Thursday, August 23, 2007


The only great problem with cinema seems to me more and more with each film when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.
-- Jean-Luc Godard

Over at Bully's comics blog, there's an interesting discussion thread on the relative merits/demerits of "decompressed" comics, i.e., those which contain relatively little dialogue per page, stretch their narratives out across an arc of several issues, and use the space of a monthly "floppy" comic to only delineate a small amount of time passing. It's initially very tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's a more serious point underlying it, which is: what do we expect from our entertainment (or, indeed, any form of communication)? This really interests me because I'm teaching a course on comics in the fall, and I'm sure some of this will come up in one form or another. I jumped in on the thread to defend the notion of decompression, and the comic under discussion (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's lovely Ultimate Spider-Man), and Bully, as is his wont, responded with a very articulate post that answered a lot of my initial questions, so I won't repeat any of that here (esp. since you should be bookmarking Bully's excellent site for daily fun reading, anyway: his is the only blog I know of that combines snarky comics commentary with fine appreciations of P.G. Wodehouse, and the only one written by a cute stuffed bull with a Jane Wiedlin crush).

For now, I am more interested in the larger questions of reading and enjoyment that Bully's post raises, and its intersections with questions of:

1) Literacy: Bully's initial post compares an old Stan Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man comic from the sixties with an Ultimate Spider-Man from the present, and the difference in the amount of dialogue in each is striking: Lee-Ditko's work is text-heavy, full of lengthy exchanges, and exposition-heavy thought balloons. And I do mean "heavy": the text balloons take up so much of the space of each panel that Peter Parker's thoughts literally seem to be weighing on him, or closing in around his legs, a wonderful, subtextual visualization of Marvel neurosis. The Bendis-Bagley USM pages, by contrast, are driven by the visuals: the panels are larger and more varied in shape, the dialogue is sparser, and less visually prominent, and there are no thought balloons-- indeed, as opposed to the complete sentences of Stan Lee, Bendis's dialogue is full of his patented pauses, stammers and cut-off sentences, as word and text combine to suggest how certain shocking situations are beyond articulation.

Neither approach is "bad"-- both work quite well to get at their narrative and thematic points in direct and indirect ways. One of the concerns on the comments thread is about declining literacy: as one poster worries, in a time when young people may already be reading less, are comics abandoning a certain responsibility/opportunity to create a "fun" form of reading? Or, as another notes, does Marvel undercut its trademark style by not having as much interiority to its characters' interactions, given the smaller amount of text? Interesting questions, both. But we might also ask: what kind of literacy? After all, Walter Benjamin said that the future would hold, not people illiterate of the word, but illiterate of the image: does the Bendis-Bagley Spider-Man merely reflect this shift, and as Jeff is fond of noting (in different contexts), not deny us "reading," but merely teach us a different way to read?

2) Economics: Another way to read decompression is through the economics of the comics industry, and here I do agree more with the anti-decompressors: there is a canniness to Marvel's USM strategy, in terms of how it keeps you reading six or seven-issue arcs instead of containing said stories in two or three issues (as it might have as recently as the 80s), thus guaranteeing they can be collected in a trade paperback with a thematic title (like "Power & Responsibility"). And given the rising cost of comics (2.50 or so per issue, as opposed to the 12 cents of Stan Lee' s day, or the 75 cents of when I collected as a teen), and the declining audience for "floppies," it's worth considering, as several in the coments thread do, the long-term effects of such a strategy on the future of the industry/form. There's also a concern expressed on the thread that you get "less bang for your buck" with such a strategy: "You can read them in five minutes" is a recurring complaint, and I get that.

On the other hand..."Decompression" has a longer history-- the thread cites Manga (see point #3), and I would also cite the influence of "indie" comics on Bendis's aesthetic (since that's where he got his start). But even within Marvel's traditional superheroes line, in the "good old days," you had narrative runs on titles like the X-Men, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four and indeed, Spider-Man, that would be stretched out over years of continuity; sure, within those issues there were other, non-arc plot threads that filled the space and kept you reading, but it seems to me that one of the joys of serialized narrative is following characters and their universes over several issues/films/television seasons, seeing how each new episode (and I use the term broadly) adds a riff to the overall song of the characters. The influence of other media can't be underestimated here, either: especially with the rise of Netflix and TV-on-DVD, the multi-part collection seems to be the new narrative model for a variety of forms, not just comics (it's clear that, in part, there's an ironic influence of comics themselves on the best examples of this storytelling, i.e., Buffy). It's also odd to me that we complain about the narrative spaciousness and "emptiness" (the "nothing happens") of comic narrative, while worrying less about the same "problem" in cinema: how many of the folks worried or annoyed about comics decompression enjoyed the cinematic version of 300, for example, a film where narrative is only the tenuous thread upon which beautiful battle mosaics and displays of technological, painterly prowess are staged? Again, that's not a complaint, just an inquiry into what we expect from different forms, and why.

