The Edenic Fracture: Panel Madness Day One

Ah, the lowly panel. What with all our fantastic page layouts and meticulously-assembled stories in page-to-page transitions, we often seem to forget all about it, don’t we? And yet I will argue that all the fascination of comics storytelling begins in the pregnancy of the single panel, the single image: the time and space control that comics storytelling employs begins there, in (as this fellow notes, with a clarity that should shame those of us who talk about such things for…well, not a living, exactly…) the rising crescendo of deferred action, the world all foregrounded and all climactic, suspended and vibrating: the glimpse of the sublime that organizes our reading, and keeps us coming back for more. The moments of static motion and of sudden improbable silence, that give our reading many centres…many seedings.

And so welcome to the Panel Madness Week blogaround, of which this essay is the first installment. You can thank this exegesis of a single panel from V For Vendetta for the inspiration (hmm, and I do believe there were one or two more like it, as well…you might want to browse around)…

And go ahead, read that first one, if you haven’t already…

And so: the lowly panel.

But, what’s in a name? My fellow contributors have all selected panels, but single images of this “panel” storytelling type need not be looked for only inside the comic book: sometimes a cover is a story, too…

Hell, sometimes even a movie poster is a comics story!

Although at other times, quite plainly, it is not.

Pardon the links; this is not ordinarily a picture-oriented blog. I’m too lazy to get my shit together that way on a regular basis, I’m afraid; plus, I don’t have a scanner. But I’m about to make an exception to that usual method of posting, here, because I really do want you to see this one Steranko image (pilfered with gratitude from CSBG — thanks, Greg!), that’s been haunting me for a while, now. Probably because it’s a picture of where I grew up:

In other words, a picture of science fiction paperbacks in the 1970s. And, just incidentally, a picture of what comics mean to me, too. A flash of an image: the sublime drags you into itself. Look through any of these windows, any at all, and you’ll see it — it’s nothing less than eternity in a grain of sand. Heaven in a wildflower.

It’s hard for me to estimate just how formative my encounters with these objects were; anyway they were formative enough so that a lot of my ways of using language accreted around these potent symbols, magic mirrors into the dynamism of the psyche. Ah, the psyche: the psychology of the individual, as Jeeves would call it.

Very big stuff at the time.

And so I’m not sure how this image “reads” to someone not of my particular vintage — cool? Bit blah? A little conventional? — because to me it almost ideally encapsulates a certain almost-forgotten flavour, vagrant scent, raw spirit of the time it was made in. Cultural objects never exist in a vacuum, after all: but do you see Logan’s Run and Planet Of The Apes and Jonathan Livingston Seagull in this? Up The Line and Silent Running and The Man In The High Castle? The hippies with their wild hair and beads, and the SF nerds with their white short-sleeved shirts and pocket protectors, and the geeky love of wild and far-out tales that kind of, sort of, joined the two groups up? With a little bit of something else simmering away underneath there, too: Catch-22 and Trout Fishing In America and Catcher In The Rye and Slaughterhouse-Five. Rocket Ship Galileo and Steal This Book and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Even I’m OK, You’re OK. The motives of the experimentations of that time have I think been largely forgotten — and it’s not really anybody’s fault, it’s just, well…who can remember every little detail? But that’s where you find the Devil, in this story; this was all as the strange and exciting time of generational Movement in the Sixties was sliding out of its first act, and into its second — out of the “present” moment, and into the uncharted future — and this created a profound tangle of tensions and hopes, hard to express because hard to see up close. Though the year 2000 was still a quarter-century off, there was something of an obsession with matters millenial, then — the old patterns, Established patterns, had been severely jarred and upset, and no one could be at all sure what new patterns they might fall into. I was just a kid; but I noticed it too.

The faint odour of the close of the book.

We’ll get to all of this, eventually. But first, just first: the picture. We know from the cover copy that the maze is Time, and the face is the Struggle of the personality — and we easily intuit the bird as Freedom, which is the goal of Struggle. Consider how the personality’s hands frame it, even as they reach up to it: freedom is the apex of the world’s great pyramid. And, what’s that freedom consist of, in this particular example? It’s all got quite a lengthy explanation, but in short form it is this: the freedom to discover oneself as a protagonist, as an actor with goals and desires not only worth attaining, but capable of being attained.

