Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dave GIbbons is Smarter than Tom Shone- Another Aside

In the vein of Ebert's earlier nonsense about games comes this review of the uber-influential and provocative comic series "The Watchmen" (a deconstruction of the tropes and shorthand that underlie superhero comics).

Predictably, it commits the same error that these things always do: it mistakes a faux-sophisticated and self-consciously ironic surface reading of the material for understanding of any deeper themes and concepts. Shone namedrops Postmodernism and modernism without bothering to check how or whether these frameworks are being used; the old game of saying "it's deconstruction!" without trying to figure out the problematic that it's supposed to deconstructing in the first place.

The worst error, though, is missing the fact that Watchmen is, by its nature, a visual medium, and completely ignores the visual elements involved.

The suspicion lingers that Watchmen was more a triumph of writing than draftsmanship. The graphics were by Dave Gibbons, one of many artists who made their name on Judge Dredd, although he always felt a bit like the fill-in guy, lacking the ravaged punk impudence of Mike McMahon or the ebullient absurdity of Brian Bolland.
Already we see the warning signs: why "draftsmanship"? If you aren't willing to concede the term "art", you probably aren't going to get the visual element of the work. And why the hell is Judge Dredd relevant to discussing Watchmen? There's a lot there, you don't need filler references.

Gibbons' style was neat, tidy, and strong-jawed, which lent his work for Watchmen a flicker of irony, although it was unclear whether the hokey costumes he came up with for Moore's superheroes were deliberately hokey or just the kind of stuff he came up with anyway. In which case, the joke was on him and the irony was all Moore's. A typical comic script is 32 pages; for Watchmen, Moore's ran to 150 pages, heavy with voice-over narration and speech balloons.
Cripes. The visual design is very much deliberate, hearkening back to the classic character and costume design of golden-age comics: characters Watchmen was designed to superficially resemble. Were he to use any other kind of style, the connection would not only fall apart, but the wild discontinuity between the character design and the events would disappear. Nobody blinks at gore, say, Preacher, because the design makes you expect it. Comics Code era "cape books", on the other hand... that's shocking. And, yes, the work of the artist.

Also, who on earth actually thinks that the character design in Watchmen is "hokey"? Rorschach's ever-changing (and suggestive) black-and-white mask (along with his classic 50's "detective" fedora-and-trenchcoat) is one of the best character designs in the field! All of the character designs are reminiscent of golden-age comic characters, without being derivative, which is completely in tune with the general visual theme!

Edit: I had forgotten that the Watchmen were based off of DC's acquired Charlton Comics characters. Another important point that was lost by Shone amidst the carping about Judge Dredd. That Gibbons was able to take what most consider second-rate characters and turn them into icons that rival DC and Marvel's own is another testament to his skill.

(The art in the "black freighter" comic-within-a-comic illustrates this:Gibbons completely changes the visual design to fit the different themes and history of "EC"-style horror comics, and contrasts it with the general Watchmen visual style in order to emphasize the severe limitations that were imposed on comics by the CCA.)

Gibbons found himself cramming his graphics into a neat box-arrangement of nine frames per page, and the result was a minimalist, Philip Glass-y, metronymic tone. Watchmen also took comic-book chronology to new levels of complexity.
Proof positive that Shone Just Don't Get It, but is working hard to fake it. (Nice namedrop, by the by.)

Edit: waitasec, I didn't catch this at first. The word Shone wants is "Metronomic", isn't it? A "metronymic" is a name deriving from one's mother! I had just assumed that no editor would let that by, so went with his spelling. Whoops.

First rule of using big words, Tom, is to make sure you're using the right ones. I use ten dollar words all the time and I will not apologize for it, but at least I use the right ones.

The design of the panels was very much deliberate, and not simply for a "metronomic tone". The regular progression of 9 panel pages, evenly spaced, was chosen to contrast to the wild and chaotic design the panels of your typical superhero comic. The simplicity and regularity emphasizes the mundane world that the characters live in, and the fundamental mundanity that invades the lives of people who are considered to be synonymous with novelty and action.

(It's also used for emphasis: panel designs were set up as mirrors for earlier pages to reinforce themes and concepts, were regularly alternated to create thematic connections between "A" and "B" plots, and when full-page panels WERE used, as in the beginning of last issue, the effect was tremendous. Having wild panels means that you can't make them wilder- Gibbons' use of mundane arrangements meant that when he changed the style, it was arresting.)

Yes, panel design indicates time, and on that Shone is correct in the even procession of panels, but it's a hell of a lot more important than that. Using space to denote time is at the heart of the medium, and provides enormous possibilities to blend time and space together to make a larger point.

It features an elaborate flashback structure and a fascination for slo-mo simultaneity that wouldn't have embarrassed your average Modernist—when they coined the term "graphic novel" nobody mentioned that the novel in question was Ulysses—although how well this technique melded with the more straightforward dynamism of traditional comic-book panels is open to question.
Funny- most of the discussions of The Watchmen I've read have noted that there's no way that it could be anything but a comic, and that the movie project is doomed. The flashback structure, and juxtaposition of different viewpoints (I assume that's what he meant by "slo-mo simultaneity".. using terms appropriate to the medium would have been helpful) are probably impossible in any other medium, as Watchmen makes a point of using the tools that comics employ to denote time (panel size, shape, and position) to also engage in thematic juxtaposition, meta-commentary and reinforcement.

The pirate comic-within-a-comic, again, shows this theme most clearly... the seemingly unrelated story eventually resolves itself as a way of showing how different genres of comics address the same themes; how ideas that must be explored through allegory in one genre are directly addressed in another, using visual juxtaposition and timing that simply wouldn't work in either cinema or straight literature. The symmetrical design of chapter 5, for example, would also be utterly impossible.

It's honestly not that hard to pick up all this stuff, either. All that namedropping and faux-analysis and Shone appears to miss the very visual elements that make Watchmen a classic to begin with!

And finally, the piece de resistance?

Before Moore came along, comic books were not generally in the habit of quoting Nietzsche, or scrambling their time schemes, or berating their heroes for their crypto-fascist politics, or their readers for reading them. It was Moore's slightly self-negating triumph to have allowed it to do so. But did the comic book have to "grow up"? The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic "difficulty" or "self-consciousness." Life is too short. Frankly, we'd much rather be watching The Incredibles.
Emphasis mine, because it's really, really funny. Unlike the main point of this section, which appears to be "I don't have time for anything challenging, I'm gonna go watch the tube". That is, honestly, just kind of sad.

Kinda like this whole piece.

Not so Final Edit: This is making me really, really miss Prisoners of Gravity.

Possibly Really Final Edit: A commentator on a Bugsy Banana complained that I was attacking an overall positive review because it was not positive enough. I had thought about this when I decided to write this, and I do agree that it has an overall positive tone.

What bothered me is the dismissive attitude towards the work, the tone with which it was addressed, and (most vitally) with the treatment of Gibbons' work. Gibbons' art is as important as Moores' writing; without Gibbons' work, the Watchmen simply wouldn't have been able to accomplish what it did. Shone's attitude towards the artwork maligns the work itself. That he's ignorant of this doesn't change it; that The Watchmen is one of the most important works in the medium makes it matter.

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