Topics In Fantasy: Rigoletto, Artesia, Watchmen

What’s the connection, you may ask?

Well, it’s a little bit Shakespeare, and a little bit Kurosawa…and a little bit of something else too.

I think.

Haven’t quite worked it all out yet.  But then again that’s what a blog’s for, so…

Pass me that hammer and them tongs, and let’s get to it!

…And begin with Rigoletto, my first opera.  Just went to it a couple of months ago, and I have to tell you, it was fantastic.

I know, I know…you see no reason to believe me.

But as long as we’re in the land of not-believing, here’s another thing I could ask you to chew on a bit:  which is that opera and comics have an awful lot in common.

No really, they do!

The opera stage is just like a page, you see:  people stand around and exposit in song for minutes at a time, perhaps with an arm raised, and it’s often very boring stuff — “oh no, Father, look out behind that tree…!” — but in the context of the artform it’s tremendously meaningful, charged — CHARGED! — with an almost inexplicable sense of dramatic motion.  Even though no one is moving.  But, well…and we ought to know…

It’s also because no one is moving.

I could tell you a whole lot about my first opera experience, I could tell you a lot about my history with opera as well, but I’ll just tell you this instead:  the opera fans love their thing for exactly the same excellences that we comics fans love our thing for…for the genius of the composition that’s truly arresting, that implies so much movement it’d almost be less thrilling to actually see it…that’s peopled with characters so stock and so sloppy that you couldn’t possibly care about them for their own selves, but that for that very reason they can let a virtuoso execution really shine through.  Comics.  Opera.  There’s a relationship there.  We’re talking about highly stylized forms;  which also means (at least in the popular stuff) very simple forms…and to a degree it’s pretty lowlife stuff.

I mean, take Rigoletto.  A hunchback court jester seething with rage at the aristocrats he amuses, who — SPOILERS! — protects his beautiful daughter, that they all think is his lover….and it all comes out as spite, that earns him a terrible curse.  And he may be out of Victor Hugo, but he ain’t no Quasimodo…and he may make your skin just crawl slightly, but that doesn’t mean he’s Iago either.  And yet what is he, if not a weird and unsettling mixture of those two?  And, not just those two.  Only in comics could you really get away with something like this:  Rigoletto is fifteen different dramatic ingredients thrown into a blender and set on frappe — Rigoletto’s an impossible idea, too unfocussed, spasmic, all over the map, dumb…I mean, he’s gotta be a hunchback too? There’s got to be a curse too? The secret girl has to be his daughter? Oh of course, of course, and yet goddamnit it’s all really too much, and the opera isn’t even that long;  I mean how the hell are you going to cram all that shit in there?  What’s the point of making it so complicated, eh?  Really, it’s TOO MANY NOTES, and what in God’s name is so special about this topic that it needs THAT many notes?  They stop short of giving Rigoletto adamantium claws, but that’s about all the restraint you’re going to get…and in a way it really makes you question why.  Hey, why no adamantium claws, anyway?  Hey, whaddaya some kinda cheapskate?

Away back at the beginning of the Century of Psychology, Freud saw Wagner’s Ring and it stunned him.  Later on, when it met Jung, it practically caved in his skull.  An unconscious part of the mind, good God, do you think it’s possible there might really be one?  Of course the idea goes back a long, long way…at the very least it goes back to Homer, who has Hector address no one in particular, asking:

But wherefore does my life say this to me?

But Hector, man, I just can’t answer that one for you.  Who knows why the Gods change their minds?  Whoever it is who knows that, it sure isn’t us.  Though there has by now been a LONG history of people trying to answer your question, we still got nothin’…and we’re probably lucky we’ve even got that much.  But one thing we do have, is a lot more ways of posing the question, than we ever did before:  and you can thank literature and drama for coming up with the idea, and psychology for figuring out that the idea might have hidden bases, and I guess you can thank the modern mind for choosing to dwell on it to such an unhealthy degree, to the point where it clearly wants to just play and play and play with it, like a kid with a mudpie.  Rigoletto himself is a character that’s been done twenty times better

And yet it’s his very lousiness, it’s the incredibly desultory nature of his “tragedy”…

…That for some reason makes us care?

