Friday, October 15, 2021

Great Comic Book Writers -- it's a visual medium



In the history of comic books, it could be argued the 1980s ushered in the time of the superstar writer. Certainly, prior to 1980, there were notable writers in comics: the two Steves, Englehart & Gerber, Marv Wolfman, Gardner Fox, and Stan Lee had burnished his myth to a high sheen through editorials and essays, as well as his many speeches on college campuses. But the breakout of writer as commodity for selling and marketing comics certainly took place in the early 80s. And the vanguard of this movement emanated from the U.K. in the form of three particular authors--Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. 


Forests of metaphorical trees have succumbed to the writings examining the works of these three writers. They imbued their stories with an adult sensibility, refusing to talk down to their audience, in a medium historically marketed toward children. They had a distance to the material--American superhero comics, in the main--that allowed them to view these characters through a different lens and bring something new and innovative to the stories. And they brought a bit of magic to the medium that ignited a passion in a generation of comic book readers, including me. But what doesn't seem to get discussed as much in these pieces is the fact that all three of these writers were also, to a greater or lesser extent, artists. And that, in my opinion, made a huge difference in their facility in crafting comic book tales. 


Within comics, Neil Gaiman is best known for his dark fantasy, Sandman. Created with a multitude of distinct artists, including Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Marc Hempel, et al., the story of Morpheus is a poignant and tragic one, encompassing multiple genres. Unlike other comic series, Sandman benefits from the various artistic styles utilized to delineate its grand narrative, with Gaiman leaning into the strengths of his myriad collaborators, in order to tell the story of the Lord of Dreams. It is an epic tale wherein readers are rewarded with multiple readings of the entire series. 

Though the artists involved should obviously be accorded the bulk of the accolades for the artistic accomplishments within Sandman, I feel that Gaiman's visual sense need also be acknowledged. Gaiman has stated in interviews that he would often do thumbnails of an issue--smaller and sketchier artistic layouts for a comic story--before scripting, in order to see how the narrative flowed and whether the focal points of the story worked. He also wanted to know where the advertisements in the monthly issues would fall, within the page count, so that he could be sure that big reveals would occur on the left side of a two-page spread, as one turned the page, thus preserving the surprise for the audience. And although Gaiman's thumbnails for his comic scripts will probably never be published, his art has seen print. Two examples include the 24-hour comic Being An Account Of The Life And Death Of The Emperor Heliogabolus, which can be seen here, and the cover for Peter David's collection of his CBG columns, But I Digress... 

One of the best examples of this application of visual sense to a comic story can be found in issue #7 of Sandman. Morpheus is confronting Dr. Dee, who took the Dream King's ruby, which is infused with much of Morpheus's power, and corrupted it, making it a weapon in Dee's hand. They are battling over the amulet and Dee unleashes a furious onslaught, eventually destroying the ruby with the outpouring of oneiric energies in a blinding flash of red. Turning the page, we see a diminutive Dr. Dee on a completely white page, a vast emptiness stretching on to infinity, as far as readers are concerned. This continues on the next page, as Dee ponders what has just happened. Then he raises his arms, triumphant, having defeated Morpheus. And we turn the page once more, to find Dee, small and insignificant, standing in the alabaster palm of Morpheus's hand. It's a stunning bit of comic book storytelling, especially the first time you see it, and it all hinges on the understanding of the visual aspects of comic books and utilizing the "camera" of the comic panel to focus on the bits necessary to convey the story. 

Grant Morrison gained prominence in America with their revitalization of Animal Man. Taking what was considered a fairly silly character in a silly suit, Morrison gave Buddy Baker (Animal Man's alter-ego) a down to earth family life, made him a vegan and an animal activist (how could Buddy not be when he utilized all these animals' abilities?), and changed Animal Man from the butt of the joke to a complex and engaging character. And people responded. Initially contracted to write a 4-issue mini series, Animal Man was upgraded to an ongoing series, and Morrison went on to write a total of 26 issues, which are some of the best comics you may ever read. Certainly, Morrison's distinct point of view buttressed by wide-ranging interests helped to launch this title, as well as its young writer, to critical acclaim. But again, Morrison's artistic background and their understanding of comics as a visual medium must also be considered essential to the success of Animal Man and all their subsequent works. Morrison, like Gaiman, is known for thumbnailing his scripts, most notably seen in the anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum, which Morrison created with Dave McKean. In the back of that edition the full thumbnails for the entire story are available to examine. Morrison also drew a page for his seminal work, The Invisibles, and also contributed a well delineated sketch to Bryan Talbot's landmark comic series, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright


