Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud. Some Notes:

While the book is a little dated, reading it in 2016, its core theories and principles are incredibly relevant when looking at comics in the digital age. It is interesting to see that digital comics haven’t evolved that far since the writing of this book. More reading is required, and more notes need to be made. Added note, look at some for the books McCloud uses as examples.

  • “To understand comics we need to separate form from content – and see with clear eyes how other eras have used this same idea to beautiful ends – and what a limited palette of tools and ideas our own era has used.” [2000:1]. The history of comics needs to be taken into account when looking at their current state. (Looking at the ‘dead’ medium to understand the ‘Undead’.)
  • “The heart of comics lies in the space between the panels – where the reader’s imagination makes still pictures come alive.” [2000:1] Marshall McLuhan and the space between panels, time. “In relying on visual sequence, comic’s substitutes space for time.” [2000:2]
  • “Like other media, comics is merely a simple idea – in search of complex applications – yet comics remain relegated to non-art status by conventional wisdom. A status some try to combat (although some in the community relish it).” [2000:3] Greenberg, Dominant media theory?
  • “Comics professionals don’t always agree on their long-term goals for the art for, or for the industry, but there was some common ground at least.” [2000:10] Art vs. Business, plus societal position.
  • “It hasn’t often paid to ne a pioneer in comics, and some of our greatest innovators laboured in obscurity for years, though the mainstream usually sits up and takes notice eventually.” [2000:18]
  • “Today, the moving image – both through movies and television – accounts for the lion’s share of such windows. Comics, like other minority forms, are vital to diversifying our perceptions of our world. The best way to understand the nature of our environment is to return to it from as many vantage points as possible – triangulating its shape from without.” [2000:19] Using art to examine and shape our view of the world and society. – Gesamtkunstwerk?
  • “I think the challenge for comics in the 21st century is not to move ‘forward’ as so many would have it. The challenge is to grow outward.” [2000:22]
  • “Slick white paper and a square binding are no guarantee of literary merit, and great ideas can as easily be scrawled on cocktail napkins – but in moving from periodical to book, an implicit claim of permanent worth was being made – a claim that had to be justified.” [2000:29]
  • “Periodicals have traditionally carried with them the connotation of disposability; of temporary worth – while books brought the promise of something more.” [2000:29] That the presentation of a media can denote its perceived worth. – Marshall McLuhan, ‘The Medium is the Message.’
  • “For the direct approach comics artists may choose to depict their worlds at a nearly photographic level of detail using traditional media, computer graphics or actual photos.” [2000:35] Mixing media to provide greater depth of clarity in meaning.
  • “Fiction and non-fiction bleed into one another easily in comics. The first time ‘Maus’ hit the New York Times Best Seller list it was mistakenly listed as ‘fiction’ and one look at its protagonists show why.” [2000:40]
  • “Naturally, a sensibility of ink drawing will always be relevant to works reproduced in ink – and even art destined for the screen can benefit from the study of old masters – but to choose computers as one’s primary art making tool is to choose an almost superhuman palette of options – and to devote it to merely imitating their predecessors is a bit like hunting rabbits with a battleship.” [2000:141]
  • “As of 2000, a more than a decade of ‘being useful’ has produced a select class of digital experts – and many younger artists now see acquiring computers as the first rung on the ladder to power. For others, though; particularly veteran artists of earlier generation; the fast pace of change can be unsettling – and the prospect of the comics industry converting entirely to computers can lead to severe alienation. After decades of mastering the technologies of pen, brush and mechanical reproduction, the advent of computers can only mean one thing to these artists: Personal Obsolescence.” [2000:142]
  • “Thanks to the mighty ‘undo’ and the ability to save intermediate versions – pursuing one option never has to exclude others. The digital canvas offers a malleable world with limitless opportunities for revision and expansion. Computers replace an armada of physical media with a single work environment, but by doing so expand the palette of visual results greatly; and that palette grows larger by the day – and once again the tool that makes it all possible isn’t something you can put in a steel case – or on a plastic disk inside a cardboard box – or in a half-inch-wide strip of glowing pixelated icons on a glass screen. The tool is the idea that art as information is intrinsically limitless – and the case and the disk and the screen are just the first shapes the idea chose to take.” [2000:148]
  • “Computer artists are a greedy lot. They want to have it all and they know they’ll get it if they wait long enough. The often cited trade-off between the power of computing and the spontaneity of pen and ink is only a temporary condition. Advances in both software and hardware will return spontaneously to many artists within the decade.” [2000:151]
  • “Cheap, popular graphics tools have been around only a little more than a decade! That means nearly anyone making art on computers is an immigrant to this new world.” [2000:151] Digital Immigrant vs. Digital Native. – Marc Prensky.

