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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Tuesday, 5 April 2005
Cracked lip
If this seems indeterminate then that's because fiction includes the things we've been discussing:
Maybe the life of John Paul II isn't fiction if the writer sticks to the known facts but the comic personae of bob hope and jerry lewis are.

It also includes genres not identified with the medium, such as murder mystery and spy thriller.

I may also have confused matters by applying the same yardstick for measuring what is fantasy and what is fiction i.e. a location in time preceding the advent of heavier-than-air craft taking flight. Any depiction of such in a story published then would necessarily be both. But consider two fisted tales, where the objective (in addition to being entertaining and captivating) is to show the raw blood and guts brutality of the battlefront - any element of fantasy, such as a haunted tank, would run counter to that purpose. But they could still be fiction.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:53 PM NZT
Updated: Friday, 15 April 2005 3:35 PM NZT
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Monday, 4 April 2005
Altar wine, alter time
But is this really an examination of fictional constructs? What about real life exploits captured between the pages of a comic book?

Wouldn't any exploration of the life of Pope John Paul II centre around how to portray that beatific expression of love and peace? Wouldn't the comic book biographer find a different set of challenges to the print biographer?

Literary theory now, by and large, gives us an out for this consideration by claiming that representations of reality are as prone to distortion and misrememberings as any fictional treatment. The other point here is that much fiction attempts to provide a familiarisation with the events it depicts - even if this is teleportation or transubstantiation.

Posted by berko_wills at 12:41 AM NZT
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Wednesday, 30 March 2005
In order to look at fiction in comics and comics in fiction it is necessary to obtain some distance. It isn't particularly helpful to say that the Rawhide Kid is more or less realistic compared to the so-called 'science heroes', or that Red Sonja is a character who works across different media.

No, what we need to do is go back in time to 1905.

Plenty of things were fiction then: heavier-than-air craft carrying people across the world being one startling example. Imagine a world where one cannot get anywhere in a hurry! The task one hundred years on, in interpreting a work of fiction from that era, is to imagine a world that no longer exists and where the characters have yet to imagine space travel and lebensraum - past history to us.

Our specimen text is a short story in a series of such featuring the same main characters; just as in Sherlock Holmes, only with a twist

"A Thief in the Night: Hornung's third book about Raffles, the gentleman burglar. (Short Stories, 1905, 182 pages)"

2. The Chest of Silver
Like all the tribe of which I held him head, Raffles professed the liveliest disdain for unwieldy plunder of any description; it might be old Sheffield, or it might be solid silver or gold, but if the thing was not to be concealed about the person, he would none whatever of it. Unlike the rest of us, however, in this as in all else, Raffles would not infrequently allow the acquisitive spirit of the mere collector to silence the dictates of professional prudence. The old oak chests, and even the mahogany wine-cooler, for which he had doubtless paid like an honest citizen, were thus immovable with pieces of crested plate, which he had neither the temerity to use nor the hardihood to melt or sell. He could but gloat over them behind locked doors, as I used to tell him, and at last one afternoon I caught him at it. It was in the year after that of my novitiate, a halcyon period at the Albany, when Raffles left no crib uncracked, and I played second-murderer every time. I had called in response to a telegram in which he stated that he was going out of town, and must say good-by to me before he went. And I could only think that he was inspired by the same impulse toward the bronzed salvers and the tarnished teapots with which I found him surrounded, until my eyes lit upon the enormous silver-chest into which he was fitting them one by one.

"Allow me, Bunny! I shall take the liberty of locking both doors behind you and putting the key in my pocket," said Raffles, when he had let me in. "Not that I mean to take you prisoner, my dear fellow; but there are those of us who can turn keys from the outside, though it was never an accomplishment of mine."

"Not Crawshay again?" I cried, standing still in my hat.

Raffles regarded me with that tantalizing smile of his which might mean nothing, yet which often meant so much; and in a flash I was convinced that our most jealous enemy and dangerous rival, the doyen of an older school, had paid him yet another visit.

"That remains to be seen," was the measured reply; "and I for one have not set naked eye on the fellow since I saw him off through that window and left myself for dead on this very spot. In fact, I imagined him comfortably back in jail."

Even though this has moments of high dudgeon and fabulous protagonists, it proves difficult to adapt. How would this slice of story work visually?

