Missed Directions Reboot: Assembling ‘Unthinkable’

Perhaps we were too ready to jettison our regular blog feature, Missed Directions. Perhaps dropping the segment from our weekly broadsheet was itself a Missed Direction.

The feature’s name originally arose from a play on ‘misdirection’, and as any magician might tell you (although they’re not supposed to), misdirection is not a feint, but an active attempt to hide the mechanics of the trick. Misdirection is about exploiting structure and the experience of structure. Only the magician knows those two are separate.

Comics as a medium is uniquely geared towards misdirection. The story you walk away with, is never the story that has been told. In comics, no telling of a story ever takes place. Instead, comics builds in its readers what French analyst Jacques Lacan would refer to as a jouissance a pure joy, indescribable in human language.

There is a liberatory, libidinal effect that appears at exactly the moment when readers themselves assemble the story of a single page. There is a sense of accomplishment, sure, but more importantly there is a sense of mastery. A growing psychic fortitude.

Superstar writer Ed Brubaker knew exactly this when he was writing Daredevil. Managed to tell two stories with the character, he pushed one kind of story into the image-stream, and another into text. The tale usually goes like this. DD’s heroism would be seen in the images.

While in another part of the comicbook, the words would speak of the lead character’s self-recrimination. ‘I did this’, DD would utter, ‘I left them for too long. Danny Rand did what could filling in, but with me in jail, and then missing… I left too much doubt hanging in the air… about whose streets these really were’.

Not the same at all. Almost a different character, the blatant heroism of Michael Lark’s visualization, compared with the narrow, almost-whiny sub-vocalizations concretized in Brubaker’s words penned for the lead character. It is hard to reconcile these two images of Daredevil. And yet, this is precisely what Brubaker and Lark demand of readers. That the readers themselves assemble the fractionated moment that is comics.

The two stories are really one story. It is up to the reader to decide what the story is, after their eye has moved over the entire page. Did DD ‘speak’ first, or after, or during the action? Were his words at some time in the distant future… yearning back to when he was able to leap through the air? Or in the distant past, his words foreshadowing the competence we see him with here?

Meaning is simply a question of adjacent data, author William Gibson reminds us. If that is the case, then comics is definitely the skill-builder for human consciousness. It is the one medium that forces mastery of both adjacency and data.

Rarely has this point as effectively been driven home as with the 2009 Boom! Studios limited series, Unthinkable. In its pages, writer Alan Ripley, your average Hollywood People, is tapped by the US government to describe Unthinkable scenarios. Doing so in the hopes that forewarned is forearmed, Ripley agrees.

A crucial storytelling gambit early on in the series, appearing just as the first of five issues hits mid-stride, is shuttling the reader from the haunted sense of defeat that stalks the country immediately post-911, to the ignominious stall that characterizes the civic mood nearly a decade later. How did this inertia amass? How can it be defeated? And more importantly, how can it be explained in short hand.

Writer and series creator, Mark Sable offers an intriguing solution. Over the course of just one page, readers are jetted through eight years of growth.

Look carefully and you too can see the cracks.

The cracks of course are engineered into the very page of the comics-text itself. The appear at the very moments the gutters do. Mastery in the first panel, leads to romance in the second, leads to happiness and confrontation in the third, leads to breakup in the fourth, leads to breakdown in the fifth, and finally memory (signified by the manila folder) in the sixth.

Assembling the timeline for Unthinkable might appear as really easy for a comicbook reader. A really safe activity. But the practice of reading comics never stops.

Comics is a way of looking that is taken into ‘the’ real world. For those readers who have already mastered assembling Unthinkable, reading a recent issue of Time (“Is America Islamophobic?”) becomes abhorrent.

While writer of the lead feature, Bobby Ghosh, attempts an even-tempered analysis of the situation around the Park51 mosque debacle and more broadly the exchanges between mainstream American culture and Islam, the presence of Kate Abbott’s A Brief History of Intolerance in America photospread creates a different meaning.

From talking about Stuyvesant’s attempts to expel Jewish refugees from New Netherlands, to Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s assassination, to the burning African-American churches, to the explosion of the Ku Klux Klan, the presence of Abbot’s photo-essay as a banner above the center-spread of Ghosh’s article seems to colorize any objection to the Park51 project as bigotry.

But if the psychological resilience developed by reading comics can be used to recognize the subtext, then that same psychological resilience can be used to defeat positional exclusion.

More than anything now, Sable’s Unthinkable reminds readers, what’s required is the civic structures that create an opportunity for discourse. If symbols have the power to be rallying points, then they have the power to injure. Beneath all the bluster of the moment, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman is making exactly this point when he speaks out against the Park51 project.

But perhaps more important than whether or not the Park51 project goes ahead, is the nature of the public debate. Simple pleas for tolerance and pluralism marginalize the very powerful symbol of a ‘victory mosque’. While that very term sets back attempts to credibly integrate Islam into broader American society.

But if a solution can be found, it won’t be experienced as top-down. With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or President Obama, weighing in, the issues may become even more murky. Instead it would be easier to rely on building up the kind of fortitudes experienced as a child, reading comics for the first time, and assembling the text-image story for the first time.

Complexity, is not a weakness. Just pick up a copy of Unthinkable.

Continuing to explore the world of neurocomics, “Missed Directions” will appear weekly on the PopMatters Comics blog, “Graphic Novelties”. –sQ