Greetings, Bloggers; here, for your snarky amusement, is me putting on airs in an essay on comics and film for the non-comics reader that, were it submitted to me, I would probably mark up in all kinds of red ink. But, it wasn’t submitted to me, was it? No it was not.
You may find it a trifle arch, a trifle smug, a trifle presumptuous; a trifle bashed-out. I, however, find it a trifle handy at the moment, so without further ado (not to mention without further editing), here the bugger is. You may make a mess of it, if you’re so inclined; I don’t really like my essay-writing voice too well anyway.
Well, that’s why I’ve got a blog, right?
“The Stepchildren Of Enthusiasm”
Somehow, it’s become fashionable these days to talk about the links between cartooning and filmmaking. Of course, why it wasn’t fashionable before is something of a mystery; especially since cartooning has been the foundation of the filmmaker’s craft for more years than anyone here has been alive. And, that’s a topic in itself: how does one progress from the staging concerns of opera buffo, to those of Napoleon, to those of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Well, unfortunately cultural content is a vast field of interconnected pathways and influences, draped with feedback loops of all sizes, and so the topic’s a bit too big for us to examine tout court. However, as far as film goes — and television too, particularly American television and film — I think we can dare to suggest that things are becoming more and more cartoonish (read: more comic-booky) all the time, and furthermore we may dare to suggest a reason for it.
But bear in mind, the reason has nothing to do with the kind of elitism that pronounces Raiders inferior to Orpheus; the “creeping cartoonishness” of American film and TV I propose here isn’t about subject matter, but about mise-en-scene instead. In other words it’s a visual trend, not a logical one: it’s about spectacle, rather than semantics, and it’s produced as many great and innovative directorial choices as it has banal and unfocussed ones.
And it begins at the beginning, naturally, just as the artistic endeavours that produce cartooning and film alike descend from a common ancestor: fine art. From which cartooning inherits its ability to play as roughly as it likes with distortions of perspective, figure, space and time…and from which film inherits its concentration on moment and density. In comics, the eye is drawn (or pushed) along from frame to frame, or detail to detail within a frame: the reader typically finds himself following a diagram composed of both picture and printed word, an implicit dynamism in a page layout that encourages him to simulate a persistence of vision inside his own skull, as his eye lights on this and then that carefully-placed element, in a sequence that suggests a (somewhat elastic) continuity.
In film, though, there’s no need for simulation: the persistence of vision is directly employed, and to push or pull the eye along to a desired conclusion is not necessary. In film, the eye is not drawn, but encouraged to fall in, instead: a comic’s fluid (or even empty!) backgrounds, juxtaposed with its static (if pregnant!) foreground figures have no application in a medium where figures move about with dramatic purpose inside meticulously managed, symbolically resonant, and continuous background frames. Continuity is built-in, because filmed images can so easily achieve depth that the camera doesn’t need to do much more than sit at chest height, and passively show what’s before it: whereas in comics, perspectives are always jumping and rotating, falling to the floor or soaring to the ceiling, peeking at the action from odd angles. And these are generalizations, of course, as we’ll see; but in a general sense, it remains true that the camera has capabilities the drawing-hand lacks, as the drawing-hand possesses versatility that the camera can only dream of.
However, art doesn’t stand still, either: arguably, the enormous visual ambition of Welles’ Citizen Kane sang the knell of film’s plein Americain when it discovered how to pick the eye up, as well as suck it in…lifting over rooftops, tucking itself into corners of ceilings, plummeting down into chairs, after Kane the viewer’s eye could go anywhere, and thus became capable of seeking out more adventuresome meanings in the scenes it regarded. Depth became deeper still, inside the filmed image; backgrounds could become fluid, or even harden into a more perfect, crystalline stasis, depending on the symbolic punctuation a filmmaker was looking for. The eye looked down, then up…sometimes the eye was frozen. But always, the eye was carried along. Moved. Not just placed.
And if Welles could do it in film, why couldn’t the cartoonists do it on paper? Comics didn’t stand still either: having progressed from the busyness of one-panel cartoons to the kaleidoscopic drama of strips, cartoonists were well-placed to have their minds changed by Welles’ innovations, too. Naturally I wouldn’t presume to argue that Will Eisner’s seminally playful comics work owed a debt to Welles, or even vice versa — though it’s hardly ludicrous to imagine it, the fact remains that it may have gone both ways, or even not at all, and without actual research (something, you may have noticed, that this essay is rather short on) it would be pointless to speculate. On the other hand, if there are indeed such things as trends in cultural content, it seems silly to say that Welles and Eisner were not each part of the same one, particularly since we do see an increasing visual sophistication in American popular art generally through the 1940s. And, there are the angles to reckon with, and the perspectives: at any rate no one now would suggest that film and comics are unaware of one another, and if the visual trend of the 40s isn’t where their acquaintance began then it must certainly have begun earlier, because it could barely have begun later. Anyway, who can imagine a young cartoonist in New York City not walking away from his local movie theatre, perhaps on several occasions, triumphantly thinking “I can do that”? If art resides anywhere, it resides in the imagination of the individual, and individuals see art: and cultural content is a vast field of interconnected pathways. Interconnected influences. And there never was a cartoonist or filmmaker raised in absolute ignorance of fine art, after all…
At least…there wasn’t…
Until, perhaps, the 1990s?
