Approximations of filmmaking in other mediums

As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality.  When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification.  Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.

Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers.  The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean.  Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.

This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about thorugh John Wolf’s YouTube channel.  Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind.  Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue.  In other words, it’s an interactive short film.

In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games).  Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative.  Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat.  Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG.  These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.

With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients:  something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s Inland Empire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture.  These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft.  When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess.  According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content.  According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art.  A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story.  Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.

Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art.  Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions.  A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.

The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games.   They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay.  No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense.  When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with.  It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged.  Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis.  Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).

I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned.  If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison.  Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game.  But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.

If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum.  Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end.  What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first preson perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script).  You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases).  One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.

Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry).  Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood.  Potentially.  There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside.  I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood.  It’s a flashback, at any rate.  So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either.  He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back.  Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket.  This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on.  It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated.  Almost.

During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below.  When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building.  As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip.  A little while later you hear another.  After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom.  If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.

Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them.  This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening.  If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her.  The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation.  Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.

Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety.  Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades.  You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.

Think of the cut-scene in the second Bioharzard game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else.  That’s kinda what’s going on.

If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization.  There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism.  Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context.  David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone than updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like EreaserheadLost Highway and Mulholland Drive.  Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum.  Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one.  All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.

If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground.  What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.

The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall.  So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective.  David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison.  Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story.  What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story.  The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other.  Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.

For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot.  The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.

As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film?  Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?

As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film.  Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.

One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.

Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, a making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.

Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas for filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.

The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.

Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?

I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.

Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.

Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😡

And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.

For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?

The comic continuation has made it clear that least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.

Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.

The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.

So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.

Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-

https://chrstphfr.itch.io/the-space-between

Victor Hugo & The Man Who Laughs graphic novel

I think Victor Hugo’s novels are always going to be tricky to adapt. And probably on every level, from the reason why a lot of people enjoy them to how both casual readers and those adapting these books read them. Which may be the root of the conundrum: how exactly to read Hugo.

One of the major obstacles on that front is how and where he’s been classified in the history of world literature. Hugo was contemporary with Alexandre Dumas and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and is intuitively grouped with the French Romantics, yet in some ways his work is quite at home in more modern, experimental conventions. There are a few incidental reasons why a modern reader might detect a certain psychedelic flourish that we shouldn’t get too caught up with, such as the divided eighteenth century European literary trends of hyper-realism and florid, unbound subjectivity. On one hand there were socially and politically grounded artists who saw the living pressures of society as their foremost responsibility, on the other, there were those who thought the exclusive province of art was the internal life.
It makes sense that Victor Hugo would be fully aware and involved in the contemporary passions of his day and, while many writers, painters and composers would choose a side and stay there, the fact that Hugo would alternate between the two shouldn’t surprise us that much. There is another aspect of his writing, though, that I think could potentially place him close to the likes of William S. Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski or even modern graphic novelists. This was Victor Hugo’s inclusion of the sensibility of visual, three-dimensional mediums such as painting and architecture into his novels.

Obviously, Notre de Dame de Paris (known to the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a glaring example of this and in many ways can be read as a sort of key to the rest of Hugo’s novels. While Hugo was a meticulous literary craftsman and researcher and very concerned with things working appropriately in their context, his work is far from being traditionally linear. Many of his novels begin with orienting our view of events as readers rather than orienting the characters themselves. Notre Dame de Paris starts with Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo, who do not participate in the events that drive the plot so much as they witness them. And they usually witness the story around them without understanding much, if anything, of what is happening around them. Les Miserables begins with Charles-Francois Myriel, the Bishop of Digne and an outline of the events that led him to believe the things that he does before meeting Jean Valjean. We even get more than a few indications from these chapters about the scope Hugo projected for Les Miserables: Myriel came from a noble family and, as a young man, he had a zest for pleasure seeking. An unspecified trauma related to the French revolution destroyed his appetite for libertinage and he dedicated himself to a life of ascetic spirituality. A chance encounter with Napolean led to him being appointed Bishop of Digne. Most memorably, one of Myriel’s first visits to someone suffering on their death bed was an elderly member of a revolutionary government. Set as the story is after the restoration of the French monarchy, this old exile is “little better than a monster”. This encounter rocks Bishop Myriel to his core and it’s the last really personal glimpse we have of him before we see him in the company of Valjean. While the rest of Les Miserables is largely bound by a plot, we get an attitude toward a period in the history of France along with meditations on the role of religion, capitol punishment and death. At the beginning of Quatre-vingt treize, we meet the mother of the two small children that accompany us throughout the novel before we meet Cimourdaine, Lantenac or Gauvaine.

L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, is no different on this front. Before we have a proper encounter with Gwynplaine we get two Preliminary Chapters. One shows us the inside of Ursus’ cart where he lives with Homo the wolf, covered in lineages and careers of the families of the British Peerage. The other is an exhaustive break down of the history of the fictional Comprachicos, Spanish nomads with their own unique Creole tongue, fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, who have traditionally practiced and maintained the art of mutilating and crafting children from a young age to grow into marketable curiosities. Within this practice there are different disciplines and arts that bear the stamp of specific individuals or schools of practice. One we learn about in short order is masca ridens, the laughing mask, a hallmark of the work of a Doctor Conquest and his heir Hardquanonne. Another literary device we see in L’homme qui rit and other works by Hugo are fictional scholarly documents and resources that are introduced within the book but distinctive from the story, after the manner of supplementary material for something that actually happened.

This can happen in glaringly obvious ways, such as the in/famous Waterloo or Sewer chapters in Les Miserables, but some of the more effective usages of this device happen in less overbearing ways. For example, for all the times that Hugo dives right into the private subjectivity of his characters, there are others where he claims not to know their thoughts any more than he could read the mind of a real person, as if all he can do is impartially report things as they happened and anything else would be speculation. Consider this moment in Notre Dame de Paris when Frollo is watching Esmerelda and Phoebus have sex:

“In what sinister order was he arranging in his thoughts La Esmeralda, Phoebus, Jacques Charmoloue, his beloved younger brother, so lately abandoned by him at the dung hill, his archdeacon’s cassock, his reputation perhaps, thus degraded to La Falourdel’s- all these images, all these adventures of his? It is impossible to say. But certain it is that these thoughts evoked horrible pictures.”

Likewise, in Les Miserables, there is the chapter Une tempete sous un crane in which Valjean has to grapple with the possibility of breaking his cover. Hugo ventures several long glimpses into Valjean’s mind but, when Valjean goes to sleep briefly, Hugo refers to a fictional collection of documents left behind after his death that describe the dream he had that night, with the deserted village, the ghosts and the dark rider upon the skeletal horse. The emphasis on the reader’s perspective as something outside of the novel itself is emphasized by Les Miserables division into five books with a neat line drawn down the middle: Valjean as the protagonist in the first half and Marius in the second. The novel ends with an anonymous epitaph on the grave of Valjean, again, as if Hugo can only relate what happened, but can’t speculate outside of his scope.

