Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Has Benedict Cumberbatch...

A)...been typecast?

2)...revealed a lack of range as an actor?

C)...been in a number of similar roles that directly appeal to my sensibilities?

Four) None of the above.

And, really, what does it matter that I've had some insight as to the oeuvre of Benedict Cumberbatch that (most likely) hundreds of thousands of fans have come to previously, most likely years before this?  Not one whit.  But, this is a place for me to ramble on about unimportant things, and a clearing house for thoughts that get stuck in my head, which I am unable to be rid of until I have written them down.  So, if you choose to read further, you're stuck (nothing like trying to sell you on this, eh?) 

So, the answer to the above:  probably number four, but that's no fun . . . so, on with the show. 

My wife and I recently watched the broadcast of the National Theater's production of Danny Boyle's FRANKENSTEIN, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  What made this presentation of the play noteworthy was the fact that Cumberbatch and Miller traded roles, between Victor Frankenstein and the monster, on alternating nights.  The National Theater provided both presentations, and it was fascinating how different they were, despite not only the same script being utilized, but what would appear to be the same direction from Boyle for the two main characters. 

The first night we watched Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.  It was a wonderful experience, one I wish I could have seen in the theater.  Cumberbatch was superb as the arrogant scientist, while Miller's monster was not only intimidating but also incredibly sympathetic.  I felt horribly for what he went through, in those two hours.  But, upon finishing it -- and being a huge fan of Cumberbatch -- I was anxious to see how he would tackle the role of the monster, as that was the primary role, as far as I was concerned.  Put simply, and stated succinctly by my wife when we discussed it, Cumberbatch did not lend himself as well to the character of the monster, even as Miller's Frankenstein left something to be desired.  Without having a far better understanding of the theater, as well as access to these presentations so that I might watch them multiple times, I can't put my finger on what, exactly, it was that made one production far exceed that of the other.  My guess isn't that it was one or the other of the actors who did poorly in the roles, but most likely the amalgamation of the two playing off one another in the roles, and working far better in the initial viewing we had, that lent itself so well to the production my wife and I deemed superior. 

It was my wife, noting how well suited Cumberbatch was to the role of Frankenstein, that cut to the heart of why that rendition seemed to work so well.  After that, I started thinking about Cumberbatch as an actor -- of whom, as I state above, I am a huge fan.  Has he been typecast?  Or is he just attracted to a specific type of role -- the hyper-intelligent, overly arrogant, emotionally distanced (verging from indifference almost to neglect) character?  Let's roll the tape. 

We had also recently watched PATRICK MELROSE, the Showtime series based on the novels of Edward St. Aubyn.  Lightly based on St. Aubyn's life, it follows the deterioration of Melrose into the abyss of drugs, as he deals, or mostly avoids, the abuse of his childhood, while trying to find his way in the world.  Coming from a noteworthy British family, Melrose is a supremely intelligent man who finds it challenging to get out of his own way, as the traumas of his youth continue to haunt him, even as he goes from one relationship and one drug cocktail to the next, with no regard for how he treats people or what he's doing to himself.  Self-destructive, even while holding onto the knowledge of what he's doing, to himself and to his young family, as we progress through the narrative, Melrose does eventually come through it, but not without a wealth of assistance from those around him, those he has pushed away.  This was a tour-de-force of acting on the part of Cumberbatch and a riveting mini-series that kept one engaged and sympathetic of Melrose, even as his actions continually undermined any good he might try to do.  Truly, an amazing bit of acting in a story that, though familiar to some extent, was a stellar dramatic presentation.  Now, I need to seek out the books and read them. 

Then there's DR. STRANGE:  Similarly arrogant, a physician who has people's lives in his hands, The God in his own mind, and, once again, emotionally distant because people are not on his level of intellect and importance, not unlike Patrick Melrose, not unlike Victor Frankenstein. Strange loses it all, must work to regain his life and fight to become a better person, not unlike Patrick Melrose (Frankenstein does not come through the haze of arrogance and superiority that plagues him). 

There are, of course, the tragedies of Julian Assange (from a certain point of view) and Alan Turing (from everyone's point of view, I would hope) as portrayed by Cumberbatch in THE FIFTH ESTATE and THE IMITATION GAME, respectively.  Again, Cumberbatch dives into characters whose intellect sets them apart from "regular" people.  He is emotionally distant, finds it challenging to make friends, either through a heightened caution mixed with disdain, or a lack of common interests.  It's interesting that Cumberbatch seems attracted to these roles, and even more interesting that I'd not seen the connection before.  But it's there, definitely. 

Which brings us to the role that put Benedict Cumberbatch into the greater cultural consciousness, which could be seen as the ur-text for the characters he would take on, SHERLOCK.  His definition of this well-known fictional detective has become the definitive characterization of Sherlock Holmes, for many, despite its shift in setting to present-day London.  The quick thinking, sharp speaking, highly observant, extremely emotionally distant Sherlock is engaging and sympathetic, even while being a thoughtless ass on many occasions, due in no small part to Sherlock's own perceived elevation above the rest of society.  This was the performance that put Cumberbatch on the map, and it seems to have been the template with which he's chosen to craft a body of work as an actor. 

