Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Medieval Theatre: Roots in the Mass

In The Medieval Theatre, Glynne Wickham (1986) imagines a society that understood performance as ludus, inheriting a Latin tradition that included sport and tragedy in a single category. The key quality of the ludus, Wickham believes, is that it is not 'real life': it contains a set of rules which allow for its repeat performance. Since the Roman ludus included gladiatorial combat, that repeat might not always feature the same players...

Whatever: but Wickham observes the introduction of a theatricality into the Mass, with a seasonal addition to the Introit: the shepherds asking where they can find the saviour. But I think this misses a trick. The status of the Host is intrinsically theatrical, in that it is both literally a wafer and allegorically the Body of Christ. So that's bisociation, which I believe allows theatre audiences not to get confused by those blokes pretending to be kings or something. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

A Lovely Swiss Watch: page two of Watchmen, issue four

The painting that Dr. Manhattan is studying is “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali.  The melting pocket watches, in this context, symbolize the malleable nature of time with respect to Dr. Manhattan’s perceptions, while the title of the work itself is another way of looking at Dr. Manhattan’s quantum perception.  

To him, all things happen at once, which is to say that he remembers everything about his life because he has already experienced it, thus he has a persistence of memory.

Armed with the knowledge from the first page's abstract - that the panels will not follow a lineal chronology, that issue four is concerned with Dr Manhattan's battle with his identity and memories and that time will be a major theme, the reader can turn the page. 

Moore and Gibbons have not, however, finished with the abstract and orientation. Page two uses another convention of comics - and cinema - to remind the reader that this page is part of the prologue, namely the title at the foot of the page. Focusing almost exclusively on Dr Manhattan walk on Mars - only panel four pictures another location, it repeats images from page one to continue its non-chronological impetus (panels two, five, six with seven arguably a long shot of five).

The repetition of key images effectively slows down the narrative. Not only does it jump backwards and forwards it time, it returns the narrative to certain points. Moore and Gibbons are exercising considerable control over the pace of the reading, building a vocabulary based on specific images, marking a return to the protagonist's intellectual starting points. Yet the issue has not yet reached the story proper, despite offering more hints about its path. 

The detail and pace of these pages provides the tone that will characterise issue four: Dr Manhattan's philosophical ponders accompany a series of spectacular images. The backdrop of stars, especially in the final panel of the page, provide the context for his meditations, and he introduces his inquiry. He is trying to understand the force that has put what appears to be a clockwork universe into motion.

A Clock Set Running By God

The model of the Universe as a clock has two famous advocates: Isaac Newton and William Paley. Both of them believed in God, although their models have been put to very different uses. Dr Manhattan alludes to both of these models on page two.

Newton's Principia represents an attempt to reconcile the emerging consensus of scientific thought with a belief in God. Writing in the seventeenth century, Newton spent time developing a mechanical, and evidence-based, understanding of natural laws, as well as dedicating himself to Biblical exegesis. 

The metaphor of the universe as a mechanical entity is made explicit by Newton in his arguments with Leibniz,  who commented in a letter that

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.

The compromise in Newton's conceptual clockwork universe came from his desire to include an interventionist God within a scheme that appeared not to need one. However, his model provides a clear answer to Manhattan's question: the force that set the stars in motion is called God. 

Paley, arguing for religious belief through the evidence of design in Natural Theology (1802), called up an argument first used by the Stoics and mentioned by Cicero.

Suppose I found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place, I should hardly think … that, for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for a stone?… 
For this reason, and for no other; namely, that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it.

The Watchmaker becomes a name for God in Paley's formulation - and this claim is parodied in the title of Richard Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker (1986), in which natural selection is promoted as an alternative explanation, without any need for a divine creator.

In alluding to these hypotheses, Moore and Gibbons set up a clear line of inquiry, expressed by a being who, at several points in issue four, is compared to God. In the first three panels, Manhattan establishes his credibility as a thinker, by revealing his awareness of the physical processes around him - he describes the passage of light from the sun to the outer reaches of the galaxy - before revealing his personal history. His father inspired him with an interest in the natural world, and drew the comparison between the universe and the watch.

That his father is a watchmaker adds to the theological tone of the words - father often being used as another description of God. This is also a foreshadowing of a later scene in issue four - with the repetition of panel four signposting this explicitly. 

Dr Manhattan's theology, however, is at this point distinctively pre-twentieth century, and ignores the revolution in science that is marked by Einstein's theories of relativity. The reference to the speed of light in the first panel aside, Manhattan uses sense-based evidence as the foundation of his meditation. He observes the motion of the stars, the cogs of the deconstructed watch, draws parallels but questions the invisible metaphysics beyond them.

Finally, he drops the photograph, walks across the deserted surface of Mars, and the title appears. Ambiguously, it could refer to Manhattan himself, the Newtonian God or Manhattan's father. 

The issue is ready to begin. Page three reveals a sudden shift in mood, location and character, heralded by a repetition of panel four (the cogs).

