames in one issue will have powerful implications many issues down the road. Anotehr great example are the incredible multi-page spreads in Promethia where the art promotes the theme of the story while also moving forward the plot. In short, Moore thinks thematically while retaining a command of the details - a hard skill in any field, but one that is in short supply in comix.

Unless you also read Carla Speed McNeil's Finder, that is. She's the first comix artist since Moore that has impressed me with her thematic reach while being so impressive at a detailed level. (and I'm talking really detailed: check out the depth of thought revealed in the footnotes of her Finder Library volumes and you get a real sense for the amount of time and effort she's spent building up her world.) I have Volumes 1 & 2 and while I can’t say that I understand everything about it, she’s is simply a fantastic storyteller: both engaging & entertaining. What I love are the sheer profusion of bizarre details in her "aboriginal science fiction" – most of the stories take place in a far future where everyone lives in domed cities with fascinating technology, not all of which works (some details of maintenance have been lost to time). The main plotline is ostensibly about Jaegar, an aboriginal of some kind who can both track anyone (the Finder of the title) and serves as a “sin eater” (Wikipedia describes it as being a “ritual scapegoat” which I really like).  However, my favorite plot is Dream Sequence, where Magri White, a person who grows an extremely popular virtual reality in his head around which a successful corporation grows – but when White starts to lose his grip on reality, the people hooked on the world in his head start suffering strange and dramatic fates. The skill by which she weaves the effects of the big story together with the struggle in White’s life – and how she visually depicts White’s loosening grip on reality – is very complelling, to the point where I’ve revisited the story multiple times since it was first published in the late 2000s.

So other than the occasional Hellboy, that’s all of the comix I’ve been reading these days. What else should I be checking out?

Cross Posted on Thought Ambience

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