In the Edenic state, there is no protagonistic nature to the personality of this type — of course that too is Freedom, of a kind! But short-lived in the scheme of time, even though it partakes of Eternity in the same way the time spent inside the womb does. Nothing happens…but something will happen. The peace of Eden will be fractured. That’s just what childhood’s all about.

What science fiction and fantasy are all about, too. The “just missed” moment, whether it first slips out of our grasp on baseball diamond or in Grail Castle, or outside the ice-cream parlour. That beautiful longed-for chocolate chip mint cone, perfection in summer green and cold flecks of sweet black, cruelly fallen at the hands of the realization of time, to the dirty grey sidewalk. There’s some thermodynamics for you! That we cannot go back and get a do-over of that moment is where the Edenic mirror of self and world finally cracks, betraying difference and incommensurability — we are banished by skinned knees and fallen scoops of ice-cream as definitely and finally as by any flaming sword.

And so it is too, with science fiction: the fracture. There is a “natural” time we cannot get back to, unless we horrifyingly are granted what we wished for, monkey’s-paw-style. So the maze is actually the alien element, in this composition: the bird belongs to the world of the background, the ocean and the sky — the pre-existing (and still-existing) world, not the hope of a new one. The hope of an old one. But the irony of this is everywhere: for us to get what we want from the world we’re in — the world of Time — it has to end. Taylor laughing on the beach in Planet Of The Apes, soaking up the sun, bearded, uncaring…the rugged individualist, the free-thinker at last beyond all possible confinement, once the discontinuity has arrived. In a way it is what he wanted, but he is not prepared for it. Logan goes “Outside” to find Sanctuary…but there is no Sanctuary, there is only Outside. This is the apocalyptic accent of SF in nice triple-distilled form: because there is always a Great Disaster, always a plague let loose, an alien invasion, the perfection of cloning, telepathy, faster-than-light spaceships, self-conscious robots, whatever…one day the cities all get domed and somebody plugs in the tyrannical supercomputer, but no one remembers it ever happening as an event in itself, it always lies on the other side of the discontinuity…on the other side of the door into summer.

And so it is too with the real world. Did I say we were going to get to the picture first? We are going to get to it second…because before we get to it, there’s something else to understand. Context. A huge Edenic Fracture lies across the life of the time, that produced this book: World War II, of course, where one existence left off and another, puzzlingly, began…and now, here was something that loomed large, for a time: the postwar era and its strange feelings. Utopian? Millenial? If all that means wiping out most of the relevance of the past, then yes: I guess so. Not that this was the first Edenic Fracture that had ever been known — scarcely more than twenty years separate WWI and WWII, not to mention the United States’ Civil War a scant half-century before that! — but as these Fractures go it was, unquestionably, a doozy. Who said it this way, was it Roger Zelazny? “The tall man of smoke tipped his wide-brimmed hat.” Twenty-four years later, a man walked on the surface of the Moon. We forget, today, what these things meant.

But thirty years ago, it was all still in the air, unsettled. All still after.

And so American Transcendentalism raised its head again, and restarted the conversation about “natural” time. Because natural time was very hard to get, all of a sudden: science and technology pressed in all around, and Forster and Huxley looked prophetic indeed! At least as far as cultural anxieties went: they predicted it all, all the pre-millenial obsessions. Always after; and seeking in vain to re-enter before. But if you only have even numbers to add, you’ll never arrive at odd sums: the past is unrevisitable, once the ice-bridge has melted. One day, shortly after adolescence, the Princes take up their inheritance…only to find the currency has changed.

Enough words?

Let’s look at it again.