All of these roles have afforded Cumberbatch the opportunity to expand his ability as an actor while telling stories that, one would hope and assume, mean a lot to him.  It would be nice to see him reach beyond the type that seems to pervade his work, and I have little doubt he could be successful in that, but there's also the question of whether his audience will be able to accept him in roles other than the similar ones he has so far engaged with. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Comic Book Making: Lettering & Art working together

With relatively few exceptions, the creation of a comic book is a collaborative effort, especially when discussing work from the larger publishers, Marvel and DC.  Much of their output consists of color comics, and much of it is published on a monthly basis.  For a standard 20-24 page comic, that's a lot of work to get done in a short amount of time.  Which is why a division of labor was formed:  writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering.  Parsing out these various aspects of a comic to different specialists allowed the schedules to remain intact, for the most part.  And, though all parts of the comic need to come together in order for it to work, there is an obvious hierarchy, with writing and art at the top and, more so now than ever, the writers even getting higher billing than the artists. 

Anyway, preamble aside, I've been reading some older comics recently and came across examples of "unorthodox" panel layouts in two different issues -- one that didn't work and one that did.  The former was from the Wally West era Flash series, issue #201, and the latter was in Saga of the Swamp Thing annual #2. 


Now, comparing anyone's work to that of Alan Moore and his collaborators is almost always a losing proposition and terribly unfair.  But if you want to learn how to do things well, you need to learn from the best, so let's get on with it.  

First, let's look at the page that didn't work.  The issue was published in 2003, written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Alberto Dose, with lettering from Kurt Hathaway.  

An important thing to remember, when dealing with a page layout that does not adhere to any recognizable grid (such as a 2 x 2 panel grid like Kirby would utilize or a 3 x 3 panel grid that epitomized Ditko's Spider-Man and Moore & Gibbons's Watchmen) is that there need to be some way for the reader's eye to smoothly follow the storytelling -- because our natural progression, in western comic and reading in general, is to go left to right, top to bottom; anything outside that norm will necessitate hard work on the part of the creators, to get it right.  That doesn't happen in the above page. 

Looking at that page from the Flash, we start in the upper left corner, obviously, as Wally steps from his car, which is hanging in midair (due to Wally's sped up perceptions as he goes into superspeed mode).  This follows to the tall rectangular panel just to the right, overlapping with the initial panel.  Now, this middle panel at the top also heavily overlaps with the larger panel in the upper right.  Our eyes naturally move in that direction, with nothing to hinder our reading progress . . . BUT this would be wrong.  That "third" panel has Wally already on the ground, looking into the vehicle beneath his own.  We only discover is it the wrong order, though, when we shift our eyes back to the left and find a panel that, in time, falls between that second panel and that large one in the upper right.  The caption box:  "My car's floating in midair." also indicates this panel comes before the one where he sees the driver in the neighboring car.   Nothing -- in the art or the lettering (since that caption box appeared not to be attached to that second panel) -- showed readers they needed to move downward rather than to the right.  So, in reading it out of order first, followed by a need to go back and re-read it correctly, the creators have taken the audience out of the story and any emotional response they may have been attempting to spur in the readership is lost. 

Now, let's look at a less hectic but still unorthodox panel layout in the Swamp Thing annual.   This comic was published in 1985, written by Alan Moore, with art from Stephen Bissette & John Totleben, and lettering by John Costanza. 

In this issue, and all the issues to date that I've re-read, the lettering and art come together in a near perfect harmony to bring these stories to life in a way that few comics, even today, are able to achieve.  There's a reason these comics are stone cold classics, part of that's the writing, part of that is the art, including coloring from Tatjana Wood, and part of that is the lettering. 

On this page, we start, as we always do, in the upper left corner.  Deadman is hovering above Swamp Thing as they talk.  This panel leads into the tall panel at the right, which overlaps the first and third.  Of course, our eye naturally moves this way, but just to emphasize the reading of this page, Deadman's hand leaks into that second panel.  There, we have a double-image, wherein we see Deadman and Swampy walking through the nether-realm as a ghost-image of Deadman's face looms above them, speaking.  His word balloons wrap through the image of the two characters, leading directly to the third panel, where Swamp Thing's speech balloons lead directly off from Deadman's in panel two.  Note that, in these first three panels, not only have the word balloons directed our eyes through the reading order of these panels, but the figures also snake through in the direction we should be reading.  Deadman's response in this panel falls outside that "arrow" but, again, we have the art to lead us into the next panel, which is the tall, rectangular one at the lower left.  Not only does Deadman's arm once again point us to the next panel to be read, but the slight overlap of that panel into the third one also pulls us toward it.  And then, once again, we have the characters turned around, facing toward the right, which leads us into the final panel. 

Certainly, this page wasn't as complex as the Flash panel, but it adhered to some fairly "unspoken rules" about comic art, which is to have the images in the panels leading readers in the correct reading order, and adding to this clarity of expression is the lettering from Costanza, who masterfully weaves the word balloons through this page, and other similarly expressive pages, to keep the audience engaged with the story and not having to pause and think about which panel they need to go to next. 

And if you're looking for another example of masterful art and lettering that provides a clarify of expression in an unorthodox panel layout, check out my earlier post on Sam Kieth's Aliens work, here.  It's pretty interesting (the page layout if not the explanation from me), in my opinion.