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Thursday, Jul 16, 2009
Will Eisner knew what he was doing.

It just doesn’t seem like comics, does it? By the fifth page of ‘A Contract with God’, the artist seems woefully misguided by today’s standards. Bricks on the upper part of the wall seem to hang in the air, not at all cemented down. The light in the background is unclear, lost behind a sheet of rain. The steps that lead down from the sidewalk are visually unclear. Protagonist Frimme Hersh is in no way afforded use of the masking effect; the linework of his character is not simpler so as to promote emotional investment by the reader. And the cardinal sin - there has been no comics so far, just a series of five page-long posters.


But visionary cartoonist Will Eisner definitely knew what he was doing with very first Graphic Novel. It is so very hard not to involve oneself emotionally with the falling rain. It is a rain that just inundates the world. And it is the rain that is the most powerful visual metaphor for the utter despair of the lead character. For Frimme Hersh this is not anger, it is impotence. Hersh is almost a secondary consideration after his own anguish. He is completely unable to act in any way to the death of his daughter. And Eisner allows Hersh’s anguish to be seen in the world itself. Against expectation it is Eisner’s self-imposed limitation against using framed paneling and the masking effect that produces maximum emotional investment by the reader. This is a world literally awash with anguish and sorrow.


But in a wholly other sense, Eisner makes a statement about comics as a medium, and comics’ power to convey intense emotional experiences. Comics is a medium for great literature, Eisner seems to say, Do not simply mistake these for the picture-books of your youth.


In 1978 Eisner was the first to conceive of the Graphic Novel format. With its publication he made an argument about comics’ capacity to act as literature. But Eisner was also writing against a second generation of European comics the so-called Bandes Desinee like the Tintin and the Asterix series. These comics were prepared graphically, with empty speech balloons meant for the proper translation. In a certain sense, these comics were a reminder of the factory-style production that prevented institutional acceptance of comics as a medium. What impoverishment of the comics medium could there have been, if such comics remained the standard alternative to street-driven superhero stories of the 1970s?


It just doesn’t seem like comics. Not by today’s standards. In a sense, A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is not comics at all, it is a manifesto. It is a powerful piece of history and a powerful statement about the comics medium. The thoroughgoing craftsmanship of Will Eisner while pioneering the Graphic Novel form is one of the reasons that today we do have standards to judge comics by.


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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
It all comes down to one final chase scene for Tracy Lawless. But if he's in town to avenge his brother's murder, why would he help the killer escape?

Light, and sound, and Christmas.


In the concluding chapter of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ Lawless, the heist is finally on. But who are you rooting for?


There is seemingly no end to the supply of bad guys.


The stickup gang is filled with types you wouldn’t want over for Christmas dinner. Gray the stickup man, Nelson the muscle and Mallory femme fatale passing herself off as the shill. They work as a gang, or as Brubaker eloquently puts it, ‘As uncomfortable together as any other dysfunctional family… Dependent on each other for survival and security whether they liked it or not’.


Working his way into the gang’s trust is the tough guy and lead of the story Tracy Lawless. He’s ‘a guy who can drive’ when the gang need someone to drive. He’s also man responsible for killing Davey the group’s former driver. But for Tracy, an Army specialist deployed to Iraq now on Unauthorized Absence, infiltrating the gang is a matter of revenge. His brother Ricky, erstwhile leader of the gang was betrayed and eventually murdered by one of his own. Tracy is in town to settle the score. And supporting cast are making moves of their own. Sebastian Hyde the crime-boss looking to appear legit, Chester his muscle intimidating even Gnarly the tough-guy bartender, and Jacob the cartoonist turned counterfeiter.


Far from a single, simple panel in a chase sequence, Phillips provides readers with a map of the machinations and manipulations going on. The panel itself provides two separate layers of interference; the driving snow and the flashing lights of the squad car. It’s easy to lose track of the 70s muscle car, the Dodge Charger, as it careens through the panel. As with the light and the snow, readers of Lawless don’t always understand what they’re seeing. Tracy’s third-person observations made in caption boxes act as the layers of light and snow do, misdirecting readers’ attentions. And just as the sound FX project beyond the panel, there are times when even Tracy moves beyond readers’ view.


By the time of the chase depicted in this panel, Tracy has already discovered the identity of his brother’s killer. They’re in the car with him, he’s helping them escape. But why would he do that?


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Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009
Artist Paul Ryan elegantly articulates various Flash-genre with the visual metaphor of layers.

A long, cold dark.


In a moment spent with his recuperating girlfriend, Flash Wally West is reminded of his own limitations. In a panel interrupted by falling snow and the blue sheen of a hospital window, Wally and Linda are afforded a degree of privacy as readers are kept at a distance. Artist Paul Ryan offers an elegant counterpoint to paparazzi-invaded private lives lived in public view.


