Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Movies, comic books, and sequential art
I had occasion recently to take a few of the kids to see Captain America: The First Avenger. As a lifelong movie, comic book, and science fiction fan I was preprogrammed to like it so long as it met the minimal standards a comic book flick is expected to live up to these days. And I think the movie not only met but exceeded them. Characters like Captain America and the Red Skull can look striking on a comic book cover, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Some nice examples from over the decades can be found here, here, and here.) But getting them to look anything but ridiculous in flesh and blood is very hard to pull off. Yet the filmmakers did it. Indeed, what I found most remarkable about the movie was just how gorgeous the thing looked up there on the big screen. Its art deco, pulp magazine aesthetic conveys an almost completely convincing science-fiction version of the 1940s. (I say “almost” only because I thought the Hydra agents’ uniforms and weaponry could have been given a somewhat more retro look.) Similar things have been done in the Indiana Jones movies, The Rocketeer, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but Captain America raises the bar.
In general, one might be tempted to say that movies have finally caught up to comics. One of the strengths of comic books as an art form is that when done well they can visually represent fantastic scenarios in an aesthetically compelling way. Prose can represent such things non-visually, of course, and movies can easily visually represent non-fantastic or everyday scenarios. But visually to represent the fantastic without the result looking simply laughable is, as I say, very difficult. Ed Wood movies provide the paradigm cases of the laughable, but even many much better science fiction and horror films from the earlier decades of the history of movies are at least visually disappointing. And even after horror and science fiction movies started to become reliably impressive in their special effects -- perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, with movies like 2001 and The Exorcist -- the superhero genre lagged behind. Trying to watch the 1970s television versions of Spider-Man or Captain America is just painful. The 1960s Batman series gained whatever success it did precisely as a goof, something not even trying seriously to capture the spirit of the comics. Only fairly recently -- probably with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 -- did superhero movies really come into their own, and begin to provide a visual representation of their subject matter as plausible as that of the comics.
It is not surprising that it took so long. The superhero genre provides a kind of test case for what can be successfully represented visually, insofar as it takes the science fiction and horror genres to their limits. Indeed, the first superheroes came out of the pulp magazine milieu of the late 1930s, which had been largely dominated by science fiction, horror, and adventure themes. Superman, after all, is essentially an alien from outer space; Batman, a scientifically savvy costumed detective; the original Human Torch was an android, a scientific experiment gone wrong; Captain America, the result of a governmental scientific research program; and so forth. DC Comics’ superhero revival of the late 1950s -- led by editors and writers with science fiction backgrounds, like Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and John Broome -- also featured characters (the Flash, Green Lantern, Adam Strange) with science fiction origins. The new breed of superheroes Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee co-created in the early 1960s with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko -- the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, and so forth -- in many ways reflected the aesthetic of the science fiction and monster comics Marvel had been publishing in the preceding years. The Marvel characters just mentioned all derived their powers from radiation of one sort or another; Iron Man, from high technology; Ant Man, from biochemical research. Dr. Strange and Thor did not have science fiction origins -- the former is a “master of the mystic arts” and the latter a Norse god come to earth -- but are not too far from the sorts of characters one might find in an old horror or adventure pulp magazine, and Lee and Kirby added a heavy science fiction element to Thor (essentially turning the Norse gods into a race of extra-dimensional aliens).
In effect, the superhero genre takes the bizarre and otherworldly themes of science fiction and horror and situates them not only in ordinary contexts but in otherwise ordinary individual human beings -- the man on the street, but with a superheroic secret identity. Now, visually portraying the man on the street -- a soldier, say, or a nerdy teenager who attends high school in New York City -- is pretty easy. Visually portraying someone with unusual powers and a costume is harder to do successfully, but can be done if both the person himself and his context are also very unusual -- hence fantasy and science fiction movies can be made to work as long as the special effects are good enough. But harder still is visually portraying someone with unusual powers in a costume while at the same time keeping him and his context otherwise as ordinary as possible -- say, a soldier with super strength who dresses like an American flag, or a nerdy high school student who has the powers of a spider. Special effects aren’t enough to make this work. If such effects aren’t combined in just the right way with an ordinary setting, or at least the appearance of an ordinary setting, the result will just look ridiculous. (Notice that the appearance of an ordinary setting is really what movies like Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America give us. Not the real New York or the real World War II, but something close enough to evoke those setting while different enough to make a guy in a bat suit or red and white tights seem not too out of place.)
