Flashback! To “Red Light Properties…!”

Not much of a flashback, it’s true…just a couple months.  And honestly it shoulda been a “Spring Review”, except I can’t wait ’til spring.

Because, man…I thought this was fantastic.

Absolutely fantastic.  For concept, for control, for appearance, for effect.  In comics, I think you’ll all agree, we specialize in doing heavy shit with a deceptively light touch:  of course you’re free to blow through it all and say “great story!” if that’s to your particular taste — in fact on a superficial level I think there are very few times you’re not actively encouraged to do that — but for the eye that loves to linger, for the thought that loves to find something uneven on the floor to catch itself on, for those things people call “levels”, nothing quite beats comics for finding a way to give you something extra: and it’s an “extra” that never exists, but that it co-exists, with a breezy “pop” presentation.  So at the very high level, to “superficially enjoy” is very close to the same thing as to “deeply think”…and perhaps this is one of the ways in which comics are not just “movies on paper”, nor even (and we’ve had damn few of ’em, maybe even not yet really one!) “novels with graphical dynamism”, in that they can capture their readers’ attention, capture it and secure it, in a way that only music or drama or dance is supposed to have licence to do.  This, as I may have tried (though feebly) to point out before, is perhaps the ultimate foot of all the stagecraft of opera buffo — I mean I think Atom Egoyan’s got a goddamn nerve, but I was told once by a respected ship-that-passed that his staging of Salome was designed to work on “many levels” because the staging was arranged in such a way that you could not see its effects fully from the balcony, but then again you could not see it fully from the orchestra either:  light and shadow were deployed to such an effect that what the people in the balcony gave up in distance, they were given back in graphical symbolism:  two-dimensional ghosts and sigils, even the Sign of the Cross, slipping out across the stage floor, invisible to the well-to-do even as the faces of the singers were invisible to the nosebleeders.  I mean, as a Canadian I kind of hate Atom Egoyan…but in this he seems to have done a very respectable job by the less-affluent opera patrons, something I imagine as bringing a little Ditko to the god-seats, no doubt ensuring lots of chatter in the intermission, and less artistic disappointment (it must be said!) than many of the stagings that promise the avant-garde but only deliver the experimental

I mean, really folks.  You don’t do experiments on the audience, eh?  You should probably have your results firmly in hand before someone pays to see ’em, you know?

When what you really want, after all, is to have the audience feel as though they are the ones performing an experiment:  by being involved in the action.  It’s just the same sort of thing that I like to bang on about in terms of hip-hop vs. “ordinary” melodic songwriting and performance:  where you have to work pretty hard with the latter form to build “levels” into it, and even then it’ll likely amount to nothing but distant cleverness unless the mathematics of it all joins up with the feeling conveyed in tune and vocal tone…but rap lyrics can indulge in a wild superadequacy of detail that relies much less on measuring sensitivity, practise a different sort of economy that’s a lot less Vermeer and a lot more Jackson Pollack.  Not that one is “better” than the other anymore than one has better or more mature artistry in it, but one is definitely more casually productive of multiple overlays that can create the “aural holograms” of place and story that create a powerful musical convection in the listener’s mind!  And so in this, the one type of performance has something more immediately, experientially, experimentally of drama to offer its audience…just like opera…

And just like comics.  In many of the best stories wherever you may find them, place is bound up with character, and thus with history as well, and it all goes round and round in a rhyme:  each thing is produced by the hologrammatic overlapping of its two partners, and so each thing is essential to the process both as output and as input…just as in many of the best comics stories, drawing and layout and colour and dialogue all cooperate equally to control the eye in such a way as to make what might be a too-slight concept in some other medium, or a too-heavy one in some other medium yet, come together into a uniquely “medium-light” fascination that surprises us with both its depth and its superficial sweep.  Surprises us with the way these two are joined, I mean:  because I think we’re always surprised, aren’t we, to find that some loosely playful thing has managed to grip us deep in the hypothalamus, that suddenly our identification is deeply-enlisted in it, that suddenly we look to it to explode our preconceptions about what “medium-light” can mean? Dan doesn’t do anything you could really call “revolutionary” (not really…but maybe that’s part of the point), however he builds character admirably, piece by piece by piece, character itself involved in its own history and placement.  And along with it he builds mystery, curiosity, that fascination…grabbing and holding.  By the time I read the Comics Alliance interview with Jude Tobin, I was already deeply involved in him both as a character and as a metaphor for writers and artists…but more than either of those, I was already deeply-involved with how those two involvements were inseperably joined to one another.  Without his character as specifically-written and specifically-drawn, Jude’s metaphorical status doesn’t have a hope of hitting home to the reader…and without his metaphorical significance, his character isn’t as directly fascinating as a guy you’re interested in, that you care about, that you feel you understand. Furthermore, neither of those things exists apart from Jude’s nature as a vehicle of his own placement and history…especially because this “slight” character’s entire function is to be embedded in other people’s history and placement and character, somewhat against his will and somewhat not, like any of us.  And of course this is enormously fitting, this is extraordinarily acute design even if it is “medium-light”:  any story about “ghost detectives”, if it’s worth its salt, is going to positively depend on a sense of place, as ghosts cement the meaning of places in the setting of history, and the stories of people, and vice versa, and round the outside.  But that’s where the refreshing craziness of the “real estate” stuff comes in, you see.  That innovation of Dan’s (and at first glance it hardly looks innovative at all!) whereby the unique power of living people to move on, to wish to move on, is coupled to (and part-and-parcel with) a wish the dead can’t have:  where moving-on is forgetting, moving-on is pretending…moving-on is the escape from what may have gone before, into the imagination of a new and untrammelled futurity of their own. And thus they find an answer in the character who can serve (functionally) as a dump for all that character and history and placement they wish to be rid of, no longer encumbered by the knowledge of…free from