I’ve said before that pop culture’s chief virtue is its transgressiveness — and make no mistake, the thing called opera buffo is as pop-cultural as any Shakespeare play, which is to say it’s as pop-cultural as anything, anywhere, has ever been.  Up to and including comics…

By which I mean:  it’s surely right up there with us.  Opera and Shakespeare and us:  we’re the trinity of Pop.  Even music has a tough time matching us.

Because even music has a hard time doing what (say) Artesia does.  Oh, Artesia…I think I said this before too, that it is just such a horrifying agglomeration of tips and tricks and cliches that one really couldn’t stand the thing at all, were it not for the fact it’s so obviously made with great passion, as well as with great care.  I’d be a mean man indeed to suggest this comic wasn’t loved by its creator;  and I’d be a meaner one still to dare to suggest it wasn’t pretty well-lathered with skill.  And all for such a silly subject!

It’s mystifying!

Ridiculous gods and maps and names — Artesia puts the ridiculousness right out there and up in your face.  But then again they do say that good artists imitate, but great artists steal — heck, until my friend Tyche shoved it in my face I had no IDEA how much Bob Dylan just flat-out stole, for example…and, yeah, it’s very much our matter, I think.  The recurrent matter of modernity — I mean we forgive Homer and we forgive Shakespeare and we forgive Victor Hugo, but that’s only because we’ve got much bigger problems now, to wit:  what the fuck are WE gonna make, and how can we justify it?  Great artists steal;  artists working from 1985-2009 try to make stealing extra-nice

Which is probably a mistake, and notably not one that passionate, competent Artesia (I mean ARTESIA, that’s the NAME, for heaven’s sake WHAT?!) even seems to think of.  But then again maybe that passes for a species of genius, in these crazy days…

…Of modernity, I keep saying that…

But, what the hell is modernity?

It’s a slippery term.  You could argue Hector possesses a modern mind, and indeed many stalwarts of the Century of Psychology have done just that;  modernity was certainly, inarguably on the go during the Enlightenment;  and then there’s bloody Shakespeare, and we’re still only talking about the Western Canon.  Look, Bloggers, “modernity”:  better give it up as a hope of something definite, you know what I mean?  I can think of sixteen definitions off the top of my head, that conservatively fit;  there are hundreds more slapdash and off-the-cuff ones that have almost no truth to them at all, except they have a little truth that every other definition lacks…and so I tellya, we’ll be figuring this out ’til the day we die, if that’s what we want to do.  Because it’s bloody complicated…

…From a certain perspective.

I mean, look at Watchmen.  Now there’s a perspective, eh?  Voltaire said that one must be absolutely modern, and that’s exactly what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s work is…it’s about as modern as you can get.  It is obsessed with modernity, in fact;  all the flaws and contradictions, all the little stupid truths and stupid habitual excisions of truth that are SO EMBARRASSING to those of us who are not superheroes…yes.  And the thing is, none of us are.

And another thing is:  the superheroes aren’t, either.

Now there’s your “absolutely modern” — the characters themselves are all but nullities.  Why should we care about them?  An angry girl in a yellow nightie who knows tae-kwon-do.  A rich idiot in an animal costume, with dangerous gadgets, who feels unfulfilled.  A brutal madman in a mask who lives out of an alleyway, eating garbage.  There’s nothing to any of them, and oh God if there really were

Well who could stand it?

Being a real superhero

It sounds awful.

