Tag Archives: comic books

This side of nowhere

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The American film set motivates and cages the cast of Sammy Harkham’s Crickets #4. The actors, crew members, director and writer all have agreed to make a film called Blood of the Virgin, even when it’s clear to them this film will be garbage, and it’s difficult to do.  They, like any American, are just chained to the idea of success. The notion of working on a Hollywood production to either be placed in front of the camera or control its every movement is intoxicating to a point of grand illusion. But Harkham never explicitly states this illusion. He only alludes to it through small nods, mostly when characters comment to one another about the film’s progress, asking if what they’re doing is even good.  For the most part, it’s our own understanding of why anyone would agree to a Hollywood production that suggests these characters’ reasons for working. We just know, because we live in their world, that they are after power and a chance to be understood.

On set, they adhere to a budget and a script, and the location commands them. Harkham frames it all through a series of tight panel grids, confining this cast of several to a shared setting, bouncing all the players back and forth between each other. He just guides us through these scenes as they happen, introducing characters in passing, giving us the briefest hint of what it is they contribute to the production. There are insults thrown, jokes shared, and Harkham crafts clever gag strips around them, despite already committing to a larger frame of dense, 16 to 20 panel comic pages. This choice layers a feeling of confinement. Characters find themselves hyper-focused within 3 to 4 panel strips as a larger operation of page design exists all around them, influencing their movements. In ways, Harkham’s characterizations subtly suggest who his cast members really are, but because they’re players in short strips their involvement often leads to a punchline.

These punchlines, while funny, can be fairly illuminating. They can straddle a few angles, and be complex. When the writer, Seymour, is asked to “approve the camp set,” he simply lights a cigarette and smashes what’s in front of him. Harkham, in three panels, makes us laugh, and externalizes Seymour’s angst of being subjugated by the film’s director.

Seymour is the creator of Blood of the Virgin, yet he needs the director, Oswald, to make his movie, even though their visions don’t always correlate. Blood of the Virgin pairs these men together (as the issue’s cover might suggest), but it’s a conflict of power, of who exactly is in charge of this thing and what he wants, that disrupts their relationship and introduces reality to everyone else’s magic moment.  Oswald argues with his lead actor because of a difference in creative choice, and the actor reacts by storming off, asking “is that how you see me, you lousy pecker-wood piece of shit?”. That actor, because of the reality of who has power over him, loses his grasp on his own perception of himself. He may be a creative contributor, but Oswald decides how the audience will see him.

Ironically, this display of authority unseats Oswald. When reports of turmoil between the lead actor and the director reach the film’s financier, it’s decided, by this figure of ultimate authority, that Oswald is unfit for the project, and Seymour is handed the role. Which is what Seymour secretly wants, but with the position he finds how authoritative he must be. It’s a realization Harkham cleverly illustrates when Seymour, as director, must decide whether a take was good or not, and he hesitates in his answer with the entire crew awaiting his response. The lack of confidence Harkham draws on Seymour’s face says it all. That he hasn’t really considered what a director does, but assumed he was capable of it.

At home, Seymour has a wife. She’s introduced as a woman masturbating on a couch despite her baby crying in the other room. Harkham frames this sequence by starting with a closeup on the kid, zooming out, cutting to a large, wide panel of the wife, and then zooming in on her and her ecstasy. He’s transitioning from one image to the other as well as crosscutting them. As a housewife, this mother has great responsibility, but this responsibility can be a cage. As we know, living in our world, plenty of housewives have wanted more, whether professional fulfillment or social freedom. Their position, though some many enjoy it, can be a personal limitation, especially when the husband gets to leave and pursue what he wants. Here, though, Harkham shows this character taking control by attending to herself even though a responsibility requires attention. That she’s doing so over the cries of her child feels a bit disturbing, but it makes the act even more rebellious. It shows that with Seymour away, she isn’t lost.

