Monday, 1 October 2007

I Don't Know Who He Is Behind That Mask, But We Need Him And We Need Him Now... Morrison (and others) on Batman Part 1

After that slightly-longer-than-expected hiatus, it's time for us to continue our look at the DC Morrisonverse. Today, I want to start looking at Grant Morrison's work on Batman.

One of the complaints a lot of the more intelligent comic-bloggers make is that most online comics criticism seems to take comics as a branch of literature rather than as a medium in its own right (the pedant in me cringes at that sentence and its mixture of singular and plural - the one real reason I can see for wanting to get rid of 'comics' as the name for the medium). They're right of course, but to a large extent they're beside the point.

Disregarding for the moment the regrettably large number of internet 'reviewers' who in fact are just preparing book reports, listing the events in the story rather than dealing with it as a piece of art (and I know I've done capsule 'reviews' like that myself, but I hope my longer posts do contain something approximating analysis) , one would at first thought assume that most comics reviewers would have at least as much to say about the art in comics as the writing.

The problem is, while comics as a whole have room for as many different types of art as there are people in the world, superhero comics, which are the bread and butter of most comic blogs, have traditionally allowed only a small fraction of those styles to be used. With some exceptions, almost every artist working for Marvel or DC (or the other companies feeding on the crumbs from under their table) would fit into the bottom left corner of Scott McCloud's "Big Triangle" .

In fact, for superhero comic artists, rather than a 'big triangle', almost all fit into a 'little square', defined on one axis by the number of tiny little lines and on the other by how distorted the anatomy is. Roughly the four corners of this square would be Jack Kirby (no little lines, ultra-distorted anatomy), Darwyn Cooke (very few little lines, relatively accurate anatomy), George Perez (millions of little lines, relatively accurate anatomy) and Rob Liefeld (millions of little lines all over the place, wrong number of knees).

Anything outside this box would not get published by the mainstream companies, and despite the obvious differences in ability between those four gentlemen, there's really not a huge stylistic difference between them when compared to the full range of possibilities out there. Korn don't sound much like the Beatles, but both sound more like each other than like Edgard Varese.

Comic art also has a relatively low entry threshold. Given its low rate of pay compared to commercial art, and given that every fan thinks they could write the perfect Green Lantern story and submits it to DC, but most have a more realistic assessment of their drawing skills, the talent pool on which the big companies are drawing is relatively small, and mostly made up of amateurs, be that in the true sense (working in comics for love when they could earn more in other fields) or in the pejorative (barely competent).

Most superhero artists, therefore, are concentrating firstly on making the thing they're drawing look something like it's meant to, and secondly on their panel-to-panel storytelling, ensuring the reader can follow the story. It's actually only exceptional artists (two examples off the top of my head are Frank Quitely and J.H. Williams III, but there are others) who go further than serving the story and actually try to create something that has an aesthetic value in and of itself, something capable of producing an emotional reaction independent of its context within the story - something, in other words, worth criticising on its own merits.

This means that even the more visually literate comics reviewers will often treat a comic as if it were essentially a prose work, because they have nothing really to say about the art. However, this results in reviews that are unintentionally dishonest.

The treatment of the recent Club Of Heroes storyline in Batman is a perfect example. Most reviewers have praised this story to the skies, and (either explicitly or implicitly) compared it with the earlier Morrison-written issues of the title, with the latter suffering in comparison.

And this is a good assessment of them as comics, but that's not the fault of either Morrison or of Andy Kubert, the artist on the earlier issues, but rather of their pairing. Grant Morrison is a writer who, more than any other non-drawing writer I can think of in comics, takes advantage of the visual aspect of the medium by making details matter.

Generally speaking, comics writers working in full script have one thing happen per panel. Sometimes there'll be a background detail or two for world-building or as a joke, but even Alan Moore, who's known for his incredibly detailed panel descriptions, tends to work in foreground/background terms. Watchmen is made infinitely richer by the background detail, by the way panels echo and reflect each other, but only rarely (the scenes by the newsstand in issue 11, for example, when all the plot threads come together) does the background detail or figure placement convey information about the main plot itself.