“Artesia” wrestles with it, in her way — enmeshed in a million silly and mystifying details, but she’s enmeshed in them.  And so are we, as ridiculous as that sounds.  All trapped in a million cliches, stranded on a million fantasy-maps.  Artesia‘s strength is that it’s just this, yes it really is, and now what kind of story can you tell with it?  Watchmen‘s no different, in fact that’s (pretty inarguably, I take it) the point of Watchmen:  these stylized representations are rather ostentatiously ridiculous, self-cancelling even, as far as fantasies go…but we didn’t make them up, and guess what they do appear to be good for something.  Good at cracking the shell, and getting to the meat inside.  And this manner of feeding isn’t so nice, maybe;  but it’s what we’ve got, and without it there may be no sustenance at all.  Modernity goes back as far as Homer, because Homer is as far back as we can remember:  stories of gods transplanted into tales of human anguish, with God-principles abstracted from them and controlling them, and making a bloody mess that we can’t help but search for some coagulant purpose.  Achilles and Ajax and Demetrious and Nestor:  none of it is original, but then that’s the problem that justifies the story.  Rigoletto is like the freakin’ scrapple of tragedies:  it’s all the leftover bits from everybody else’s story pressed into a loaf, but that doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it a thing you have to eat with the most delicious kind of sauce you can figure out.  In this case:  music, and virtuosity.  Assured performance.  Wonderful execution.  Inspired mise-en-scene.  Without these it is literally nothing;  might as well be a crap Wolverine story.  I mean who cares?  Nothing is so ridiculous as this, after all.  Nothing else carries with it so very little reason to care.

And yet we do care;  and here’s the thing.

Here’s the thing, O Modern Ones, you many Hectors wondering what the hell’s going on!

The transgressive world may be a silly one, but it induces a lot of non-silly feelings that are hard to achieve elsewhere.  We manage to care for Rigoletto, and this is impossible, or at least it ought to be;  it’s like caring for Iago, the one who does ill for ill’s sake because he likes it.  We manage to worry about Artesia, even though — give me a break! — the D&D memory-quilt world she lives in is one where the worst thing that can happen is that she wins.  God knows what we’re supposed to feel at the end of Watchmen, though the superheroic ending is planted right in our laps as plain as day.  Happy for Dan and Laurie?  Well, sure, but not because they’re good characters:  only because they’re sung so well.

And at the end, it’s as though Rorschach gets up and sings a final aria…

And the audience is suitably purged of pity and fear, but it’s not too plain whether or not the good guys have won…if indeed there are any good guys.

Quick lesson in opera to go out on:  the opera we know today is opera buffo, the silly opera:  the common people’s opera.  Where meanings are mixed;  where social conformity isn’t reinforced.  And the “high” opera died the day that opera buffo was born:  prescriptive entertainment, that told you what you should feel, and couched it all in Biblical terms so you couldn’t argue with it.

You see, you’re not supposed to like the “lower” form of this kind of theatre.

But you do, don’t you?

You do care, I think.

This post I had planned for several months;  and the way I had it planned, it was going to be really good.

Oh, well…that didn’t happen, I guess.

Still I hope you may not have thought it a complete waste of time.  And if you did…well, bub…


22 responses to “Topics In Fantasy: Rigoletto, Artesia, Watchmen

  1. Damn, missed the Kurosawa connection I was going to make. Maybe I’ll save it for the next one, which’ll probably be about speed of composition.

    Also, goddamnit, Canadians do not say “bub”. Who in the hell says “bub”? John Byrne musta been on glue, I just don’t get that. I’ve been all over this country and haven’t heard a single soul say “bub”. It’s absurd.

  2. Sorry I’ve been so long away. Had my reasons, that’s all.

    But you’ve given me the cue to finish off this thing I wrote after the Watchmen flick came out in Australia. With one question clearly dominating the reviews, it was time to get the word from the horse’s mouth, so I started asking around …

    Should fans of Watchmen the comic see Watchmen the movie?

    Dan Dreiberg, Nite Owl:

    It all seemed so clear, back then. As Moore’s story illuminated us from one side then another, you could see that we all had our reasons. We made our choices because we were the people we were, and we faced those choices, at least partly, because that was what the masks made us. The excitement was all in the progressive illumination — in the unmasking. But as readers we wanted more. To reach through the panels and balloons to where it was fully realized. Live, full colour, right now. Like some old memory, you can’t help trying to relive.

    Well it was a mistake, and we have to admit it sometime. We got it all in dynamic full colour — who could ask for better execution? But we lost the thrill of seeing the jigsaw come together, feeling so clever because it was coming togther in our imagination. Being so flattered that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had to seduce our minds into participation.

