Archive for February, 2009

“to the domesticated dog on the manicured lawn…”

February 21, 2009

we3The cover of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s WE3 is somewhat misleading, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Depicting our three animal protagonists in pastel colored mechanized suits atop a grassy hill against a cloudy blue sky, I assumed that I was in for a cutesy affair in the vain of Homeward Bound or The Adventures of Milo and Otis (which may be messed up in its own right, but who knows). Having read the comic book, I now realize how wrong that assumption is.

WE3 is the story of three domesticated-animals-turned-superweapons who, upon discovering their imminent destruction as “failed” science experiments, are loosed by a caring lab worker to roam the land for safe haven, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. It is a violent, disturbing, adrenaline-pumping escape story told mainly through panels devoid of human dialogue.

Although I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the story or characters of WE3, I really do believe it was the most perfect action comic I’ve ever read (though admittedly, I haven’t read many). It’s basically one long thrill ride of animals killing, flying, and blowing stuff up with brief interludes of character development and back story sprinkled throughout. I believe that WE3 is most interesting from a stylistic angle, mainly because of its usage of disjointed narratives and jumbles of micro-panels woven through scenes of particularly frenetic destruction. Quitely cleverly employs this technique to heighten the sense of chaos and horror that accompanies these bloody battle scenes.

we3 action spread

Although it didn’t seem to be a major theme of the story, what I found most interesting in WE3 was the concept of rogue pets on a killing spree. While the shadowy government guys noted that the natural survival instinct was what best suited the three heroes of WE3 to being government killing machines, this instinct was the exact thing that caused them to go wild when the government tried to pull the plug on them. Perhaps because my reading’s proximity to the recent Connecticut chimp attack, I have been pondering the role that domesticated animals play. We expect them to act a certain way and serve our needs (as pets, as food, or whatever), so how should we feel when they return to their animal instincts, and deviate from what we decide is acceptable domesticated animal behavior?

If anything, I would say WE3 is the anti– Homeward Bound. While Homeward Bound was the story of three animals that refused to be left behind by their human owners, so embark on a pseudo-perilous journey to be with them again (because they can’t bear to be apart from them for a couple of weeks, how pathetic is that?). WE3, on the other hand, is a tale of rebellion. Refusing to be cast aside as obsolete and unnecessary when they are no longer needed, these three creatures strike out against their human masters, and will decimate both humans and animals alike that stand in their way. And though they do end up with a human companion in the end, in no way does it seem like a pet / owner or slave / master kind of relationship. Because their human companion is similarly ragged, weary, and simply trying to survive, they all really seem more like equals.

Mount Eerie – Domesticated Dog (live @ Red Raven in Fargo, ND)


Heroes and Villains

February 9, 2009


Although WATCHMEN’s cover boasts its status as “one of TIME magazine’s 100 best novels,” it neglects to mention that it is in fact the only graphic novel in TIME’s top 100 list. What exactly sets this apart from other comic books and graphic novels? What exactly have author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons done that outshines other comic book creators before them? To shrug the scrutiny and intellectual baggage of simple-minded “comic books” and assert its place amongst an exclusive list populated by the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald?

What exactly is so great about WATCHMEN?

This is a BIG question. So are the ones preceding it. They are big in the sense that they are expansive and intricate. One blog posting could in no way answer this question, for indeed, there is a plethora of overarching points and subtle details that must be identified and considered (most likely requiring a tome of intertextual references), and when it comes down to it, there is no clear cut answer. No right and no wrong. Which I think – if I were forced to (which academically I suppose I am) – is probably the most prominent (or at least my favorite) quality of WATCHMEN itself. In the world of WATCHMEN, there is no clear division of right or wrong. The world and its characters are nuanced in a way otherwise unprecedented (at least to my knowledge) in the comic book / graphic novel medium.

The Comedian is a rapist / misogynist who committed atrocious acts in Vietnam. Silk Spectre cheats on Dr. Manhattan with Nite Owl. Dr. Manhattan is a cold and unfeeling automoton, while he is supposed to keep the interest and well-being of the American people in mind. And the closest thing to a “villain” or “bad guy” is Ozymandias, regarded by all as the smartest and most pragmatic man in the world.

