Here’s one more brief review of a current comic in which music is represented.
The Hellblazer #20-22
Authors: Tim Seeley (writer), Davide Fabbri (penciller), Christian dalla Vecchia (inker), Carrie Strachan (colourist)
Publication Dates: March – May 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: In this Hellblazer story (“The Good Old Days”), John Constantine’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Ames is possessed by the soul of a criminal that has escaped from hell. John tries to magically locate Margaret through an object, a t-shirt that she had worn. It is a band shirt from John’s old band, Mucous Membrane, and this shirt is the only representation of music in those three issues. But it works remarkably well: not much is disclosed about Mucous Membrane (the members of which were last featured in Hellblazer a couple of issues earlier) except that they hadn’t been particularly successful, as evidenced by John having had “fifty of [these shirts] sitting in a moldy box” and having stayed at “rot holes” at that time. But from our knowledge of John’s background as an angry punk in late 70s England, and from their name, we get a pretty good idea of what their music must have sounded like. Interestingly, the band logo looks slightly different in each issue, event though it’s supposed to be the same shirt and it’s the same art team on all three issues…
The rest: It is a sick joke that DC cancelled Hellblazer just in time for its 30th anniversary special. But the writing had been on the wall for some time. While Tim Seeley (and his predecessor, Simon Oliver) nailed the dialogue more often than not, DC assigned a string of artists to this book who were mediocre at first and then gradually became worse. Which makes me wonder why they bothered to “rebirth” Hellblazer in the first place.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Happy May Day everyone, or ‘Warren Ellis Day’ as for some reason it has come to be known in this little corner of the Web. This time we’re going to look at politics in Warren Ellis’s classic, Planetary (art by John Cassaday). Planetary was published in 27 issues by Wildstorm/DC from 1998-2009. As far as the main story is concerned, the political setup of Planetary is a standard Warren Ellis one: it’s a conspiracy of supervillains who pull all the strings in this world, and the democratically elected governments of the world are powerless against them. It takes superheroes – vigilantes, rogues, operating outside of the law – to protect the world from these supervillains.
There is more going on here, though. Among the earlier issues (collected in Planetary Book One, not to be confused with Planetary Volume 1 which only contains #1-6), some stand out in particular from a political perspective because they comment on real-world political events and figures. Of these, we’ll discuss issue #2 (“Island”) here (but #7 and #8 are also noteworthy in this regard).
“Island” is mostly set on “Island Zero”, a fictional island that “forms the far north-western tip of the Japanese archipelago. Also the closest island in the group to the Eurasian landmass – specifically, Russia”, says Shinya Fukuda, a Tokyo-based employee of the Planetary organisation. He continues, “It’s off-limits, due to an issue of war legality still under arbitration. Basically, we think it’s ours, and the Russians think it’s theirs. One of our prime ministers visited Yeltsin to try and iron it out last year, but, you know…”
Another Japanese character, the terrorist Ryu who plans to overthrow the Japanese government, describes Island Zero like this: “The last island between Japan and Siberian Russia. Unpopulated because of its nature as a political football. The Russians claim it as spoils of World War Two. We, naturally, claim it as part of Japan. Legally, this island is a nowhere thing.”
Ellis probably alludes to the Kuril Islands dispute here, even though they are located north-east of Japan, not north-west. The status of the Kuril Islands has been settled in several treaties which say they belong to Russia (as the successor of the Soviet Union). The Japanese government accepts these treaties, but claims that the four islands closest to Hokkaidō do not belong to the Kurils and are therefore not part of the treaties. Another difference between the disputed Kuril Islands and Island Zero is that the former are not entirely uninhabited: almost 20,000 people live on three of them, while on the fourth there’s a Russian border guard outpost.
The interesting thing in Planetary, however, is how the two aforementioned Japanese characters – only one of which is a fanatic nationalist – talk about Island Zero: “we think it’s ours”, “we claim it as part of Japan”. Why do they include themselves in the pronoun? It’s the government that does the claiming, so why do Shinya and Ryu adopt this claim as their own? What would Shinya and Ryu specifically gain if Russia ceded Island Zero to Japan? Sure, if Island Zero was part of Japan, Ryu could go on his hiking trip there without the risk of getting caught by the military, but the reason he goes there in the first place is precisely its remoteness due to its disputed status.