In L’homme qui rit, one of the expressions of this more quiet use of fictional objectivity happens when Hugo’s narrative voice will blend with the internal narration of Ursus, which keeps us in touch with our first Preliminary Chapter in which we see the writing on the walls within Ursus’ cart. Sure enough, our last image in the novel is that of Ursus waking up to the absence of Gwynplaine and Dea, with Homo at the edge of their boat, “baying in the shadow and looking down upon the water”.

In every Victor Hugo novel I ever read, the orientation of the reader’s perspective is given at least as much attention as the design and mechanics of the plot. The very act of reading, how, when and where the novel reveals itself to us, is an essential concern for any writer, but the nature of Hugo’s shaping of our own perspective and the text’s own treatment of authenticity seems almost post-modern. Consequently, reading Victor Hugo well is a gradual and layered experience, which contrasts interestingly with how his stories are treated with archetypical simplicity in the modern west. While we’re on the subject I’d like to recommend a YouTube video by Lindsey Ellis called The Case For Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which deals carefully with this contrast, although I do think Lindsey committed something of a minor, forgivable oversight. She says that Notre Dame de Paris was motivated entirely by the historical vandalism of Notre Dame Cathedral and a wish to drum up attention for it’s preservation. I’m just not sure how you could walk away from that book and continue to think that: the relentless and flamboyant cynicism at least seems indicative of Hugo’s constant pre-occupation with the oppression of ancient, medieval institutions like the Catholic Church and monarchy in general. Then there’s the Ceci tuera cela (This Will Kill That) chapter that breaks down that very phrase in the mouth of Claude Frollo (Frollo’s inner narration blends with that of the narrator almost in the same way that Ursus’ does). It is a comment on how architecture is losing ground to literature as the most influential and important art form in the west. Given the attitude Hugo expressed toward literacy in other works, it’s hard to read Ceci tuera cela as a strictly negative statement, especially since he equates the shift with the transition from monarchy to democracy.

Lindsey Ellis makes an important point, though, in that adaptations of Hugo’s work tend to be far departures from the letter of the source material. The west seems to have adopted these stories as mythic archetypes, perennial outlines with fluid relevance, rather than the work of an individual writer. Victor Hugo himself anticipated and possibly encouraged parts of this, as an operatic adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris was made in his lifetime with his blessing and co-operation. Hugo even corresponded with an anarchist named Louise Michel who would often sign her name as Enjolras. Hugo was intimately familiar with art influencing life and vice versa, and his anticipation of the diverse ripples of his work makes sense given that he did not write his novels strictly as…well, novels. He would meticulously shape and manipulate the reader’s point of entry and understanding of his stories, so much so that reading Hugo often feels like watching Hugo. A three-dimensional object is situated in three-dimensional space; it’s very existence presupposes a a wider setting and other objects with relative relationships to it.

This is why reviewing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s work requires a certain amount of care. A wide diversity of interpretations is a natural consequence of Hugo’s legacy. Also, as with any artistic legacy, diverse readings and interpretations are simply how the living relevance of important works manifests. So deviation from the original letter of the work is to be expected and does not, in and of itself, constitute a weakness. However, deviations from the letter do invite new readers to wonder why a given adaptation makes its deviations. With many adaptations of Hugo’s work, the stripping away of the narrative complexity is obvious: it simply makes it easier for a mainstream audience to digest. Other deviations speak to more idiosyncratic details of newer readings, though.

Consider Hugo’s attitude toward women: he was probably as feminist as we could reasonably expect an eighteenth century upper class, philandering French male to be. To hear him tell it in his own words, he probably believed in the social equality of men and women as strongly as he believed in universal literacy and representative government (that is, after he forged his bond with his mother’s side of the family and began to grow apart from his male-line attachment to French nobility and Peerage). Nonetheless, he has some typically chauvinistic moments regarding female characters, such as his tendency to sexualize and infantilize characters that represent daughters. There is, though, a difference between Hugo’s expressed misogyny and how others have read that misogyny. Eponine from Les Miserables, por exemplo. In the original novel, she is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best written female characters, along with being morally ambiguous. Eponine would knowingly trick Marius into joining the Friends of The ABC Society at the Rue Saint Denis barricade out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Along with her foot in the door of the dangerous woman trope, she also dresses as a man to join the revolutionaries, taking us into the trope of the deceptive female. For some reason, though, the author(s) of the musical decided to render Hugo’s misogyny differently, even worse in some places.

A current script for the musical has Eponine goggling in awe at Marius’ books and fawning over his hair. Is that deviation going to hugely impact the character of the musical? Maybe not hugely. It does effect the audience’s perspective of Eponine. Nonetheless, it’s curious that the stage writers decided to downplay the existent misogyny in Hugo’s portrayal of Eponine and invent different and more obvious misogyny. In an essay, Oscar Wilde singles out Fantine as uniquely romanticized and sexualized, writing that Hugo invites the reader to “kiss her bloody mouth”. Evidently, many readers have observed Hugo’s misogyny over the years and those that attempted new adaptations have channeled it differently. So much so that it’s hard not to anticipate some version of it in current adaptations; unlike the complicated filtering of the reader’s perspective, Hugo’s misogyny was more changed in translation than lost in translation. In any case, both of those changes are familiar to anyone who has read Hugo and experienced newer renditions.

Other deviations and interpretations have obvious contemporary motives, such as Disney wanting to continue their early-to-mid nineties winning streak and create a lucrative segue toward Broadway, as Lindsey Ellis explains in her video. In the wake of the success of Les Miserables as a musical, multiple live action films were made, either to cash in on the renewed interest or to provide a more “complete” and “faithful” option for those who felt the need for one in response to the structural changes the musical made.

The journey that L’homme qui rit has made throughout pop culture has many similar complications. One thing that’s bound to effect the modern American reading of L’homme qui rit is how the Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in a nineteen-thirties film adaptation. I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I learned that Victor Hugo helped give birth to the Joker. In an afterward to the graphic novel adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford, Hine points out that very through-line and it’s role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He refers to Heath Ledger’s Joker speaking the lines “let’s put a smile on that face” as “a twisted version of Gwynplaine”. It’s hard to disagree, at least in terms of direct influence. Even if it’s the nature of mythic archetypes to be perpetually relevant but in a different way for each era, this particular emanation of Gwynplaine is a stark departure. I don’t know the precise mechanics of Hine’s creative process for this book, but hypothetically put yourself in the position of someone writing a Man Who Laughs comic after decades of the Joker. Compared to the original, the only apparent connection is the total moral pessimism and paranoia. Making a completely new, personal and organic interpretation would necessitate breaking one hell of a pattern.

