Mask Killers


As the countdown finally draws near to the release of Watchmen in theatres, more and more thought is being devoted to the role of comics in both modern entertainment and modern society in general. I remember buying Watchmen from issue one at my university comics shop and we all knew that something extraordinary was happening. Literature was being produced as an original comic, and gaining the respect it deserved. This awareness from the mainstream that graphic novels were as much novels as they were graphics came to the west late (manga have dominated Japanese reading tastes for decades already) but it has been embraced with a cultural fervor rarely seen since Strauss created the concept of popular music and the “rock star”.

Now, we all of us seem to live in comic books, each the hero of our own rivalries and cliffhangers. We each have arch foes and rogues galleries, each tend to see our lives in four-color splendor, panel by panel. Comic book reality suits the speed, tone and level of self absorption of the modern world that we are muddle through. Is it any wonder that comic style has found it’s way into the other creative arts as well, especially film? I recently read an excellent piece by film critic Nigel Andrews that looks at the growing intersection of moving and static pictures, especially as it pertains to Watchmen, which I have reposed after the jump.

See you all in the funny papers.

The following is reposted from The Financial Times.

The relationship between cinema and comics

By Nigel Andrews

Dateline London, January 2009. Six of us – your reporter and a handful of travellers – were in ta Tube train halted in a station when we overheard the intercom in the driver’s cabin. “Stay in the station till further notice,” burbled the voice. “No trains passing through Oxford Circus, driver. Staff there examining a glowing pot.”

A what? The six of us exchange quizzical glances: surely we have misheard. Glowing pot? Then the voice came on again. “No further movement, driver. Stay on platform. Ongoing delay due to glowing pot.”

So there: the world is a comic strip and we are in it. We six realised, or I did (having a career in the appraisal of fantasy and its porous interface with reality), that in a post-comic-book world anything can happen. The Oxford Circus incident sounded like a job for Superman or Batman. Glowing pot? Everyday incident in Metropolis or Gotham City. (I never did find out what it was – supply your surmise.)

Today we can thank not just magazines with famous brand names – DC or Marvel – for our ability to recognise comic-book moments that stray into real life. We can thank movies too, which have devoured and regurgitated the best-known heroes and villains from comics and graphic novels. A cult that 60 years ago dared barely speak its name, back when the mid-century moral mullahs deemed comics the scourge of our children, now sires films, spores websites and even dictates headlines in respectable newspapers. The other week I read, “A bird, a plane and Superman” bannered above the tale of the aircraft that put down on the Hudson.

Last year’s top box-office hit was The Dark Knight, based on graphic novelist Frank Miller’s penumbral re-imagining of Batman. This year’s early super-fillip for Hollywood may be Watchmen, the film of Alan (V for Vendetta) Moore’s epic about a crisis time among caped adventurers. Created 20 years ago, Watchmen has a near-biblical reputation among graphic-novel geeks. Moore anticipated even Miller in the deconstructing of the comic-book genre, producing a multi-episode saga that asks essentially: “Who the heck are these masked heroes who do our wish-fulfilment work? And how mixed-up would you have to be to become one?” (Watchmen the film has been entrusted as a live-action project to director Zack Snyder, probably as reward for his quasi-painterly, digitised triumph with Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300.)

Back in that fulminating midpoint of the last century, comic books were seen as degradations of literature. Their pictorial spoonfeeding would atrophy a kid’s interest in the printed word. Their bloodthirsty action would corrupt his or her moral being.

Today the best comics are honoured as near-prophetic screeds: their mix of words and pictures form a pop-hieroglyphic art that tilts at global or social anxieties, through fable and fantasy, and interrogates notions of heroism, while occupying an aesthetic vantage ground between literature and cinema.

Comics are made up of frames in motionless sequence, movies of frames in kinetic sequence. The second merely hitches a ride on that human quirk called the persistence of vision. The Oxford Dictionary defines this as “the continuance of a visual impression after the exciting cause is removed”. (“Exciting cause”! On the high seas of sensory impact, emotion is a stowaway even in phrases intended for scientific neutrality.) When a picture flashes on a screen from the projector, the mind carries it forward to the next picture. Ingmar Bergman, in his memoirs, commented on the miracle whereby human perception erases the shuttered intervals between frames, annihilating the fact that a large percentage of a watched film is actually complete darkness.