    I don’t know. Go and see it if you like. But all you’ll find is lifeless trophies of when it was an adventure.

    Jon Osterman, Dr Manhattan

    Moore has constructed an extraordinary time crystal. Every event expands from its causal sequence to reference a past or future moment, or a remote situation or personal factor. Perhaps the ideal medium for it would be just the twelve separate comic issues, read in random order. The reader is presented with a relentless human determinism, each action rendered transparent — exactly what, within the narrative, I am ironically blind to. Why anyone should want to exchange it for a linear sequence is beyond me.

    Eddie Blake, the Comedian

    You’ve got to see it! I tell you, it’s a riot!

    For starters it’s like the Best of Rorschach, that’s worth the price of the ticket all by itself. I mean one second of Jackie Earle Haley having his way with a can of cold baked beans is worth the price. Then in the prison, big old mean coloured gentleman looms over the little squirt, and I have to give credit for a great acting performance here, he’s got the Got You Now smile down tight. Then lunge! Snap, crackle, pop! I love it when they just ask for it, you know? Can’t get enough. Whole theatres were cheering, I hear.

    But it gets better. Because Zack Snyder is a well-intentioned doofus. He walks into the wall. He treads on the rake. Then he trips over the hose. And he’s completely oblivious, it’s jaw-dropping.

    Like it’s in Vietnam. Ostrander marches out of the forest, sixty feet high, with a ‘copter escort and conflagration behind him. Stark naked, or I think his codpiece is below tree level. Waves his hand and VCs in coolie hats just explode. So impressive. But here’s the rake lying there — Zack Snyder has seen Apocalypse Now. And you know what goes through your eardrums anytime someone brings up Apocalypse Now? ‘At’s right. So, colossal blue dong wades at you out of the jungle, Hueys descend, Charlie explodes, the dawn comes up like thunder, and all you can think of MOE’S TITS! Show me those big Brunhildas! On this solemn day of trial and triumph, do you, Doctor Manhattan, have any words for the American people? It’s 1985. My lover has finally made up her mind to leave me. Dum-dada-TAA TAA! It’s unbelievable. They’ve got a dozen of them, if you know and love the comics. Let the drinking games begin! Like for example, okay, okay, I’ll shut up now.

    Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre

    Well I loved it, and I hope you won’t be frightened off by the critics. It has all the color and atmosphere you could ask in a movie, and that’s a lot when you think how the only costumed adventure pictures used to be Captain Video or the Rocketmen. But I’m sure not hearing this from the reviews. I mean isn’t Dan’s costume just spiff? Isn’t anyone else going to say they were knocked out by the crystal ship? I have to tell you, when you get to the age when you can’t make a difference anymore, that’s when you realize what gratitude means to you, and you wish you’d done a little more to earn it. Well, they couldn’t do Alan’s story the way he told it, and I don’t think anyone thought they could. But they’ve done Dave Gibbons proud, and I’ll tell you I’m grateful for that.

    Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias

    Media technology is finally liberating us from the historical shackles of the single viewpoint. Through a process of self-training in extending my attention over many simultaneous video channels, I have made some first steps toward genuine synoptic perception. At Project Argus, Veidt Industries researchers are working to make the same training accessible and affordable. I can forsee the time when every major work of popular entertainment will be released simultaneously on multiple media, as book, film, graphic novel and interactive video experience. You might reasonably feel some skepticism; but I invite you to see for yourself and join in this exploration, by reading the original comic epic in combination with Time-Warners’ ground-breaking movie.

    Walter Kovacs, Rorschach

    Free country. chlurpp Your funeral.

    Better in black and white.

    Laurie Juspecyk, Silk Spectre

    They just couldn’t get past the goddam Tijuana bible, could they?

    Comedian: Hey, they thought it was the Bible! Like Drieberg’s dick was Jesus Christ and it was the Second Coming!

    Laurie: Daaaad!

    Comedian: Awww … sorry, cupcake.

    Laurie: I’m just about finished with you. All I’ll say about that is, if you don’t know your cue to show the joy on a man’s face when he gets back something he thinks he’s lost forever, your insight level is about ten years old.