For the most part, David Hine and Mark Stafford had no problems with making something unique and memorable. There were a few other problems, though, some of which I remember other writers stumbling over while attempting to bring unconventional subject matter into the graphic novel medium. I remember reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russel a few years ago in which the author would go meta every now and then, draw himself and show us sketches and chats between the creative team and his own rants about how he couldn’t find a way to capture this or that concept. I found it entertaining and it kept me hooked for a little while, but eventually I started wondering why the metafictive device was used and eventually I put the book down since so much about the presentation seemed to be taking up my attention and not providing anything meaningful to the telling of the story. A really egregious example of someone trying to innovate and bring in exciting subject matter to graphic lit happened when some biographies of the central figures of the Beat literary movement were published as comics. As a Burroughs aficionado, I naturally couldn’t resist, and sure enough almost the entire script was bland, lifeless explication. The series was like reading a pamphlet about the Beats with these simple little sketches with word balloons providing trite, out of context quotes.

The L’homme qui rit graphic novel doesn’t get that bad ever, but there are still a few moments that made me squirm a little inside. In the early panels, we see Gwynplaine in the company of the Comprachico’s boarding the ship at Portland Bill. One of them steps in front of Gwynpaine an shouts “Not you!” as everyone boards the ship without him. It’s just such a bald moment and there’s no obvious reason for it. Was it to let the reader know what’s going on? We don’t hear about the recent kingly ban on the Comprachico’s mutilations until later in the story (in the book we hear about the illegalization of Comprachico’s slave trade early on). And, for the purposes of the graphic novel, that’s a perfectly good place to address it. In order to understand this opening scene, though, all we need to understand is that Gwynplaine is left behind. And there’s no obvious reason why the reader needs to be told that explicitly in the moment it happens. What if Gwynplaine is off playing on the beach, looks up and sees the boat floating off, having had no warning? Something like that would have worked just fine and the effect of seeing it before we hear about it would create dramatic weight when the Comprachico’s write down a collective confession that they toss away in a bottle as they capsize.

There are a few other awkward moments of explication, such as the omniscient narrator interjecting out of nowhere the origin and role of Lord David Dirry-Moir / Tom Jim Jack. During the same explicatory break, we also get explication on the roles of the Duchess Josianna and Barkilphedro, which, at least, is arguably efficient. As someone who loved the novel (the first and so far only book I ever read in French) I can empathize with the desire to include the off-beat friendship between Lord David and Duchess Josianna: it’s colorful and entertaining in the original story, especially the various clubs that Lord David belongs to (such as The Fun Club, whose members break windows and set the huts of poor people on fire) and his passion for boxing, which compels him to live and sleep with a given boxer for a long time while training them and carefully monitoring and dictating their diet. Then there’s Hugo’s florid descriptions and voyeuristic pre-occupation with Duchess Josianna. Her pre-occupation with slumming, living a separate life in disguise and wanting to become super-human- combined with her different colored eyes -actually made me think of David Bowie a little. Pleasantly uncanny. While Hugo definitely get’s very typically voyeuristic with this character, it’s handled very differently from other sexualized female characters, and I can understand the temptation to want to draw her in a comic, simply to see what she would look like. I empathize with David Hine’s desire to include Lord David and Duchess Josianna- if I made my own adaptation, I’d be excited to think of how to portray them as well -I’m just not sure why he did it the way he did.

When Hine writes as an omniscient narrator, his diction maintains a connection with the language used by the characters which helps support the tone, but that doesn’t add a strength so much as it simply makes the explication easier to come and go from. Like the “Not you!” moment at the beginning, it’s not terrible, but I can’t help but wonder why. And both of those hiccups are unfortunate, since the illustrations and the sequential connections between the panels are very creative and a more tightly written script could have really made it pop. Another missed beat between writer and illustrator is the handling of Gwynplaine’s face in different contexts. Gwynplaine is largely incapable of any facial expressions besides his gruesome, artificial smile. There are parts in the original novel that I could picture being really poignant in a visual medium: when Gwynplaine is taken to the prison where Hardquanonne is being interrogated he loudly protests his innocence. Gwynplaine is reduced to hysterical shrieking and rambling, since he thinks he’s being accused of something but doesn’t know what. I could clearly picture his pale, sweaty, terrified face with it’s perpetual smile, with tears rolling down his face, screaming the lines “You have before you a poor mountebank!” For any visual adaptation, a live action film, an animated film or a graphic novel, how to portray Gwynplaine’s face with different emotions would be one of the really interesting parts. During most of the parts when Gwynplaine is afraid or anxious, though, his smile in the graphic novel comes off as lecherous. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. Maybe it was meant to be vulnerable awkwardness.

Another significant departure is the softening of Ursus’ tone. In both the original and the graphic novel, Ursus is a cynical yet enthusiastic verbal performer. In the original, though, he is almost relentlessly sarcastic and angry. If ever he says anything positive, it’s ironically suggested by a frank negative comment. Graphic novel Ursus is hard-bitten, but not relentless. I don’t think this would draw the attention of someone familiar with the book too much- more of a nit-pick, I suppose.

In general, though, the plot was smoothly adapted. The chapter breaks are well placed and the thematic artwork on each chapter’s title page adds something to the graphic novel’s character. I think the tone of the ending was also handled well. There was a live action L’homme qui rit film a few years ago that seriously botched it with a scene with Gwynplaine sinking beneath the waves and encountering a ghostly, angelic Dea. (I also have a bad attitude about that film for several other reasons…not least of all why they decided go with a vampire-like sex appeal for Gwynplaine. Someone I watched it with said he reminded her of Brandon Lee in The Crow).

Speaking of Dea, I think Hine and Stafford did alright with her, given how much Hugo neglected her character development at times. You could say they did their best with what they had. I’d put it on par with the portrayal of Cossette in the 2012 film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical. Cossette certainly did not furnish a ton of depth to work with for future adaptations, especially if they were determined to remain faithful to the original text, and although her changes in the film script from the stage one were slight- such as the altered lyrics of some songs like In My Life and the reprises of A Heart Full of Love and Suddenly at the end -I found them welcome. In the original novel, Ursus tries to trick Dea- who is bedridden and blind -into thinking Gwynplaine is still there with his ventriloquism. The book encourages you to think he’s almost supernaturally talented at this and that Dea seeing through it is shocking. In the graphic novel it looks pathetic, which adds to the sorrow of the moment in a good way. I also enjoyed the graphic novel’s portrayal of Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords at the end: he seemed like he was raging and letting himself go with his anger for the first time in his life, which I thought was neatly consistent with the original. In the live action film, I think they tried to play it like a mental break down, which played badly.

