September 2001 Archives

Site issues

Regular readers may notice that the In Sequence comment system is no longer with us. Unfortunately, various technical issues have prevented me from adopting the comment systems now available. But my dear friend (and frequent commenter) Joe has rushed into the void with a brand spankin' new Yahoo! Fan Club for In Sequence, complete with message board for all your comments. Hope to see you there. (Update: Fan Club is no longer with us; you can comment here instead.)

What shapes do you see?

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I have been meaning to write for some time about my recent reading of the graphic novel the "Watchmen," written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Now seems an appropriate time to post regarding this magnificant story, which takes place in an alternate timeline and under the heavy threat of impending nuclear doom, due largely to a growing international conflict in Afghanistan.
I was aware of the "Watchmen" when it first came out, but at that time I was not deeply into comics so I didn't catch the original series. Later, I found myself intimidated by its well-deserved reputation as the best graphic novel ever written. Fortunately, the Internet is chock full of annotated guides to this comic "Ulysses," but even without them, the story is genuinely compelling as well as philosophically rich in its observations about war, the human impulse for revenge, and--most especially--the history of comic superheroes, told by way of a discourse on vigilantism.
The hero/anti-hero of "Watchmen" is Rorschach, a masked hero (or "Watchman") whose desire to exact justice is as thrilling to the reader as it is terrifying. Wearing a black-and-white mask bearing a constantly shifting pattern, Rorschach expresses his bleak world view in flat, clipped declaratives:

This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It's us. Only us.


Rorschach's mission is to warn his fellow vigilantes, now in forced retirement due to legislation banning their activity, that a killer targeting masked heros is on the loose.
Through reflections from the former heroes--men and women with names like The Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and The Silhouette--we delve into the motivations that drove once ordinary men and women to become costumed adventurers. One of them, Hollis Mason, recounts his past heroing days from the 1930s:


[a]ll of us choosing to dress up in gaudy opera costumes and express the notion of good and evil in simple childish terms, while over in Europe they were turning human beings into soap and lampshades.


Yet as the book progresses, the ambivalent motives of the heros are somewhat mitigated by the undeniable efficacy of their actions, however lawless, in the face of the paralyzing presence of undeniable evil. But whether justice is meted out by individual citizens, law enforcement, or the U.S. military, the question remains:


WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?

Art intersecting comics

I picked up and read the July issue of "Art in America" because of two articles on artists that have some relationship with comic aesthetics. The first artist, Oyvind Fahlstrom, was featured on the cover and it was his work that caught my eye. Active from roughly the early 1950s to the mid 1970s, Fahlstrom incorporated comic book images into his art work and created asemblages emphasizing componentized parts, including cartoon panels, map elements and symbols, and movable illustrated magnets.
According to the article, Batman comics and MAD Magazine were both early influences on the artist but it was R. Crumb who had the most lasting impact on Fahlstrom. Like Crumb, Fahlstrom was an insistent outsider, operating parallel to several art movements yet remaining removed from all of them. This web site offers an outstanding overview of his work, including an interactive example of one of his movable magnet works.
In the same issue, I found an article on painter Lisa Yuskavage, who I first heard about through my painter friend, Alfredo. Before I even saw her work I heard her talk about it on KCRW radio. She spoke about the influence of Vermeer on her attempts to reproduce light as a palpable presence in her paintings. Although light is indeed a consistent subject of her paintings, she is more widely known as a a bad-girl painter of large-breasted, somewhat cartoony-looking women.
What I find interesting in her work is the mix of formalist technique with self-parodying (some would say self-loathing) representations of the female nude. Equally interesting is the public reaction to her work--the feelings of revulsion and distaste that she seems to inspire. While a female painter is acceptable, paintings of beautiful women are desirable, and a male painter of disfigured and violated female bodies is nothing new at all, a female painter who owns as her subject matter distorted female bodies seems to make people quite uncomfortable.