Which, as it happens, is where we must leave the conjectural history of comic and film to one side for a moment…because since we live in this era, we can abandon convoluted theory for simple observation. To wit: these days, filmmakers admit their comic-book influences more and more readily, as comics creators more openly declare their allegiance to filmic principles…as well as Hollywood aspirations. We need not even look as far as cartoonist Eddie Campbell’s frequent blog-subject, “The Tyranny Of The Camera”; we need only visit the multiplex, or the video store. Comics are everywhere in film these days, and they even look like comics…because, quite simply, they’re supposed to.
But, how is it that the filmmakers know what comics are supposed to look like?
The answer is obvious: it’s because they, themselves, have grown up as fans of the mainstream superhero comic. Well, they even say so! But then of course any decent filmmaker knows how to “hang a lantern” on a fault, and we shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that just because they can admit the influence, they’re magically made less influenced by it. If we turn our attention to the small screen of broadcast and syndicated television, where many filmmakers-in-training cut their teeth, we can see a great deal of evidence that the techniques Welles and Eisner pioneered are not being employed for their original purposes: cameras hide in ceiling corners and loom over skylights here too, but the implication of those perspectives is thematically null, because art is lacking from the execution. In other words, this isn’t Maus, or From Hell; it isn’t even Love and Rockets. It’s X-Men. It’s bits of visual business, slathered on top of a slight story so as to punch it up with the intimation of bigger things. Movement, for pure movement’s sake. Because, after all, what purpose does it serve to have the camera surreptitiously track a character from its weird purchase on the ceiling of the starship Enterprise, rather than simply note him entering from over the Captain’s shoulder? What sense of vista is truly involved here? I submit that there is none: the camera that observes Mr. Data taking his place in the suspiciously hot-tub-like bridge is not exploring the same territory as the camera looking down on the reporter in Xanadu (at least, not consciously), but only perhaps mimicking something seen in a fondly-remembered issue of Spider-Man from long ago, which itself was probably part homage to earlier artists…who perhaps were once directly struck by the excitement generated in Kane or The Spirit, and thought “I can do that!”…
And so if we look assiduously, we must notice that it isn’t always Welles’ footsteps that are being followed here, or even Eisner’s, or for that matter Marshall Rogers’. Rather, the footsteps are those of Frank Miller, John Byrne…even Todd McFarlane. If you’re not a comics fan, you may not know these names. But rest assured, Quentin Tarantino does, and Kevin Smith, and Sam Raimi, and J.J. Abrams too. Not that they’ve never heard of Welles or Eisner! But those are only their remote and dignified grandfathers, where Miller and McFarlane are their batty, chummy uncles…and some influences influence more than others do, because they’re more familiar. The subject will show the strategy, most times: and therefore where the “cartoonish” ability to toy with perspective is barren of thematic moment, we need not think that we are merely dealing with an incompetent technician! We need only realize that our filmic presentations seem to be becoming more comic-booky because that’s what they’re indeed becoming. The visual influence of the 40s is strongly felt in the modern-day mise-en-scene, no question of it; but it’s felt mostly on the left-hand side, as it were, because a whole generation of visual imaginers have grown up without ever hearing of the plein Americain, because comics dispensed with it before they were even born, and they were comics fans first.
Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Or even, a universal thing: for every one of these pointless New Orthodoxy Star Trek shot-sequences, there are ten artful pillagings of “trash” culture that do lunge at excitement, and revel in the understanding of their own influences; and I don’t mean to suggest for an instant that there are not, because as I said, this is not an attack on perceived Philistinism. “Trash” culture is just as interesting as any other kind, and the visuals that populate it (and propagate from it) are hardly the bastard offspring of fine art. Far from it. That trash culture borrows and filches from everywhere it can (not excepting itself!) is what keeps it vital, when other traditions become moribund. So again, we need not pretend that film and television are not becoming more “comic-booky”, when the people who make it are happy to admit where they’ve come from; and still less do we need to pretend the current loop that comics and movies find themselves in needs to originate in something more “respectable” than a scavenger aesthetic. A scavenger aesthetic can produce art, too.