The comic ends with Seymour driving a drunk Oswald home through a desert town outside of Hollywood. A place known as “the palm of God’s hand,” somewhere you imagine great things are possible so long as they aren’t crushed. This is after they’ve fought, and Oswald has lost his position. It’s at a point when Seymour may have a right to ignore the guy. He doesn’t. He drives him home and dumps him on his front lawn. It seems harsh to do it that way, but the fact is Seymour was there when no one else was. He’s using his ability as a human being to care for someone else, in some way. You don’t know if this is where their relationship ends or just takes another turn, but you get the sense there’s some fact found. That off the film set they’re still connected. That they have some power over one another.

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“Everybody’s been too damn polite about this nonsense”

Saturday’s usually a quite day on the internet. Nothing really happens. Most people use the day as an opportunity to step outside and experience the real world.

But when Frank Miller decides to drop a king sized bastard of a blog post, well, people tend to log back on.

I’m sure by now most of you have read Miller’s latest example of public expression. It’s a little blog post he titled “Anarchy.” In it, Miller criticizes the now inescapable Occupy movement as well as suggests that our real enemy exists in the form of a turban and prays to another god. Haven’t read it? Do so. It’s interesting.

Now, before I really set out on this attempt of clearing my head, I need you to understand that Frank Miller is and always will be one of the absolute greats in this medium we call comic books. No matter what he states on the internet, no matter the man’s political beliefs, Miller’s pure ability as a visual storyteller earns him a pile of respect. I guess you could say it’s similar to Dave Sim. His views of women and whatever else may be completely insane, but removed from that Sim’s skill as a draftsman as well as completing such a ambitious project gives his credibility as a comics artist.

It’s complicated. Most suggest the artist and the artwork are one and the same, and they are, but it doesn’t always mean that you can drag in outside comments to tear down the actual works. It’s two different contexts.

So, I love Frank Miller’s comics, and I most likely always will. Because you know what? They’re great. Absolutely great. This world would be an even sadder place without a Dark Knight Strikes Again in it.

That said, because I can discuss Miller’s works as Miller’s works …you know, as their own thing, away from the other stuff, I can discuss Frank Miller as Frank Miller. Meaning, without discussing his works, I can talk about his beliefs and how he chooses to express them online. So that’s what this post is. This is a criticism of Miller’s blog post and the point he makes in it. None of this has anything to do with Miller’s comics. And I must say, Miller’s gone a little far.

I’m completely cool with an artist holding an opinion. Even when it’s an opinion I could not disagree with more. Opinions make us who we are, and this is a world of variety. In some funny way, even when differing opinions may annoy us, the human species, most, I feel varied opinions are an absolute necessary otherwise we’d all be chugging Diet Coke and watching re-runs of Charles in Charge, acting as if that were the pinnacle of society. So, if Frank Miller wants to be all conservative and tell the young kids to get jobs, fine, he can do just that. I wouldn’t agree with the belief, but if it’s how he feels, whatever, I can ignore the opinion and still read DKSA happily.

His latest statement goes beyond opinion though and into territory of hate and unnecessary name calling. As Miller puts it, the Occupiers are “nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness” who will undoubtedly “harm America.” That’s a bit much.

The Occupy movement may have made a mess of Miller’s beloved New York City, and it may also lack a solid focus, but to go out and generalize an entire group of people as “rapists” and “thieves” extends beyond the regular old understanding of being upset and disagreeing. And to claim that the movement will “harm America” … I don’t know, that only comes off like a plea from a successful man who enjoys the system currently in place because he’s at the top of it.

I kind of get where Miller’s coming from with his dislike of the Occupy Movement. He’s a cartoonist who’s worked hard for many year to achieve what he possesses today. He worked for the respect, the reputation and the money. And difficult work as well, locked away in isolation hunched over a drawing board. So, yeah, kids marching in the street, somehow acting like they’re entitled would set you off. You’d want to be the old man bellowing “get off my fucking lawn” in order to voice some concern over the latest generation’s willingness to work.

The problem is though that the Occupy Movement isn’t that simple.