I'm certainly not going to defend a mediocre monstrosity like Marvel's recent Civil War, a multi-title 'event' that seems to exist only to sell a dozen-plus trade collections, and offers little beyond a one-sentence thesis about "good" and "evil" (and a very muddled, adolescent thesis at that, appealing to the worst libertarian instincts of its readership). But that seems different to me than the digressions within an issue that you find in something like Ultimate Spider-Man, which feel less like the "vamp till ready" quality of Civil War, and more like the pleasures mapped out by Roland Barthes in Pleasure of the Text:

Why do some people, including myself, enjoy in certain novels, biographies, and historical works the representation of the “daily life” of an epoch, of a character? Why this curiosity about petty details: schedules, habits, meals, lodging, clothing, etc.? Is it the hallucinatory relish of “reality” (the very materiality of “that once existed”)? And is it not the fantasy itself which invokes the “detail,” the tiny private scene, in which I can easily take my place? …

Thus, impossible to imagine a more tenuous, a more insignificant notation than that of “today’s weather” (or yesterday’s); and yet, the other day, reading, trying to read Amiel, irritation that the well-meaning editor (another person foreclosing pleasure) had seen fit to omit from this Journal the everyday details, what the weather was like on the shores of Lake Geneva, and retain only insipid musing: yet it is this weather that had not aged, not Amiel’s philosophy (53-54).

3) Cross-Cultural Exchanges: What happens when Marvel meets Manga? When Spider-Man seems to be written by Adrian Tomine? Can action and adventure co-exist with the stammers and pauses of a Richard Linklater film (is Marvel doing "mumblecore")? What happens when a flagship title gets taken over by a guy like Bendis, who likes The Larry Sanders Show and Reds?

Marvel's great talent, like Classic Hollywood's, was its ability-- as mapped out beautifully in Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation-- to constantly assimilate other threads into its superhero structures (the romance comic, the advertising graphics of Jim Steranko, the counter-cultural angst of Steve Englehart, the slick, cinematic noir of Frank Miller, the journalistic "realism" of Denny O'Neil, etc.), using those new threads to rejuvanate itself while maintaining its overall stylistic and ideological principles. It is the Borg of comic book companies, for better and worse, and perhaps "decompression" is the latest manifestation of said quality. In a way, this takes us back to those questions of form and expectation: what counts as "real" or "value"? What happens when styles (or disciplines, or approaches) begin to mingle? And how much of our love for the text-heavy work of Stan Lee (work, I want to emphasize, that I really adore) relies on a nostalgia for what was, as much as a concern for what is, or will be?

4) The "Do Much": "With great power, comes great responsibility," we're told, so in the end, what's the responsibility of the comic? To its audience (and what is that audience?), to its creators, and to its form/industry? Again, with the nostalgia: what seemed radical in Stan Lee's day (heroes with problems! Text-heavy interiority! Witty, New Wave-like asides to the readers!) quickly became the norm (Barthes: "What happens when the stereotype moves left?"), suggesting that Borg-like tendencies are prevalent among readers as well as corporations. This tendency towards reproducibility, repetition (even, or perhaps especially, of seemingly "radical" deviations) has been noted as occuring across a lot of fields or disciplines, as has its inevitable response: the rise of counter-forms, mutations which often inspire a revulsion when first seen. Since I am a teacher, I am interested in how this response plays out in the classroom; once, struggling with a Barthesian writing assignment, a student wrote to me: "That [option-- they could choose among two or three] seems pretty, and interesting, but it doesn't do much." I've been thinking about that line ever since, as it encapsulates so many questions, challenges and opportunities to me, in terms of thinking about new forms of response to popular culture. I don't quote it to make fun of the student (oh, our students!), because I think you'd get a similar response from grad students or professors when faced with the mutation to the norm, and indeed, I'm not even sure it's not a brilliant observation. What do we want our texts to "do"? And what counts as "much"? Is the responsibility of an academic paper or a comic book similar: to offer text-heavy explication, step-by-step transitions through the already-familiar narratives and characters of our respective universes? Or could an academic paper also be a blog post (like a comic, a balance of text, image, and advertising (by linking to other sites)? In other words, where is the space to digress from the linear, "inevitable" throughline, to "decompress" in a more minute, fragmented way? How can we get our work to swing?


Bully said...

A fantastic post and a thought-provoking analysis that explores some of the things I think about it a lot...great work!

I must admit had I know how much discussion it would spark I might have colored my initial post a little more towards the casual; my intent was simply "Hey, look at how wordy this Marvel Comic is! Can you believe that?" It wasn't meant to be a political discussion but I always like getting into talking about perceived value, so I couldn't resist in the comments and...well, like Topsy, it grew and grew.

And I thank you, because you absolutely sum up what I was trying to say but really didn't come out and mention when you write "Neither approach is "bad." Really, BMB fans, stop sending me the hate mail. I loves me the USM.

dave said...

Very interesting post, and also an interesting provocation regarding academic papers. It strikes me that, in the latter, particularly with academic presentations, the images on screen might not be in _exact_ conjunction with the talk. I saw Gregory Ulmer give a fantastic presentation a few years ago in which a documentary played behind him. While the doc. certainly had to do with the main subject of his talk, it also allowed for several unexpected juxtapositions/moments of contact between the presentation and the visuals (in much the same way as blog images, sometimes, have both intended and unintended points of contact with the text).

Cinephile said...

Thanks, Bully! Your blog is a constant source of stimulation and enjoyment for me. Dave-- I think I remember the Ulmer presentation you mention, or at least saw one similar to it, and I agree that the playful/unexpected relations between image and text are often something to shoot for-- I think, to play a bit more with the "swing" term I mention at the end, that that's where the rhythm and melodic improvisation of our thoughts (to torture my analogy further) really lies. And you're right, if I'm understanding your implied point correctly, that such a play is slightly different than what we sometimes get in mainstream comics like spider-man (although I think it's possible-- I love the spaciousness of the bendis-bagley spider-man panels precisely because they don't explain everything for you, and I'm also thinking of the art work in Transmetropolitan, or Luke McDonnell's offbeat, superhero-meets-harvey pekar cityscapes in mid-80s Iron Man, where the margins are sometimes as interesting as the center of the panel).