With adaptations of stories you care a lot about, it’s easy to foresee a lot going wrong and get protective. That’s definitely how I felt after seeing the live action L’homme qui rit a few years ago, and I think the graphic novel compares well to it. I can’t say that’s a high benchmark, though, especially since Hine struggled a little with the story structure and the tone. I’d be interested to hear what someone thought of it who knew nothing about the story beforehand. My curiosity has also been piqued with regard to David Hine, particularly another collaboration he did with Mark Stafford in a Lovecraft anthology.

Promethea review (spoilers as usual)

Welp, here it is at long last. For the sake of efficiency I’m going to make this an informal reaction like the rest of the reviews on this blog. I make that distinction because Promethea could easy reward a more in-depth and systematic analysis but I’m at a point in my life where I want to enjoy things at my own pace. Not to mention a close friend of mine recently gave me a book she wrote and I want to get started reading that for a possible review.

Since this is going to be a personal reaction post, I’m necessarily going to have to describe certain things in very broad strokes. Let us start with the reputation of Promethea. A common criticism of this story is that it is not so much a proper novel as it is a prose vehicle for Alan Moore’s personal and academic studies of philosophy and spirituality. There’s definitely room for that interpretation and Alan Moore makes absolutely no bones about the didactic nature of Promethea, but the dude is too playfully garish and genre savvy not to have fun with it. The Promethea comics are opened with a fictional, in-world introduction explaining the comics as the latest in a startling pattern of literary coincidences beginning with a late eighteenth century poet and ending with pulp sci-fi novels, all starring or at least involving the same semi-divine heroine. This opening contrasts richly with certain banal aspects of the opening.

Apparently banal, anyway. Alan Moore is typically big on atmosphere but there is a certain bald quality to our first few moments with Sophie Bangs. I mean, there is that little prologue thingie with the original mortal Promethea, but to me that seemed like a very typical opening section of a fantasy comic or cartoon and wasn’t that distinguishing. When I call the opening atmosphere of the New York of Sophie Bangs banal, I mean word choices that look a little lazy. Sophie and Stacia refer to the college they go to as “the college”. When I was a university student, I never, ever heard anyone call it “the college”. On the surface it looks like phrasing of someone who has never been anywhere near a North American university or its students and doesn’t care enough to do a minimal amount of research to figure out what real American vernacular sounds like. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that this is a passive reference to groups in the ancient world referred to as “the college” (Hellenist, I believe?) but it really just seems awkward. However, I think part of this is a deliberate style choice. As I said, Alan Moore is big on atmosphere as well as world building and intricate linguistic patterns.

 
George R.R. Martin said that many prose writers can be divided into architects and gardeners. An architect plans everything out from the beginning and a gardener plants seeds and watches how they grow on their own. Alan Moore is a quintessential architect. I mean, look at the annotations at the back of From Hell, the years he spent writing Jerusalem or even just his rigid plotting in general. So I think it’s likely that, when the presentation appears bald in the beginning, it may be meant to appear bald. One effect this has is creating a sort of equal footing with the fake introduction. Sophie Bangs and her search for Barbara Shelley seem almost like an innocently organic, surface level reaction or outgrowth of the false introductory text. As if we really had read a real piece of literary academia at the beginning and are now experiencing a lay person’s follow-up.

 

This is a charming way to start and it also sets the precedent for interplay between different literary styles within this story. Moore also has a hard time keeping his hands off of classic lit devices for philosophical writing like the dialectic used by everyone from Plato to Lucretius to Nietzsche, with large sections being dedicated exclusively to dialogue between two characters. The long and colorful sexual encounter between Promethea and Jack Faust, for example, or Sophie’s early conversations with the different incarnations of Promethea that preceded her. These largely explicatory exchanges make up the bulk of the story, by the way. Like I said, though, Alan Moore is too flamboyant and genre-savvy to have the explication stop at the surface and there’s constant dialogue with other perspectives within the bigger framing device of the story.

 

Many of the alchemical, Cabbalistic and Tarot iconography and language have in-world, fictional interpretations and meta-reactions by other characters. Some of these are peripheral, such as where specifically the demons in the beginning and middle of the story come from. It seems implicitly clear that Asmoday and Legion are potentially native to Geburah, the fifth sphere of the Tree of Life, when Sophie and Barbara arrive there. Asmoday is frankly identified with the mythological Hebrew demon Asmodeus and he shares some personal feelings about that story. There are other demons, though, or perhaps different perspectives within the being called Legion, who will use Old English phrases (“Jesu’s Teeth!”) which would imply a link with the divided Christian and Islamic Prometheas from the Crusades, but is never fully explained. Nor does it need to be, since nothing especially important hinges on it, it’s just interesting. That’s just one of the more fun peripheral interplays between different sections and style choices. There are more fundamentally important ones, such as the Painted Doll’s meeting with Promethea at the very end.

 
Before that moment, we have heard a million times and a million different ways that the subjectivity of sentient beings is our only interface with the wider world. One of the central implications of this explored throughout Promethea is that our subjectivities can be a glorious window on each other and our endless potential or a miserably isolating cell. I’ll be getting back to that since it’s kind of a big deal, but moving on, the text has told us repeatedly that our consciousness is all we really have. And then, near the very end, a being that has been alive for less that a few hours is frankly identified with the reader when the Painted Doll says he thought he was either a character in a comic or a person reading a comic. The Painted Doll is actually one of an army of identical homicidal robots that are revived one at a time, with a single shared memory, in order to create the experience of being a single person. At the end of the story, all the Painted Dolls are woken up at the same time. Perhaps naturally, when one of them meets Promethea he says he doesn’t know if any of his memories actually happened. Promethea reassures him that they’re as real as reality itself, that personal identity and all methods of ascertaining the value of things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves and our belief in them.

 

The identification between the reader and the Painted Doll is bottom-lined by a few panels with images of their own page in a lower panel and even a brief meta glimpse of both Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III. This is probably as close as Promethea gets to being a truly didactic text, of being a direct non-fiction missive between Alan Moore and the reader, and even that involves conflating the perspective of the reader with the Painted Doll and some other characters. This is also where the story is at it’s most frankly Jungian- Promethea even frankly says that the reader, while they are reading any story, embody all characters, like the dreamer embodies all characters in their dream. Naturally this takes us back to the bigger theme throughout the story of consciousness either being a window or a prison and what it means to be alone with your subjectivity.

 

Promethea’s way of presenting this question began to resonate with me near the end of the first graphic novel all the way through the rest of the series. I realized I was connecting with this when the character Bill explained the mystical significance of pentacles (AKA coins) after the other explanations of cups and swords. In the Tarot, according to Alan Moore, cups represent compassion and swords are reason. Cups are sustenance and nourishment and receiving. Swords are reduction, discernment and penetration. And yes, the sexy-time version of that is fully explored as well. Speaking of sexy-time and Tarot symbolism, Sophie’s best friend Stacia ends up in a relationship with Grace, the incarnation of Promethea that explained swords to Sophie.