For Shinya and Ryu there’s nothing at stake in the dispute over Island Zero, so they probably don’t really “think” and “claim” much about it. More likely, there are some common but oversimplifying conflations at work here: of state and nation, of individual citizen and nation, and of state and individual politician. As abstract entities, states can’t think or claim anything – politicians such as the Japanese prime minister mentioned by Shinya can. And while it can be said that some views are more prevalent in a given nation than others, the assuredness with which both Shinya and Ryu include all Japanese people in their “we” creates the illusion of a completely homogeneous society in which everyone agrees with their government.
It’s particularly problematic that it’s the Japanese society, because this basically repeats the old prejudice of a purported Japanese conformity that borders on blind obedience. It seems like in the world of Planetary, governmental authority is only questioned by superhumans (who are powerful enough to stand above it anyway). Ryu says he wants to topple the government and become “paramount leader of Japan”, but he never says what his problem with the current government is. He is dismissed by Shinya as having “that Yukio Mishima, Aum Shin Ryko [sic, i.e. Rikyō] smell about” him. However, Aum Shinrikyō had their religious doomsday beliefs and Mishima wanted to restore the divinity of the Emperor. What does Ryu believe in? One of his followers says to him, “I believe in your theories. I believe in armed resurrection and revolution and nerve gas and acceptable casualties and all the rest of it.” But what are Ryu’s theories? Ellis doesn’t say. Ideological debates don’t seem to interest him. Apparently ideology is something for fanatics and terrorists, who make for good plot devices – but these characters must be wrong, because they’re the villains, so their ideology must be wrong too and doesn’t need to be discussed. Neither do we learn much about the political beliefs of the protagonists, the three superhero members of Planetary – they’re the good guys, so if they believe in anything, surely it must be right after all…
Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)
Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.
This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).
Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.
As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).
The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.
Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.
All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.
Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?
In part 1 of this two-part review post, I was reluctant to recommend the recently re-launched Flash and Batman comic book series to new readers. Let’s see if Justice League and Hellblazer do better. (Again, I read both with the prequel DC Universe Rebirth #1 in mind.)
Justice League: Rebirth #1
Authors: Bryan Hitch (writer/penciller), Daniel Henriques (inker), Alex Sinclair (colourist)
Cover date: September 2016
I picked this book up because I thought it was a continuation of Bryan Hitch’s JLA (apparently officially titled Justice League of America, but on the cover it says JLA, so I’ll stick to that). And I think it was intended this way and will eventually become a sequel to JLA, because the funny thing is, JLA is still being published. Justice League: Rebirth references some events in JLA so it clearly takes place after JLA – a paradoxical situation probably due to JLA having been shipped late for some months. Right now, reading both series is confusing: in Justice League: Rebirth, Superman is dead and Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz are the Green Lanterns, whereas in JLA, Superman is still alive and Hal Jordan is Green Lantern.
Anyway, the story in this comic book is a one-shot about the Justice League fighting some giant alien in New York. There is very little connection to DC Universe Rebirth, except for the sub-plot about a second Superman getting ready to follow in the first one’s footsteps.
Justice League #1
Authors: Bryan Hitch (writer), Tony S. Daniel (penciller), Sandu Florea (inker), Tomeu Morey (colourist)
Cover date: September 2016
Bryan Hitch stays on board as writer while the art team is exchanged completely, and a new story starts that only vaguely builds on Justice League: Rebirth. The characters are the same though. And that’s the problem here: because it’s a superhero team with eight members, we don’t really learn anything about the individual characters. While Superman may still be deliberately kept in the background as a mysterious figure about whom more will be revealed in later issues, it’s frustrating when you keep wondering who these new Green Lanterns are and how they ended up in the Justice League (not to mention what has become of the old one).
