Monday, 21 February 2011

Logicomix and the Frame-story: part 1

As an undergraduate, one of my first assignments was to write an essay on the word 'the' for a logic class. Unfortunately, that first exciting term I had been more concerned with my new found freedom than my lectures, and I, and many of my fellow students, ended up turning in essays culled largely from a widely circulated copy of an essay from an enterprising third year. Not my proudest moment, and not the greatest introduction to logic either. But, despite a lack of understanding, I do remember a certain sense of intrigue as I hurriedly plagiarised long into the night. There was something interesting here, not as interesting as alcohol and women obviously, but maybe, just maybe I really had been wasting that term.

It is with some interest then that I approached “Logicomix”, an account, by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou of the life of Bertrand Russell, and his search for a logical foundation for mathematics. A comic book giving narrative and exposition to intellectual theories whose exciting potential I had glimpsed on that rather tortuous night. And if “Logicomix” has a great virtue, it is that it does indeed capture that essence of the intriguing power of logic, and conveys it with as much excitement and fascination as it really does deserve. The authors succeed in drawing a compelling fictional narrative from philosophical arguments, and in doing so breathe vitality into what is often taught as rather lifeless subject matter. The art work, by Papadatos and Di Donna works hard to accompany this, to place energy and movement into even the sections where Bertrand Russell is simply lecturing from a stage. Sharp cuts, frequent shifts of perspective, and odd angles give dynamism and help to maintain interest in the visuals, especially in the early years of Russell's tormented and fearful childhood. Particularly brilliant is the portrayal of Wittgenstein, who is clearly too impossibly eccentric to be the protagonist, but who steals the page as soon as he appears, with the portrayal of his energetic mannerisms instantly reinvigorating a potentially flagging story.

The artists also play with referential visuals, one of the most striking being a full page panel of Russell as Casper David Friedrich's “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog”. Despite this however, it could be suggested that the book fails to use its comic nature to its full extent. The visual aspects of comics, the ability hold multiple concepts simultaneously in our view, could lend itself to some excitingly innovative portrayals of the mathematics and logic which it explores. The portrayal of Russell's paradox is useful, but its captions themselves are sufficient to explain the problem, with the images simply illustrations, rather than an integral part of the paradox itself. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but there does seem a missed opportunity to produce a truly self-referential narrative of philosophy and logic, rather than the rather unimaginative view given here.

Unfortunately, my biggest problem with Logicomix is not what it doesn't do, but what it does. The book uses two frame stories, one being an older Russell narrating his life from a lecture hall, the second being of the artists and writers themselves discussing and arguing about the characters and concepts within the book. It sounds like a fine idea, and it would be, except that the writers use and abuse this device terribly. I want to write a longer piece about the use of the frame story in literature, and how comics contain unique and exciting possibilities for the device, and some of those ideas are definitely present in how Logicomix guides your reading of the story and provides context to Russell's story. But repeated cuts between the layers of the story reduce the immersion into Russell's world and jar the sense of narrative, constantly reminding us that this is a comic being read, not a story being watched. While that may be a useful device in many works, here it seems the writers doubt the force of their own story, and lack the confidence to let it flow. They also seem to lack confidence in their own abilities as writers. One of the worst uses of the frame must be to explain that which should be implicit within the story itself, and yet that is exactly what occurs here. The central theme, of the link between logic and madness, is thought provoking and clever, yet rather than allow it to emerge naturally through the characters, the writers insist on explicitly explaining this, repeatedly, to the reader, removing the potential for thoughtful musing on the part of the reader.

It is an essential part of any medium that reader participation is necessary, even desired, to create a great piece. Comics possess great potential for this, as McCloud points out with his discussion on the 'gutter space' and the necessary time gap our minds impose between panels. Yet the creators of Logicomix, perhaps caught up, like their characters, in a search for explanations of even the fundamentals, insist on describing every level of their creation. The result, while visually dynamic, is a story which cannot breathe, hemmed in on all sides by exposition and contextualisation (not unlike, in fact, a typical academic philosophy essay!). One cannot fault the technical skills of the group of artists and writers, but their lone attempt to break the formal traditions of the comic book ultimately results in them enforcing their own, rigid interpretations on a necessarily intelligent audience. An unfortunate fate for a potentially interesting idea.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The film Peter Jackson should have made....

A friend just pointed me in the direction of this review, of a novel telling the Lord of The Rings story from the other side, with a healthy dose of sly references to modern world politics, but more importantly, providing a full scale assault on Tolkein's idealised anti-industrialisation views which underpin the original. Here, Gandalf is the luddite trying to destroy Mordor's 'ivory' towers of progress. Sounds very cool (the full text is here if you want to read), and I certainly had similar issues while re-reading the original due to Tolkein's simplistic (in hindsight) moral views.

But, more interesting than the book itself was, I thought, the last paragraph of the review, where the author indicates that this might be considered 'fan-fiction' as art. Its an idea I like, in that it suggests a debate and dialogue between different writers, with 'fan-fiction' written as critical response to the original piece. Its been done before, plenty of books are written in response to other books (Don Quixote provides alternative complexities to the earlier Tirant lo Blanch for example), but whats unusual about fan-fiction is that it situates its response not only in the same style and genre, but in the exactly same fictional world, with the same characters. Which, when you think about it, seems so obvious its strange this point (to my admittedly limited knowledge) wasn't realised earlier, a very effective way to debate someone's position is to start by accepting the fundamental premises of that view, then take them to a subversive alternate conclusion. I like it.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Great Comics

Over at 'The Panellists”, Charles Hatfield recently posed the question “What makes a great comic”? My gut reaction, and probably that of most people, is that the there is no answer. Greatness is subjective. After some thought I agree with my gut, but its worth explaining exactly WHY there is no answer.

