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.
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.