The Hellblazer: Rebirth #1
Authors: Simon Oliver (writer), Moritat (artist), Andre Szymanowicz and Moritat (colourists)
Cover date: September 2016
There is only one panel in DC Universe Rebirth that shows John Constantine; in it, he talks with Swamp Thing about Abigail’s disappearance, a plot which is continued in The Hellblazer #1. The Hellblazer: Rebirth, however, is a self-contained story about Constantine outwitting a demon with the help of Mercury, a character apparently introduced in the old Hellblazer series.
Once again I have no idea what the purpose of this Rebirth book is, as it is irrelevant to both DC Universe Rebirth and The Hellblazer.
The Hellblazer #1
Authors: Simon Oliver (writer), Moritat (artist), Andre Szymanowicz and Moritat (colourists)
Cover date: October 2016
Constantine takes Swamp Thing to Mercury so that she can help him find his love interest Abigail. Meanwhile, two immortal beings who were present at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand meet again in the present day. Both of these sub-plots are merely set up here and will probably be continued in the following issues, but it is remarkable how they do not build on the Rebirth event at all. At the same time, Mercury is written as if she was supposed to be familiar to the readers (even though she didn’t appear in the pre-Rebirth Justice League Dark, for instance). Furthermore, this book is not a good introduction to the character of John Constantine, as we learn little about his backstory and the exact nature of his powers.
Summary: So was this whole Rebirth thing a good idea? If the point was to attract new readers, DC could have done much better. Instead of the unnecessary Rebirth issues (which will be collected in the first trade paperbacks of the individual series), they should have started the re-launched series with proper origin stories to fill the readers in on who the protagonists actually are. That would have been helpful for continuing readers too, who have only been left confused by DC Universe Rebirth.
Commercially, Rebirth seems to have worked for DC so far, but it remains to be seen if any noteworthy comics emerge from this mess. At any rate, the concept of continuity in superhero comics remains endangered.
In 2011, when DC ‘rebooted’ all of their comic book series (‘The New 52’), their sales figures improved drastically, at least for the first 1-2 years or so. Recently, with sales back on a low level, they must have thought: if it worked once, it must work twice. So DC relaunched/renumbered every title once again (with Action Comics and Detective Comics going back to their old issue numbers in the 900s), and indeed sales are up again. However, this ‘Rebirth’ is – once again – not a clean reboot. The stories don’t start from scratch, but rely on previously established continuity, or at least on bits and pieces of it. Are the Rebirth comics intended as jumping-on points for new readers, or to ‘fix’ continuity for old readers? Or will nobody be able to make sense of them? Let’s find out by looking at some of these new titles. Disclaimer: I have read neither Flashpoint nor Convergence, the two crossover events that bookend The New 52, which would have probably made it easier to understand what’s going on in Rebirth.
The starting point for it all is the prequel one-shot, DC Universe Rebirth:
DC Universe Rebirth #1
Authors: Geoff Johns (writer), Gary Frank, Ivan Reis, Ethan van Sciver and Phil Jimenez (artists)
Cover date: July 2016
“There’s something wrong with history. Someone has infected it and you all forgot things”, says Wally West (one of currently at least three characters named The Flash), who had been trapped inside the Speed Force. So both what happened before Flashpoint as well as what happened in The New 52 is ‘in continuity’ now, but this infection of time and memory loss are supposed to explain why everything was suddenly different in The New 52. DC Universe Rebirth is one big retconning attempt that even incorporates the Golden Age Justice Society of America, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Watchmen. Which shouldn’t make things easier for new readers, but let’s see…
For each new/relaunched series there is a prequel titled …: Rebirth, e.g. for The Flash:
The Flash: Rebirth #1
Authors: Joshua Williamson (writer), Carmine di Giandomenico (artist), Ivan Plascencia (colourist)
Cover date: August 2016
The Flash is at the center of the Rebirth crossover event, so it makes sense to begin with his series. This series, like its New 52 predecessor, starts centered on Barry Allen, not Wally West. It then repeats the scene where Wally West manages to escape from the Speed Force and meet Barry Allen. However, instead of simply reprinting the two pages in question, they are redrawn by di Giandomenico, with the text remaining unchanged. It’s a rare treat to see a part of the same script handled by two different art teams, so there’s no reason for the reader to feel cheated here. As for the story, not much happens. Wally does some more explaining/retconning: “There are pieces of our memory missing from both of us. They didn’t just take time – they took our lives, they took our friendships, our loves…”
The Flash #1
Authors: Joshua Williamson (writer), Carmine di Giandomenico (artist), Ivan Plascencia (colourist)
Cover date: September 2016
This comic shifts the focus back to Barry Allen again, and to yet another Flash, confusingly also named Wally West, who apparently had already been introduced at some point in the New 52 Flash series. While the other Wally West, together with Batman, continues to investigate this whole Rebirth mystery off-panel, an unconnected story with a new villain begins for Barry Allen.