A Lovely Swiss Watch: one page of Watchmen, issue four

Meanwhile, over on his website, Scott Eric Kauffman is suggesting a strategy for analysising the first page of Watchmen, issue four. There is a lively discussion in the comments, often criticising Kauffmann for his desire to explain the panels, or his use of Scott McCloud as an authority. Like most 'below the line' commentary, it's often aggressive and ad hominem. Sigh.

Kauffman points out, using McCloud's definitions, that the first panel is 'duo-specific' - that is, the words and the image deliver the same information. The second panel, however, is 'word-specific', in which the image illustrates the words' information. There is movement between the panels - Dr Manhattan has dropped the photograph. This movement is emphasised by the words in the second panel... in twelve seconds time...

This is followed by a panel that represents a static figure: Manhattan lost in contemplation of the photograph. 

Panels One to Three: A Programmatic Strip

While such tight focus on a mere three panels (a third of a page, from twenty four pages in total) is hardly the usual way to read a comic book, it presents the first row of the issue as a self-contained sequence, the common size of a comic strip printed in newspapers. Here's a lovely and somewhat meta example.

Treating the three panels as a stand-alone sequence, the introduction to issue four imitates the pattern of a strip. Not only does it introduce several themes for the issue - time, Dr Manhattan's contemplation of time and the relationship between his current situation and his history - it provides a dialectic narrative. 

In panel one, the protagonist - Dr Manhattan - is introduced alongside his antagonist. The photograph is a symbol of his past (specifically, it was taken in 1959, before his transformation into the blue superpowered being). 

Panel two jumps to the conclusion: he drops the photograph. The antagonist has been overcome, left in the dirt. Between the two panels, the story has been completed. This is a programmatic sequence - issue four's narrative arc follows Manhattan's rejection of his past. The photograph, which pictures him with his first lover, symbolises his time as a human: issue four examines his rejection of the emotional ties he has to that identity.

The tension between the two panels is within Manhattan's mind, symbolised by his literal holding and dropping of the photograph. However, the punchline in panel three draws Manhattan back in time: he remains in silent contemplation of the image - setting up the rest of the page, in which he reflects on his memories of the photograph. He can never leave it behind, and he is 'still there' (panel four).

In short - and, frankly, this is reading a great deal into a tiny portion of the text - the movement of the story goes from 'a man and his past' (panel one) to the past abandoned, with the third panel announcing the impossibility of ever abandoning the past. There's a slight dramatic irony in the third panel, in which the reader is aware of the conclusion to the story even when observing the story in motion. This irony is complicated because Dr Manhattan is also aware of the conclusion, effectively sharing the experience with the reader.

Too much on too little? Look at the rest of the page...

Throughout the page, Moore and Gibbons play with the grid pattern of nine panels to set up a series of associations. The photograph is presented in close up at the very centre of the page (panel five), and the second panel is repeated (with different words) in the final panel nine. Panel two becomes a foreshadowing of the conclusion, and by placing the photograph in the centre, its importance is emphasised. Page one of issue four is 'the story of the photograph' and, while it continues to be programmatic of the issue's story arc, it is also a self-contained sequence. 

The First Page as a Self-Contained Narrative

Karin Kukkonen (Comics and Graphic Novels, 2013) suggests two models that can be used to define 'the minimal complete plot' (Todorov, 1969, cited by Kukkonen, page 36). Initially, there is Todorov's notion that it must 'begin with the disturbance of an equilibrium and ends with its re-establishment'. 

The first three panels perform this process: the words in panel one, due to their cold, dispassionate tone, establish the tension between the man and the object he is observing, while panel two shows the result of the disturbance - an abandoned photograph on the surface of Mars. Panel three resolves into the res-establishment of the equilibrium - by panning back to show the complete man and not just his hand.

However, Kukkonen offers a more detailed structure: Labov's 'six steps'. A narrative will progress through these stages, from abstract to coda. 

The abstract 'previews' the narrative - a function performed elegantly in the first three panels. Stage two, the orientation, which introduces the world of the story and the main characters, is enacted in the same sequence, with the addition of panel four (two locations - Mars and the Gila Flats - the protagonist Dr Manhattan and his memories, symbolised by the photograph, are all introduced).

The complicating action is in both the dropping of the photograph, Manhattan's memories of collecting it, and his reflections on its meaning. Evaluation, Labov's fourth step, both provides the words with their story and is at the heart of the page. This story is about evaluation. 

The resolution is Manhattan dropping the photograph and walking away (panels seven and eight), while the coda is in the ninth panel - the abandoned photograph, still existing and referring back to panel two. Within the tropes of comic book adventure stories, this final image echoes the final appearance of the antagonist, after their apparent defeat (usually promising a sequel).

Within the wider context of issue four, this page provides the abstract and the orientation, yet it is able to stand alone as Todorov's 'minimal complete plot'.

Page one: a programmatic sequence

Aside from standing as a simple narrative, the function of page one could be considered as programmatic. Containing both the abstract  and orientation, these nine panels set up the mood, atmosphere and themes of issue four, encouraging the reader to recognise certain key themes and the strategies of the creators.

