The Castle of Incoherence

1. After speculating about how Disney is going to respond to working with the anarchic and unprofessional employees of Marvel (i.e. "small talents with big egos"), Jim Shooter posts his contracts from Marvel in 2002 and DC in 2007. (via)

2. The much-missed Jeet Heer emerged briefly from the chaos of new fatherhood and several large projects to e-mail me a link to this appearance from another Journal fan favorite:

Heer also wrote this recent review of Michael Kupperman's new Mark Twain book.

3. Are old-fashioned maps (the kind with sea monsters and dragons) comics? Not really, but it may be hard for some to pinpoint exactly why when confronted with a few of the images in this short illustrated history of them.

4. Brian Chippendale takes on the New 52 at DC, reviewing the new Justice League and Animal Man titles, as well as various Marvel, independent, and manga titles.

5. Finally, there's something of a debate going on right now regarding the coherence (or lack of same) of the action scenes in recent blockbuster films. Jim Emerson started it off with this excellent video essay critiquing a chase sequence from The Dark Knight.

In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

A.D. Jameson defends the scene here, claiming that Christopher Nolan and his collaborators are trying a new and visceral approach to cinematic action that doesn't rely on narrative coherence.

All of that is interesting but not obviously related to comics. Except that it reminded me of many of Frank Santoro's arguments over the years (here's one) regarding the disappearance of the "classical" (for lack of a better word) cartooning style that was notable for its clarity, and was once evident in the work of everyone from the masterful Milton Caniff to the perennial critical whipping boy Don Heck. Nowadays, American action comics are almost all just big explosions, pointless decapitations, and impossible-to-parse (or believe) battle royale splash pages. Drawn in "photo-realistic" style, of course, so as to denote seriousness (not unlike how Nolan is supposed to be presenting a new "realism" in superhero films).

I don't have a coherent theory as to why this is so, beyond a general coarsening of the culture. Or at least the culture of this particular kind of action story. The normal thumb-sucking answer is to blame it on video games, but you don't actually see the same incoherence in your typical Xbox boss fight, so I don't think that's it, unless video games have simply spurred filmmakers and cartoonists to desperation due to lost market share. Further investigation is required.

10 Responses to The Castle of Incoherence

  1. Frank Santoro says:

    haha. that ole ComicsComics post you linked to is one of my favorites. I love to rant about incoherent sequencing in superhero comics. thanks, Tim!

  2. Ian Harker says:

    Here is one way of looking at it. Let’s say any given creator has X amount of creative energy to invest in their movie or comic. Because of technological advances in both filmmaking and comicmaking there are a ton of new outlets for superficial lavish. Many creators never actually get past the surface because there is so much surface available now. Past creators had more limitations in this regard so once the surface was serviced to it’s maximum effect there was still gas in the tank to invest in the fundamentals of storytelling. It was more essential actually to master the fundamentals because the creator couldn’t get by on lavish alone. Today creators are rewarded for their glitz instead of their guts.

  3. Frank Santoro says:

    Are you talking about table banners and signage at small press shows? All glitz, no guts? Maybe money spent on banners and tshirt displays will help with fundamentals. It carries over I think.

    Just kidding!

  4. Brynocki C says:

    It’s funny that anyone cares what a “realistic Batman car chase” would look like. Listening to Jim Emerson’s monologue is like listening to a mouse whine cause the cheese in today’s trap is inconsistent with last weeks. He should do a rant over the whole movie though that would be pretty funny.

  5. Ian Harker says:

    I want to retcon King-Cat #1. Fully digitally recolored with matching oversized booth banner, t-shirts and etsy-ready DIY merch. Only available via I-Pad and Ka-Blam though.

  6. Tim Hodler says:

    I don’t know. Emerson isn’t criticizing the chase for not being realistic enough, he’s complaining about it not making sense. It doesn’t really have anything do with Batman (he didn’t like the action scenes in Inception either), but even if it did, what’s wrong with saying that the action scenes in a Batman comic or movie aren’t choreographed and edited well? That’s one of the main things Batman stories are for, right? I mean, no one watches The Dark Knight for the ideas, I hope. (I guess Tim Burton’s Batman movies were mostly about the production design…)

    But anyway, whether or not you like the movie or its action scenes (and I actually think there are much better reasons for disliking The Dark Knight than its chase scenes), it’s interesting how it sometimes ignores basic film grammar so fully. Watch a Stephen Spielberg movie and the action scenes all make sense. Watch a Michael Bay movie and they don’t. Just like in comics, J.H. Williams seems to be a contemporary cartoonist really versed in & aware of classical comics storytelling, and in consequence, his action scenes are usually 100 times more coherent than something drawn by, I don’t know, Greg Land or somebody. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing that out.

  7. bkmunn says:

    I never know where I am in those dark fight scenes but then the same can be said for some of Kirby’s sequences. Kirby’s are more satisfying, though, in a visceral, but non-roller-coaster way.

  8. Kim Thompson says:

    I’m not even sure if it’s a matter of competence, or that a number of current directors feel that the audience ENJOYS simply being slammed over the head, whereas others are convinced the audience likes being able to follow what goes on. It does sometimes seem generational, with the exceptions you’d expect (Tarantino’s action sequences in KILL BILL and DEATH PROOF are models of narrative lucidity, for instance). Spielberg has become such an obvious example of old-school clarity that any large-scale action sequence that achieves it, particularly when cunningly intermixing mundane tiny details and massive, startling havoc (e.g. the jaw-droppingly well done first monster attack in THE HOST) becomes seen as “Spielbergian” almost by default, just like any mumbling neurotic is Woody Allen-eque. Part of the (considerable) appeal of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a similar lucidity.

    THE DARK KNIGHT was two hours of insufferably boring crap wrapped around 20 minutes of the greatest super-villain performance ever committed to film. (If someone put out a DVD of just the Joker parts I’d buy it in a heartbeat.) I couldn’t even be roused of my torpor to be annoyed at the incoherent action scenes.

  9. Brynocki C says:

    I just found his nitpicking about whether or not Harvey Dent was on the left side of the police van or the right side to be annoying. No i didn’t need a establishing shot of the interior of the van to know, or care, who was where. No I didn’t need to even think about whether that black van was the one with Harvey Dent in it. I knew where they were. I love clarity in movie motion and get bored when sequences are unclear. But Mr. Emerson went beyond critiquing the flow and his unyielding delivery was almost comic. I got overwhelmed by him and stopped watching. That’s all. He’s probably right and so are you. You’re all right. Hey Tim, you’re all right man. PS. Greg Land love him or hate him draws a very coherent scene.

  10. Brynocki C says:

    Not trying to pick a fight or anything Tim, at least not here. But I am in “defend yourself against the internet” mode so I may have come across a bit testy, sorry.

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