    But I want to talk about the violence. You know there are times I’d love to go for the compound fracture every time, bang bang. But it’s a waste. Of. Energy. See, woman. Lesser upper body strength. And Dan was in no great shape either. Rule one: conserve your energy. Two: keep your options open. Three: be the last one standing. Look, in a sense they did get, What if superheroes were real? But they blew off, What if real people tried to be superheroes?

    Should you go? Oh sure, if you want to see some good old-fashioned sock-pow masked avenger thrills. But I thought Watchmen was about getting away from that, am I wrong?

    Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl

    It seems as if I’m always coming on to sum up and say the goodbyes, like Prospero. The insubstantial pageant faded leaves not a wrack behind, huh? But I can’t seem to fish up a lot of sadness that it’s all done now. I’ll still be here, fussing over an engine and telling old yarns. Meanwhile there’s too much going on that’s just plain interesting.

    I want to say thanks to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for inventing the Watchmen and giving a whole comics generation a standard to rally round. And thanks to Zack Snyder for attempting the impossible and bringing off an amazing feat of translation. I think people maybe fifteen, twenty years down the line will look back at us, and see a harbinger and a key to some pretty drastic cultural changes that they’ll be living through.

    The comics we grew up with are on their way out. You can see their successors on every other page, like wild rhododendrons springing up through the topiary gardens. I’m taking about the video game and movie ads. It’s a risky thing to draw a full-page action shot now, because you’re likely to be upstaged by somebody’s more lushly produced commercial for the next release of Halo. Or the Watchman movie.

    The split isn’t between the comics and other media, so much as between the individual artist and the production house team. The solitary fluent geniuses, the Al Capps and Milt Caniffs of our time, are doing it on the web, on their own schedule, making peanuts at it, but beholden to none. The team players are locked into production schedules, months in advance, but having the best toys; and they could be producing a video game, or a prestige graphic novel, or a movie. And with the technology improving, those formats are all going to converge. Already, you could probably licence animation artwork for subsidiary fan productions; say, those extraordinary backgrounds from Samurai Jack. Or those space-armoured grunts from Halo. And how long before small production houses are pitching film projects through desktop-produced storyboards and animated character samples? And maybe failing to make the pitch, and licencing them to a comics house instead?

    Our movie is a foretaste of all that. It shows us what can work, the epic translation from page to cinema. And it shows us what could never work, trying to map Alan and Dave’s leisured internal referentiality onto the linear speed-track of the action flick. It’s absolutely modern, as the man says.

    Well, I hear that engine calling, and like I say, you know where to find me. God bless you all, and good night.

    The Squid

    Hiya, loyal fans! Be seeing you in the sequel!

  3. Christ, Jonathan!

    Okay…if I were your editor, I’d want to tweak the Eddie Blake section so it came through more obviously in his voice. But everything else hits the mark precisely, and the Adrian Veidt bit is nothing short of sublime.

  4. I agree with you on the whole opera thing, Pillock — and if you liked Rigoletto, you really need to try out Mozart’s Don Giovanni! :-)

    I’m not usually an opera fan, but I do have a soft spot for Philip Glass’s opera for Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. I usually hate Philip Glass, but I love that opera.

    And when I’m playing Burnout Paradise, I love to play Opera’s Greatest Drinking Songs. ;-)

  5. I just missed seeing Salome — last production of the season, unfortunately every performance conflicted with a Canucks playoff game — and I’m kicking myself now, because apparently the libretto is straight Wilde, so one assumes the typical boring “look, over there” translation problem would be overcome. Really, I thought the words in Rigoletto would all be pure Alan Moore, but they weren’t — they were dopey.

    Not that it matters, because I think I’m hooked anyway. Gonna see a bunch next season. And, I’m probably a familiar story: guy’s mother fills the house with opera when he’s young, he thinks it’s just noise…gets interested in it more as an intellectual topic than anything else…then finally sees one, and bingo: end of rebellious phase.

    …And hey, now that I think of it…I’ve got all my parents’ old records sitting in my apartment…

    So Don Giovanni it is!