When questioned about the intentions that drove him to write Watchmen, Alan Moore has repeatedly insisted that 'it was show off the things that comics could do' (All Time Greatest Comics, 2016). The conscious repetition of the nine panel grid on each page, for example, deliberately exposes the foundation of the sequential medium, relating Watchmen to earlier comic books which imposed a strict structure on the page. Jack Kirby's art for The Fantastic Four (1961 and following) made use of the clearly defined panel, even as he experimented with their number, size and shape.

This brief action sequence - starring the ever-popular Thing - shifts perspective and point of view repeatedly, but marks clear contrasts between each scene. This is in stark contrast to the work of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing (1985, written by Alan Moore).

Since Moore's Swamp Thing used a more fluid approach to panelling, the decision to revert to an earlier model is clearly aesthetic. Whether this further reflects his intention to 'show off' comics as a medium, it certainly lends an old-fashioned atmosphere, enables a clarity of story-telling and presents a measured rhythm to each page, almost establishing a consistence reading length to each page. 

It is not, however, usual - even in the Kirby examples - for the first page to be so carefully delineated. Indeed, most first pages are a 'splash page' - a single image, rather like the Bissette and Totleben above - which provide an abstract, as in the following examples from Kirby's Fantastic Four.

Watchmen dispenses with the title, the details of the creators and replaces the splash page with sequential panels - a change performed in every issue of Watchmen except the final, issue twelve. Scene-setting is performed in the style of the ongoing story, immediately immersing the reader in the rhythm of the issue. The turning of the page is a natural moment of transition - and one used by the traditional 'splash page' and Watchmen alike, in contrast to the practice of the traditional literary novel.

Page one is programmatic in that it trains the reader's eye to follow the narrative both sequential and as a field, as well as establishing the major themes. Each of the first six panels panel contains a reference to time: a specific date (1959) in panel one, a countdown in seconds in panels two, five and six, and 'twenty-seven hours' (in the past) in panels three and four. In the final two panels, Dr Manhattan reflects on the time taken by light from the stars 'to reach us'. And while the sequential reading of the nine panels appear to follow a lineal time, each panel is non-consecutive, jumping through time and space. The illustration below reorders each panel according to its sequential location, set alongside the published sequence. 

It is the captioning - Dr Manhattan's thoughts - that locate each panel's moment into a chronological sequence: the words are working against the flow of the images, imposing an order on a jumble of moments. The subsequent story uses this tension, as Dr Manhattan slowly recalls episodes in his life, attempting to piece together a sense of identity. Flashbacks are given a commentary, returning to Manhattan's 'present moment ' - a solitary stroll on Mars.

This use of panels 'make immediately clear (that) the rows and panels are meant to be read both next to another and all at once' (Baetens and Fry, pg 105/6 2015). The preoccupation of the words with time is echoed in the placement of the panels, disorientating the expected lineal progression.

However, the reordering also highlights the repetition of images: panel two and panel nine are the same - reordered to panels seven and nine. This strategy is repeated throughout issue four, with several images repeating throughout the chapter. This particular panel is also repeated on pages five, twenty four and twenty eight, and provides the cover image for the issue.  The standard checkerboard pattern of the panels is imitated by the repetition of specific images. 

Finally, the central image of the page - panel five - has a distinctive quality. It is a close-up of the photograph. Unlike the other panels, the image it contains does not exist in time, but is an image of an image. 

On the first page, the meaning of these patterns are not clear: the programmatic nature of the sequence merely draws attention to a way of reading, without disclosing its purpose or meaning. 

Tiers and Rows and Columns

Having recognised the flexibility of the panels, and their amenability to reordering, the potential of reading them in different sequences is suggested. For example, here are the panels presents as if read down rather than across the page.

While the clarity of the words' narrative is lost, the images alone provide a coherent narrative, with each column providing a three panel story, similar to the comic strip format. This does, however, disrupt the lineal narrative imposed on the images by the words, while retaining the dramatic relationship between the protagonist Dr Manhattan and the photograph. What is most obviously lost is the resolution of the final three panels: while the first six panels jump around in time, the bottom row complete a chronological and lineal sequence, with panels seven to nine following each other in time. 

This hints that the words might be carrying the narrative thrust. 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Publication Format

It's a shame to dismiss Baetens and Frey so summarily: their conclusion that the graphic novel does not represent a clear break from comic books is even-handed, and recognises the weaknesses of their attempted definition. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page provides a livelier discussion, including the historical evolution of the term and its format, as well as criticisms of the term from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. 

These criticisms hit at the heart of Baetens and Frey's discussion: ultimately, the term is a pretentious cover for the true nature of the book, which is a comic within a specific history. Perhaps lumbered by a title that begs a definition, the two academics are forced to begin their study by defending their subject: the emphasis on quality as a characteristic drags them away from the accepted process of definition - which is on quantifiable elements, not the value of a form. They also get caught up in the genre wars (superhero is a genre, not a form), and draw comparisons between comic books and graphic novels which dissolve under cursory investigation. 

I'd like to say their conclusion is, at least, honest, but when Wikipedia shows more academic rigour...