Politics in Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight

Depending on where you live, May 1st may have some connection, historically or actually, to labour and workers’ rights, or even socialism and class struggle. On this occasion I thought I’d write a little blogpost about politics and comics. Some years ago at a conference, I attended a talk on a certain political or ideological stance in the comics of Warren Ellis,¹ which made me wonder what stance, if any, can be found in one of his latest comics, his short-lived Moon Knight run from 2014.

Each of the 6 issues is beautifully illustrated by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and tells a largely self-contained story. I have already reviewed issues #1-3 on this weblog, so today we’re going to look at the second half of the run, which consists of the stories “Sleep”, “Scarlet”, and “Spectre”.

Politics is sometimes defined as “beliefs and attitudes about how government should work” (Macmillan), and that is the definition with which we’ll work here. At first glance, there seems to be nothing political about these typical masked vigilante stories: Moon Knight comes to the scene of the crime, confronts and eventually defeats the criminal(s). (At least in “Sleep” and “Scarlet”, whereas “Spectre” is told from the antagonist’s point of view, but the result is the same.) On closer inspection, though, society and government appear in all three of the stories.

Government is always present in the struggle between police (i.e. enforcement of the law made by the government) and crime (i.e. defiance of the government and its law). The New York Police Department is portrayed in an unfavourable light: unable to solve the crimes themselves, they rely on Moon Knight, who works outside of the law. Unlike in other superhero stories where police officers try to solve the crime themselves, overextend themselves, get into trouble and need to be rescued by the superheroes, the NYPD in Moon Knight doesn’t even try. Moon Knight does their work for them, and he does it in a way police couldn’t (or shouldn’t), killing, maiming and unnecessarily hurting his opponents instead of arresting them.

There's absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 "Sleep")

There’s absolutely no reason for Moon Knight to do this. (from #4 “Sleep”)

The criminals, on the other hand, – including Ryan Trent in “Sleeper” who starts out as one of the ‘good guys’ but ends up killing innocents – are basically given free rein in this New York City. In all of the three stories, their crimes are ultimately avenged by Moon Knight, but only after they were able to placidly commit them. Moon Knight is not one for preventing crime.

For all we know, this corrupt policemen never gets caught. (from #6 "Spectre")

For all we know, this corrupt policeman never gets caught. (from #6 “Spectre”)

Warren Ellis has created a world in which government has failed. To maintain order, it takes a force – Moon Knight – that has the necessary financial and physical power, without being controlled by the government. This is a political vision that has little to do with democracy, in the sense that the people had any control over Moon Knight’s ‘work’. But it has a lot to do with ‘might makes right’ and the ‘longing for the strong man’ – ideas more closely associated with dictatorship. Granted, many superhero comics operate within a similar mindset, but in Moon Knight these ideas are particularly noticeable.


¹ This blogpost has very little to do with that conference paper and I don’t mean to evaluate (or even paraphrase) its hypothesis; as far as I know it hasn’t been published anyway. But just for the record, I’m referring to “The Paranoid Style in Warren Ellis’s Comic Book Politics” by Christian Knöppler, presented at the 2012 ComFor conference in Freiburg, Germany.

Roland Barthes’s packages – in comics?

Speaking of grids: in his book about Japan¹, Empire of Signs (L’Empire des signes, 1970), Roland Barthes doesn’t mention manga and their panel grids directly. However, he comes close to it in a chapter titled “Packages”: “every [Japanese] object […] seems framed. […] around it, there is: nothing, an empty space […].” (p. 43 in the Hill and Wang translated edition; italics by Barthes). This sounds like comic panels and gutters alright. On the other hand, “this frame is invisible; the Japanese thing is not outlined” (ibid.).

Now, while outlines are certainly a typical feature of comic panels, they are by no means a necessary characteristic. Borderless layouts are rare, but they do exist. The bottom row of the Kimi ni todoke page I’ve shown in my Rosalind Krauss blogpost is one example. In the same volume, there are entire pages without panel borders, such as this one:

page from Kimi ni todoke, vol. 7, by Karuho ShiinaThe page background is black, which means that the tiny black strip between the bottom two panels is part of the gutter, not a panel outline.