Just, not if it’s understood as something other than what it is. Much more worrisome than someone like Tarantino (who at least is aware of the funny ways his influences address one another) is an artist who misinterprets his homages to one medium as homages to the other instead, or worse, finds nothing to distinguish the two from each other — essentially, such a person mistakes the conversation between comics and film as being a speech taking place in front of a mirror, and in that mistake he collapses the differences between them. Usually to quite disastrous effect: for while the adventurous perspectives of Welles might easily be confused with the less adventurous ones of, say, McFarlane, and (as with the Star Trek hot tub scene) no real harm done, one of the things which sets film off from comics most sharply is its necessarily different conception of cadence. And this is a problem, because filmic mise-en-scene is still much deeper than any diagram: the figures absorb meaning and weight from their richly-textured grounds in a way comics can’t match, and pour them into unreplaceable beats of time that comics don’t have. Pockets of silence punctuate the filmic moment, that the expressiveness of faces and motions and landscapes fill up — negative space is fallen into, and then emerged from, as a passageway, all while the precious seconds tick by. And the mise-en-scene constructs it all.
But it isn’t so in comics, where more detail just means more places that the eye must be moved through, and the negative space is all…well, spatial. Because cadence on the comics page isn’t made of real time, but simulated time, that wonderfully more elastic stuff that comes out of the tip of a pen…and that must be followed on purpose, because it can’t be effortlessly fallen into. So here’s where the danger of comics enthusiasts being divorced from the knowledge of fine art becomes acute: for without it, they only see the importation of filmic techniques into comics, or comics techniques into film, as (by turns) revolutionary and natural…when in fact, it isn’t either one. To simply fill a comic with pockets of silence in emulation of the beats of film, is only to draw attention to those beats’ fundamental absence — because the isolated picture does not move, no matter how detailed it is: we only imagine its movement into being by juxtaposing it with its diagrammatic neighbours. Time is not at a premium in comics as it is in film; but space is, because every beat must be marked off in square centimeters of ink, and ink costs money just as celluloid does. In film, a reaction shot may be of arbitrary length, because every instant it consumes is animated by the expression of mobile faces; conversely, in comics a reaction shot must call ever more strongly on Warhol the more it’s extended past a panel or two.
Similarly, film cannot support the kind of exposition that comics inject so casually into their narratives: although in any movie or television show there is certainly time enough for a lot of words to be spoken, more words mean fewer pauses for reflection, and therefore less room for the acting which (in terms of mise-en-scene) consists of the figures’ utilization of their mood-charged backdrops. In comics, foregrounded confrontations are cheaply available if one wants them; Spider-Man carries on a stand-up comedy routine while he fights Doctor Octopus, and keeps an internal monologue afloat at the same time as well. Exposition and action run in parallel, the better to keep theme surrounded. But in filmic efforts this is not possible: real time will not permit it, and therefore too-frequent confrontations of this sort on the screen are cheap in another sense — they cost too much, for their poor quality. Not to pick on Star Trek too much, but the contrast between the predominantly film-influenced original series and its more comics-based successors is instructive: an episode of, say, Deep Space Nine rarely goes by without some character or other aggressively telling their motivations and reactions out loud, and for the viewer to discover that war is hell apparently requires each character to soliloquize on the matter for a minute or more, kaleidoscopically, between explosions, until the allotted hour is up. Whereas under Gene Roddenberry’s pen, the summation of feeling comes only with climax or its aftermath, as the one-and-only point — and even then, the point is not necessarily jammed between the viewer’s ribs. Because the acting makes the point as much the words do, and frequently more; the acting is not there merely to justify (or, more unkindly, sell) whatever dramatic intent the script has been made to embody, but the words are present to enable a drama that is already visually implicit in the relationship of character to action to scene.
That such confusions exist is remarkable. How can a comics-based aesthetic somehow arrange to miss the importance of the symbolic picture as soon as a camera is placed in its hand? How can a filmic sensibility choose to wash its hands of the evocation of words, the freedom to explicate images as it pleases, just as soon as it’s released from the tyranny of the almighty running time? Perhaps the answer is chillingly simple: if one’s visual education as an artist or filmmaker is based exclusively on the short-circuited technical crossover between Deep Space Nine and Astonishing X-Men, then one has no ability to employ a perspective that might illuminate their relationship in a larger context. I hope it is not too controversial to say that there are many graphic artists today who never learned, because in many cases they were never taught, how to draw…who learned their craft only from reading mainstream comic books, perhaps, or from watching Hollywood movies. Is it then so outrageous to suppose that there are many filmmakers today whose visual education has fallen into the hands of these same artists? Undoubtedly Welles and Eisner drew on the tradition of fine art for their common visual understanding and ambition, just as Steven Spielberg did, and Frank Miller…but if today it’s a cross-pollination of Spielberg’s and Miller’s visual aesthetics that’s producing creative fruit for us, that is not necessarily the same thing. One more step down the ladder, and it’ll be Michael Bay and Todd McFarlane who transmit visual principles to the next generation; a step after that and we’ll be on the ground, collecting rotten apples instead of ripe ones. Scavengers, of course; but at least we should know that’s what we are, or else why ever climb the tree again?
How ever to know what the links really are, between cartooning and filmmaking?
As fashionable as it’s become to talk about it, the talk must be more than about fashions if it’s to mean anything.
Even Quentin Tarantino will tell you that.