Books to read:

  • ‘A Contract with God’ by Will Eisner
  • ‘The Spirit’ by Will Eisner
  • ‘Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’ by Art Spiegelman
  • ‘It’s a good life if you don’t weaken’ by Seth

Digital Comics: Infinite Canvas meets Infinite Time.

The idea of a comic book would most likely bring to mind the image of dog eared magazine, decorated in the garb of colourful superhero action, such as Superman or Spider-man, or comical animal strips, including the likes of Garfield, found in your everyday newspaper, due to the image that the mainstream media has perpetuated. With this image in mind, the general public can view the comic book medium as a playground tailored for children and the immature, a notion once shared by the creators themselves [Howe. 2012], this can put off some creators, as they “have a very limited audience and little chance of seeing any returns for their efforts” [Shedd. 2005:05]. The advent and ease of access of the World Wide Web, allows for creators to share their own comics with a wide audience without the fear of distribution costs, the freedom of genre, and complete creative control over their work. With that freedom in mind and the implementation of web only features, such as HTML and Flash, the medium itself could be played with and experimented upon, creating interactive experiences and motion sequences.

However, the creation of motion and interactive comics, according to Scott McCloud, could fall into the same trap as the traditional printed medium, using the screen in the same manner as a standard page. Unlike a sheet of paper, which has defined dimensions and can be ripped and ruined, a screen can be viewed as a window, an infinite space. “The goal is to use the infinite nature of the web to the advantage of the medium, rather than be constrained by panels and pages” [Booker, 2014:1825]. The expansion of a comic beyond its original dimensions, allows for a creator to experiment with what we traditionally see as a comic, and take “advantage of the medium to a much higher degree” [Shedd, 2005:09], using the added space and flexibility to complement the story being told.

The implementation of an infinite X and Y axis can add a sense of time to the work, as information is being revelled to the audience in a controlled setting. A practice McCloud refers to as “gradualism – slowly gaining information by slowly scrolling through an image or sequence of images” [McCloud, 2007]. This practice can, theoretically, expand on an idea of Marshall McLuhan, and the notion of time between panels. That the space in between comic book panels is infinite and can only be determined by what comes before and after. “The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines” [McLuhan, 1964:174]. An idea also expounded upon by McCloud, with the example of an off panel death, “To kill a man between Panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths” [McCloud, 1993:68].

  • Blake, C. (2013) The digital evolution: from infinite canvas to infinite comics. [Online] Comic Book Resources. Available from: http://www.cbr.com/the-digital-evolution-from-infinite-canvas-to-infinite-comics/ [Last accessed: 28/09/2016]
  • Booker, M. (2014) Comics through Time. A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas. Greenwood
  • Howe, S. (2012) Marvel Comics. The Untold Story. Harper Collins, New York.
  • McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. Harper Collins, New York.
  • McCloud, S. (2007) Reinventing Comics. Harper Collins, New York.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media. Routledge, Oxon.
  • Shedd, A. (2005) No Borders, No Limits: The Infinite Canvas as a Storytelling Tool in Online Comics. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Idaho.

Revisiting Man of Steel

man_of_steel_ver2_boxartWith the upcoming release of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I decided that it may finally be time to revisit Man of Steel. A film that I had avoided heavily re-watching since its first release. Let’s just say that like a large portion of the general public, the film did not sit well with me. However, now that some time has passed and my initial rage has subsided (mostly), it’s time to answer the question. Was Man of Steel any good?

In short, no. The critics and general public alike have made no secret of the films flaws. Given the length of time between viewings and the changing of your perceptions over time though, I had to wonder. Had my hatred of the film been sharpened by the constant criticism the film was receiving? If only the flaws are being discussed, are they the only memories I will retain and revisit? Causing a deeper hatred than the film may have disserved.

screenshot_1244With a character such as Superman, or even Clark Kent, there is a certain weight and expectation that exists in the mind of the viewer, even before the film is experienced. This makes the film incredibly hard to separate from the character’s history. Cavill will always be compared to Reeve. Reeve is the definitive Superman to a lot of people, even to those that do not read the comics, this already stacks the deck against Cavill before we even saw him in action. One can’t help but feel sorry for the actor, for the fact that he is not being judged on his own ability, but by his predecessor. The darker tone of the film only hinders this fact, as the films blatant attempts to cash in The Dark Knight‘s success, forces the character into an atmosphere and tone that, while can and has been explored throughout Superman’s history, is not his natural state. The tone and format, retelling Superman’s history in a miss matched order, are elements taken directly from that of Batman Begins in the hopes that the familiar storytelling devices and now bankable formula, would win the film some good graces. One would hope that this was done to allow the creators to use the format to complement the differences between the two films, but sadly all it does is create a Batman clone in Kryptonian garb.