Still, Barthes is more concerned with traditional Japanese room furnishings, ikebana, and wrapped souvenirs than with comics. The interesting question here is: if the Japanese culture has developed a general fondness for framing, packaging, delimiting things, does this explain why comics with their framed panels have become so popular there? From the way in which Barthes characterises his framed objects, the answer seems to be ‘no’. “The [Japanese] thing is […] distinct […] by an excision which removes the flourishing of meaning from the object” (ibid.). Comics work the other way round: by placing a panel into a sequence of other panels, meaning is bestowed on the panel. Thus the gutter between the panels doesn’t excise them – on the contrary, it glues them together.

It’s curious and regrettable that Barthes doesn’t mention manga (or anime, or most other contemporary Japanese pop cultural media for that matter) at all in Empire of Signs. Perhaps, if he had written it 20 years later (if he would have still been alive by then), at the height of the manga boom in Japan, he wouldn’t have been able to ignore them.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


¹ Barthes makes it clear, though, that his book is not about the ‘real’ Japan, but rather about a “deliberately formed system” out of “a certain number of isolated features”, a “fictive nation” which he chose to call “Japan” (p. 3 in the Hill and Wang translated edition).

“The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)”: Bwana remixes Akira soundtrack

Bwana, producer of electronic music from Toronto/Berlin, has released an EP titled The Capsule’s Pride (Bikes) (Comicgate reported last week) for which he had rearranged the Akira anime soundtrack into 9 EDM tracks. This EP is available for free both as audio stream and YouTube video playlist. The latter is more interesting in this context: each video consists of a sparsely animated black-and-white still image from Akira. The funny thing is, the images are taken from the manga, not from the anime.

still from Capsule's Pride (Bikes) by Bwana

It’s funny because not only music samples were taken from the anime, but also dialogue samples (from the English dub) that directly refer to the major plot difference between the comic and its adaptation: “there is your messiah…” (in both track 1 and 5). At first I thought, whoever made those videos didn’t know the material well. On the other hand, at least two of the videos fit the titles of the corresponding tracks: the video for the title track “Capsule’s Pride (Bikes)” shows Kaneda on his motorcycle (pictured) – his first one, the one he has when he is still leader of the “Capsule” gang – and the video for “K&K (Lovers in the Light)” shows Kei and Kaneda. Another nice touch is that the Canon decal in the former image has been inconspicuously replaced by one bearing Bwana’s name.


Rosalind Krauss’s grids – in comics?

[This post was originally planned to be published in March in conjunction with Women’s History Month, but then I became ill and couldn’t finish it in time.]

Whenever comics scholars hear the word “grid”, they immediately think of comics. This is due to panels on a comic page often forming a grid-like layout. One of the field’s journals is even named The Comics Grid, which only shows how strong this perceived connection is. People outside of the comics world, however, might have a somewhat different idea of what a grid is. Take Rosalind E. Krauss, for instance. In 1979 she published an essay titled “Grids” (collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernists Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986, pp. 11-22) and returned to the topic two years later in “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (in the same book on pp. 151-170; the section on grids is on pp. 157-162). Here’s a quote from the latter (p. 158):

The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of center, of inflection, emphasizes not only its anti-referential character, but – more importantly – its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.

That doesn’t sound like comics at all, does it? Part of the problem might be, Krauss never defines what she means by “grid”. This would have been a good idea though, because even in mathematics there doesn’t seem to be a commonly agreed definition.¹ From the examples pictured in her essay, it looks like she means two different types of grid images: one in which a grid is formed by sets of drawn (or painted, etc.) parallel lines (e.g. Agnes Martin’s paintings), and another in which these lines are only implicitly formed by the borders of rectangles (e.g. Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers, to which we’ll get back later in this post).

Both types can be found in comics, too. The former is the more common layout. However, the following example might look unusual at first:

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

a page from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, vol. 2

This is a 1×3 panel layout alright, the dominant layout in The New Frontier. It only becomes a grid, though, if you allow the white page borders to form grid lines too, along with the two proper gutters between the panels (even though their widths are different):

a page from Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, with added grid overlayMore on this layout in a minute.

For the second type of grid, the one with the implicit lines, consider this example:

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

a page from Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke, vol. 7

There are 5 panels, but no gutters: the 3 panels of the upper row are divided by black borders (whereas the 2 in the lower row don’t have any border between them), but as we can see from the white strip on the right hand side of the page, the page background is white, not black, so there’s no page background visible between the panels and thus there are no proper gutters. What makes it furthermore difficult to discern the grid are the bleeds to the top, left, and bottom of the page. Still, this page can essentially be regarded as a 2×3 panel layout (with the 4th panel² overlapping into the 5th, and the 5th panel spanning two columns):

a page from Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke, with added grid overlayOnce you start paying attention to these things, the variety of Karuho Shiina’s layouts is amazing. It would be fun to see how many pages into Kimi ni Todoke a page layout is repeated for the first time, but I’ll leave this exercise for another time.