I’m sure there are plenty of people protesting who fit the description of “young and entitled,” and I’m sure there are at least a dozen who are simply lazy and want handouts. But what about all the people who have actually tried to get jobs – like the college graduates – or the individuals who had jobs,  were laid off, tried all other means possible and now only have this? I’m sure there are also examples of that. So, what, they’re all rapists, now? Thieves?

No. Occupy is just a group of people who want change. Yeah, the focus may not be entirely tight, but I don’t necessarily feel that matters. What matters is the idea within this movement. The idea that people have tried and tried, but because the system is so damn complicated and broken, have no other option and now must take to the streets in order to voice a desire for help. That’s all this is at this point. It’s the social consciousness manifested into a physical form, and it’s showing everyone that these large problems can no longer be ignored.

I can only disagree with Miller when he states that the movement will “harm America.” No. What’s in place now, this broken system … that will harm America. Not the people’s desire for change and improvement.

And there’s also the call to arms Miller puts forth. According to him, we should all enlist with the military immediately to fight the real enemy … Al-Qaeda.

Now while these guys aren’t entirely nice and kind, Miller voices his concern for Al-Qaeda in a way which suggests fear. Fear of extremists rising up and shattering everything we know. He then moves on to insult what is probably most of his fan base – the nerds – by using the age old “you live in you mom’s basement” technique.

Really, a class act.

Certainly, Al-Qaeda is something to be concerned about as they are in favor of scary, bad things – to put it plainly. And I do feel that this extreme group should be dealt with in some fashion – whether diplomatically or actively – in order to protect innocent people. But Miller kind of casts these guys as cartoon villains, or as the “black” to his “white.” There is no grey.

And that’s the problem. We live in a fucking grey world. To be so “these are the bad guys, we’re the good guys” comes off as immature, really. It comes off as extreme. Isn’t that what Miller’s against? Extremism? I thought so, but this blog post really has me questioning. If Miller’s against extreme measures, well, I would say he’s being a bit hypocritical here because this “call to action” is completely extreme. I mean, the guy wants all of us to go to war and kill terrorists. That’s like as extreme as it gets.

That’s better than peacefully protesting the government? Really, Frank Miller?

While Miller may fear a sense of extreme anarchy, it seems he’s entirely for an extreme sense of order. You know, keep the powerful on top and eliminate the crazed religious guys. Put us all in the military where we can wear the uniforms and jump out of bed at 5 am. I kind of can’t believe Frank Miller – the same Frank Miller I have always loved – wrote this blog post. But I guess I should.

When I first read Miller’s statement, I automatically went into a mode of justification. I needed to find a way to justify his actions here because Miller, to me, has always been a man worth respecting. And I still feel he is simply based off of his work. But the fact is, Miller, even though a hero, isn’t exactly what I felt he was cracked up to be. At first response, I sent out this tweet:

So Frank Miller said some highly conservative shit. Big deal. I don’t agree whatsoever, but it’s not like he kicked me in the balls.

After a few moments of thought though, Miller’s statement went past simple “conservative shit.” This tweet was my sad attempt to save Frank Miller in my own eyes. I was fighting off the truth about someone I look up to. Reading “Anarchy” kind of falls in a similar place as meeting your hero. That terrible thought in which your hero does not live up to expectations. Yeah, I guess he kind of did kick me in the balls.

So I can’t really justify or apologize for Miller’s outside concerns anymore. He is a legend, and I love his comics – but I have to face facts – Miller’s political beliefs are not my own, and the way he choose to voice them leans a bit close to the extreme, and I’d say, unhealthy. The man can be a great cartoonist, and I can enjoy his work. This doesn’t mean I cannot call him out on his absolute bullshit, though. And that goes for any artist, really. Whether comics, music or film. I can dig the work, but just because I dig the work or am a fan doesn’t mean I have to stick up for everything they do or say.

Because “Anarchy” is absolute bullshit. Just the typings of a fearful, “good vs. evil” man. Miller does claim everyone is “too damn polite about this nonsense,” but I’d say his rough and rude approach did little to help either.