Dinosaur impresses

I saw Disney's "Dinosaur" on DVD with my girlfriend not long ago and was surprised by how much I liked it. The initial scene of the dinosaur baby inside the mother really blew my away--and left me favorably disposed towards everything that came thereafter.
I still had a moment or two of unease at the beginning when I first saw the live-action landscape/animated character combination. I wasn't sure if I was going to be revisiting my early memories of "Thunderbirds Are Go!" or if the promised integration of live-action footage and computer animation would be fully realized in the film.
Thankfully, "Dinosaur" lived up to its promise. The new visual techniques were impressive, and I look forward to seeing them used more in the future. On top of that, the characterizations of both lead and supporting Dinos were very deft, with great voiceover work by Joan Plowright and Della Reese--and I say that as someone who would only assent to watch "Touched By An Angel" under the greatest duress--like a wartime situation, for instance. Can you imagine that--a wartime situation where ordinary citizens are forced to watch CBS primetime in the service of their country? But I am digressing.
Anyway I liked "Dinosaur" enough that I would definitely watch it again. Both my girlfriend and I liked it even more than "Jurassic Park III," which we had seen only a few days earlier. It was interesting to compare the realism of the audio-animatronic and animated dinosaurs in Jurassic with those in "Dinosaur." Each took a different approach towards skin texture and color and yet the depictions were equally convincing.
Returning to my earlier mention of "Thunderbirds Are Go!"--I thought I would mention here that as an adolescent and young adult I did not know of anyone who remembered this television series and was pressed to conclude that I had dreamed up the whole thing. I comment on this here in case there is anyone else out there who suffers from recovered memories of evil futuristic space puppets or who suspects their parents slipped acid into their chocoloate milk. No, my dears, that was just the wonderful world of Sid and Marty Krofft.

Some things don't change

I recently read "Aria: the Soul Market #3," which I picked up at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Convention held at the Shrine Auditorium.
There were good aspects and bad aspects to this Aria number. On the positive side, Aria's new artist shows off some creative paneling in the telling of this story; on the negative side--and I've noticed this before in other titles by other publishers--is that the artist changed midway through the issue. Now, in this case, the substitute artist was a good one, but that's not the point. There was no narrative reason for the change in style and so it detracted from the story. It reminded me of those ocassions when an actor is replaced on a soap opera without warning.
The Comic Convention was fun. My girlfriend and I were invited by my friend Joe and we were introduced to a friend of his who is an old-time Wonder Woman fan. I hadn't been to this particular convention since I was in high school some twenty years ago so it was fun to go back and see what it was like. More toys, more Japanese items than I remember, but basically pretty much the same.

New Topic View

I've added a new "view archives by topic" feature to "In Sequence" so readers can find and read posts according to areas of interest.

The Distance Between Cells

I saw the claymation film Chicken Run on DVD recently, another excellent piece of work from Aardman Studios. It had the usual hallmarks of Aardman titles, including expressive voiceovers; how-did-they-ever-do-that scenes such as the dance party sequence; and a complex yet daft invention in the chicken-pie-making-machine.
I watched the DVD "extras," which included several behind-the-scenes movies. They were somewhat repetitve in content, which is a shame since there aren't that many resources available on how to make a claymation film. Actually, not all the models in "Chicken Run" were clay--some of the chicken bodies were molded out of plastic. I suspected this was the case from the ultra-smooth look of some of the characters. Several people have reported to me that they thought "Chicken Run" was boring, and I wonder if the uniformity of design had anything to do with their reactions.
There is a tension, I think, between the nature of animation art and the expertise of some of its most advanced practitioners. In his book "Understanding Comics," Scott McCloud makes the case that the most important action in a strip takes place between the panels--in the reader's imagination, as it were. Although animation is a different form of sequential art than comics--a filmic one, and thus less focused on gaps or the "space between panels" (or cels in this instance), there is, I think, a self-defeating aspect in the drive for smooth or lifelike appearance and action in animated films.
An example that comes to my mind is the Disney movie "Pochohantas." The early water sequences in that film are absolutely incredible in their realism--but once I'd gasped at the technique I found myself wondering whether it served any purpose. Disney refers to animation art as "the imitation of life," and Disney has been rightly praised over the years for their high-quality rotoscoped renderings and their genereous cel counts, but is imitation all that animation boils down to? To me, it is the pursuit of fantastic impulses--showing what can't be shown in live action film--that makes animation interesting.

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