Krauss doesn’t expressly distinguish implicit and explicit grids, but she makes another interesting distinction: centrifugal vs. centripetal.³ A centrifugal reading of a work of art assumes that “the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity” (p. 18). The image is “a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric”, thus “compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame”. A centripetal work of art, on the other hand, is “an autonomous, organic whole” (p. 19).

From the examples discussed by Krauss, it looks like this distinction is simply a question of cropping: if the grid lines end where the image ends, it’s a centrifugal image. If the grid lines end within the image borders (so that they’re strictly speaking only line segments, not lines proper), it’s a centripetal image. If we want to apply this categorisation to comics, we have to once more be careful not to confuse panel borders with gutters. On Cooke’s New Frontier page, all panel borders are visible, but the imaginary rectangles that continue the grid in all four directions beyond the three panel rectangles are not. Therefore, we cannot say that the gutters (which form our grid here) end at certain points, e.g. the page borders. Thus this page is a centrifugal image. With Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke page it’s not so easy to tell: here, the white page background on the right acts as a delimiter of the (implicit) grid rays, which exit the page only to the top, left, and bottom. To visualise this view on the page, I coloured each of the 5 panels and the page border differently:

layout diagram of a Kimi ni Todoke pagePerhaps the overall character of this page is still centrifugal, but not quite as much so as in the New Frontier example.

One final remark about the purported “hostility to narrative” of the grid: I think Krauss proves herself wrong by picturing Jasper Johns’s Gray Numbers. In this painting, each rectangle of the grid (except for the top left one) is filled with a numeral between 0 and 9. Let’s look at a random rectangle, say, the middle one in the bottom row. It’s a 4. The rectangle above it is a 3. The one on the left is also a 3. On the right there’s a 5, and next to the 5 there’s a 6… You get the idea. Obviously, there is a pattern here. From the top left to the bottom right corner, the numerals form a sequence – either horizontally or vertically – in which the number is increased by 1 until it is reset to 0 when it would otherwise reach 10. My point is: it matters little what’s inside the rectangles, because we have a tendency to see grids as sequences. And (while the precise meaning may be a matter of debate) a meaningful sequence at that – which amounts to, for all intents and purposes, a narrative. Only completely empty or uniform grids (e.g., again, Agnes Martin’s) resist this reading as a narrative.

All that being said, it should be noted that none of it is really the point of Krauss’s essays, which are more concerned with the grid as a typical form of modernist painting within the discourse of originality and repetition.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

¹ See e.g. the keyword “grid” at Wolfram MathWorld and the article “Regular grid” at Wikipedia.
² The reading order is right to left here, so the 4th panel is the bottom right one and the 5th panel the bottom left one.
³ More precisely, Krauss acknowledges that this discourse predates her essay. She cites John Elderfield, “Grids”, Artforum X (May 1972), 52-59.

Nina Zschocke’s visual irritation – in comics?

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).

The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.

Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.

Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck's L'Oud Silencieux

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck’s L’Oud Silencieux

So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.

The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.

[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


Mako-Mori-testing Archie and JLA

The other day I learned through the Comix-Scholars mailing list of the “Mako Mori test”. Devised as an alternative to the Bechdel test and named after a Pacific Rim character, it works like this (quoted from The Daily Dot):

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has:

a) at least one female character;

b) who gets her own narrative arc;

c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

If the Bechdel test isn’t always easy to put into practice, the Mako Mori test is almost unusable. How do we define a narrative arc? How do we define “supporting a man’s story”?

Let’s say a narrative arc in a film is similar to a dramatic arc in drama theory, in that the story builds up to a conflict involving the protagonist (which must be female to pass the Mako Mori test) and then this conflict is resolved. This is already a much simpler definition of an arc than e.g. Gustav Freytag’s five-part model, so it should be easy to find stories – maybe even in comics – that match the Mako Mori test criteria, right?

