(Updated 4:30PM Sunday, 18 October).
Here are our four texts for this week. Please note that all of them -- to one degree or another -- contain references or depictions of sex and violence.
There is a modest section (below) on comics and world-building, and a list of questions to prepare for class this week. Please read that material carefully.
Jodorowsky and Moebius, The Black Incal
Vaughn and Staples, Saga
Woodring, Congress of the Animals
Vaughn, Guerra, and Marzan. Y: The Last Man.
World-building in Comics
Questions to ask in preparing for in-class discussion
(Questions appear at the bottom of this document.)
This week, we started looking at two very different comics with an eye towards the way they world-build. In addition to those two, I've uploaded two additional comics. You can read all of them, but I ask that you read at least two of the four.
Comicbooks, graphic novels, comic strips ("bandes desinees"), online comics, and political cartoons were everywhere in 20th Century American culture. If I were to guess, I'd say it is only with the 1990's that comics began to achieve some kind of critical mass, generating interest outside of its traditional niche audience. That was due in part to the critical raves that greeted the publication of Maus, by Art Spiegelman; and the academic interest generated by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (1992 and 1993, respectively).
Regardless, comics have been world-building for decades, if not (per McCloud) eons.
When Écran, a French-language cinema journal asked George Lucas, in 1977, about how he created the world of Star Wars, he emphasized the importance of details, but then suggested that world-builders should not spend too much time on details. He said: "You can spend your entire life perfecting your world when you create its every piece."
Which doesn't mean that he didn't try to create visually-rich environments for his films, only that those worlds were never intended to function as stand-alone worlds. Instead, those worlds were built-for-movie-making-worlds, built-for-spectacle-worlds. Consider: Most of the planets and moons in the first three Star Wars movies are mono-worlds: Worlds built out of a single biome. Tatooine, the desert planet; Hoth, a planet of ice and snow; Dagobah, the jungle-swamp planet. Cloud City, which hovers over Bespin, is entirely inorganic, and devoted exclusively to gas mining. They are more like theatre sets than they are like realistic worlds: They are highly detailed and feature-rich up close, and within a certain radius -- but Lucas doesn't bother imagining what exists on the other side of the planet. He doesn't care. These worlds exist as places for the presentation of spectacle, and little else.
There's nothing wrong with that -- he could never have made these movies otherwise. But it is a reminder that worlds built for film (built for the camera lens) are very different from worlds built, for example, for the novel. We expect the filmmaker's camera to do more than just give us medium-close-ups of the star: We want establishing shots; landscape pans; overhead shots; tracking shots; and so on. That means that even a single-biome world requires a ton of work to build: The camera's lens sees so much, up-close and in the distance.
When it comes to world-building, comics are a wildly different medium than cinema.
While the film frame and the comicbook panel both work to "frame" the images of a world that we see (that is, to define them), those frames work very differently.
Movies are about motion over time (the term "movie" comes from "moving pictures," obviously), so what we see in one framed shot is seldom what we see in the next. Variety is very important: Many of the underground bunker scenes from the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back are static shot/reverse-shot conversations, or static two-shots. But the background is still alive with flashing computer lights, assorted soldiers and personnel moving around, the occasional droid in the distance. When we're in the cockpit of a snow speeder -- a static shot of the speeder pilot -- we can still see a lot of terrain (and AT-ATs, laser fire, and explosions) rushing past. That variety is what endows that world with our sense of it as a living, breathing environment.
The comic panel, however, is a still image: Artists add the illusion of change and motion by shifting perspectives and points of view from frame to frame. As a result, a comic can give the impression of a world by just hinting at a few of the details that a sequence of film-frames has to indicate with precision. The comicbook artist effectively lets the reader do some of her work for her. The filmmaker doesn't have that option.
At the same time, since comics are often more stylized (non-realistic) than science fiction films (which tend towards hyper-realism); and since many fantasy comics focus exclusively on character, rather than setting; the details of a fantasy-world presented by a comic may emerge mostly through dialogue or impressionistic flashes of detail. In the artwork of such comics, the characters and their costumes may be highly-detailed, but the world itself is basically a soft-focus backdrop.
Even so -- not every comicbook artist's approach to world-building is the same. Consider the examples provided: Vaughn and Staple's Saga (Chapter One), and Jodorowsky and Mœbius' The Incal. I've also uploaded two additional options for your consideration: Vaughn, Guerra, and Marzan's Y: The Last Man, and Jim Woodring's Congress of the Animals.
As you read at least two of these for this week, here are some questions to pose. In order to answer the questions completely, be sure to focus on particulars: Always identify a specific page, a specific panel, or a specific sequence of panels. If you choose to disagree with the premise of the question (great!) be sure to back it up with specific examples or illustrations drawn from these comics (or others). Bring your answers with you to class in order to facilitate an informed discussion of the texts and their world-building practices.
Identify at least three examples of specific artifacts, objects, or things that are part of the built-world environment of one of our comics.
- How frequently are they pictured in the comic?
- Are they absolutely unique, or are they one among many (e.g., a uniquely-engraved one-of-a-kind sword vs. a standard-issue infantry rifle)?
- How often is the object depicted as a thing-that-gets-used, versus its appearance as an inert, inactive thing? For example: A blender that is used by a character to create a smoothie, versus a blender that sits in the background as part of a modern kitchen counter?
- How do artifacts contribute to the project of world-building in this comic?
Many mainstream media work to maintain a consistent style from beginning to end: Sudden changes in style tend to draw attention to the medium itself, and that is often thought to detract from our "immersion" in the story/world.
- Identify a moment, a frame, a character, a conversation, a sequence, etc., where style seems to vary, shift, or glitch.
- Does that contribute to the comic's world-building project? Is it done in the service of story-telling?
- Identify the different visual styles adopted by each of the different comics. (If you don't know how to describe them, then make up a term or phrase that is as suggestive as it is useful. Neo-logisms are powerful critical tools). Is there a link between the "realistic" presentation of a world and its believability? Does style carry an implicit suggestion about how closely related those worlds are to our own?
- Are there moments where it is hard to distinguish between a stylistic choice and a plot point? In Warner Bros. cartoons, for example, a head injury frequently leads a character to "see stars" orbiting above his head; in at least one case, the cat Sylvester -- dazed on the floor after a tumble -- sees yellow birds orbiting above his head: He shakes off his torpor, and then proceeds to grab at the birds, who flee from him. Is that part of the story or is it an extended, unrealistic metaphor? Are there events like that in your texts?
Comics may be absorbed in ways that are markedly different than other media: We tend to read books from chapter to chapter, for example, and we tend to watch a film from start to finish.
- Take note of the various ways you have approached the comics you've read for this discussion: Was there a point at which your reading became less linear, less front-to-back? Did you spend the same amount of time on each image, or did it vary?
- Think about one of the comics you're reading for this discussion. What is the relationship of the story told by the comic to the world built by the comic? Is one superflous, and the other vital?
- Does the artist seem interested chiefly in the world he's built or the story he's telling? Are there specific panels or passages that make that clear?
- What techniques, approaches, or lessons can you take from one or more of these texts? How can one or more of these comics inform your approach to world-building?