In my more brainstorming moments, I wonder if the cinema’s obsession with comic books (apart from their earning power at the box office) does not come from some yearning to un-invent the wheel. Guilty about the perceptual fraud practised on the viewer, the filmmaker longs to revert to the chaste integrity of still frames in sequence. Think of the great directors who have loved to halt the moving-image flow at major moments. Think of Eisenstein’s famous set-pieces: the rearing lion statue (done as successive freeze-shots) or the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin with its virtual staccato of eyeblink horrors. Think of Orson Welles prologuing Citizen Kane with those haunting still images of Xanadu. Think of the bullet-point montages that provide violent, virtuoso consummations in Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch.

The comic book and graphic novel thrive on this modus narrandi: you could argue they are all climax and no build-up, that is their appeal. Almost every frame is a fresh crisis or revelation. Superheroes and supervillains bound from one cartouche to the next in non-stop narrative teleportations. Occasionally an extra-large frame, occupying a page or double page, will give the story a moment of pause, the strain of so much movement-without-movement releasing itself in an oxygenated fresco blown by the winds of wide perspective. Then it is back to the headlong momentum: every new picture a pinpoint of drama, everything at stake on the most urgent of all possible planets.

To nourish that urgency, there is nearly always in action comics or graphic novels an elemental contact with reality, even when disguised or encrypted. Never mind that these stories are fantasy, or in 300 fantasised history. The best of them feed on the actual or parody-actual, like meat grabbed through the bars of the frame. Watchmen makes extraordinary reading today – and must have done 20 years ago – since author Moore proposes a doom-ridden America governed into the 1980s by Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford is a supporting character. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan might never have been born.

Moore’s Nixon has seized his early moment of glory, when he congratulated the moon-landing astronauts, and extended it into a jealous but increasingly jittery lording over earth and space. In a world under nascent threat from everything and everyone, vigilante adventurers – heroic or renegade, semi-retired or self-reenlisted – dash about the planet like bouncers at a fancy dress ball. Today, Watchmen’s extended Nixonian America seems weirdly similar to the late, unlamented George W Bush regime, when the US spent eight years practising organised self-harm. (Hence too, surely, the vivid, contemporary-seeming vibes emanating from Frost/Nixon.)

Watchmen treats its crusader characters with every semblance of seriousness, whether they are righting wrongs on Earth or soaring off to another planet for a stretch of extraterrestrial reflection. Psychologised to within an inch of their lives, the Moore characters are explored for clues as to why people do good, why they do bad, and why they dress up to do either. (The fantastical is treated, with no switch of tone, as part of the all-encompassing study field.) On the page, Watchmen is both solemn and parodic, whiz-bang and scholarly: a combination of Jules Verne and Jorge Luis Borges. On screen, Watchmen will need to burn energy and blaze inventiveness to get anywhere near this combination of pop élan and existential complexity. (Moore has chosen to be uncredited for Watchmen, and has disowned previous films from his work, including From Hell and V for Vendetta. But his underlying cinephilia is evident from the “Rosebud”-style glass ball – homage to Citizen Kane – that is a major motif in Watchmen.)

The book also casts, at times, a hauntingly minimalist spell. One late chapter ends with a page that is an apotheosis of the graphic novelist’s art. Though Moore does not do his own drawings – here the work of Dave Gibbons – he maps the book out visually. Chapter Nine closes with three astonishing black frames bare but for a sprinkle of stars, a sense of foreboding and a diminuendo of speech balloons. This three-stage speech is uttered to his off-frame beloved by an off-frame superhero, taking a Martian sabbatical. At large in the heavens as Earth anguishes below, he says: “Come … dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly … Dry your eyes … ” Next frame: “ … And let’s go home”. Final frame: silence, and void, and twinkling blackness.

Can Hollywood handle that? Can it handle the soar of thought and reach of eschatological feeling? Can it do justice to the book’s succession of frozen images whose meanings wrestle for release, and whose gestures reach towards the dream of motion, like the unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo? In the best comic books and graphic novels, movement is the deferred magic that gives the pages their dormant power and dynamism. In the greatest cinema, stillness is the magic to which motion nostalgically, primally aspires to return. That is why the relationship between the two forms, though it may never be a marriage, will always be alive, mysterious and passionate as a romance.


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