It is no wonder, then, that the superhero genre came to dominate comic books even more than did the horror and science fiction genres (which had their comic book heyday in the 1950s). Superheroes were perhaps the one thing that only comic books could do well. Only the comics’ mode of visual representation was far enough removed from real life to allow for the suspension of disbelief. Movies, for a long time anyway, couldn’t successfully combine the fantastic elements with their naturally greater visual realism.
Since that isn’t true any longer, are comics now redundant? No, no more than movies could make novels redundant. The film version of a novel is, after all, an adaptation or interpretation of it; it is not the novel itself, and it cannot do exactly what a novelist can do. And something similar is true of film versions of comics. While both movies and comics are forms of visual art, they are very different forms. Comics are not a second-rate attempt to do what movies do, any more than painting or photography are. They do something different, and not only insofar as they can more easily portray bizarre scenarios.
This is true of comics even at their most movie-like and realistic. Consider the first and last pages of Bernard Krigstein’s celebrated artwork for “Master Race,” from E. C. Comics’ Impact #1. The last panel of page 1 cleverly conveys the movement of a subway train. The sequence of panels on the last page conveys the movement of a character’s body as he falls into the way of an oncoming train. (Similar effects are to be found in the last two pages of the Krigstein-illustrated story “Key Chain,” from Crime SuspenStories # 25.) The effect has been described as “cinematic,” but it is achieved in a way very different from the way a movie would achieve it. For in fact a movie doesn’t “achieve” it at all, and there is no “effect” -- the subway trains in a movie like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (for example) really are moving. Of course, there is a sense in which such a movie gives you only the illusion of movement -- physically speaking, the movie is “really” just a series of still photographs seen rapidly one after the other -- but even so, it does not represent movement, but merely records a movement which has actually occurred.
Contrast Krigstein’s panels, which are seen all at once rather than one after another, and do not give us an illusion of movement at all. Rather, what they give us just is, precisely, a visual representation of movement, but a kind of visual representation that is not possible for either a movie -- a series of images seen one after another -- or for a single image taken in isolation. It is the simultaneous sequencing of images that is part of what makes the medium of comics unique. (Will Eisner famously characterized comics as a kind of “sequential art.”) To be sure, a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 certainly represents movement in a single image, and in an interesting way. But it is able to do so precisely because of its lack of realism. What Krigstein is doing that Duchamp is not is representing movement with a kind of realism, and doing so precisely by using a sequence of images. (For a more disturbing sequential representation of movement in comics form, check out Johnny Craig’s “buried alive” story “Star Light, Star Bright” from Vault of Horror # 23.)
Unlike a painting or a single drawing but like a movie, comics are a form of storytelling, again precisely because of their sequential nature. But unlike movies, and like paintings and drawings, they are illustrative, and they bring all the techniques of illustration to storytelling. Hence a comic book adaptation of a story originally conceived in pure prose is also, like a movie adaptation, a new and unique interpretive work rather than a mere restatement of the original. E. C. Comics’ many adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s short stories provide useful examples. Consider, for instance, the Al Williamson-illustrated “A Sound of Thunder” from Weird Science-Fantasy #3, and compare the television adaptation of the story from The Ray Bradbury Theater. (The best example, in my view, is Johnny Craig’s “Touch and Go” from Crime SuspenStories #17 -- an adaptation of Bradbury’s short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” -- which I have, unfortunately, not been able to find online. For my money Craig conveys the paranoia and obsessiveness of the main character better than the television adaptation did.)
It was only a matter of time before the philosophical comic book would be attempted, and it recently has been in Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth -- a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and mathematical logic, with Frege, Wittgenstein, Gödel, and Whitehead as guest stars. Can the comic book treatment of potency and act be far behind? (Think of it -- conveying the theory of how change is possible in a series of static images. Now that would be a tour de force!)