 

Pentacles, meanwhile, are the value of life. Pentacles, as explained by Bill, are the things that tempt us with their value such as money, sex, human affection, anything material or sensual that we crave. Pentacles are also a transitional symbol, as coins are needed to pay the ferryman to cross the Acheron, both in Greek mythology and also later in this story, when Promethea, in the company of Sophie and Barbara, pay Charon to ferry them to the houseboat on Styx (said houseboat is called The Nancy Nox. Not important at all, I just thought that was cute). Genuine desire is always a transitional exchange, to truly savor life is to be at peace with it’s eventual end. This, for me, tied together something of the central theme about the power of subjectivity. To truly be yourself and love life is also to touch and embody your own limits.

 

While we’re talking about Sophie’s conversation with Bill, this is also where we first meet the lady and the snake. The snake is matter and the lady is imagination. This first meeting with the lady and the snake is illustrated by Jose Villarruba, while the second encounter, at the beginning of book three, is drawn by J.H. Williams III. J.H. Williams III also illustrated Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture for which he drew the mother of the Endless herself, Night. Night looks almost identical to the lady with the snake. The lady’s word balloons have bold white borders and Night’s word balloons have thin white borders, but the blank space inside the balloons are both dark blue and the white lettering looks almost exactly the same. Night also has a more mature, plus-sized physique whereas the lady is thin, but in comics, especially those by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, word balloons are often treated as identifying features unique to specific characters. I was basically gaping in disbelief when I got to that part. And both the lady and Night appear against a bed of stars with the lighted sections of their bodies appearing dark blue and the shaded parts of their body as blank starscape. With both women, the blank spaces in the word balloons are also the same color as their lighted skin, and both Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are very, very enamored with the impact language has on identity and perception.

 

What I’m saying is that, if this is simply a friendly wink between authors relayed through the same illustrator, I’d be surprised. The shaded and lighted skin and the word balloons are more than just a passing resemblance: they’re basically fat and thin versions of the same woman. But, like…if it’s the same character…whattheactualfuck? Are we supposed to be thinking about the cosmology and the continuity of both stories? I mean, as much of an architect as Moore is, I don’t think he would make Neil Gaiman swear a blood oath to have his version of the character stay faithful to Moore’s. Or…like…if it even was written after Moore’s? Neil Gaiman had been thinking about and writing The Sandman: Overture throughout the nineties and lost his opportunity to publish it near the run of the main Sandman story solely because of publishing and scheduling decisions made by Vertigo DC Comics. So Promethea got published first. Soooo…..even, like, the whole question of who is riffing on who is a mess.

 

However, this is a bit like the demon question mentioned earlier. Nothing fundamental about our understanding about Promethea depends on this, so long as we limit our analysis to the Promethea comics alone. But, um….um…what the actual fuck!? Are Promethea and The Sandman taking place in the same universe???? With, like, the Endless and the First Circle and the Silver City and everything????

 

For the sake of not getting hung up on this and drawing this review out with a big crazy digression I have to leave that mystery there for now, but I’m definitely gonna get back to it in a later post, especially since I read some other Neil Gaiman comics lately that have interesting implications for The Sandman. I had to get that out of my system though O_O

 

So. Moving on. While Promethea is definitely a philosophical and spiritual treatise within a narrative framing device, the way that the different writing styles and character perspectives interact with each other is so fun that active reading becomes a genuine temptation and indulgence. That being said, there are some weaknesses. In a documentary that tends to float around YouTube called The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he makes vague references to scientists “on the cutting edge of particle physics” that describe information as a “super weird substance” which implies an objective, material dimension to consciousness, potentially suggesting a soul that is distinct from the body. This, to me, seems to be an echo of the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics”, which posits that quantum mechanics only behave classically when they are observed.

 

I may be conflating things or misremembering, but I believe Schrodinger’s Cat is typically used as a metaphor to explain this. Feel free to correct me in a comment or a message if you know better. But, according to the kitty metaphor, sub-atomic particles often function as if the spectrum of possible configurations are all happening at once. This spectrum of possibilities is called a sub-atomic super-position. The super-position in general is treated as a static reality until it is observed to be otherwise. I feel like I’m butchering that atrociously, and even if I’m making the correct associations, I’m probably being very, very reductive and simplistic.

 
With those caveats out of the way, that’s what I understand the Copenhagen hypothesis to refer to, and I can’t think of anything else Alan Moore might be referring to. If there is anything else in physics that involves treating subjective observation as a materially influential phenomenon, by all means correct me. But as far as I know, Alan Moore seems to be talking about the Copenhagen hypothesis. I also want to make it clear that my own understanding comes form fragmented memories of high school and college, personal conversations, YouTube videos and the book Waking Up by Sam Harris. It’s actually Waking Up that I take most of my understanding of this from as well as the one glaring weakness of how the Copenhagen hypothesis has been implemented by the New Age movement. In Waking Up, Sam Harris writes that the hypothesis’ use of the word “observation” is not lucidly defined and most spiritual interpretations of the hypothesis overlook or ignore this gray area. Put simply, the assertion that your mind reaches out from your brain to sculpt things outside of it is an interpretation based on a blank area.

 

Unfortunately, there are moments when Promethea relies on the New Age rendering of the Copenhagen hypothesis. In the text, this happens frankly at the very end when Promethea says that modern scientists have reached agreement with historical mystics with privileging consciousness over the things that appear outside of it. At other moments throughout the story it’s hinted at, but one instance in particular strikes me as problematic. Sophie needs to learn more magic, Jack Faust agrees to teach her, in exchange for the chance to have sex with Promethea. For the sake of clarity, Sophie is a teenage girl and Promethea is a developmentally mature, eternally young woman no matter what body is channeling her, and yes your body physically changes into Promethea when you channel her. Still a bit of a squick factor, though.

 

Anyway, Promethea and Jack Faust are doing it and Promethea remarks that describing the whole universe as an inevitable and knowing journey toward the development of consciousness seems a little egocentric and naïve. Jack Faust, or the spirits Jack Faust is channeling, reply that it’s absurd to think that the universe randomly came together in just the right way to create sentient life, as if consciousness is so integral to the creation of the universe that some sentience must have guided it to our sentience. This is no different from the argument from design that Christian apologists use and it ignores a basic empirical fact: while the universe, from our perspective, is so vast as to be endless to us, and is constantly expanding, nothing ever springs fully formed out of nothingness.