Here is the accent of science fiction making things simultaneously more complex, and more clear: it is a psychological problem. This image is an image of therapy. The maze is the Body, the figure is the Self, the bird is…as it always is, whether it’s in Pilgrim’s Progress or Lord Of The Flies…the Soul. And the Self cannot get to the Soul. Elegantly, the figure’s visage is not that of any individual (though the bird is, pretty unquestionably, an actual bird), but a human face transfigured, gone Cosmic…the figure of magnified proportions, the Superhero himself, born of the Body and of Time, but confined by it too. The inner prisoned angel. Because the maze is a snare; the maze is a cage. The maze is the grille of a cell; the spangled enclosure wherein the priest addresses the altar, or the quicksand where the drowning man sinks. A tangle of thorns, at the very least: the maze is the world, Time adrift on the ocean of Eternity.

And yet, because of the SF elements, it’s more than just the world. Observe the clever vertical arrangement of images in this picture: the stylized man reaches up to the realistic bird (which in turn looks down on him), from the abstract complication of the maze — up through levels of falsehood to truth. As always in a comics image, the lines may be static but their intimations are not: the subject puts them into motion inside our heads, as the maze’s lower edge flakes and crumbles away. The raft of Time and Body is sinking, and taking the Self with it, as the maze shifts, as the time-travel conceit is pursued — the plane of causality is not stable, but constantly reforming, constantly re-enmeshing the subject in broken lines, failed objectives…dead ends that weren’t there a second ago. Futile striving, in a field of meaninglessly convoluted shapes without character. It is the brain, of course — the disintegrating grey matter, calculating, calculating to no end, mechanical and foredoomed. Here is the mind-body problem, if you like, and it is a problem — it’s the problem, as it always is. Just slightly reconfigured for the time-travel story, but still present, ever-present: since time-travel stories are always about how the conflict between fate and freedom is to be resolved — by endless extension, because the nature of the time machine tale is that it’s about the thing that removes us from the natural world being amplified and amplified, running while falling, until it offers a passage back to the original, unreachable Paradise…but perhaps just not quite in time, ha ha. Time is always a factor, somehow. However in the imagination of our technology is the imagination of this one path back, tunnelling through the Edenic fracture to the ultimate hope of resolution, past all sorts of time-barriers. It’s only symbolism, of course: in the real world, we can’t get there. But in the imagined world, we can make contact with that hope of return: can imagine walking a Godelian path through General Relativity back to origin. Not that there haven’t always been fantastic stories of dislocation that treated on the same matters — there have. But the SF accent is peculiar for its appeal, here — in SF we can put a name to the machine we might build, to prove the felix culpa. We can, in fact, get it all back into our hands…through the transcendental technology of our imagination. Science fiction, paradoxically, maintains and empowers the metaphorical nature of the hope of return by concretizing it — and we don’t need gods and we don’t need magic: we can hope for grace, without having to care if it’s divine or not. Intentional or not. Of course I’ve talked about this before: grace is the miracle whose intentionality is hidden, permanently unknowable…but felt just the same. There’s your epiphanic feeling’s nature and cause, right there: the miracle didn’t happen. But something else did. Something that feels quite miraculous on the inside. Logan meets nothing but an old man, but it’s enough to let him put a name to love and need…Charlton Heston’s Neville trades ludicrously on Christ-imagery, but it’s only that: only imagery. And in the end it has more to do with the tumultuous passage between generations, than it does with finding the door into summer. The cross is another fracture, of course; a crack in the world to Eternity, created by the death of Time…another change in the turnings of story. Now if we could just freeze it there! Maybe we could grab onto it. If I could just get up to bat one more time, maybe I could hit a home run. If I can just jump high enough, maybe I won’t have to come back down.

Well, that last one’s been proven true, actually. That’s how we got to the moon, right?

Comics panels. They’re always intimative, that’s their great genius. The story is diagrammatic as well as dynamic — ever forward! is the one-and-only utopian cry of SF, and going forward, running forward without falling over, beating impossible odds, concretizing the inner struggle, is what that cry is all about. Second chances, in the time-travel story: everybody needs a second chance sometime.

