July 2011

Martyn Pedler


Some Comics Need You, Some Comics Don’t

Not long ago, I was only inches away from letting out a primal, "leave Britney alone!"-esque scream for David Foster Wallace. I was feeling queasy about the public scavenging over his every last sentence, scribble, or shopping list and the following judgment of each as 'genius' or 'not.' And wouldn’t it be tremendously witty to use extensive footnotes in your reviews? Wouldn’t it, though? One piece, however, stuck with me: Geoff Dyer writing about what he called his “literary allergy” to David Foster Wallace’s writing. Dyer describes Wallace like this:

He’s funny, he’s hip, he has this whopping supply of verbal energy. His braininess and virtuosity are as hard to avoid as a 747 on a runway -- and almost as noisy. He’s one of those writers who won’t let the reader get a word in edgeways.

One of Wallace’s gifts is to preempt every possible response to his writing -- including your frustration at this exact preemption. When I read Wallace my critical sinuses are perfectly clear, admittedly, but I agree with Dyer anyway. I don’t feel like David Foster Wallace’s writing needs me. And critics need to be needed.

Finally, three paragraphs later, here’s what this has to do with comic books: Darwyn Cooke’s The Outfit broadcasts the same sort of noisy virtuosity to me. The first thing I did in my first column here was to praise the hell out of The Hunter, Cooke’s first adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. The Outfit is his next in the series, and it’s even better. Here Parker, a pitiless career criminal now hiding behind an all-new post-surgery face, gets his revenge against the syndicate that screwed him over. It’s told entirely in bruised blacks and blues, and Cooke uses whatever style best fits each moment: sequential action, illustrated text, simplified cartoons, whatever.

Stark apparently described Parker as approaching his violence like a carpenter does wood, and Cooke’s cold genius strikes me the same way. It’s a book that measures twice, and cuts once. Since reading it a few months ago, though, I’ve struggled to describe the lingering shadow the book cast over me. Here’s my best attempt: reading The Outfit felt like I was peering at each gorgeous page on an art gallery’s walls.

Simply put, I don’t think The Outfit needs me.

Is it possible to be so good at what you do that it becomes oddly alienating rather than involving? Some comic writers come close. Alan Moore’s work -- from Watchmen onwards, anyway -- can be so precise and calculated you could leave it in a locked room, come back a week later, and be unsurprised to find it’d read itself cover to cover. But sequential art always needs us, right? We’re the ones who slam its panels together! That’s what creates the kinetic energy it needs to crank its still images to life!

In fact, comics have always been good at making their audience feel needed; perhaps that’s why this bothers me in a way it never does with novels, film, or TV. The niche culture of comic reading -- now eclipsed by more mainstream acceptance, of course -- used to make you feel like someone who understood in a world of those that didn’t. Serialized stories always feel fragile, just waiting to wither and die without dedicated readership; self-published indie comics can vanish at the slightest hint of an author’s real-world responsibilities. Marvel Comics handed out "No-Prizes" for explaining glitches in continuity, making fan knowledge feel necessary in keeping the tenuous superhero worlds from unstitching altogether.

(God, I remember comics with covers screaming in bold fonts that only I could save the hero inside. Me! It was a lot of imaginary responsibility when I was a kid.)

If The Outfit doesn’t need me, Young Lions might need me too much. Blaise Larmee’s self-published book, the winner of a Xeric grant, was released last year -- but I was reminded of it when I read that it’d been recently seized by customs agents at the Canadian border. It’s a short mood piece about three friends going away to judge if a fourth is worthy of joining their art-clique. It’s drawn in soft pencil with eraser marks sometimes still visible and uneven speech balloons cluttering the top of the panels. The characters look like children -- hence, I guess, authorities freaking out over one vaguely sexual scene. Young Lions feels a little like a Godard teen film illustrated only with spiderwebs.

I read it. I didn’t get it. (Those are four words I think all critics should use more often.) Even as a quick slice of life, I didn’t feel anything for these characters. The self-aware dialogue about the death of all original content felt more like excuses than insight. But I couldn’t dismiss Young Lions. There’s something to it, or at least it convinced me so. Something more than I was seeing. Maybe it’s a side-effect of the barely-there artwork, where backgrounds sometimes disappear to leave the characters posing like mimes; maybe it’s the gorgeous panel that tilts unexpectedly towards realism when someone brandishes a camera; maybe it’s the way it seems like the pencils could fall apart, fade away, unless you keep them fixed to the page with your attention.

Reading Young Lions is like clapping to keep Tinkerbell alive. I believe it’s absolutely intentional on Larmee’s part. This is the active intimacy that gives it its power. In the book, someone says that “Art becomes magic when it has nothing left to hide.” More than once I caught myself dragging my thumb across the reproduced pencils, just to see if they’d smudge, just to see if they’d show something hiding underneath.

Dyer takes great pains to explain that his allergy to David Foster Wallace is a reaction, something he can’t help, and not a negative value judgment. (“With food it’s possible to be allergic to things one actually enjoys eating,” he writes, “like strawberries.”) I might feel like I’m reading The Outfit while holding the book at arm’s length, but I honestly think The Outfit is an astonishing piece of work, and I’ll be first in line for Cooke’s next Parker adaptation.

These two books might’ve been rattling around in my head for so long because the strange sensations they generated happen to suit their stars. Larmee’s adolescents are also desperately looking for meaning, waiting for their lives to magically transform into art. And even as The Outfit skitters sideways to spend time with the sad stories of its tangential characters, it’s always Parker’s book. We can never know him. We can only admire his deadly efficiency from a safe distance.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He’s still not sure if he should read The Pale King.