 

Did I mention Lucretius earlier? I’m pretty sure I did. Didn’t Lucretius outline something like this in one of his own dialectic treatises? If all the parts are there to begin with and will remain there forever, then every possible configuration must necessarily happen, no matter how rare. I remember being in a freshman level philosophy class where we discussed religious objections to the conclusions of the Miller-Urey experiments in the nineteen-fifties. What those experiments proved was that it’s possible for volcanic activity and lightning and amino acids to interact with each other in a way that would set amino acids on the path toward evolving into complex life forms. The religious nay-sayers of the day claimed that the probability of that chemical interaction was just too rare and coincidental to have happened…in spite of the fact that our planet has actually spent most of it’s existence thus far without complex life. On a long enough time line, all possibilities, however rare, will inevitably happen.

 

I said that Promethea relies on this interpretation of the Copenhagen hypothesis (and the association Moore makes between it and the argument from design) at times. In general, I do not see it as integral to the coherence of the story. It’s still unfortunate, though, and all the more so as it was not a necessary thing to include and since Alan Moore is typically so good and thorough about research and intellectual honesty. Laziness and oversights always sting worse when they’re done by people who should know better. Since these wrinkles only appear occasionally and contribute nothing necessary, though, one could sympathetically read them as a component in the dynamic mixture of literary styles and perspectives, especially since there are already a few instance of a literal, explicatory idea becoming ambiguous and at times morphing into things like attitudes and even characters. Case and point, Grace- the vehicle for Promethea that embodied the essence of cutting, decisive, uncompromising reason, seen in the Tarot as swords.

 

There are two major visionary journeys within Promethea, the first of which consists of Sophie getting acquainted with all the previous women (including Bill, who is a transwoman) who channeled Promethea, the second to track down Barbara, the avatar before Sophie who recently died and left behind the astral island shared by the former Prometheas (and yes, that totally puts us in the literary stomping grounds of Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante and Gerda…so on top of the dialectic philosophy bells and whistles we’re also dealing with the mythical pilgrim archetype). When Sophie meets Grace for the first time, she serves as an explicatory mouth piece to map out the symbolic importance of swords within the Tarot and the role of reason within the identity of Promethea, alongside compassion and commitment to the sweetness of life’s finitude.

 

Grace starts out as a minor character in Alan Moore’s fake introductory text and then becomes a didactic literary device. Later, when Sophie brings Stacia to the Immateria (the ethereal plane where dreams and myths are real…perhaps like the Dreaming, if we wanna go there…lol jk), Stacia is delegated the responsibility of channeling Promethea in Sophie’s absence while she goes after the ghost of Barbara. Upon exiting the Immateria and beginning her shift as the vessel of Promethea, Stacia finds that she has the best report with Grace, the champion of reason, and the ghost and the human begin to fall in love with each other and even start having sex. The pair are so deeply united in their love for one another and their commitment to the duties of Promethea that they become possessive of the role and refuse to relinquish it when Sophie returns from the Immateria. Essentially, Grace went from being a detail in a literary device to a literary device in her own right to a supporting character to a major character with motivations that put her at odds with the main story.

 

The presence of traditional super hero archetypes in Promethea go through a similar journey. One of the more snarky instances of authorial presence is Alan Moore’s irreverence for and disenchantment with the super hero genre. Alan Moore, at first, appears to be using the medium of a comic because it’s his oldest, most well worn hat and he simply wants to put his best foot forward. The guy is a drama queen, though, so he can’t resist making digs at parts of the medium even while it starts out as peripheral. This happens in Promethea’s version of traditional super heroes and villains, here known as science heroes and science villains. Science people occupy a place in the fictional world not unlike rock stars and actors (oh yeah and there’s also rock stars in this to lol ). The public follows them with the same light-hearted interest that we follow celebrities in real life. The two rising stars on this scene are a team of science heroes called the Five Neat Guys and a science villain called the Painted Doll. Yes, the same Painted Doll that the reader is tempted to literally identify with, as an in-world meta-representation of oneself, near the end.

 

The Five Neat Guys and the rest of the science people started out as a bit of fun-poking at common hallmarks of comic books and slowly take on bigger and bigger thematic and plot functions as the story unfolds. Sooo…..as disappointing as the stuff with the Copenhagen hypothesis and the argument from design are, one could conceivably see them as subject to the same changes that all the other didacticism goes through in these books. That would be stretching the limits of intellectual honesty a bit, but there is definitely room for that interpretation. It’s because of this lateral exploration of language as well as the more philosophically compelling heart of this story that I think those particular weaknesses are not much more than occasional eyesores.

 

It’s because of this playful experimentation with meaning that I still think Promethea is a story in spite of Alan Moore’s plainer, didactic intentions. It’s possibly the most fun philosophical narrative treatise that I have ever read, and it certainly cheered me up a few times when I badly needed it. Promethea moved me emotionally in ways that V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell and Batman: The Killing Joke never came close to and I’m a little surprised it took me this long to get to it. It does not quite succeed in elevating my opinion of Moore to that of Neil Gaiman, but it definitely comes closer than anything else he’s written and is definitely my new favorite out of his bibliography.

Marvel 1602, volume one

Sooo I read my first Marvel comic not so long ago! I gotta say I was way more impressed by Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 then with the relatively new re-imaginings of older properties in recent film. And yes, as is typical of me, I won’t be taking any particular care to avoid spoilers.

Granted, some of these characters I knew nothing of prior, other than their names and certain details of their back stories. I remembered enough of that one Iron Man movie right before The Avengers to know who Nick Fury was and I briefly dated a guy who was really into Dr. Strange (he once said something vague about Dr. Strange comics being one of the first in the industry to involve Eastern religion).

Those were the characters I knew the least about, though. As someone who was in first grade during the early days of Cartoon Network, I was sometimes able to catch episodes of the older Hannah-Barbara Fantastic Four cartoon. Around the same time, the Fox Kids Saturday morning block was getting off the ground with contemporary animated versions of Spider-Man and X-Men.

(If I may stop for a silly digression, idiosyncratic usages of punctuations are funny. Especially when you know a given punctuation choice is supposed to entirely be a matter of personal preference with no relationship to grammar. I mean, I can’t think of a whole lot of superheroes just now that use hyphens in their names. Just now, I really can’t think of any others except Spider-Man and the X-Men. There. It’s out of my system now)

I enjoyed both but Spider-Man held my interest a little more, possibly for no other reason than that Peter Parker’s double-life in a large urban setting and occasional brooding reminded me a little bit of Batman: The Animated Series which, in my opinion at the time, made it slightly better by association. More recently, I’ve been hooked by the Netflix Marvel shows, particularly Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In high school I knew a few fans of the Punisher but learned virtually nothing about him until the movie came out. At that point I decided he’s a completely impoverished catch-all of Batman tropes. The Punisher is a blandly moralizing serial killer whose rejection of a wider moral context, in and of itself, is awkwardly framed as compelling (punishment versus justice). Essentially, he’s the Joker without humor, Batman without morality and Two-Face without character development. Oh yeah, and he’s fascist-friendly. So the Netflix Daredevil show scored points with me by making him the villain of the second season.