This could develop into an entertaining series, as long as you’re willing to forget about the more exciting story that started in DC Universe Rebirth and The Flash: Rebirth.
Speaking of Batman…
Batman: Rebirth #1
Authors: Tom King and Scott Snyder (writers), Mikel Janín (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Cover date: August 2016
The story told in this comic is completely unrelated to DC Universe Rebirth. It feels like the epilogue to a previous story, but I don’t know how the New 52 Batman series ended. Batman fights an interesting supervillain, Calendar Man, then hires Duke Thomas as a new Robin (just don’t call him Robin), and performs some unlikely stunts. Reading The Flash and Batman side by side, it’s striking that both new sidekicks, ‘Wally West II’ and Duke Thomas, are African-Americans; however, both were created before Rebirth.
From here the Batman series splits into two new comics, All-Star Batman (written by the old Batman writer Scott Snyder) and Batman (written by Tom King). I picked the latter:
Authors: Tom King (writer), David Finch (penciller), Matt Banning (inker), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Cover date: August 2016
And once again, a completely new story (about Batman trying to avert a plane crash over Gotham and meeting two new rivalling superheroes) starts with no connection to either Batman: Rebirth or DC Universe Rebirth, except for the previously introduced Duke Thomas who makes a brief appearance here.
Even more so than The Flash #1, this comic book looks like a good jumping-on point if and only if you ignore the two Rebirth prequels.
Darwyn Cooke, who passed away last month, was perhaps best known for his masterpieces, DC: The New Frontier (2004), the Parker series (2009-2013), and Before Watchmen: Minutemen (2012-2013). His lesser known earlier stories for DC are collected in the trade paperback, Batman: Ego and Other Tails (2007).
Ego: A Psychotic Slide into the Heart of Darkness a.k.a. Batman: Ego (first published 2000, 62 pages)
After he fails to capture a criminal alive, Batman returns to the batcave, where Bruce Wayne is haunted by a monstrous version of his Batman persona. Like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol, this apparition lets Bruce revisit traumatic past events, and urges Bruce to renounce his ‘no killing’ creed.
In the introduction to the TPB, Cooke considers Ego “an earnest yet flawed first effort”. The biggest flaw is probably the colouring, which was apparently done by Cooke himself. An overuse of gradient effects and some unfortunate tonal choices considerably weaken the overall impression despite the beautiful line work. There’s also some heavy-handed dialogue. Apart from that, Ego is an outstanding Batman story.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Here Be Monsters (2002, 8 pp.)
Another Batman comic, albeit written by Paul Grist and drawn in black and white by Cooke. Once again, Batman experiences mental breakdown and is haunted by hallucinations, this time induced by poison. And once again, his fierce side threatens to take over. Here Be Monsters is a nice little story with striking artwork, but reading it after Ego feels redundant.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (2002, 85 pp.)
Catwoman and some accomplices set up a major train robbery, but of course things go terribly wrong. Though ostensibly set in the present day, the overall design and some anachronistic references to e.g. I Love Lucy and Angie Dickinson betray Cooke’s fondness for the 1950s. This is the longest story in this TPB, and there’s (almost) no Batman in it. In comparison to Ego, it benefits immensely from Matt Hollingsworth’s colouring. The only problem with the artwork is Cooke’s character designs, as two of the major male characters, Stark and Slam Bradley, are hard to tell apart. As for the content, I found the relationship between Catwoman and Stark unconvincing and at odds with my perception of Selina as a strong and independent woman.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
The Monument (2002, 8 pp.)