Even if everybody with a brain knows:  you can’t really get away from this shit.  The real-estate witches that Ceci jousts with (as she takes her own dangerous-but-consciousness-expanding drug, before facing them!) certainly are aware that all the hopes and dreams of “new starts” from which they make their bread are lucrative precisely to the extent that they’re ludicrous, the transient output of idealistic desire…there really are no “new starts” any more than there are really “new stories” or even new chapters…but there’s just the simple matter of the waves peaking and troughing on the ocean:  energy you can capture and use, even that you can surf on, but nothing so powerful as to make anything like real change.

Which is maybe seeing it in too limited a way, perhaps…but then on the other hand, there are Jude’s old hyper-idealistic metaphysical cronies, and they’re too limited the other way!  So Jude and Ceci are inevitably in the middle, which may seem (depending on how you look at it) moderate, or may seem compromised…but then again, the middle has an attribute the top and bottom don’t — which is that it’s only from somewhere in the middle that you can figure out how to go sideways, and thereby discover new territory.  So, yeah…medium-light, definitely.  I mean you could easily read this as a story about a broken-down spaceship with a wacky crew…the pilot, the captain, the navigator, the engineer, the precious human cargo and the flickering communications net and the pirates…and it’s a lived-in universe, it’s “dirty” technology, it’s “workaday” science-fiction bound by the cold equations and the difficulty of living in confined spaces…really, if you all have any friends who were ever into Firefly, you should tell them about RLP because this is what that’s turned into…hell, even if you had friends who were into Starhunter

…Surely they would recognize, in Planet Florida’s competitive real-estate market, their heroes’ change of clothes.

And so maybe we should talk about the clothes, for a minute.

The first thing anyone’s going to notice about RLP is the integrated webcomical fun of it:  and it’s definitely no small thing, even though it’s a very simple thing.  The flow of time is directly controlled by the clicking of a mouse, the action of navigating the thing is wedded to the reading…and so it’s full of surprises, really is nothing but surprises…I mean, if you go back to previously-read chapters the very last thing you want is to simply view an entire page “as is”, instead (if you’re like me) being irresistibly drawn to the re-living of it…this comic about the past and the present is suffused with the pressure of futurity, everything’s planned out but you don’t see it…but when you do see it, it’s you who does the seeing.  With your fingertips.  So it’s great, it’s magical, it’s fun!  It’s just like reading comics, only it’s on a computer.  Because all art is play:  and, yeah, you do feel like the experimenter here.  You’re involved, like the cutting-edge kids say they’re involved in video games.  Maybe you’re not part of the action.  But you’re part of the storytelling, and by God you feel it.

That’s the first thing anyone’s going to talk about.

But I’m interested in the second thing, too:  the delerious art.  Cartoony Jude, in his neon shirt…stressed-out Ceci posing, sighing.  They look exactly like what they are:  cartoon figures plopped down into the “real” world, like animation painted onto film…or maybe, like live figures matted in to animation?  The strange sense of moving around underwater, the bright sun shining through a clear roof.  There’s nothing unusual about that particular stylistic mixing and matching, it’s just what lots of webcomics look like, the Photoshopping thing, you know…but the question is what effect it has, and it has a stupendous one here.  We feel high, along with Jude.  It’s all kind of fucked, we’re all a bit strung out on it.  All around you is fucking Florida, the most Florida-like Florida you ever saw…and we’re stuck in the middle of it.  It’s got us.  The goddamn trees and streets and ocean and sun, it’s beautiful but it’s a stressor.  And then again comes the clicking of the mouse:  we move through it.  Is it rocket science?  I don’t know, maybe it is…but it doesn’t feel like it.  You don’t notice that it’s rocket science.  You just notice that you care about it, that the mood of it grabs onto you…such slight stuff as this!  And yet it’s as addictive as anything.  In the end, it’s the only place to be.