9053_4Superman is not Batman. While both characters can be equally enjoyed by the audience, their motivations and raison d’être’s are separate. Leading to a difference in personality and appeal. While the brooding superhero has undoubtedly become popular in recent years, what Hollywood must remember, is that it is not a necessity. Something that I fear Batman Vs. Superman will unfortunately reinforce.

Throughout Man of Steel, the man we watch grow and supposedly root for, stands as neither the classic Clark Kent nor the traditional Superman. The films decidedly dark tone 106056_zpsac36da8b.png~originalplays a key role in this matter, depicting a man that attempts to embody the icon but fails to comprehend it. Though glimpses of childhood embrace Clark’s frustration and attempts to appear normal to the world, providing some of the films greatest (and briefest) moments, remain promising as they play off the mood well. Clark as an adult, shows a man far more self centred and arrogant than previous incarnations. While it’s only natural for children, particularly those that are adopted, to have moments of friction or argue over their future, Clark’s interactions with his parents, particularly Jonathan, are cold hearted and do little to ground him to his life in Kansas. Rather than a being of two worlds, equal in his loyalties, Clark stands as simply a Kryptonian living on Earth. At multiple times, reminding Jonathan and Martha that they are not in fact his real parents and simply found him. Compounded by the fact that his first words to Martha after being gone for a considerable time, based on her reaction, is to state that he “found his real parents”. In order to sell an actor as Superman, you must also convince the world that he is Clark Kent, Something Cavill fails to do. It is in fact more tempting to refer to him as Kal than Clark, for the mere fact that his preoccupation with Krypton outweighs his bonds to the Earth.

Man_of_Steel_teaser_trailer_screenshot_10_460x259The controversial “neck snap” scene, while originally anger inducing for its general existence, brings about more controversy in hindsight. The taking of a life is seen in Superman’s eyes as crossing the ultimate moral line, in the few previous crossings, the weight bears so heavily on his mind that he exiles himself from society. In the case provided, the situation does become dire enough that crossing that line becomes morally expectable, even if it feels wrong. However, taking into account the previous destruction of the city and the countless lives most likely lost in the incident, the fact that a single family becomes his deciding factor creates a hypocritical flaw in his own judgement.

While Cavill bears the brunt of the backlash, it is clear that he has the ability to portray a true Superman, as well as an honest Clark. If only the darker tones enforced upon the project could be loosened. Allowing him to break free of the Kryptonite shackles that is studio mandate, could provide us with the next definitive Superman actor.

man-steel-sequel-superman-lois-laneIn contrast, Amy Adams’ portrayal of Lois Lane provides not only a strong willed centre, but a faithful embodiment of everything Lois has stood for overtime. She’s not afraid to put herself in harm’s way for a story, charging in when she knows it’s the only way she will get her answers. In contrast to the hollow shell of a Superman story the film becomes at times, Adams plays an honest character, a stand in for those as curious enough to investigate Cavill’s Superman rather than a scared onlooker, too frightened to comprehend a world beyond the familiar Reeve.

Screen-Shot-2013-04-17-at-4.11-600x369The film is most definitely a flawed production, confusing a stand in of Superman with embodying his principles and life. It’s stigma in the media proves that its missteps have not gone unnoticed, and with Batman Vs. Superman on the horizon, it is hopeful that the criticism from Man of Steel has been taken on board. However, with Snyder’s continued defence of the film, it seems that the ‘Batman-afying’ of Superman sees no clear end. The fact that Superman has been sidelined in his own sequel unfortunately, leads us to conclude that the dark and gloomy times are yet to see an end. May Dawn of Justice, shed some much needed light onto the character and franchise, so that once again Superman can bask in the sun.

 

Zarathustra – Learning through Comics

Miracleman-1-Opena-VariantOne of the joys of a curious mind, is when you can find a small spark of information in a piece of media you love, and it leads to you discovering a whole new aspect of the world around you.

While finally completing the fantastic Alan Moore run of Miracleman, I came out of it with just as many questions as I had at the start. One at the forefront of my mind was the monstrous Zarathustra experiments that created the Miracleman family. Where did the name come from? What did it have to do with the story? and the ongoing wonder, had it influenced the story in other ways?

