Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fantomas, comics and episodic stories

The following are from Robin Walz's Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (2000). They're descriptions of the original Fantomas novels but sound remarkably like superhero comics:

This interaction between the stilted dialogue of flat character types, and the nearly endless repetition of limited story plots, invited a certain kind of popular imaginary reading. The reader derived pleasure not from a sophisticated literary construction but from the exploits and details that filled a highly melodramatic form.

The conversations in Fantomas are highly theatrical, continually stating and restating the obvious in stilted and overdrawn terms. [...] Such dialogue creates its own sense of enjoyment, beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves.

Another popular-novel feature in Fantomas is the meandering storyline, which continually branches off in various directions and decenters the action through innumerable loose ends.

Now it's unlikely any American comics creators (or even the preceeding pulp writers) had even heard of Fantomas, at least until into the 60s, so there's no direct link. This is undoubtedly a case of parallel invention where similar constraints and methods of production (episodic narrative, continuing characters, fairly rigid page counts, a specific intended audience, low creator pay) resulted in similar solutions. Obviously there had been stories about the same characters before (myths, folktales, pamphlets) but these weren't done to a set schedule: Marvel is currently giving us 22 pages of a Hercules story every month but the ancient Greeks did not. And certainly novels were serialized, most famously Dickens and Henry James but newspapers carried these well into the 20th century (I.B. Singer was publishing newspaper serials as late as 1967).

What's different, of course, is what might be called an industrial method of production. Comic books (as opposed to strips) early on split creative duties among writers, artists, inkers, letterers, etc to keep production flowing smoothly. Movie studios had even earlier worked out a highly structured process that started to crumble in the 40s and was picked up by television. Today TV shows are probably the type of art that is most pervasive and these are nearly all done in episodic forms that the above quotes could describe as well. Even news broadcasts are highly regimented, actually might be the most rigid of all.

What Walz points out though is that this industrial production created, or more accurately allowed, a different way of reading. People who complain about comics (and here I'm going to use "comics" to mean "mainstream superhero comics") say they're cliched, that the need for continuing the story/characters means nothing can really change (with the implication that there's no chance for real art), that they're unrealistic even apart from the violations of physics, that they're childish power fantasies, and so on.

But that's not how comic fans read these, or at least not entirely. Those "innumerable loose ends" are actually quite deliberate and a critical element of the way comics create their storytelling - something left in one issue will be picked up further down the road (or frequently not at all as creators or corporate strategies change). The entire construction of interconnected stories pretty much creates their digetic world (or universe as they prefer - Marvel Universe, DCU).

There's also a kind of blankness to many characters partly because the "characterization" beloved of creative writing teachers and middlebrows everywhere is simply not important to comics nor to science fiction nor to mysteries nor to many types of TV. It's just another element that sometimes can be used as a main ingredient and sometimes as just grace notes (how's that for mixing metaphors?). Plus many comics characters are handled by numerous creators over decades which can result in wildly varying interpretations. Batman is always considered smart but that means something different for the 2009 version than it did for 1977 or 1965.

All of this doesn't mean that once you know the aesthetic secret key that you'll think more highly of comics or sitcoms or whatever. You can completely understand Fantomas or The Mighty Avengers or How I Met Your Mother and still think they're trivial or mindless. And it doesn't mean that they should be judged on their own terms. 24 is usually effective at what it attempts but is still politically reprehensible and often shoddily conceived. (And I've seen every episode - make of that what you will.)

But as Walz discusses, these may be opportunities to do something new. A mass audience picked up on Fantomas and while the surrealists did also for many of the same reasons they also used the books for their own ends. If I tell you that Ed Brubaker's Captain America is one of the best mainstream comics published right now, don't read it expecting it to be like any of the recent superhero movies or like an HBO series or like a Booker-winning novel. It's a dark story about missed opportunities, personal responsibility, the idea of democracy and whether justice can ever be achieved using violence but it's also very much a comic book complete with a skull-headed Nazi, a mind-controlled spy, a deranged scientist with his head in his chest and a former assassin who spent long periods frozen between jobs. Oh, and a guy who talks to birds.

And while I think even a fresh reader would get most of the story it also draws from decades of earlier comics without synopsis or explanation. Those themes could of course have been explored other ways (they almost sound like a summary of Conrad's novels) but Brubaker is using the possibilities of long episodic stories for both compressed meaning and for their sheer comicbookness. One difference from the other examples is that Brubaker is clearly very aware of what he's attempting while Souvestre & Allain definitely were not as aren't most sitcom writers (and I suspect that many TV news creators have so deluded themselves that they may not even be conscious of their generic limits).