But along with that helpful concretization of hope comes a tragically precise framing of the problem that makes it invaluable in the first place: in fact the two are one. To return to the idealized past is impossible in any case, but in the case of the flexible past afforded by the time-travel story, in the allegorical space of SF, the past eludes us just as we reach out for it anyway, because it rewrites itself when we change it, and leaves us as protagonists without a story to belong to. The passage of thermodynamic time allows no return, when randomness obscures the path from there to here…when the birds of change eat all your breadcrumbs. So of what value is mere “future”, when the past’s potentialities themselves get changed, dissolve away at the touch of a finger? Heck, give me a flaming sword any day, you know? Rather than this post-traumatic stress disorder of alienation. I want to go to The Shores Of Tomorrow; to the Summer Country where all wounds are healed, and all breaks mended.

Of course, it does not exist. Because it’s all been rewritten since then.

Here’s what the Edenic Fracture looks like today, perhaps:

And as you can see, the inheritance is no longer even in our hands, never mind what currency it is. Too much time has passed. What would Andrew Wyeth (RIP) have made of this particular resonance with his work? Where in the hell have Taylor and Logan and Ian Kinnon got to? Where the heck has all that Tower-Of-Babel striving gone to?  The gun points in a page-direction quite opposite to that of “return”…in the new world we’ve made, the imperative is rather different. This book has to open, instead…

Like I said, the potentialities of the past…they get washed away.

Gone out with the tide.

I’m still out there with them, though, I think. Me and the anti-hero astronauts and the idealistic existential time-travellers…still looking to come to land somewhere. To lie on the beach, with the seagulls wheeling overhead. Soaking up the sun, and gulping in the air. And you know, as it turns out time-travel is possible!

This picture, for example, always takes me right back.

But enough about me: here’s David Allison.

There’ll be a firmer link to him tomorrow, when on the second day of Panel Madness Week, he discusses (as it happens) Criminal. Tune in and check out what he has to say, won’t you? I’ve read it; it’s a dandy.

And then we’ll go onward and upward from there! Running and falling.

Catch, David!

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19 responses to “The Edenic Fracture: Panel Madness Day One

  1. Ha, Sean, how do you think I feel — I’m supposed to be on next!

    I’ll be fine, but Jesus Plok, that’s one hell of a start! This cover image mostly reminds me of the million and one old sci-fi books my dad had lying around the house… a world of slightly yellowed strangeness, or well-travelled, but yet totally unfamiliar, worlds. It really is his fault that my brain is this frazzled, you know?

    Great stuff, man — here’s hoping I can live up to the high standard!

  2. I might also have mentioned that the man’s hands have a certain winglike appearance to them…

    Or the mass of the seagull flock off in the distance under the half-seen cloud…

    Seriously all kinds of things going on in this picture.

  3. Plok, you really are way too generous a host — you serve up something like 3,000 words and then you pop your head back through from the kitchen to say, hey, does anyone want some more?!

  4. It’s amazing how the mind works, I think; all this density of structure, just tossed off, probably largely unconsciously…

    The pieces falling off of the underside of the maze as it disintegrates are jigsaw-puzzle pieces.

    More crab dip?

  5. I’m working on something not entirely dissimilar right now, but instead of a panel I’ve opted for 4 or 5 pages from Born Again. A snapshot of the graphic novel.

    Would love to do another panel dissection, but haven’t come up with one that fires me up enough

  6. I’m still processing this, but… what does “intimative” mean (2nd para after the really really long one)? Webster’s and OED are silent, yet Google gets me 2.5 million results (none of which are very helpful).

  7. You know, I’m a different vintage, but there’s something… not wistful, and I don’t have a background in looking at these things so much as Len Deighton novels as Arcane Items for the Father, but I think 1970’s, particularly seventies, paperback covers are just so best: stark, unnerving, ooh.

  8. Aha, Derik, it’s a word-choice born of laziness and advancing age…”having the power to intimate”. Not really a word, but probably worth a few points in Scrabble.

  9. Zom, that sounds bloody interesting…after you’re finished it, can I steal the idea for doing it?

    Duncan, still thinking about paperback covers…it’s not just the art, though the art is frequently done by people who’re really weighted down with talent, but it’s something else, too…a certain kind of format, maybe…

    I’ll get back to it after I have my tea, and shake the money tree a little!