A prime example of this visual approach can be found in issue #5 of Animal Man, "The Coyote Gospel." In this tale, a coyote that walks on its hind legs and apparently cannot die has become a bogeyman across the deserts of Death Valley. One long haul trucker in particular, after having encountered the coyote a year prior, has come to think of this animal as the devil incarnate and plans to kill it, to be rid of its curse. When Animal Man comes across these two, the coyote reanimating its limbs after having been shot and blown up by an explosive charge planted by the trucker, the coyote wordlessly hands to Buddy the parchment it carries around its neck. On the parchment is laid out the story of the coyote, a being from an alternate dimension where the animals that live there only know strife, and the destruction and victimization is eternal, since their bodies instantly renew themselves when harmed. But Crafty, the name of this coyote, wanted an end to this and approached God and said he would do anything if only peace would come to their world. And God told Crafty that if he wished, he could be sent to live in the hell in the dimension above, and while he lived and bore the suffering of the world, peace would reign below. And so, Crafty was reborn in Death Valley, and he could not die, and he suffered. But with his immortality, Crafty hoped that one day he might be able to return to his world and throw God off his throne to build a better world for everyone. With this story, Crafty hoped to recruit other beings with powers who might assist him. Animal Man is the first of these recruits. 

And here is where Morrison reveals an advanced understanding of the visual aspects of the comic book medium. Throughout this origin story, the audience has seen images from Crafty's original world with the narrative shared through text boxes--this could be Crafty speaking, though it seems unlikely, and thus, in readers' minds, it must be the actual text from the parchment. But, as we reach the end, there's a glimpse of the parchment in Animal Man's hands, and then we pull back to see more of it--squiggles and markings that are gibberish to our Terran eyes--at which point Animal Man provides the emotional kick in the gut when he says: "...I can't read it." Morrison understood how readers would accept the text boxes for Crafty's tale as the text on the parchment, and only at the end, when the foreign alphabet is revealed, would the full realization of Crafty's tragedy become evident. It's brilliant and a revelation that might almost exclusively be achievable in comic book form. 

Moore started out as a cartoonist, selling two strips in 1979 -- Roscoe Moscow to Sounds, a weekly music magazine, and Maxwell the Magic Cat to his local Northants Post. He found his labor intensive style too time consuming and decided to focus more on writing than art. But the experience of writing and drawing a strip for publication would certainly lend itself well to his career that followed. In 1986, Moore (with artist Dave Gibbons) reimagined the Charlton heroes bought by DC Comics and created the landmark series, Watchmen, to great critical acclaim. Watchmen has become the touchstone for superhero comics and is considered by most fans as Moore's magnum opus. With this series, Moore and Gibbons worked together to exploit the unique aspects of the comic book storytelling medium, to great effect, storytelling aspects and approaches that, as should be obvious, revolved around the visual primacy of the medium. 

One of the unique aspects of the comic book that Moore & Gibbons wished to utilize was its format, i.e. the fact that, though a comic is like a book with its pagination and a dedicated reading order (left to right in America) and like a film or television show with its visuals, a comic book is, in fact, neither of these things. Unlike a book, a comic has a strong visual component. Unlike film, which is intended to tell its story from beginning to end without stopping, in a comic one can easily jump front to back within the story and make comparisons of imagery and scenes, in order to better understand symbolic, thematic, or other facets of the narrative. In Watchmen, there are myriad instances where these two creators take advantage of this aspect of comics. There are recurring visual motifs, within chapters proper as well as across the book as a whole, such as the bloody smiley face button or clock faces, that add layers to the story being told. Scenes, especially those set at the intersection in town with the newsstand, are told from various points of view at different times, with characters from prior scenes visible in the background, not only to enrich the whole, but also to, again, add layers to the story on the page. So much happens in the gutters and the backgrounds of Watchmen, it's more than can be processed with a single reading. And it all stems from the fact that comics is a visual medium. 

A great example in Watchmen of Moore & Gibbons utilizing the visual aspects of comics to full effect can be found in the mystery of Rorschach's true identity. What readers discover, with the end of issue #5, is that he was right in front of them the whole time. 