The second paragraph would work better in sequential art narrative as you could show not tell the whole exchange of Raffles explaining the locking of doors behind him as he does it. You could do it well in two or three panels.

Why not the third paragraph as well? Only because of the quaint expression "..., standing still in my hat" Maybe the waning popularity of headgear sent this vernacular out of vogue some time back. Were I the artist for this exercise (we're making believe the whole way here), I'd have the twin problem of not knowing how to render someone crying, standing still in their hat; and of not wanting to lose so quickly the novel archaism. But how to have 'Bunny' crying "Not Crawshay again?" and have it obvious by his poise or position that he is standing still in his hat when he does so?

Paragraph four poses the same dilemma as my formal screenwriting training covered: how the hell do you convey in performance (or graphically) that 'tantalizing smile'of Raffles'? I mean, look at it, it's not only tantalising, it's enigmatic; sometimes signifying nothing, other times being highly significant. Aaaand, we have to convey on this occasion that Watson - I mean, Bunny - knows instantly which it is. Through nothing but penny dreadful ink on paper we will find ourselves envisioning something phenomenologically as though we were Bunny. It's a popular method of writing fiction - to use the offsider's first person narrative to relay events. But we don't need his intercession in a comic book, we can see what's going on. And we have no way of showing him, unless he appears in narrator pose a la The Watcher, and that's naff.

Serialised short stories rely as much on dialogue as scene description and so the challenge is to include this without crowding panels with word balloons.
I might have good characters but will they have much to do that I can show in pen and ink? Or will it be an awkward marriage where Raffles' 'measured reply' takes up too much space and slows the story.

Posted by berko_wills at 3:01 PM EADT
Updated: Saturday, 2 April 2005 6:20 AM EADT
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Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Stay tuned for my dissertation on fiction in comics and comics in fiction. In the meantime:

This is a break from my usual focus on genre but I wanted to pay tribute to one of the comic book greats. You may have heard that Will Eisner passed away recently. He may well be THE giant of comic book publishing as he possessed the combined skill of Lee and Kirby in his storytelling, was an innovative and groundbreaking artist (Spirit splashpages alone are testament to this), had a regular comic strip in the dailies, was a publisher of renown, and produced the first graphic novel: A Contract With God. Not only does it have the significance of being the first set of comic stories created specifically for collection in one volume, it is also a true work of art. The stories detail everyday folk (mainly Jewish) in vignettes as charming and chockfull of literary goodness as anything produced by, say, Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow.

In short, Eisner was a behemoth of the comics world but also a pre-eminent storyteller in any medium. He died aged 89.

Posted by berko_wills at 2:15 PM EADT
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Monday, 3 January 2005
So if every half-baked concept, and every strong idea that was ruined in the execution, can't just be lodged under fantasy and hope for the best, what does it get called then? Crap, certainly. But this covers such a wide field: derivative storylines, hackneyed characterisations, plot contrivances...

I will visit the bad in comics soon enough but let's look at this question of where fantasy falls down and becomes something less. Two of the most extensively used powers for characters, apart from superstrength, are the powers of speed and flight. And it's the old sawhorses that get brought out to explain why a hero has wings or can zip round and disarm the baddies before they have a chance to draw: mutation, exposure to chemicals, alien beginnings. These can be taken as given since they are so broad. Who knows what chemicals were struck by lightning, splashing Barry Allen, and who cares?
So it strikes me as particularly inept that there should be characters with these abilities who lack any believability. Step up Red Raven and The Whizzer.

The trouble with Red Raven isn't so much his costume but the notion that he got it and its strange powers from a race of bird people who live in the clouds. Nobody was expecting Aristophanes' The Clouds but still, clouds change, they move, they dissipate. How can you live in them in anything but a metaphorical sense?

Compare this with the Fantasticar. It's supposed to be fantastic, it was intended that way; the fantasy works because all the reader has to accept is that Reed Richards the scientific genius has invented it. And that's sufficient. Nothing can make those bird people stay in the air the way the Fantasticar does.

Similarly no science can make mongoose blood give you superspeed. It's like imagining that a skink would hand you holy scriptures written on copper plate. And who believes that?!

Posted by berko_wills at 3:12 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 7 January 2005 1:59 PM EADT
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Sunday, 26 December 2004
Still out there somewhere
Science fiction and fantasy bookshops are a good source of new readers to comics,usually stocking the better or more popular graphic novels if not the regular 'floppies'. It's a natural enough fit; though I don't know whether they've been known to include such titles as Batlash, Sgt Rock of Easy Co, or Korak Son of Tarzan, which reside outside both genres.