  10. It’s not exactly as I’ve described it – it’s part of series of essays where I attempt to explain, to myself as much as anyone else, exactly why I like that particular comic so much. I attempt to take in both critical analysis and personal experience along the way. I’m not sure how it’s working out, thus far, but you can judge for yourself later tonight as I should have it up by then.

    I’m happy for you to steal any idea I might come up with, by the way

  11. Yeep!

    That’s some pretty heavy stuff, Pillock! I’m constantly amazed by your observations … and you’ve definitely set a high bar for this Panel Madness exercise.

    Personally, I love how the image is simultaneously static and active. Much like an Escher – and a great comic – it depicts a sense of motion that positively leaps out of – or in this case, above – the page.

    You’ve also made me want to pick up The Door Into Summer. I haven’t read that one before!

  12. It’s a good one, Keeper…maybe my top Heinlein book, although it’s been many years since I read it. It made a big impression on me, though, I was already quite sick of Robert’s shit in so many ways at the time, but the bastard got me good with that one. No denying he could tell a story.

    And as far as Escher goes…you know, I’m developing a little whack-job theory about him…it’s no “ROM saves the Marvel Universe”, but it’s something…

    And Zom: I’m just about to read it! That’s exactly the sort of thing I really like, in fact kind of what Panel Madness Week is supposed to be all about, too…

    Just wish I could’ve raised Jim Roeg for an essay! But then it really might have been almost superfluous to do so…in a way I stole from him as much as you, for this thing.

    Ah, blogging! We’re really working it these days, fellas.

  13. As well, the sky blue behind the hero’s eyelids says he is already at one with what he’s striving for.

    (The sky is the soul
    Consider the resemblance!
    The brain is an Old One)

    You’re exactly right to call it a picture of SF in the ’70s. Bet it was published in 1972. Googling now … 1971. Uh huh.

    Ten years before, the genre was in poverty. One was grateful to find reprints of old Van Vogt stories from marginal houses called Digit and Panther and stuff. Except in the magazines, which were presenting the best work of Sturgeon, Budrys, Cordwainer Smith, all the greats. In the editorial pages of New Worlds, Brunner and Ballard were asking, yet again, why SF was getting no respect, lecturing us on self-imitation, our docile appetites for let’s-pretend hard science cliche. Ten years later, the genre was abundant and obese with huge paperbacks from Asimov to Zinnell, and a whole new exciting range of let’s-pretend hard science cliches. But in between, that strange era of hard-won originals.

    Now, if I’d only glanced at the cover I would have thought, well at least they had the taste to rip off Dali – like the cover artists of the poverty years had had the guts to tip off Yves Tanguy paintings and Henry Moore sculptures. I might have looked down and said, gee, Steranko, wow. Without your prompting, I wouldn’t have given the picture its due for grandiloquence. Well done!

    I’ll get back to that picture, but let’s take another look at Phillips’ cover to Criminal.

    The inheritance is no longer even in our hands? Ha! No way! I know this pretention of old.

    We are looking at a textbook example of an attempt by a despised and envious Medium of Popular Entertainment, to use rugged, factual Contemporary Materials to testify to a Basic and Enduring Human Truth through an Emblem of Classic Stature.

    This couple are probably doomed. They could almost be Adam and Eve; they could definitely be Bonnie and Clyde. Her aim is precise, at least precisely horizontal; she has one shot. He holds her in what might be their last embrace – he steadies her emotionally as he does physically. It is the moment of truth, literally the lull before the storm, one moment magnified to the breadth of the horizon, the height of the heavens. The rising storm says, “This moment is under the judgement of God.” The whole thing just screams James Dean. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”

    I remember, around 1961, Western culture was all about this. It was America’s era, and America was on point duty, to determine truth and necessity among all the compromise and menace. Hollywood was on point. The artist was on point. The tone of moral seriousness was just about ultrasonic. Over at Mad magazine, Kurtzman, Davis and Elder could chug their beers and blast away at leisure – never in danger of running out of targets.