Another black-and-white comic, written by Cooke and drawn by Bill Wray, this delightfully silly little story is about a statue erected in honor of Batman. While Wray’s over-the-top, cartoonish art style fits the tone of the story, it dominates the comic to such a degree that it doesn’t feel like a Darwyn Cooke comic (or a Batman comic, for that matter).
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Date Knight (2004, 11 pp.)
Another silly short comic written by Cooke and illustrated by Tim Sale, in which Catwoman likens a fight with Batman to a romantic rendezvous. Not much of a story, but it captures the essence of the protagonists’ love-hate relationship.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Deja Vu (2005, 13 pp.)
This comic is a remake of the 1974 Batman story “Night of the Stalker” by Vin & Sal Amendola, Steve Englehart and Dick Giordano. Composed in a rigid 2 × 4 layout, this remake is written, drawn and coloured by Cooke, and this time it’s a pleasure to behold. Particularly as a colourist, Cooke seems to have had learned a lot since Ego. Once again there’s not much of a story here – Batman hunts down a gang of jewel robbers, some of which also appear in Selina’s Big Score.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Overall verdict: Obviously, Batman: Ego and Other Tails is highly relevant for those interested in Darwyn Cooke’s comics, and – while not on the same level as his aforementioned later works – will not disappoint them. Apart from that, this trade paperback can be considered required reading for readers with an interest in the characters of Batman (mainly due to the title story) and/or Catwoman (due to Selina’s Big Score, although this story has also been published as a standalone TPB).
[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:
For the second type of grid, the one with the implicit lines, consider this example:
Once 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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
After lumping Craig Owens and Hal Foster together in a blogpost on postmodernism and then writing an entire post on Foster alone, it seems only fair to return to Owens, too. Apart from “The Allegorical Impulse”, one of Owens’s texts stands out as particularly influential: “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism”, published in the collected volume The Anti-Aesthetic edited by Foster in 1983. In this essay, a connection between postmodernism and feminism is made on the basis of their critique of (visual) representation. Postmodernism questions the authority on which the modernist consensus of what can be represented and in which form has been reached: “postmodernists […] expose the tyranny of the signifier“.
Feminism, on the other hand, criticises visual perception altogether as patriarchal. This identification stands on somewhat shaky ground, at least as far as it is presented by Owens: not only is vision linked to the Freudian “discovery of castration”, i.e. the “sight of phallic absence in the mother”, but also to objectification and domination, which in a patriarchal society have become male privileges. (Interestingly, Owens doesn’t mention Laura Mulvey and her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as far as I can see.)
Considering these points, is postmodernist and/or feminist visual art conceivable at all? Yes, says Owens, and points out some examples of postmodernist/feminist artistic strategies:
- refusal of mastery (e.g. Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems)
- denial of visual pleasure (e.g. Louise Lawler’s “movie without picture”)
- reflecting back at the (male) viewer his own desire (e.g. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills)
- demonstrating that masculine and feminine are not stable identities (e.g. Barbara Kruger’s Your gaze hits the side of my face)
However, Owens also points out the possibility of adopting contrary contemporary artistic practices that attempt to “recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture”. In other words, it’s up to the artist whether or not to use the previously mentioned postmodernist/feminist strategies.
30 years later, where do comics stand? Let’s look at The Multiversity #1 once more. Which strategies do Grant Morrison and Ivan Reis employ?
Mastery is not refused, but downright celebrated in this comic book. Ivan Reis’s art (not to forget Joe Prado’s inking and Nei Ruffino’s colouring) isn’t just “good” in the sense that he depicts characters in an anatomically correct way – he goes out of his way to show them in a vast variety of poses and perspectives. It truly takes a master draughtsman to produce this kind of artwork. Likewise, Grant Morrison’s writing – plot, dialogue, breakdown (cf. Morrison’s script in The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 – Director’s Cut) – is impeccable.