Even the Minutemen of the “golden age” of costumed vigilantism are rife with their own problems, ranging from insanity, sexual perversion, and scandal to untimely violent deaths. By presenting these “super heroes” as faulted characters with complexities and deeper-seeded weaknesses than an unfortunate allergy to kryptonite, WATCHMEN advances the graphic novel medium by challenging the simple dichotomy of right and wrong, good and evil. Which to some (perhaps many) is confusing, scary, and very un-comic-book-like.

Ozymandias’ grand plot is a faked alien invasion and attack that, while wiping out most of New York City, prevents M.A.D. by uniting the superpowers against a common villain. In a way, it’s a capitulation to the dichotomous relationship of good and evil, us versus them. To stop “us” from killing ourselves, Ozymandias creates a “them,” an “other,” and perhaps in doing so, “saves the day.”

watchmen film action figures - do you really want your kids playing with these?

watchmen film action figures - do you really want your kids playing with these?

Director Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN film looms like doomsday itself. And while it has been hyped by viral marketing campaigns and an ever curious public, it has simultaneously been slammed by “die hard” fans and even Alan Moore himself, creating an even bigger question of how the film will live up to the already colossal graphic novel.

Personally, I genuinely believe that while WATCHMEN’s refusal to divide its characters into two distinct “good” and “evil” / “hero” and “villain” piles is what makes it such an incredible graphic novel, I fear that this exact quality will prevent it from being a faithful and successful cinematic adaptation. Superhero movies (and action movies in general) have always relied on a clear sense of right and wrong and good and evil. It makes stories more digestible and comprehensible, which are extremely important qualities to have when frames go whizzing by at twenty-four frames per second. The movie-going public doesn’t buy tickets for big blockbuster flicks like THE HULK and SPIDER-MAN to be blindsided by philosophical conundrums. They pay to see people run around in spandex and blow stuff up, not writhe around in the throes of existential chaos. So why should they feel any differently about WATCHMEN? And so I wonder- at the end of the WATCHMEN film, which “heroes” will we cheer for when the “villains” are slain?

And will there be any cheering at all?

SPIRIT’d Away (sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

February 2, 2009

spirit-coverTHE COVERS

Overall, I found that the provided covers of the Spirit reminded me of Archie comics and the television show Scooby Doo in their depiction of kind of goofy but otherwise tame or otherwise non-threatening villains. But at the same time, they seem to hint at the kind of trouble that awaits the Spirit within (whether it be being bitten by small sewer creatures [no. 28] , clawed at by demons [no. 23], or ensnared in the web of  a lady [no. 26]), which I feel is a fairly effective way of enticing readers. However, as interesting counterpoint, the cover of “The Tale of the Dictator’s Reform” seems to concern a very real “villain,” and yet does not depict Hitler in a particularly sinister light nor hint at the kinds of evils Hitler perpetrated, either on the Spirit or his real life victims.

In terms of the lettering of the title and Will Eisner’s signature, I enjoyed the ones that were consistent [nos. 23 / 26 / 28 ] as they kind of act as their own recognizable logo or icon, and provide a sense of permanence and dependability while the Spirit is thrown into a different perilous situation issue by issue.


“The Origin of the Spirit” was not all too surprising, although I am not quite sure if it was a riff on or the creation of the typical “man is altered by freak accident (typically caused by the villain) and changed into hero” genesis myth. Stylistically, this first issue (June 2, 1940) of the Spirit was pretty straightforward, with the exception of slanted panels on pages 22 and the last couple pages.

On Eisner’s wikipedia entry, I read that he attended high school and was close friends with Batman creator Bob Kane. This lead me to recognize some similarities between The Spirit and Batman, in that both act as kinds of vigilante extensions of the law, working in partial conjunction with their respective police commissioners, who are the only one who know of their true identities. Additionally, neither have “super powers” per se, just a lot of good detective skills and hand-to-hand combat training. However, while Batman gets to masquerade as the wealthy Bruce Wayne by day, I’m unsure as to what Denny Colt will be doing when the sun is up.


“Lorelei Rox” I enjoyed as a fairly bizarre and also quite comical tale of an Elvira-like siren woman and her exploitive high-jacking handler. I felt as though the action scenes were more thrilling (with more expressive zip ribbons on pgs 93-94) and the lettering more varied. I also thought that Eisner decision to get rid of the panel borders on pgs. 90-91 was effective in conveying the hypnotic effect of Lorelei’s song on the Spirit. Furthermore, I felt as though “Lorelei Rox” had particularly more interesting composition than the earlier “Origin” comic, with a nice mix of wide shots, close ups, and canted angles. Also, Eisner’s usage of the flashback was both interesting and ironic (concerning the ending).