  6. Jonathan: That is not only the best review of the Watchmen movie I have seen, but it is also the best piece of Watchmen fan fiction ever.

    Wait, *is* there Watchmen fan fiction? I bet there is…


    Veidt’s voice is absolutely perfect … somehow *chilling* despite only talking about media adaptations. The way it sounds like he’s offering you a choice, inviting you along, when in fact he is telling you “This is the way it’s going to be, but I’m trying to be nice about it.”

    Well done, is what I mean to say.

    Mr. P: I think the “story, well told” approach is fading in superhero comics (I *think* this is relevant to these discussions, but I’m not a hundred percent on it, so correct me if I’m going in a different direction). Creators aren’t really working within a framework anymore, it seems, so there’s no *potential* for virutoso performances. If you took over writing Daredevil tomorrow and *didn’t* kill somebody off or bring somebody back from the dead, or shake up the status quo like a mason jar full of bees, fans would perceive what you’re writing as *inessential* these days, and that’s worrying to me. People got up in arms because they thought Final Crisis somehow *owed* them a radically restructuring of the DC cosmology. Fans were asking “What’s the point?” not realizing that the *story* was the point. And why not?

    You know, I really enjoyed Alan Moore’s Youngblood, and I wish there were more comics like it (or that his Youngblood run itself ran longer … or even finished the story it was right in the middle of when it got cancelled!). Stories, well told. The Timm/Dini Batman cartoon was nothing but.

  7. I just wanted to add that as I know nothing about opera — really, even less than you think “nothing” probably means — I’m content to just read the words of those who obviously do know a thing or two about opera and say to myself “Yes, it seems like these folks know what they’re talking about.”

  8. I think it’s on-topic, Justin…but further musings will have to wait ’til tomorrow, for me.

    And RAB — hey, you live in New York! You should see one — my mother moved to New York for the opera…

  9. Aw, you guys.

    RAB, I think I’d already subliminally picked you as an editor I want to have. Not for the jots and tittles, but to tell me when I’m Pulling an Adrian, dollops of high-flown futurism over a curd of rancid deceit and self-delusion. Because I know I’m prone. You’d be harsh, unlike Plok who has provided a sunny harbour for my geekier flights for so long.

    Justin, thank you. I guess Veidt came out a little better than I attempted. He thinks he’s the controller of events, but he’s become a creature of Mammon. Of intellectual properties you shall eat and drink all the days of your lives.

    But I’ve been dabbling on the DC Wonder Woman forum, where I got to say: Characters conceived in genuine if geeky passion + long production schedules + the web => golden age of fanfic. Gail Simone has been doing a lovely job with Diana, but she can only show so much in an issue, and issues are six months in the making. Us forum monkeys come up with more nifty ideas than Gail could put into seven versions. And Plok, fanfic is where you totally go for the opera buffo of our time. Assurances of quality you will not find, but buffo, piu buffo, buffissimo, ole’!

    Fans are the anti-Adrians.

    Oh, and Laurie wants to know, What was wrong with You’re My Thrill?

  10. I’ve seen opera many times — as you point out, you can hardly avoid it here, just walking down the street you’re liable to be hit by a stray aria — I just don’t know anything about it. On the other hand, Diva is one of my all-time favorite superhero films.

    Needless to say, though, I approve of and fully endorse your mother’s actions.

    Jonathan…really? Why does everyone think that about me? (RAB goes off to pout about being misunderstood before swearing vengeance on you all…)

    • Ach, crivens, come back, man. I mean I think you’d have insights my writing would benefit from. I wasn’t meaning to imply any lack of tact, honestly.

  11. Yeah, just try explaining a “good” super-hero story to a non-fan;

    “Captain America had a teenage partner named Bucky. They fought in World War II. Everyone thought Bucky was killed, but the Russians got him, put him in suspended animation, gave him a bionic arm, and brought him out every so often as an assassin…” And that’s without getting into the Cosmic Cube or Arnim Zola.

  12. ‘The Russians got him, put him in suspended animation, gave him a bionic arm, and brought him out every so often as an assassin…’

    I’d love to see the minutes of the KGB meeting where they decided that plan was going to work.

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