Thursday, 24 April 2008

M and other non-comical comics

Via the MetaFilter community weblog: New York magazine features Exclusive Comics Excerpt: 'M', a section from the forthcoming Abrams reprint of Jon J Muth's adaptation of Fritz Lang's 1931 film, M. The film (available at the Internet Archive) was ahead of its time in many respects, in theme, technique and in its moral ambivalence (Lang makes strong parallels between the police and the criminal vigilante gang who are hunting the serial murderer 'M' for different reasons); Muth's photorealistic rendering in silverpoint, charcoal and oils is remarkable.

We don't often see graphic novels in the shop, but reading the article about M reminded that two of interest came in recently. One is a classic of the modern reinvention of the superhero genre, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Older readers may remember the jokey Adam West / Burt Ward TV series, as recalled at Miller's graphic novel broke with this depiction and featured a middle-aged and retired Bruce Wayne returning to his role as Batman. Despite the title of the upcoming sequel to Batman Begins, it has never been made into a film, but it was iconic in forming the film depictions of Batman / Wayne as an anguished character whose methods go beyond legality and whose mindset, torn between philanthropist and revenge-driven psychopath, is as peculiar as that of the villains he fights. Also, as the introduction by Alan Moore says, it takes the Batman story into the final scenes of the hero myth - maturity, decline and death - that are fundamental to legend.

The other graphic novel that turned up recently is Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (see the taster at Random House, and the CNN review A not-so-comic comic book and interview). Semi-autobiographical, it's a poignant exploration of the origins of a man's crippling inability to interact with the world. The main story concerns events when Corrigan, a timid postal worker, meets his father for the first time in his mid-30s; but this is interwoven with Corrigan's dreams and fantasies and with flashbacks, particularly to the childhood of Corrigan's grandfather at the time of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Past and present also interact: the 1980s Corrigan's neuroses and dreams (such as his fear of women and his recurring dream of a tiny horse) appear to come from the traumas of his grandfather's childhood rather than his own. Through these interwoven narratives, the story gradually reveals and dissects the history of a family with a repeating motif of fractured relationships.

The Dark Knight Returns and Jimmy Corrigan make an interesting juxtaposition. Despite very different subject matter, they're both gripping for the same reason: the clever use of the comic format to explore how their damaged protagonists' emotions are rooted in their origins. This makes them an excellent riposte to those who think comics are incapable of tackling the same themes as those of "real literature".

Addendum. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition - see this hypertext thesis and this Illinois Institute of Technology project - must have been an astonishing sight. Its 600-acre electrically-lit "White City" largely consisted of temporary buildings coated with stucco, and most of it was destroyed by fire during the Pullman Strike of 1894. However two of its more solidly constructed buildings remain on site - the Palace of Fine Arts (now the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry) and the World's Congress Auxiliary Building (now the Art Institute of Chicago) - and two were removed and preserved elsewhere, the Maine State Building and Norway Building.

Addendum 2. The post focused on male-protagonist comics, but let's not forget the equally excellent Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds' modern reworking of Flaubert's Madame Bovary as a satire on Yuppiedom; and the works of Claire Bretécher, who specialises in sympathetic but sharply observed female characters. Bretécher normally does short-format work, but her Le Destine de Monique (called Where's my baby now? for the English edition) is a full-length graphic novel following the excruciating tribulations of an actress who desires to have a baby at all costs. It was subversive and even taboo at the time it was written, tackling the topic of in-vitro fertilization when it was not a commonplace, and it was even the subject of a dissertation, The Rhetoric of Parody in Claire Bretécher’s Le destin de Monique. Editions of Bretécher works in English translation are reasonably easy to find second-hand.

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