Compare and contrast this with, for example, Morrison & Quitely's All Star Superman #1. In this, there's a whole series of intricately choreographed moments which require paying attention to every detail. Most superhero comic readers have been trained to see the figures of the major characters as foreground and everything else as background. You can't do this with Morrison & Quitely's work and have any hope of following what's going on.

Unfortunately, this kind of work requires a particular type of collaborator in order to succeed. It was revelatory, for example, to see Morrison's script and thumbnails for Arkham Asylum in the 15th anniversary trade a few years back. Dave McKean's art, while gorgeous, was utterly unsuited to the story as written. Important plot points in the script were simply not drawn, resulting in the finished work being incoherent and coming across as a lot more pretentious than the script would suggest.

It is entirely probable that the comparative lack of response to Morrison & Kubert's Batman has a related cause. I'm not suggesting that Kubert didn't follow Morrison's script to the letter, and nor do I think he's a bad artist (while his style isn't to my taste, he's one of the best of that type of artist out there), but his style is fundamentally unsuited to Morrison's work.

Andy Kubert is in the ultra-distorted, millions of little lines corner of our hypothetical square, and that style isn't suited to the type of subtlety Morrison's scripts require. To parse the action correctly, we need to take in a minimum of visual information. The extraneous detail that Kubert adds actually detracts from our ability to process the image at a glance. I can't speak for anyone else, but to me those little lines paradoxically make me gloss over the image - everything in the picture is of about equal importance, and thus equal unimportance. A lot of detail in Morrison's stories also comes from characters' body language and facial expression, and Kubert simply isn't a nuanced enough artist to show these things. He's great on action (which is why the most impressive sequence in his run on the title is the fight in the museum), but his 'actors' are all scenery-chewing hams.

I suspect that further down the line, we will discover that (much as in his runs on Animal Man, Doom Patrol and especially New X-Men) Morrison has planted a number of time-bombs in his scripts, subtle details that will make us look at these early issues in a new light. And they will be there when we go back and look at the issues, but the art style will have stopped them registering with us.

So Morrison's pre-Club Of Heroes issues are, overall, at best qualified successes as comics. But that's not the fault of the writer, or of the artist, but of the system by which mainstream superhero comics are produced. While the production-line system exist, there will be occasions on which talented people, doing their best to produce good material, end up working partly at cross purposes.

But they are still better than the vast majority of superhero comics being produced at the moment, and they've provided an intriguing basis for the work that's followed. I'll look at them (and the Clown At Midnight issue and Club Of Heroes) in more detail in my next few posts.


Rachel Zall said...

Fascinating and insightful as ever, but I'm really just commenting to say that "wrong number of knees" made me laugh out loud. :D

Tyler said...

First, I want to say that I've really been enjoying these posts. I wish more people would comment because I think a lot of your observations are discussion worthy.

I have a few general comments to make re: Morrison/artist pairings and how they affect his work. I feel that, throughout his career, Morrison has unfortunately been saddled with artists that are ill-suited to illustrate his scripts. Aside from the afore-mentioned Arkham Asylum, his work on JLA, Animal Man, and particularly New X-Men have been marred by incongruent art. Even when the pairing works, such as with Quitely, I have still found important story details that the art obscures. For instance, in All-Star Superman #4, the producers of "Frankenstien on Ice" give Superman and Jimmy complimentary tickets for saving them from Doomsday (who was actually Jimmy). They say this despite the fact that Jimmy is still half-monster in the panel he shares with the producers. A better example is in #6 when the Supermen from the future mention how Lana's photograph gave away the location of the Chronovore. Quitely failed to convey through the art why this was so. I can't think of another writer who's afflicted by this as much as Morrison.