While a comic may pass the Bechdel test in its first panel, it takes a lot more panels until one can say whether the Mako Mori test is passed. This makes it difficult to apply the Mako Mori test to ongoing serialised comics such as most webcomics, newspaper strips, and monthly comic books. Then again, nowadays comic book writers usually “write for the trade”, so that 6 (give or take 1-2) consecutive issues can be collected in a trade paperback that stands well on its own, in the sense that it contains a complete, self-contained story arc.

There are two ongoing comic book series I’m currently reading that have just reached their sixth issue, so let’s see how they fare in the Mako Mori test.

In the recently re-launched Archie by Mark Waid there are two candidates for female characters with their own narrative arc, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge. It’s difficult to place Betty in a narrative structure because of Waid’s unusual storytelling: the big crisis – Archie’s and Betty’s breakup – has already happened in the past, and the comic is about how everyone deals with the aftermath. From the beginning, Betty doesn’t want to get back together with Archie, but still has feelings for him and doesn’t approve of his new relationship with Veronica. Throughout the six issues, nothing happens that changes Betty’s attitude, so I don’t see a narrative arc here. I’m not saying a character needs to undergo drastic changes to constitute a narrative arc, but there’s simply no turning point or climax that the events involving Betty build up to.

Betty's situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

Betty’s situation summed up in two panels. Art by Fiona Staples

Likewise, there’s no arc structure around Veronica: she faces some challenges when she comes to Riverdale, but a new status quo (dating Archie and more or less fitting in with her other schoolmates) is quickly established. At the end of the sixth issue, a conflict involving her father is set up, but we’ll have to wait and see if this conflict qualifies as a climax of her narrative arc.

Even if Betty and/or Veronica got their own narrative arcs, one would be hard-pressed to argue that these arcs do not support a man’s story and thus fulfil the third Mako Mori criterion. Archie is first and foremost the story of its title character (who even sometimes acts as first-person narrator) and everything that happens is related to him.

JLA by Bryan Hitch is technically already at issue #7, but #5 was a filler issue completely unrelated to the actual story. In the beginning, the Justice League of America fights a supervillain called Parasite, only to be scattered across place/time/dimensions. Then the main plot begins with the Kryptonian god Rao coming to Earth. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman – the eternal token woman in the Justice League, if you will – finds herself on Olympus, which lies in ruins and has been abandoned by the other gods. Somehow Aquaman ends up on Olympus too, and the two fight off an attack by Rao’s prophets. Wonder Woman then rebuilds Olympus and arms Aquaman and herself with the weapons of the gods.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

Soon she will be joined by a male companion, though.

It’s too early to say how the final conflict will be resolved and who Wonder Woman is actually up against. Wonder Woman thinks it’s not Rao but “something else”, “something that terrified [the other gods]” (#7). But I still wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Rao and Superman are going to be at the center of this conflict, and if Wonder Woman should merely come to Superman’s aid, her narrative arc would be supporting a man’s story.

However, even though (or precisely because) Wonder Woman doesn’t get much on-panel time in this comic, her portion of the story runs parallel to the others and thus forms something like an independent narrative arc. If we had to pick a “winner”, the “Mako Mori award” would surprisingly go to JLA rather than Archie. Another outcome of this little exercise might be that the Mako Mori test isn’t that great a sexism detector.

Just for the record: Archie passes the Bechdel test in issue #2 or #3, whereas JLA doesn’t pass it at all…


Article “The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West” published

task

My conference paper from 2014, which so far had been only published in German and in print, is now available online and in English:

de la Iglesia, Martin 2016, ‘The Task of Manga Translation: Akira in the West’. The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship 6(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/cg.59

There’s also a PDF version.

Abstract:
Translated editions of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira played an important role in the popularisation of manga in the Western world. Published in Japan between 1982 and 1990, editions in European languages followed as soon as the late 1980s. In the first US edition (Epic 1988–1995) the originally black and white manga was printed in colour and published in 38 issues, which were designed not unlike typical American comic books. The first German edition (Carlsen 1991–1996) marked the beginning of Carlsen’s manga publishing efforts. It was based on the English-language edition and also printed in colour, and combined two American issues in one.

This article analyses the materiality of these two translated editions with a focus on three main issues – the mirroring (or ‘flipping’) which changes the reading direction from right-to-left into left-to-right, the colouring of the originally black and white artwork, and the translation of different kinds of script (sound effects, speech bubble text, and inscriptions or labels) – before concluding with a brief examination of their critical reception.


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