There’s plenty of visual pleasure here, if by visual pleasure we mean “good girl art”. Particularly the appearances of Earth-8 Ladybug, Earth-11 Aquawoman, and Earth-23 Wonder Woman have no other purpose. (An exception to this rule is Harbinger, the artificial intelligence with a female holographic appearance, whose body is not shown here.) Thus the male viewer’s desire is never reflected.
Masculine and feminine identities are firmly in place: as I have said in my previous Multiversity blogpost, this is a story in which men act and women don’t have much to say (except for Harbinger, the femininity of which is a matter of debate). The plot is driven by the triumvirate of Nix Uotan, Thunderer and Earth-23 Superman. The brief appearance of a gay superhero couple does little to change this overall tone.
If we look at The Multiversity #1 from this perspective, it appears to be a far cry from a postmodernist and/or feminist comic.
Most of the texts examined in my “[theory] – in comics” series of blog posts stand well on their own. With Hal Foster, however, I feel that he has more to say about postmodernism than what he does say in “Postmodernism: A Preface”. So I decided to simply introduce another one of his texts here and see how it can be applied to comics: “(Post)Modern Polemics”, an essay contained in Foster’s collection Recodings from 1985.
From a scholarly perspective, “(Post)Modern Polemics” still isn’t the essay one would hope for – Foster conjures his statements out of thin air, rather than grounding them on either theory or proper empirical observations. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting opinion from an art critic who was paying close attention to what was going on in the art scene at the time. In his essay, Foster proposes a dichotomy between two concepts of postmodernism, “neoconservative postmodernism” and “poststructuralist postmodernism”. In this regard, the essay is similar to “Postmodernism: A Preface” in which Foster also proposes a postmodernist dichotomy (‘postmodernism of reaction’ and ‘postmodernism of resistance’). It should be noted, though, that Foster doesn’t claim that all contemporary art falls into one or the other of these two categories. Thus there are four possibilities for any given work of art from the mid-1980s or later: it might be neoconservative postmodernist, poststructuralist postmodernist, some other kind of postmodernist, or not postmodernist at all.
Neoconservative postmodernist art is characterised by “eclectic historicism”, “elitist allusions”, “ahistory” (i.e. it “denies historicity”), an “affirmative” stance, narratives of “masterworks” and “seminal artists”, “fragmentation”/”dampening out of connections”/”entropy”, “patriarchalism” and “phallocentrism”. Poststructuralist postmodernist art, on the other hand, is the opposite. It “questions the truth content of visual representation”, is marked by “deconstruction” and “critique”, and is concerned with “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”.
Can we find some of these characteristics in contemporary comics? For instance, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity is not only one of the outstanding comics of 2014/15, it’s also a comic that looks and feels very “postmodern”, what with breaking the fourth wall and metatextual remarks on comic books. I’m going to look at The Multiversity #1 (pencilled by Ivan Reis, published October 2014) only here.
Several of Foster’s keywords are concerned with history. Although Multiversity is set in the present, with some futuristic elements, there are a few instances of the past – buildings such as the Brooklyn Bridge (p.1) from the 19th century, or the villain “Lord Broken” who looks like a historicist mansion. A Rubik’s Cube, one of the symbols of the 1980s, can be seen on p. 2 and will play a role in a later issue of the series. Then there are historical costumes: Mr. Stubbs, protagonist Nix Uotan’s monkey sidekick, is dressed like a pirate. Most strikingly, the superhero Crusader (modeled after Captain America) wears a medieval scale armour – or rather, one of these superhero costumes that look like a scale armour but appear less encumbering and more tightly fitting than a real scale armour would be. (In the same issue, Aquawoman wears a similar costume.) On his chest he wears a cross symbol similar to a Knights Templar cross. All of these historical elements seem to be instances of “historical eclecticism”: they all appear in the present alongside each other, and we don’t learn anything about the context from which they were taken. That being said, I’m not sure whether this makes the comic as a whole “ahistorical”, as there are only very few of these elements there at all.