This was my frame of reference coming to Marvel 1602, which I was originally interested in when a random Wikipedia link led me to a Daredevil elseworld page. I read a little more and the re-imagining of the X-Men characters piqued my interest. I read a little further and found that Neil Gaiman was the author of the story arc that constitutes the first graphic novel and it then became mandatory reading. I can nit-pick a few of his novel-length prose stories and his short stories range from so-so to delightfully clever, but the man is absolutely unparalleled with it comes to comics. When I finally write my Promethea review, that will be a nice segue toward the specific genius of Neil Gaiman’s contribution to graphic literature (it contrasts with Alan Moore’s writing style and Promethea contains departures from Moore’s typical MO that makes the contrast relevant). For now, though, I’ll just say Neil Gaiman continues to be my favorite graphic lit writer.

Anyway, my first proper narrative encounter with Dr. Strange seems to bear some resemblance to Dr. John Dee, an enigmatic and potentially mythic figure who is sometimes presented in fiction as a court magician of sorts in the employ of Queen Elizabeth. John Dee is still somewhat fresh in my mind from the brief mention in Alan Moore’s prose novel Voice of the Fire within the vignette called Angel Language, so I was tickled. To my delight, Renaissance-era Daredevil appeared in fairly short order after the opening scene, as did a charming re-imagining of Peter Parker as Peter Parquagh, a young dogsbody and student under the tutelage of Sir Nicholas Fury.

Close on the heels of this is a fictionalized version of Virginia Dare, the first European child born in America after European colonization began in earnest, who is travelling in the company of an…apparent Native American named Rojhaz. Who is blonde haired and blue eyed. Later, in conversation with Queen Elizabeth, Virginia says that blondes among the Natives testifies to the possibility that the Welsh landed in America before the Spanish and started families with those that received them.

Okay okay okay okay okay I get it. He’s Captain America. Fine. This is a Marvel story, after all, and there’s no other likely candidate and the dude’s name was originally Steve Rogers so it fits. Still, as a Native American, watching white people do Native stuff gets old really, really quickly. Does Rojhaz’s role in the story’s denouement make up for it? Not really, but it was still cool enough to ease the burn. When Rojhaz is revealed to be none other than the original Steve Rogers himself, sent back in time and causing a temporal paradox that threatens the universe, it ties together a big thematic element. The resolution of the paradox also helps this along.

Captain America says he wants to make the future inhabitants of the continent proud to be Americans- minutes before getting knocked unconscious by Nicholas Fury. While the conclusion of this story didn’t quite push me in that direction, it did offer a forgiving interpretation of the meaning of the so-called New World in the European mind at that time, and even ties it into a bigger philosophical question about the nature of possibility and hope.

At the beginning, Virginia Dare and Rohjaz set out for England hoping to persuade Queen Elizabeth to offer more financial support for their colony at Roanoke. At the end, Sir Nicholas Fury is an enemy of the Crown for having disobeyed the newly ascendant King James of England and Scotland, Carlos Javier and his gifted students are fleeing the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition with former Inquisitor Enrique (Renaissance Magneto) and his own followers in tow, all bound for America, empty-handed and exiled.

On the shores of the American continent, the witchbreed students of Carlos Javier begin to hope for a home in which they can be themselves openly and without fear of persecution, while also dreading the imminent arrival of Enrique and the Brotherhood of Those who will Inherit the Earth. Banner, an agent of King James taking Peter Parquagh as a captive and reluctant informant, is also fast approaching. Virginia’s father begins to despair of the future of the colony without Queen Elizabeth or any support from the British Crown and also has to reconcile himself with newcomers who may bring more trouble in their wake. After Clea Strange forces Rohjaz to reveal his true identity, he begins to fantasize about a new America that he would help along through his inability to age. And then he gets sent back to his own time retroactively, permanently closing off most of the effects of his resulting paradox. The colony at Roanoke, abandoned by the Crown and helpless without the meta-humans, is now doomed to mysteriously vanish. The stark Roanoke disappearance will not happen immediately, but it will happen.

This is framed well by the commentary of Strange’s alien connections, called Watchers. The young Watcher who relayed the news about the paradox through Strange to the meta-humans is instantly consumed with shame. Watchers are a people who, normally, are destined only to watch and appreciate the whole universe objectively. The objectivity of their Watching is implicitly linked to an appreciation for the universe as something that is both ever-changing and also whole and complete unto itself. The young Watcher called Uatu, who assisted Stephen and Clea Strange in resolving the paradox, is heart-broken over the newly emergent possibilities being shut down. For a Watcher, it is a tragedy that any possibility should be foreclosed, as per the simultaneous flux and completion of the universe. The fact that this one particular chain of events needed to be retroactively taken out to preserve the wider universe is undeniable, but that does not prevent one from mourning the loss of the newer and stranger possibilities that almost happened.

While this has all the bombastic sci-fi bells and whistles you could ask for, what with aliens and time travel and paradoxes, it’s still a rather subtle look at what we think of as being possible and how that shapes the scope of our aspirations. It’s subtlety can be detected in that it involves the eventual obliteration of the characters that shaped our perspective as readers, how they navigated the world and what they understood as inevitable facts of life. Our protagonists are oppressed by the cumulative menace posed by the Inquisition, Count Otto Von Doom and King James in the beginning. At the end, they know that they will soon be wiped from existence and their last few moments of subjective life are gravely limited. We nonetheless end with a touching hint of friendship and intimacy between Virginia Dare and Peter Parquagh. In the last few panels, Peter is bitten by a spider and Viriginia says “it’s not the end of the world.”

Each step into the future is a step into a vacuum, it can either be an explosion of possibility or oblivion itself, but one only ascertains which by taking existence moment by moment, forming our dreams in the shelters of our minds and the love of those around us. Very typical of Neil Gaiman, really. It reminds me of what Stephen King wrote in his introduction to the graphic novel World’s End, that in Neil Gaiman’s stories there is a fundamental good will that applies to everyone, that everyone is deserving of shelter, perhaps the shelter at the end of the universe featured within World’s End. Marvel 1602 is also a clear expression of this kindly humanism.

There’s a lot more in this story that I appreciated, but that’s the big one I wanted to get out of the way. I particularly liked the parts of this tale concerning the Renaissance-era X-Men, but unfortunately the high point of that also ties into the low point.

