Notes for the week of May 27th, 2011. Trying to see if something like this could work here in-between longer posts. Trying to keep it significant ideas instead of dicking around, at least this first time.
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– In Arzak: L’Arpenteur, which I have only read in french (which means I haven’t really read it), Moebius clearly communicates Arzak’s status entirely in his body language. Early in the book, Arzak bears himself in a combination of warrior/samurai defensive readiness and officer class dignity. It is clear that Arzak has great dignity by the way he carries himself but he also has no problem absolutely destroying the men who ambush him. The ease with which he’s shown killing three men without breaking a sweat. This is why Moebius is a master, because volumes about a character are given by simple, easy to read actions.
– I recently read the first volume of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which betrays maybe the sharpest learning curve in the history of comics. In the span of 12 issues, Sim goes from endearingly shaky-but-committed to talented guy going places. In 6 more issues he’d hit whatever sweet spot he was looking for and started doing olympiad comics. I really like how the stories start off as not-great parody (they’re parody because they have a funny animal!) and then progress to a pretty good approximation of Conan comics. After that, something interesting happens – the stories don’t change but there is a connectivity to them, and there is a feeling that Sim wants to start looking for larger ideas but doesn’t have the tools to do it yet? And when he does finally get to the point where he could start discussing these ideas he gets sidetracked by doing kind of tone-deaf parodies. Its unbalanced and charming, and by issue 15 or so it’s drawn by someone with the chops to be a modern master (serious the issue where Cerebus is drugged and stuck in the null-space that’s simply a figure on black and grey shadows? That’s some serious comics there). I know at some point it gets to be absolute classics and then turns into a soapbox about women and religion, but these early issues are great because of the flaws rather than in spite of them.
– Peter Milligan and Keiron Dwyer’s Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City is one of the touchstones for Grant Morrison’s overlong Batman run (seriously #666 was a classic but it was YEARS AGO, the well is dry). It is a bit dated, especially the lettering which gets unreadable at moments, but it resounds so much better. In a short 3-issue blast Milligan works in huge ideas and sort of plays to the tenor of the times of silly-villians-now-with-knives. In brevity, the story seems so much more ambitious (and yet, it’s still a little mystery for Batman to solve instead of a series of check boxes to be ticked off) and more importantly, character-driven, than anything that Morrison has done attempting to follow it. Peter Milligan, I haven’t read many of your books, but the ones I have read are stellar. And Keiron Dwyer should be a bigger deal.
– On my latest re-watch of Inglourious Basterds, I think I’ve picked up some more of the nuances of the layers critique going on in the film. I believe that there is a whole criticism of the movie brats going on throughout the film, but I recently figured out that the Basterds themselves might actually BE the movie brats – with Donny Donowitz specifically meant to be Steven Spielberg, finally able to reach catharsis by synthesizing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindlers List by unloading a clip into Hitler’s face. The similarities to Raiders in the final moments can’t be overlooked, down to the gaze into the face of evil and paying for it,I remember Tarantino talking about the death camps in The Big Red One in The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, saying “that’s Luke Skywalker. And that’s real evil. That’s not Darth Vader”(I’m paraphrasing), but that statement hangs over this film for me because of the demarcated chapter progressions (which stylistically goes from Big Red One/Cross of Iron somber actioner into DePalma/Spielberg hollywood operatics). What if Donny is supposed to be Spielberg? What would that mean? I’ve also been thinking that the spaghetti western tone of the opening scene (which is the best scene Tarantino has ever written), essentially transplants Lee Van Cleef’s scene at the dinner table in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly into a different moral universe. That scene, I think is about how Leone approached the Civil War as just another setting, and what that means morally for the film and it’s audience. Why then, wouldn’t you make a World War II movie with the same approach? And finally after watching The Battle of Algiers (holy fucking shit, that movie, will write about it on the first) I now can see that the scene in the prison where that film’s theme drops is a big message to anyone who’s seen it – these aren’t the good guys, these are just the guys we’re following. It says “these guys are fucking terrorists”. Full stop.
– In Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin’s Valerian: On The Frontiers, the main characters don’t even show up for the first 20 pages and you would never notice until the second read. It is incredibly economic and precise storytelling, even when doing things that are absolutely counter-intuitive to what you’d expect a story to deliver. Non-sequiter pages, weird pulled-from-the-headlines nature of some of the material, a manga-like willingness to use panels for atmosphere, big chunks of expository dialog and characters that derail the proceedings entirely. And yet, everything that would be a failing is an asset in Mezieres’ hands, because of just how good he is. Nothing is ever cluttered or inexpressive, everything does work, from the photoreference (hey, that’s from Dr. No!) to the broad caricature. Something as simply as the way Laureline’s hair changes over the course of the night in the latter half of the story, that’s what makes this comic great.
– David Brothers and I have been discussing a sequence in Akira, spurred on by Zack Soto’s launch of the fantastic Otomo fan-tumblr OTOMBLR. The sequence in question, where Tetsuo makes his way to the refrigeration chamber where Akira is being held. Otomo draws Tetsuo wearing this fur-lined vest – and looking at the book (vol 2 of the Dark Horse trades for those playing along at home) it takes Tetsuo 80+ pages to get to the chamber. The emotion played out on Tetsuo’s face, going from sneering casual victory to hurt to anger, but on the page David has focused on – the same one I have marked in my copy forever – is just of Tetsuo barely in-panel. The slow crawl of the elevator platform and the massive siren sound effects denote the trudging quality to the motions, in a book where everything seems to be flying at top speed, here Otomo uses the same approach to make you feel time slow down. This is machinery on a massive scale, so Tetsuo is all the way over on the left of the panel, leaning down to look out through the frame, barely mobile. Afterward, Otomo takes literally pages to have Tetsuo walk a hundred feet, here are the tools of action being repurposed for intensity and drama. Thinking about it for a little bit, Akira vol 2 is end-to-end great comics (even though I think my favorite parts of the story come a lot later), and these moments are the peak of a peak. Also it has the craziest A Clockwork Orange shoutout this side of Inglourious Basterds. And no one ever talks about either of them. I think that qualifies as summing up.
- Sean Witzke May 2011