What about patriarchalism and “phallocentrism”? Let me put it this way: the first four major characters in this story – Nix Uotan, Thunderer, Earth-23 Superman and Captain Carrot a.k.a. Rodney Rabbit – are all male. Then Harbinger, the artifical intelligence with a female face, briefly appears before letting the men take the stage again. Vice versa, let’s look at the female characters with a talking role, which you can count on the fingers of one hand: the landlady (talking on 3 panels), the President’s secretary (4 panels), Earth-23 Wonder Woman (2 panels), the aforementioned Harbinger (10 panels), and Aquawoman (5 panels) – five characters on 40 pages, and, except for Harbinger, not particularly glamourous ones at that. So Multiversity appears decidedly male-centric. I don’t think Foster means this to be a sufficient condition for neoconservative postmodernism, though.
“Elitist allusions”? Most of the characters in this comic have previously appeared in some obscure other comics, and it takes an expert on DC comics (and Marvel as well) to recognise them all.
“Masterworks”? Grant Morrison refrains from dropping his own name or otherwise inserting himself as the “master artist” in the story, but the beginning does invoke a kind of masterwork narrative: it is about a “supposedly haunted comic from DC” (Morrison’s own The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, published a few months later) which Nix Uotan is so excited about that he wants to review it “in the form of a live dissection”.
While there are definitely traces of neoconservative postmodernism in The Multiversity, I’m not so sure about poststructuralist postmodernist elements. Superficially, The Multiversity seems to “question the truth content of visual representation” (I think we can safely extend this to include textual representations) when we read the sequence of caption boxes (pp. 3-5): “Do we have your complete attention yet?” – “Whose voice is this speaking in your head anyway?” – “Yours?” – “Ours?” – “Stop reading.” – “Continue to read.” – “Do as we tell you.” – “The choice is yours.” This is a nice gimmick, but the questioning stops there. The rest of the comic does little to break the fourth wall; it is based on the fiction of visual representation in order to achieve a reading experience that might be engrossing but not actually immersive.
Neither is Multiversity a proper critique of comics or anything. Mr. Stubbs says things like “comic books can damage your health” and “d’ya think it’s normal to be reading the comics at your age, boss?” However, Mr. Stubbs is hardly a voice of authority, being not only a chimpanzee (i.e. not as intelligent as a human – even though he can talk) but also apparently a pirate from the 18th century with accordingly outdated opinions. Thus the reader gets the opposite message: comic books are healthy reading matter for adults.
What about “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”? One thing Foster possibly means by this is that postmodernism dissolves the traditional union of artistic medium and content, i.e. the notion that a certain form of expression should represent only a certain subject matter and vice versa. Does Morrison say anything in The Multiversity that feels out of place, provocative, or outrageous for a superhero comic? You could argue that part of The Multiversity is about daring and relevant issues of race and power, too – a white proprietor collecting rent from a black tenant on one earth, a black man being both Superman and the US president on another – but in essence, it’s still a story about superheroes fighting supervillains. It’s not as if Morrison had hijacked a superhero comic book and turned it into a political pamphlet. The old paradigm of medium-specific decorum remains intact. (For a different take on The Multiversity and race, see “They Make Us Like Them: On Identity and Gentrification” by Kelly Kanayama at Women Write About Comics.)
To conclude, we have to be careful not to confuse “(Post)Modern Polemics” with a methodology that can be readily applied to comics (or any other work of art, for that matter). It’s not some test that tells us whether something is ‘postmodern’ or not. Reading a comic through Foster, however, makes us think about many different issues such as race, gender, power, identity, historicity and representation, and how they are connected to larger postmodernist ideas. Neoconservative or poststucturalist postmodernist ideas are at the bottom of many contemporary works, but rarely visible at the surface. If we have unearthed some neoconservative postmodernist notions that inform The Multiversity, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad comic, or Grant Morrison a bad person. Then again, Foster’s essay is titled “(Post)Modern Polemics” for a reason: perhaps he wants to encourage critics to take up a stance for once.
For some clever observations on The Multiversity #1, particularly regarding its backstory, see “The Multiversity Annotations, Part 1: This Review is in the Form of a Live Dissection” by David Uzumeri at Comics Alliance.