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Why do I like comics?

I wrote an article for my college newspaper The Daily Athenaeum on why I like comics and find them worth the time. I’m not sure if I managed to express everything, but I like my attempt. It’s written with an outsider audience in mind,  but, if you wish, you can read it.

Comic books. Those pulpy collections of scrap. A trashy source of entertainment only fit for those on the fringe of the social circle. A laughable commodity. A dead end. A zone preoccupied by childish fantasies. Who cares about comic books?

Me. I do.

As Scott McCloud notes in his seminal work “Understanding Comics,” communication through pictures holds deep roots in man’s history. Cave paintings depicted the life and culture of our ancient ancestors. These were the first examples of man’s ability to create and pursue artistic ventures. Maybe these remnants are now considered paintings, pertaining more to a medium of acrylics, but look at what those early visuals accomplished. They told stories. They illustrated an idea.

And in such a direct fashion. Like comics.

Comics derive their power from how accessible they are. Anyone with a pencil and a sheet of paper can cartoon. In fact, I’d say most of us already have.

Middle school, stuck in a useless math class, you doodled. Maybe your doodles didn’t shape up into panels and sequentially act upon one another, but the idea of pencil to paper is the same.

What you thought of in your mind only took minutes to translate to physical copy. Whatever your idea was, it came out on paper without going through a middle man of some sort.

Other media does not offer such a luxury. Hollywood makes it nearly impossible for a director or screenwriter to tell the exact story they desire. Television shows act similarly because of network constraints.

Hell, even news reporters are confided to two minute packages, and even me, the little sophomore of a writer in the old college newspaper, I go through a middleman. You may not even read this statement.

Comics, in their ideal form, bypass this. Anyone with an idea and a lick of talent can draw and self-publish a comic book, and because of that comics can offer a wide variety of perspectives, genres and voices.

The artists behind them also possess much more control over the final product and ensure their vision comes through.

What matters more, though, is the form of communication. We all know, on some base level, how comic strips work. There’s a picture, and there’s a caption or word balloon laid overtop of it. It seems simple, and most would say the combination requires little to no complexity because of how little attention it takes to read a comic.

Fact is, you’re wrong.

The marriage of images and words involves a lot more than you’d initially expect. Both elements have to coexist. It’s like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Both can work well on their own decorating bread, but when you combine them, they have to be even. If one overpowers the other, the formula fails, and you end up with an unsatisfying experience. You need to find joy in both elements in an even, collaborative state.

Many artists fail to find this balance, but when the execution works, man, it’s like nothing else.

Because, even though ideas through visuals may seem first grade, the form strikes a chord. We’re all influenced and emotionally struck by images. Visuals are visceral and up front. Novels packed with thousands of words may seem scholarly, and they are, but text, prose – it takes much more effort to inspire reaction.

Comic panels may seem infantile because they can be so direct, but, fact is, the ease of ability to convey a point makes comics a complex beast. Skill of an artist is responsible for such an ease of understanding on the reader’s end.

If anything, comic books are a breeding ground for new ideas. The accessibility I mentioned earlier allows creative individuals to go wild, and it seems with some comics – at least the very good ones – ideas manifest on each and every page.

Comic books aren’t slow. At least, they shouldn’t be. They work in small chunks of 20 pages and release on a monthly basis. An artist has little time while telling a story through comics. Not only because of the system and format but because of how the medium works.

Panels cannot act repetitive. It’s like film in that sense. You become bored after staring at the same image for so long. Comics have to keep you on your toes; therefore, each page and each panel go somewhere new.

And through this comes, what should be, an ever exciting landscape of narrative.

But, even as I write this in order to somehow legitimize comics, remember: They are comic books. Never are they cool. Most of them involve tights and capes or zombies and space ships.

The medium itself, the inner working of the art form. Yeah, that’s sophisticated. But the content? Sure, large, universal ideas can be communicated and often are, but usually these themes shine through grown men punching each other while wearing funny outfits.

I mean, they are “funny” books after all.

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