At first even the alliance of science fiction with fantasy seems a strange one; one always uses empirical evidence as its starting point, the other uses a different base altogether.
Well, these genres are profoundly affected by linear time - the more humans discover new things about their past and their future, the more an idea is seen as first fanciful, then possible, then probable, and finally concrete and actualised. Any exploration of this idea in a story will be seen in a different light correspondingly; what may start out as fantasy could end up as science fiction (or even science fact), while the reverse could happen where something that seemed plausible when it was first posited now contradicts too greatly what we now know to be true.

Not that writing fantasy allows you to put down the first thing that comes into your head. Fabricating a world, peopling it, making sure there are no inconsistencies within the fabulation, constructing stories that are authentic to the setting but still identifiable to the reader out there 'in the real world', all of this is potentially more work rather than less. You can potentially fudge the details when placing a character or event in a 'real setting' - use your research and some markers to suggest geography and you're away. But write fantasy and you need to understand for yourself what the motivation is for entire tribes and lands. You need to invest them with a language and sociology that makes sense, given the natural environment and the particular threats and challenges they must face.

[this year's quiz is late and over at the general blog]

Posted by berko_wills at 8:18 PM EADT
Updated: Tuesday, 28 December 2004 8:14 PM EADT
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Monday, 29 November 2004
Out of it
Alan and Ted's excellent adventure
Comics newbies may be wondering why, if there is so much crossover between comics fans and SF fans, and mainstream hero books draw so heavily on sci-fi themes, the earliest science fiction comics were so out of the loop.

Well, the college kids in their blazers roaring into space were doing so at a time when cleancut was the buzzword for the stuffy arbiters of morality in kid lit. But, more importantly, comics pre-date the staples of scientifiction
with the first comic book appearing fifty years before a real life heavier-than-air craft left the ground and a century earlier than the first steps we took on our own moon.

Regardless, the medium found ready use for robots, androids and cyborgs;consider that an offshoot of one of the most popular comics franchises is a clone of a superhuman alien (a literal take on something the former National Periodicals Inc already did)

I think the comic publishing world finds it convenient to warp the space-time continuum for its own purposes; that is, to preserve their A list heroes into perpetuity while, by turn clumsily and astutely, explaining to anal retentive fanboys'n'girls the reason that a hero who fought in World War 2 is still around and still fighting tyranny with as much verve and good looks. And to compound their dashed off deus ex machina, the company concerned will usually spin the whole farago into a bestselling mini-series.

When comics does speculative fiction - and Marvel's "What If..?" series is silver age-style tinkering with DC's 'imaginary stories' idea - the SF underpinnings are close to the surface: 'What if Conan the Barbarian walked the Earth today?', 'What if Sgt Fury fought WWII in Outer Space?'

The medium comes into its own in spectacular fashion as the depiction of futuristic weaponry and advanced technology are only limited by the skill and imagination of the artist. As with SF in all its forms, the passing of time trips the obvious - machines don't become more marvellous by becoming ever larger and imposing but by becoming ever smaller and more accessible. This requires quite the paradigm shift but then the King's best work contains that clutter of Big Machinery; a more streamlined art style might suit microtechnology.

Posted by berko_wills at 1:47 PM EADT
Updated: Monday, 13 December 2004 3:09 PM EADT
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Tuesday, 9 November 2004
If there's one genre or branch of comics book that is intrinsic to the medium then it's Funny Animal. And with the idea of cartoon still linked to 2D penlines and brushstrokes, there was little to shift this perception.

As we've seen with the recent Scooby Doo movies, CGI doesn't quite cut it in convincing us that this is an old favourite brought to life.