In his attempts to answer his question, Hatfield realises that we must talk about the form of comics as opposed to their contents. To do anything else is to judge a comics' value as art, rather than as a comic. The only sensible answer then, can come from a formalist approach. But as Hatfield points out, by doing so, comics become reduced to a mechanical system of tick boxes. To simply define greatness by form requires conceiving of an 'ideal' form, a Platonic 'comic form' to which all others can be judged. This, of course removes much of the majesty and brilliance of comics, and generally seems pretty unsatisfactory.

For me, the main reason this seems incorrect is because the ideal form of a comic is predicated upon its contents. You cannot lay down the desirable aspects of comics, the aspects of form which equate to greatness, without considering what the form contains. In a great comic, the form must match and enhance the contents, any other judgement of form neglects its very purpose. The form is the medium, the method of expression, its Platonic ideal cannot be expressed without considering what it will be expressing.

This works both ways of course, if form can only be judged by its relation to content, then equally content is shaped by form. We can take a novel or short story, and however carefully we translate it into comics form, it is no longer the same piece of work. The changes that that translation works of course, can be inadvertent, but more often are conscious choices of the artist. The form of a comic and its contents are in constant tension, each exerting pressure upon the other, and 'greatness', even in a formalistic sense, can only be found in the conflict between the two.

In short then, it is not simply enough to say that 'greatness' is subjective to a reader, or even to a context: 'greatness' in a comic is subjective to the individual comic itself. Which is a long, and overly complicated way of saying; we can only judge greatness on a case by case basis.

A Post Modernist Flash

This comic from Matt Seneca (ace critic) is a rather wonderful bit of comics art, and it makes me quite excited that work this good gets distributed for free on the Internet. The comic is an old piece Matt drew of ideas for a 'Flash' comic, featuring the red and gold hero. But alongside the basic, but still compelling, images, Seneca textually narrates the story behind his creation, of the events in his life which underpinned the comic, notably, the end of a relationship.

The fascinating thing here is the way Seneca weaves the two together. His narrative guides us through our reading of the sketches, and transforms our understanding of what otherwise would be a simple superhero story. In the way we draw out elements from the sketches based on the emotions highlighted in the textual back story, the sketches provide an unconscious narrative alongside the blunt force of the more self conscious words. In that context this is an ideal example of what comics can do so well, by providing another dimension, making a three dimensional perspective from a first person narrative. In literature, an author might write in the third person, and use alternative character's reactions, to sugges aspects of personality which the protagonist, for whatever reason, ignores. Here we are able to draw out those aspects ourselves, to gain a deeper understanding than is given in the plain text by juxtaposing it with our emotional reactions to the sketches. This is then, a brilliantly pure example of the power of image and text combination, as well as highlighting the unique portrayal of multiple narrative strands in comics, an aspect I'll be looking at in more detail soon.

The main thing that struck me with this though, is Seneca's use of the comic book superhero. By relegating "The Flash" to the position of a supporting narrative (the big story is certainly Seneca's break-up), he subverts our notions of the superhero archetype. A powerful aspect of superhero comics is inevitably their escapism, the ability for us to place ourselves in the shoes of Superman or Spiderman in a world where they will always win. We don't need Scott McCloud to tell us that we can identify with these characters in the visual form, but the relationship is generally one where we appropriate the power and strength of these heroes for our own fantasies. We become the hero, rather than the hero becoming us. In Seneca's cartoon though, Flash is very much Seneca himself, with a conscious effort from the artist to introduce elements from his own life (namely his girlfriend) into the scenario of the superhero. He admits doing this to 'say the things she increasingly didn't want to hear', the classic case of using the superhero as empowerment and escapism. Yet, as the comic continues, the Flash does not solve Seneca's problems, and it is not Flash's heroic qualities which ultimately shape Seneca's reality, but rather the real world problems begin to overtake the scarlet speedster. The comics increasingly reflect the reality of the disintegrating relationship, culminating in the third to final pages where text and the red and gold colours of the Flash blur completely, and post relationship fantasies utterly consume the world of the superhero.

By making the fictional Flash powerless against the force of real emotions, he deconstructs the idea of the superhero archetype, destroying our notion of escapism associated with this type of character and story. In a sense what Seneca is doing is addressing a question he posed in a later post when reviewing "Wildcats": "What do adult superheros do?" While the answer in that post might be a bit simplistic ("FUCK"), here it is far more nuanced, and suggests, to me at least, that the idea of an adult superhero, in the general perception of a 'superhero', is an oxymoron. In adult situations, with adult emotions, there are no such things as superheros.

The most inventive internet cartoonist?

Blaise Larmee is worth checking out just for the ongoing comic that keeps emerging on the homepage, its a great piece in itself, but its also interesting how Larmee’s using the web page structure specifically for this.
The photography based ‘shower comic’ is also brilliant, in how it explores not only sequential imagery, but our reliance on the truth value of photography. Its also a far more artistic exploration of an idea similar to a valentines gift I just sent!