But I think the best aspect of “Lorelei Rox” was Eisner’s effective usage of film noir stylings. “Lorelei” is extremely moody, with its prevalence of darkness, thunder and rain. Additionally, the Spirit’s fairly somber demeanor and Lorelei’s femme fatale leanings stood out as typical conventions of film noir storytelling.

Relating to what I know of Eisner’s life, I can’t help but wonder if Eisner’s further adoption of the noir style could somewhat be attributed to his life after the war and post-war America in general. I’m sure his life during the war was somewhat bleaker, which possibly could have lead to this darker form of storytelling. Additionally, film noir is typically used to explore a world of vice and sin, two elements that I’m sure played at least some role in his experience abroad. Also, concerning the ironic ending panel of “Lorelei Rox” (p. 94), Lorelei’s presence seems to suggest that she might kill the Acme Truck Driving dispatcher, but is presented in a comic light. This kind of dark comedy and the idea that Spirit (who believes he has saved the day and carried out justice) has actually failed are both common elements of pessimistic post-war literature such as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Heller’s Catch-22.

McCloudian Lexicon

February 1, 2009


the following is a slapdash glossary of “comics” related terms in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.”

Comics (p. 9) – “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and / or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” or simply put, “Sequential Art.”
Icon (p. 27) –    “any image used to represent a person, place, thing, or idea.”
Audience Involvement (p. 42) – “the degree to which the audience identifies with a story’s characters.”
Clear-Line Style (p. 42) – a style that consists of “very iconic characters with unusually realistic backgrounds,” meant to facilitate a masking effect.
Masking (p. 43) – the process in which a viewer is emotionally immersed into the story or into the position of a character.
Iconic Abstraction Scale (p. 46) –    A visual scale that spans from strict photo-realism to pure abstraction.
The Picture Plane (p. 51) –    “where shapes, lines and colors can be themselves and not pretend otherwise.”
Closure (p. 63) – the act of “observing the parts but perceiving the whole.”
gutter (p. 66) – the space between panels.
transitions (p. 70 – 72)
moment to moment – little or no closure.
action to action – encompassing a single action.
subject to subject – stays within a scene or idea.
scene to scene – transports the reader across significant distances of time and space.
aspect to aspect – bypasses time and sets a wandering eye on different
aspects of a place, idea, or mood.
non sequitur – no relationship between panels.
establishing shot (p. 89) – sets up the scene in terms of location, time, etc.
word balloons (p. 89) – devices used to convey sound and language.
bleeds (p. 103) – “when a panel runs off the edge of the page.” The panel is freed from constraint, and is meant to take on a timeless quality.
motion line (p.110) – visual representations of “moving objects through space.”
zip ribbons (p. 111) – see motion line.
multiple images (p. 112) – multiple images within a motion line are meant to “involve the reader more deeply in the action.”
streaking (p. 112) – streaking in a motion line is meant to reproduce time-lapsed  photographic quality.
subjective motion (p. 114) – combination of motion lines and POV to put the reader in the position of the character.
polyptych (p. 115) – a group of panels in which “a moving figure or figures is imposed over a continuous background.”
sound effects (p. 115) – sound (typically non-speech related) represented by written words.
background (p. 132) – images that lay behind the foreground, and generally aren’t the focal point of the panel.
word-image combination types
word specific combinations (p. 153) – “where pictures illustrate, but don’t significantly add to a largely complete text.”
picture specific (p. 153) – “where words do little more than add a soundtrack to a visually told sequence.”
duo-specific (p. 153) – “in which both words and pictures send essentially the same message.”
additive (p. 154) – “where words amplify or elaborate on an image or vice versa.”
parallel (p. 154) – “words and pictures follow very different courses without intersecting.”
montage (p. 154) – “where words are treated as integral parts of the picture.”
interdependent (p. 155) – “where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone.”
art (p. 164) – any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either survival or reproduction.
assembly line comics (p. 180) – a process that utilizes specialization in the comics creation process.
three additive primaries (p. 186) – colors (red, blue, and green) which, when projected together in various combinations, can reproduce every color in the visible spectrum.
three subtractive primaries (p. 187) – colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) which can mix to produce any color in the visible spectrum.
four color process (p. 187) – utilizes the three subtractive primaries and black.