But as romantic as this panel appears, the dark and the snow form the central conflict of ‘Pray for the Dawn’. This is not a cherished moment of affection shared with a loved one. What Wally and Linda face in this panel is a moment of consequence, a moment of indecision before action is taken.


This panel’s elegance lies in Ryan’s skilful melding of a number of Flash- and comics-genre with the visual metaphor of layers apparent with the use of snow and glass. In the first sense, Ryan offers an inversion of the classic Editor’s Notes. Editor Paul Kupperberg’s footnote appears, visually distinct from other word-art in the panel. Yet nothing of the dialogue in the panel is actually linked to this footnote. In this way the act of reading itself becomes part of the story being told. Textually, the Editor’s Note functions in the same way as the snow and glass that interfere with the panel’s central image.


As the Note suggests, the threat of a new Ice Age is something that has already been confronted in earlier issues. Ryan not only references previous issues’ stories, but a specific storyarc that involves the classic Flash-genre of time-travel. Hurtling through the future and unable to return home, Wally learns of an impending global climate disaster (already history in the future). Armed with this knowledge Wally races back in time to confront Abra Kadabra, a 64th century stage magician who hopes to profit from this catastrophe. Again the visual layers of snow and glass elegantly remind the reader of the complexity of Wally and Linda’s story.


What remains at the heart of the panel though, is the romantic private life, kept at a safe distance from public view.


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Monday, Jul 13, 2009
In the penultimate installment of ...Freezes Over , Hellblazer John Constantine escapes the paranoia of a snowed-in diner only to find the claustrophobia is nothing more than a construction of his own mind.

It was good to get out be out in the cold again.


The confines of a snowed-in diner somewhere in the Midwest were getting just a little too claustrophobic. Nerves were being frayed, tensions were mounting and tempers were just about to flare. Thrown into the mix, a stickup gang narrowly escaped from a bad robbery, one of them shot in the stomach, and a dead man found in the parking lot, his chest impaled by an icicle.


After 160 issues though, readers know that Constantine, the titular Hellblazer never walks into a place he can’t walk back out of. Writer Brian Azzarello, with artist Marcelo Frusin, capably provide the panoramic vistas of the Great Outdoors. Here are the open spaces readers have been longing for. Here is that sense of freedom from the dangers awaiting Constantine back in the diner. It wouldn’t be hard for Constantine to just walk away, leaving the diner behind him. In his hitherto 13 years of publication, Constantine has simply walked away on numerous occasions, usually leaving a trail of dead friends.


Constantine’s story is often about taking the gap and finding the better part of valor. But equally his story is often about conning the smug and the powerful. The stickup men in the diner ultimately prove too seductive a target. Before Constantine heads back for the final confrontation, he convinces a supporting character of the existence of an urban legend.


In doing so, Frusin offers a pithy rendering of Constantine’s psychology. Constantine does nothing but speak. Like a stage magician, Constantine’s charm and self-assuredness soon allow the luckless Pete to convince himself of the existence of the serial killer known as the Ice-Man. In doing so, Constantine’s inner world comes to life in the Great Outdoors. The confined, paranoid spaces of diner are shown to be nothing other than Constantine’s mind at play. In talking to Pete, that same confined comics reappears. And at the very moment readers begin to sympathize with Pete, Frusin switches view. Looking at Pete’s frown of uncertainty, readers share a metaphorical wink with Constantine.


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Saturday, Jul 11, 2009

In early 1995, Craig Newmark, a newcomer to San Francisco began sending out a weekly newsletter of mostly techie events and opportunities (jobs, apartments, lectures, etc.) to friends of his. Now some 14 years later, because of Craig Newmark, many cities now have a one-stop spot where you can find an apartment, find a jogging partner, sell your old furniture, or even find someone to have a ‘casual encounter’ with. And all this you can do ad-free and free of charge.  For many of us, especially city dwellers and young people, Craigslist has become an everyday reality and an indispensible tool for carrying out our daily lives.


What, might you ask, does Craigslist have to do with comics and sequential art? Had you asked me this question last year, I honestly would have been hard pressed to come up with a connection. I Saw You, a collection of comics inspired by Missed Connections on Craigslist (as well as some from newspapers), now provides an answer to the previously posed question. 


I Saw You seems like a particularly interesting addition to the comics canon as it’s one of the first to utilize the internet as a subject rather than a medium. While web comics like xkcd, Achewood, and The Perry Bible Fellowship (all recommended)  have all eventually decided to offer hard copy paper collections, I Saw You went the old-fashioned ink and paper route from its onset despite its use of the internet as inspiration. This choice elicits some interesting questions: what might a traditional, paper-based comic offer that web comics can’t? What about the space of the comic book store as a place of community for the comics reader that is generally absent from the consumption of web comics? How has the internet changed one’s sense of community in general and how has it specifically shaped and affected the community of fans and creators of comic art? These questions will be examined in more depth in an upcoming Iconographies post focusing on I Saw You as a lens through which to understand the complex ways the internet has shaped comics and community.


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