Because it’s the only place that it’s like…!

So if you’ll take my advice, I think you ought to go and visit it.

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3 responses to “Flashback! To “Red Light Properties…!”

  1. It’s everything you say. I think what impresses me most is Dan Goldman’s balance. He gives his characters all these mean shabby attributes, but they’re never the whole story. A quick and dirty caricaturist would slap down the degradation and cue the laughter: another gag done. Not Goldman. Everything is forgivable at the price of enough patience. Forgivable and maybe a layered mystery of personal matters. By the end of it I know these ragged desperados are going to be way better off for sticking with each other.

  2. Yeah, I actually laughed out loud when I realized why I liked Jude so much…I mean, I recognize the guy! And I recognize his job. I recognize his LIFE. And maybe most importantly, because of all that I suddenly got that his take on what he does is actually an integrated part of the story, what he chooses about it is a big part of what the story actually is. And you get that from the CA interview too, for sure, I mean it’s a really nice and deceptively delicate trick…I admire the hell out of it.

    Gonna have to do another of these in November when the next batch of stories starts to roll…might have to ask Dan for an interview, though if there’s any justice he’ll be in too much demand to accomodate me…!

  3. Also, you know, what you’re saying there Jonathan…I really do detest the type of story that cares about its characters’ fates more than their…well, characters…maybe “detest” is a strong word, but I seem to have read an awful lot of stories, mostly novels, in which the for-your-edification crushing of the characters has become a self-justifying technique. Tough personal questions turned distant and fatalistic, top-down programming meant to sum to meaning, but it just doesn’t — because you finally realize that you as the reader care more for what happens to the people in the story than the writer does. And so, “edifying”, it really is not very edifying…as a formal posture it’s forgivable to the extent it bestows on you a personal vision, but as an end-run around sentiment the writer feels will compromise his seriousness it’s just icky. I mean, there’s a whole world between the poles of (I arbitrarily select) Iris Murdoch and David Lodge, right? And so it’s no more going to automatically be Art if the characters are made to submit to pessimistic disposability, than it’s automatically going to be not Art if there’s a happy ending that appeals to optimism. You do want to feel — at least, I want to feel! — like there’s a point to all the observation of these invented lives, that the author owns somewhat. Not wanting to fall afoul of the intentional fallacy of course, but what you’re given to look at, the angle you’re given to see it along, that stuff is in fact the product of a distinctive intention, and it isn’t like anybody thinks it’s a good idea to think texts just fall out of the sky. The intentional fallacy, no…but the author’s voice, yes, it kind of does exist, because without it all you’ve got is a plot diagram. And so to judge the voice, I think you’ve got to. All very sloppy language by me, sorry! But what I mean is…I appreciate being allowed to have some kind of middle-ground feeling for the characters as themselves, and not just as mulch for emotionally-distant big ideas, or sketches of the knots in Destiny’s web, or any of that stuff. Balance, as you succinctly put it (though of course I’ve never permitted succinctness to stand alone for long here!)…I really do respond like crazy to it, I want to be invested in a character, and then rewarded. And maybe that’s a low desire, but I really don’t think of it that way, I don’t feel it to be “low”…it sort of came on me that I was resistant to RLP at first because I carry around this assumption that a story that starts with a disintegrating marriage is a story about rushing towards Vanishing Point one way or the other, that’s just a bias that’s grown in my head over time…so many stories where it’s like seeing a magician who doesn’t bother to surprise you at the end of the trick with the real trick, you know? Or maybe…like cheap made-for-TV woman-in-jeopardy movies where the heel turn never comes, I mean I don’t love cheap heel-turns but they’re preferable to a story where “we think this guy’s the killer” is followed two hours later by the revelation that “yup, it was him; he was the killer all right.” I mean I have been known to come up with some derivative melodies in my time, but the least you can say about me is that they were the result of me trying

    (Oooooh, I do despise that “but at least I” game, though…)

    Anyway, it was the clicking that kept me going, despite that weird prejudice…and thank God it did, because then I discovered it wasn’t going to all be just a transparent fleecing of my attention after all…and then when I laughed out loud is when I realized “okay, it’s safe to care about all this!”

    “I’m in good hands!”

    You know?

    I mean, I love characters I can give a damn about. I’m kind of looking for them, pretty much all the time, and it isn’t as easy a trick to pull off as all that

    Whoops, I sort of gushed there a little, didn’t I? Like a pie-in-the-sky Dale Peck, or something…

    Gee, wonder if this might be a good place to talk about the first episode of the Matt Smith Dr. Who, that I finally watched a couple nights ago…

    But oh wait: boiling kettle.

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