In issue #1 of Watchmen, pages 4 and 5, Moore & Gibbons introduce us to Rorschach, and with the layout of the panels actually reveal who Rorschach is (a fact only obvious upon a subsequent reading). In the final panel of page 4, in the light of day, we see the vagrant carrying his "The End is Nigh" sign, in front of a multi-story office or apartment building, an ad for 'mmeltdowns!' on the side of the building mostly obscured by shadow. In the first panel of page 5, the very next panel, we see the same scene, but at night, with the 'mmeltdowns!' ad now fully visible on the side of the building, and in the foreground is the top of the fedora that Rorschach, whose character introduction occurs on this page, wears. With this mirroring of the imagery between these two successive panels, Moore & Gibbons were showing the audience who Rorschach is. But it isn't obvious for a few reasons: 

One -- when we see the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign, Rorschach hasn't yet been introduced, so when he is on page 5, all of our attention goes toward that. 

Two -- the scene may look familiar to readers but it isn't readily obvious that it's the exact same spot, as the scenes occur in day and night, respectively, making certain details obscured or not, accordingly. 

Three -- the first image is at the end of one page, feeling like a summation of that scene, while the second is at the top of the next page, starting a new scene and providing a strict demarcation line between the two, which, along with the time differential, severs any connection between them in our mind.


In issue #2, three of the remaining heroes -- Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, and Ozymandias -- attend the funeral of their former comrade, the Comedian. Outside the cemetery, at the beginning of the service, we see the vagrant with his "End is Nigh" sign walk past the entrance of the cemetery. At the end of the service, after a mysterious attendee places a wreath of roses on the Comedian's (Edward Morgan Blake's) grave and exits the cemetery, we see the same vagrant passing by once more, following this mysterious attendee, who, it turns out, is Moloch, a former antagonist of the heroes. Back at his apartment, Moloch hangs his coat and hat and goes into the kitchen to prepare something to eat, when Rorschach launches himself from Moloch's emptied refrigerator (in the shadows of the middle panel on this page, Gibbons has drawn all the frozen foods, taken from the fridge to make room for Rorschach, in a corner out of Moloch's sight, one of myriad great visual details) in order to interrogate him about the funeral Rorschach "heard" Moloch had attended. 

Again, Moore & Gibbons are putting clues into the book that would allow readers to see who Rorschach is, if only they could focus on the invisible vagrant in the background and make the connection between him and Rorschach's sudden appearance with information that would have been challenging to get in such a short time. But these creators are counting on their audience to focus on the main point of the various pages, allowing the vagrant to pass through panels as something that fleshes out the world and makes things feel more real, rather than seeing what, upon reflection, feels like an obvious connection revealing Rorschach's secret identity. 

A final example of how Moore & Gibbons placed clues into Watchmen about who Rorschach really was comes in issue #5. We see Rorschach, in his civilian identity, eating in the Gunga Diner, as he watches his maildrop, a public trash receptacle, across the street. The scene is shown from Rorschach's POV, so readers never see his face, only his hands, in a few instances. Later, as the scene shifts to the newsstand owner on that same intersection where the diner is, the vagrant with the "End is Nigh" sign is seen, twice, digging through the trash receptacle that is Rorschach's maildrop. Again, Moore & Gibbons are showing their audience who Rorschach is "in real life," but our prejudices do not allow for dots to be connected. Having seen this vagrant earlier in the series, readers know his appearance to be less than shabby, indicating he is not well off and may even be homeless. So, to see him digging through trash does not seem that unusual, if we see it at all, since, again, this is done in the background of panels and  is never the focus. And just to make sure it does not feel like a cheat, Moore & Gibbons show the vagrant digging through the trash two times in the same day. Why else would he sift through rubbish a second time if he were not Rorschach checking on his maildrop? It's a wonderful bit of sleight of hand by Moore & Gibbons, and it is this that makes multiple readings of Watchmen so enjoyable and rewarding. 

With the "British Invasion" of American comics, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman were at the forefront of those U.K. creators who came to epitomize a certain type of storytelling in mainstream American comics and helped usher in the era of the superstar writer. They have only added to that legacy in the decades since, and their works in the comic book medium are often held up as examples of works one can share with non comic reading friends. Certainly, the point of view and varied interests of this triumvirate account for much of that, but the fact that each of them had a background in art, and comic art particularly, also seems to go a long way to understanding the impact they have had on American comics, as well as comics in general. And if you don't believe me, why not check out some of their books, I cannot imagine you would be disappointed. 


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