Upon research, I discovered the 19th century philosophical novel, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.” by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. While Nietzsche is most known for coining the term ‘Ubermensch’, a phrase many comic book fans have most likely come across at some point given one of its translation, Superman. In “Zarathustra”, the idea of the ‘Ubermensch’ being a goal for humanity is explored, pushing humans to their highest potential and creating super humans. In essence, this is the goal of not only the comic creators, creating superheroes to show the best of humanity, but the motives of the comics character Dr. Gargunza when carrying out the Zarathustra experiments. When Dr. Gargunza explains his work to Liz, he states “You see, it was my belief that this process might be made to work upon humans. What if you were to take a human being … let’s say a young orphan whom no-one would miss .. What if, from his living cells, you could create a perfect evolved superhuman?” [Moore.2014:44]. Naming the experiment after Zarathustra was a logical step, given the focus of both the novel and the

experiment.

In regards to weather the novel had any greater impact on Miracleman, there are multiple quotes and notion that mirror this saga of Miracleman. “One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.” [Nietzsche.1883], perfectly describes not only Michael Moran’s discovery of his powers but the destructive nature that Johnny Bates unleashes in his superhero form. The chaos within the two of them burning as they fly through the stars in battle. The line “I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?” [Nietzche.1973], perfectly mirrors advice given to Miracleman by his ‘creator’, Dr. Gargunza.

The most famous phrase attributed to the novel is “God is Dead” [Nietzche.1973], while the phrase is often misused to describe a complete lack of god, it was actually used to describe the rise of Atheism and Agnosticism. While Miralceman does contain aspects of man playing god as well as creating god. The final chapter of book three, even displays Miracleman as a god like figure in the utopia he creates, giving himself a rebirth by travelling to the north of Scotland in his human form and leaving a note as a tomb stone for his human life.

There are several parallels between Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and Moore’s “Miracleman”. While a lot of it could be considered coincidence, Moore is well known for his attention to detail and the fact that he would use this name for the experiment, proves that he must have had some knowledge of the book. Fascinating to wonder just what else could have influenced his saga of Miracleman.


Sources:

  • Moore, A. (2014). Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying. Marvel: UK.
  • Moore, A. (2014). Miracleman Book Two: The Red King Syndrome. Marvel: UK.
  • Moore, A. (2014). Miracleman Book Three: Olympus. Marvel: UK.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1974). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Penguin Classics: UK.

The Enigma of Miracleman

Alex_Ross_Miracleman_5_VariantThe name Alan Moore holds a lot of weight in the comic book community, even those with only a passing interest in the subject, have come across some of his work, most likely the highly rated and critically acclaimed Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Some may have even immersed themselves in the likes of From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the fact of the matter being that Alan Moore is celebrated for a reason. During a conversation several weeks ago, I had a number of comic recommendations given to me. This one conversation included titles such as Grant Morrison’s Zenith, Jess Nevins’ League companion Heroes & Monsters, and an Alan Moore title I had never come across before. Miracleman.

As any research junkie would do, I asked around in my local store and hit the internet in an attempt to discover just why I had never heard of it before. Upon finally getting my hands on the first two books, I noticed a quote from Time magazine printed on the cover to ‘Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying’. “A must-read for scholars of the genre, and of the comic book medium as a whole.” [McMillan. 2013]. The only conclusion I could discern from both the original recommendation and the internet wide praise, This book is a big deal.

comics-alan-moore-fashion-beastHaving finally sank my teeth into the first book, I can concur that the praise is in no way misleading. Miracleman is an intense exploration of the superhero genre in itself, pre-dating what many consider Moore’s ultimate deconstruction of the superhero, Watchmen. Dream of Flying takes the original camp notion that superheroes had been known for since the 60’s and ultimately treats it for what it is, even acknowledging the absurdity of magical origins in its own pages, while simultaneously taking discussing the corruption that can come from possessing god-like abilities, personal sense of place and life, and even the validity of your own memories. Taking what was essentially a mythology and origin based on magic, redefining it through science fiction and finally ripping it inside out. While a full review is at some point necessary, granted when all three books have been thoroughly poured over and absorbed, I came out of ‘Dream of Flying’ with a lot of questions. Most of which concerning the mysterious lack of reprints and the history of the character its self.

When discussing Miracleman, the conversation usually starts with the aforementioned 1982 Alan Moore run in the pages of British independent anthology, Warrior. However the character dates back even further, to 1954 and the British publication L. Miller & Sons, Ltd. A company intended primarily to reprint American comic strips for the British market, primarily reprinting comics from Fawcett Publications. Fawcett Publications is now mostly remembered for the creation of Captain Marvel, now more famously known as the DC character, Shazam. While Fawcett comics would eventually come under fire from National (DC comics) and eventually have to discontinue all lines of Captain Marvel comics, L. Miller & Sons would need to replace these in Britain with their own creations.