One of our early character viewpoints on the students of Master Carolus Javier’s Select College For The Sons of Gentlefolk is a mutant named Werner, known commonly as Angel, who quickly develops a romance with young Master John Grey. Anyone who follows Neil Gaiman knows that he is, in general, very queer friendly and female friendly and typically pulls absolutely no punches in this regard. As the romantic chemistry blossoms between the two witchbreed youths we begin to see jealous outbursts from Scotius Summerisle (our version of Cyclops), which reminded me of the jealous lover from the first live-action X-Men movie. Not only are there queer characters, but it also looks like a queer romantic subplot is developing and it ties in with previously established nuances of the mythos. I was absolutely over the moon about this for awhile. And then John Grey turns out to be a woman disguised as a man. Like I said, Neil Gaiman normally does not pull punches with LGBT characters. I find it very easy to suspect executive meddling of one kind or another. It’s disappointing, but there you go.

All in all I very much enjoyed this book and can easily see myself re-reading it soon. A very nice way to lose one’s Marvel Comics virginity 😀

How fashy is Batman?

Eventually when I branch out more with the books and movies I discuss on this blog I’m going to date myself even more than I have with my commentary on video games.  One way in which my perspective is hugely dated, as someone born in 1988, are my thoughts and feelings about comics.

In mid-childhood I read a few comics derived from Jurassic Park, Sonic The Hedgehog and occasionally Batman.  I believe my first run-in with Bruce Wayne with panels and word balloons had to do with my grandparents from the lower forty-eight (what we Alaskans call the rest of the States) who had sent me a package of presents.  I don’t think they had any way of considering what my tastes at the time were- they appeared to have sent me things that my dad (their son) would have liked at my age.  This included several comics that, to my six-year-old mind, looked blandly unattractive.  The only character I recognized was Batman, as I had seen Spielberg’s Animated Series and my uncle had taken me to see the Joel Schumacher films which were new at that time.  I read a brief story about the Bat and a female accomplice fighting some technologically animate zombies and that was that.

When I actually began reading comics in earnest as a teenager, ordinary super heroes were nowhere on my radar.  A close friend of mine had turned me on to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and a brief look at Watchmen at another friends’ home put Alan Moore on my list of authors to check out.  For the most part, though, The Sandman was the first comic that I was truly grabbed by and even now, at age thirty, it remains my favorite comic period. I also briefly followed mangas like Angel Sanctuary and Dragon Ball Z (although I saw the DBZ anime first on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block).  Every now and then my dad would share Heavy Metal comics with me.

I briefly encountered the world of Gotham again in Gaiman’s Black Orchid story and inevitably I found Moore’s The Killing Joke.  Rather predictably, the Christopher Nolan movies were the first time I actually dwelt on those characters and their mythos in a very long time.  In recent history I’ve also gotten hooked on Fox’s Gotham (I actually enjoy watching Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin more than I enjoyed Heath Ledger as The Joker).

Lately, though, I was away from my hometown for job training and had the chance to explore in what, for me, was a large comic book store.  I knew vaguely that I was interested in reading something that involved Jason Todd as Red Hood.  Eventually, I settled on the New 52 story The Joker: Death Of The Family.

Fairly early in the story we find drug-addled Gothamites attracted to a cult of personality revolving around The Joker.  This seems like it was sparked somewhat by a recent public demonstration.  In Batman’s narration, he makes it clear that legally protecting the rally under the freedom to assemble was a terrible idea.  Later in the story we learn that a sort of “Joker gas” is causing much of this chaos but there are other nuances.  After we see a few people getting drugged there are some subplots that involve gangs of Joker copy-cats who seem to be systematically plotting kidnappings and bombings which the drugged victims seemed too frenzied to slow down for.  An otherwise lucid and calm psychiatrist in Arkham is drawing Joker-influenced doodles on a piece of paper in a way that tempts the reader to think he is part of the movement of Joker emulation.  Evidently, this isn’t all because of the Joker gas and many ordinary citizens are truly smitten with The Joker.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with the same friend that pointed me in the direction of The Sandman when I was younger, regarding the film The Dark Knight Rises.  My friend said that the movie portrays ordinary people as too fickle and unstable to govern themselves and require a stern, authoritative personality to keep them in place.  I don’t know if she mentioned the way in which Nolan modeled the rioters and followers of Bane after the Occupy movement, but I do remember that being brought up in more than one review.  I said that Selena Kyle was a kind of audience insert- that in the context of The Dark Knight Rises Selena represents the everyperson, and why an ordinary woman or man would be disappointed with the status quo and wish for revolution.  My friend insisted that Selena was nowhere near present enough for that narrative layer to be apparent to the audience.  I hesitantly took her point; Selena’s presence was diminished somewhat near the middle and the end of the film.

Now I understand that, unless you have some sort of academic credential, talking about things like archetypes can seem murky and abstract to the point of being meaningless.  In this case, though, I think there’s something to be said for a pattern expressed in more than one way through several different creative minds.  In both the Christopher Nolan films and Death Of The Family, ordinary people are totally mindless know-nothings who can’t survive without a firm hand from authority.  I don’t think I would be going too far to say that the zeitgeist in which the first Batman story was published, America at the beginning of World War II, cast a shadow over the concept.  There was even an issue of Superman in which the Man of Steel went to Germany to lay some hurt down on Hitler.  It would probably be more surprising if the classic DC stories and characters exhibited no pre-occupations with fascism.  Even then, though, there are still more consistent indications of fascism within Batman.  When Frank Miller wrote Holy Terror in the wake of 9-11, a comic about a super hero taking down Al-Qaeda, he originally wanted it to be a Batman story (the original title was Holy Terror, Batman!).

What also complicates this are differences between archetypal, subconscious influences, and open and frank discussion.  In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example, we see mob violence happening for a variety of reasons.  There are protesters who feel like super heroes have compromised everyone’s safety by making the police go on strike and emboldening criminals.  There are people called Knot-Tops who may at times express specific ideological motivations or might just erupt in a spontaneous bloody frenzy.  Rorschach submits his diary for publication to a radically conservative ‘zine and Ozymandias markets toys and perfume based on himself and other superheroes.  Both the people who inspire the masses and the masses themselves are shown to have a diverse array of motivations which are all shown in sympathetic and unsympathetic ways.  It makes sense to say that Watchmen discusses power fantasies in those who feel powerless.  When consistent attitudes express themselves through innumerable different writers over several decades, though, there is probably something  going on other than simple authorial intent.

The possibility that Batman channels a subconscious attraction to fascism is not the same as saying that the story and anyone associated with it are fascists, though.  If anything, discussing things like this can make the expressions of subconscious fascination more fruitful.  I always thought that an essential function of villains like Ra’s Al Ghul, Azrael, Red Hood and The Phantasm is highlighting a fundamental insecurity in Batman as a fictional person: is he a force for good or is he a moralizing thug?  The presence of actual moralizing thugs like Red Hood and Azrael makes questions like this inevitable and makes characters who experience conflict over them more compelling.