    Consider the film poster forHud – 1963.

    There stands Paul Newman, red-lit, back to the sun, with the yellow sky of what looks to be the morning of the mother of all Texas Scorchers behind him. The ground beneath his feet and the line of the horizon are one and the same – he is standing on the horizon. A force of nature. His defining cast are also posed on the horizon, at reduced scale, along with his definitive Cadillac. Newman’s hip-cocked stance probably looks as gay as roses these days, especially in those tight jeans, but it’s really supposed to state, “Well, fuck you too”.

    “HUD”. The man with the barbed wire soul!

    Just looking at it, what do you think these people are going to be doing in this movie?

    The poster image had a crazy fascination for me in the day, because for the life of me I couldn’t think what that could be. Except that it would certainly be a*d*u*l*t.

    Never did get around to finding out. But Wikipedia informs me that Hud is a short-sighted, self-centered dick who betrays every one of his nearest people and destroys everything his father built up. Which suggests to me a deep doubt in the hearts of the serious West, on point, whether this new democratic era could actually sustain a moral tradition. And if not, whether it was all going down the pipe. Cf Graham Greene, etc etc.

    But back to that horizon line. You must have remarked at some time on the arrogance of early surrealism. Other artists prostrate themselves before the actual – we make reality as we like. The shock factor of Dali’s bare horizons (I make a whole reality – what? Unbelievable, you say? Salaud!) becomes the milder but equally calculated shock factor in modern design, 1940-60, say in Hud.

    This kind of ploy can become tiresome. But surrealistic licence can be a real boon in fantastic art, where there is no nature and not very much actuality to prostrate yourself before, and you pretty much have to make it all up yourself; as Will Eisner and Jim Steranko went and proved.

    So back to The Shores of Tomorrow. One reason it singles out that SF middle period is, where else would you see it? It would not make a good movie poster, because it would not resemble anything shot in a movie. If you have to be that abstract about it, I have to wonder if there’s anything I’d really want to sit through.

    But for the SF fan, the appeal is just the opposite. David Mason – didn’t I real a story of his in If? New work, too, never previously published. Decent piece of bad Dali – publisher thinks it’s about something abstract. All in all, a decent chance there will be something in it I’ve never read before. Sold!

  14. And sold again!

    (I should just point out…if the man is some angelic principle trapped inside humanity…well, the Lucifer thing’s clear enough, and what else would a time-traveller be but a Luciferian figure himself? Offering the apple and wishing he hadn’t…but more to my point, the idea of “angelic” man, Superhero or what have you, is itself an abstract construction. “Angels”…well, they are pretty hoarse-throated stand-ins for the symbolism of the simple real-life bird, aren’t they? So I take it that another interpretation of this image will offer the idea that the angelic transfiguration of the man is mired in the abstract complications of time, too…only the real bird, in the real sky, is the true image of freedom. Hey: it’s not like people weren’t reading a whole lotta Zen, at this time. In fact that could be a good topic for another day, maybe another place…the Paperback Revolution of the post-war era, and how it changed everything…)

    Sorry, something got stuck in my throat, there! Had to get it out…

    Good catch on the eyes, Jonathan…and good catch on America’s “job”, in that strange middle period. In the world of paperbacks, the thing about that time that always strikes me is how regimented the printing format was — 23 chapters, author, no more than such-and-such a length per chapter, simple numerals to mark them, we don’t care what the story’s about…these artists who just got jobs with us, they’ll draw you something for it, okay? Crude tools, these folks had to work with, to pursue their brave new world! A heavy weight of standardization. Like comic books, too, actually! I miss those questions and doubts and efforts, from that time’s apprehension of futurity, don’t you? But as you say, maybe I’m just looking for them in the wrong places, right now…they’re not in SF anymore, perhaps? But maybe they’ve moved on to different locales, as the politics of Movement left the hippie aesthetic, to go reside with people of other kinds of hairstyles and grubby chic. I guess you can miss those transitions, huh, if you’re not looking for them!

  15. Pingback: Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » The (panel) madness of Paul Pope·

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