Miracleman_2_Davis_VariantMiracleman, originally named Marvelman, was created by artist and writer Mick Anglo, as a knock of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, with similarities to the two including the utterance of a magic word as well as an extended Marvel family. With Captain Marvel being considered a rip off himself, this just adds more fuel to the notion that all modern Heroes can trace their origins back to Superman. Introduced to the public just as Captain Marvel books disappeared, it managed to survive until 1963 with the bankruptcy of L. Miller & Sons. Marvel man did not appear again until 1982 in the now highly regarded Moore run.

During the Moore run, the character however was still referred to as Marvelman rather than his current title. It was only due to Marvel Comics need to snap up and copyright uses of the word Marvel (for obvious reasons I’m sure you’ll see) that Eclipse Comics, the then publisher, pushed to have the name changed to Miracleman and avoid any more controversy over such matters.

Copyright and ownership is a problem that has long plagued the character ever since those early days,  including the ‘Marvels and Miracles, LLC’ Vs. ‘Todd McFarlane Productions’ case of 2002. But by 2013, all rights were finally settled and held squarely with Marvel Comics (the same company who, ironically enough, had caused Miracleman’s original name change).

Miracleman_1_Preview_3This only leaves one looming question. Why is Moore credited as ‘The Original Writer’? Surely having a name like Alan Moore on a book that few new readers would know, was a no brainer. This decision at the end of the day, came from Moore himself. In an interview in The Hollywood Reporter, Moore stated that at the time of his original work on Miracleman, he was unaware that Mike Anglo had no rights to the character and was making nothing from it. “if I’d known that, I would have never taken the job.” [McMillan. 2013]. Due to the belief that he had been part of cheating the original creator out of what was rightfully his, Moore decided to leave his name off the reprints. “by the time that Marvel Comics were involved I just thought, No, let it go, give all the money to Mick Anglo” [McMillan. 2013]

Miracleman, in both story and history, is incredibly rich. With so much to take away from it and with two books still ahead of me. I am so glad I took up the recommendation and I hope that anyone who has read this, thinks about checking it out.


Sources:

Superman/Shazam! First Thunder – Review

Superman_-_Shazam_1“We are born from darkness into the light.. And thus, Humanity, by its very nature, fears the unknown. The Shadows. It fears the dark. Humanity is not driven by rage. It is driven by desire. So, we are easily led astray. But, in that, we can also be led home.”

When the Man of Steel and Earth’s Mightiest Mortal join forces, big things are expected. When both heroes come across a threat that neither can take on alone, it provides a fascinating comparison between the original superhero, Superman, and what was once considered a simple rip-off, Captain Marvel. The Story, while titled for both heroes, seems to take a greater emphasis on exploring the character of Billy Batson and the reality of a ten year old actually inheriting the abilities of the gods, chosen by fate to bear that mantle. Previous explorations of Billy Batson, Pre – New 52, have cared more for the heroic exploits of  Captain Marvel and only displayed Billy as a simple carefree ten year old who happens to be an orphan. While short scenes, his interactions with what appears to be his only friend become quite touching as you realise that these interactions are the closest thing he has to a normal life. Comparing this to Superman, you have a hero that not only had a loving family, a good childhood and the choice to use his power and become his superhero identity, as well as have his entire life to discover his own abilities. By the stories end, both the reader and Clark can see and feel just how much was really thrown at the young boy and the responsibility on his shoulders, with little else for him to fall back on for support.

“My name’s Billy Batson. But maybe it’s too dangerous to be Billy Batson anymore.”

spshft00The quiet conversations between both Superman and Captain Marvel essentially make this story. While physically resembling a full grown adult, Captain Marvel is reduced to a fan boy, taking joy in the private talks, referring to these opportunities as an honour. While Superman is initially confused by the admiration, he finds some form of solidarity with him and leads to some brilliantly played out moments where the two work off of each other beautifully. Bringing a large amount of depth to them both in a short amount of time.

The art by Middleton is wonderfully fluid, displaying not only the heroic nature of the two but introduces many subtle character quirks, such as Billy’s pension for half sticking his tongue out when pondering, or the intense rain of emotion Middleton is able to emote just from gestures. The combination of Winick’s writing and Middleton’s art, brings about a compelling mix of action, tragedy and comradery in a classic Superman Shazam tale.

“I suppose I feel a lot better about this realm of magic, or mysticism.. Well .. Knowing that you’re guarding the gate.”