And funny animal comics bring as much inventiveness and inspiration to the table as their more prosaically rendered fellows in the comic book publishing world
  • they effortlessly roam through the other genres with their own advantage: a sherriff is conflated with a horse; his deputy a burro; a real bloodhound detective is on the case. You can roll up allegory and association as tight as you like.
  • politically incorrect comic depictions are rendered acceptable: I mean, would you have laughed at a short Mexican gent named Speedy Gonzales travelling at supersonic speed and crying "Areeba areeba!"?
  • considered as a genre - though funny animals cut across genres like crazy - Funny Animal comics (or their terrific Terrytoon equivalent) have an advantage in showing ideas at once absurd and hysterically funny viz a skunk trying to romance a distressed kitty.
  • Funny Animal comics can work in any mix of anthropomorphic and humanoid characters: in Mowser the Priceless Puss and His Enemy James the Butler there is a particularly scraggly looking cat, who always gets the best of the mansion's human butler. We can see the 'priceless puss's' thought balloons and what made it a funny strip is that Mowser was a nuisance but always in (feline) character.
    There's the land where bears wear hat and tie but still (more or less) do what the park ranger says. Then there is the mix of dog and proto-dog as with the Disney Goofy and Pluto. There's worlds where talking ducks and rabbits mix and others where the range of beasts is as limited as smurfing multiculturalism.
  • After delivering perfunctory DD storylines, Steve Gerber found his ouvre in Howard the Duck... trapped in a world he never made! i.e. the human world - or Marvel world if you like. This proved that even with a done-to-death funny animal like the mallard, there is a whole new lease of life to be found when you thrust one of these quacksters 'amongst us'. It makes for brilliant satire.

    Posted by berko_wills at 1:52 PM EADT
    Updated: Sunday, 21 November 2004 3:38 PM EADT
  • Sunday, 24 October 2004
    Teat and retreat
    "But aren't comics for children?" Let's put that boorish question to rest shall we?

    Yes they are. And they're also for truckers and goths.

    As this thread demonstrates, nineteenth century comics weren't aimed exclusively at children and later comics were created for children just as films, books, television programs, plays are created for children; there was no inextricable link between the medium and its intended audience.

    The chief thing that has muddied the waters is the whole skerfuffle over censorship that resulted in the Comics Code Authority and a couple of decades of insipid storytelling. The 'villain of the piece' was one Dr Frederic Wertham; his concerns were well-intentioned and not unfounded but his actions did result in a comic book wasteland where even the most enduring characters became shadows of their former selves.

    Normal service has been resumed and the CCA is now a toothless tiger but, with both adult-oriented and children's comics being published, how does the skinhead comic book fan avoid the embarassing spectacle of being caught reading something brought to him by the letter e?!

    Here are some telltale features of comics produced for the kiddie market:

  • Characters called 'Little' something or other.
  • Anthropomorphic characters appearing in a nursery setting
  • School boys and girls
  • Kiddie-ish language or moral lessons
  • Juvenile humour
  • Mention of 'kids' or strip showing kids as the protagonists.

    Now this won't, and can't, provide a guarantee that you won't end up buying something not meant for mature eyes - any more than the more usual reverse concerns can be addressed absolutely. There was a 'boy's own' feel to all the British comics, even though some stories could be enjoyed by adult readers. But, with the growth of a fandom that continues to seek out the back issues they missed when they were first collecting, it is inevitable that there will also be more 'sophisticated' newer books produced to capture the market.

    Posted by berko_wills at 3:43 AM NZT
    Updated: Thursday, 28 October 2004 3:43 PM NZT
  • Monday, 27 September 2004
    Yo ho ho
    Another broad category next to Action is Adventure and comics found a natural home for titles like Adventure, Amazing Adventures and Bizarre Adventures. Not to mention Adventures of Tintin.

    There are certain limitations to the 2D medium; Meryl Streep can take a break from funny accents to go whitewater rafting and make that the whole movie, but try going on for even a couple of pages of the protagonists doing nothing but hurtling through rapids. It doesn't work. But we should all have such limitations because comics show adventure:

    in prehistoric times
    in the jungle
    on the western plains
    on the battlefield
    in outer space

    though there are problems with the adventure tag here. There is no risk if you can bend rifles and bullets bounce off you, and adventure implies risk.
    No matter how exotic the locale there comes a time when the threat of a corrupt cattle baron becomes de rigeur to a western and not at all a feature of adventure.

    Even a character like Dr Mid-nite, who can only see wearing night vision goggles; once the reader is used to seeing him out with his fellow mystery men, the adventure aspect is blunted.

    Challengers of the Unknown, by their name alone, are tailor-made for adventure. And Carl Barks' run on the Disney ducks is graphic adventure par excellence.

    Posted by berko_wills at 3:50 AM NZT
    Updated: Monday, 4 October 2004 12:47 AM NZT
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