Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chronological Hyperawareness

My apologies, but I'm still reading comics. Skreemer, a somewhat science fiction Peter Milligan comic really stunned me. Absolutely amazing in places. Here in "design and style" we'll take you through some of the interesting loops of the Milligan comic. In a way, Peter is able to show how comics can do certain things to perhaps their best success, places where other mediums cannot quite reach.

I think we can begin with a Warren Ellis quote from here:
My name's Warren Ellis. I'm mostly a science fiction writer. I'm sometimes also a crime writer. These are essentially the same thing.
Skreemer is a science fiction crime limited series comic book. What this means is that it is a preordained six issues long, creating similarities with both the graphic novel and the ongoing series. The length is set and it is unlikely that the comic will get cancelled in just the six issues it will have published, so there is little reason to pander for sales (if Skreemer were a Marvel comic I could say "there is little reason for an appearance by Wolverine" rather than "pander for sales), but even six-months serialization changes the work somehow. I think I've already made the comparison, but Skreemer is like The Green Mile while the normal graphic novel would be like Insomnia. It's like reading a book where every chapter shows some sort of knowledge of the cliffhanger. Not that every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, but that the cliffhanger would have a purpose--whereas in a novel the cliffhanger can only cause you to turn the page.

But this is not the only way Skreemer can be defined. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me is the narrative form. In Skreemer, a technique that was perhaps first used by Alan Moore in, I believe, the fourth issue of Watchmen, which is effectively the idea of forming a comic story somewhat regardless of chronology, regardless of time. In Milligan's book, this is framed by a narrator named (aptly) Peter Finnegan, who tells us how if we can foresee the future then it must remain static, and belief in both an omnipotent god and free will causes one to think that that god gave up the chance to know the future, so that we might write it. History and the writing of the past, then, as Milligan would have it, can almost be seen as putting ourselves in near godly status. This is an inversion of a the god-view of the writer. While we might argue that the writer who can say have there be light in a story by writing "God said let there be light" or even simply "there was light" is very god-like, Milligan says that the story teller who is recounting a past that has already happened is in fact more like a god. This person must temporarily forget the future if you will so that they might tell the story thus far, mirroring what a god must do to create free will.

As far as design goes, this set up allows for the classic style of compounded narrative. Many pieces of narrative art have used this idea without necessarily being connected to breaking up time itself in the narrative (in contrast to a book like Slaughterhouse-Five which does use the same sort of lack of chronological awareness...or perhaps a hyper-awareness of time...). Both a film like Inception and a literary work like the third chapter of Brave New World create tensions between multiple narratives in a shifting formation. For Brave New World this descends into chaos, which very much may have been Aldous Huxley's point in the chapter but does not help someone reading the book because it was assigned by their eighth grade teacher. In contrast, Inception falls into a parody of complete understanding: one can't help but laugh when seeing the van falling towards the water for the one hundred and fiftieth time. Ultimately both Brave New World and Inception are great works in their respective mediums, but one can't help but find their sort of story switching as somewhat ill-fitting.

For me, at least, Skreemer sealed the deal for comics when it comes to blowing up a time narrative. A picture may be worth a thousand words and if so then it must have memory power. It's a lot easier to know what story is being told when you can recognize distinct characters even if the characters are simply aged versions of themselves. This deals with the difficulty of understanding with a book like Brave New World, while always introducing new story in contrast to the largely stagnant parts of Inception. The concept of a comic book could also solve the minor flaw in Inception, as a relatively boring storyline, such as a van falling into a body of water in super slow motion, can be delegated to a minor position in the book. Consider a revolving panel as you turn through the pages showing this van moving ever so slowly closer to the water. Because a comic can, in a way, show more than one narrative at once, it places itself in a stronger position than a film, which could perhaps use a split screen set up, but as a terminating medium (in comparison to a book or comic which you can go back and reread something, in film, I think most people would agree that needing to rewind the movie to catch something would be a flaw in the narrative--speaking of something necessary to enjoy the film, rather than the sort of stuff that foreshadows a twist, surprise, or just normal ending only after you've seen the film) movies do not allow the eye to move all around and pick up on all the different stories being told while attaching no certain piece of hierarchy to the narrative.

It's fitting that I've already quoted Warren Ellis, because this is what he's written about comics--the way panels can show time in completely different ways. Turning the page can push us forward a few minutes or back centuries. I could imagine a comic that is built on no clear-cut narrative, no direct way to follow the panels, no order. Made out of colliding stories, it would simply show them revolving around the page, a few panels devoted to each story, somehow themselves scattered and hard to understand. Skreemer is strongly influenced by Finnegans Wake and one can't help but imagine a comic book written and illustrated with the sole purpose of being just as difficult as Joyce, just as full of possibility for discussion and understanding.

For me, the interest in all this is not purely as an art consumer or, if you will, connoisseur but rather also as an artist. Because one area of my poetry that I've truly become interested in is not so much in how it is placed on the page but in how it progresses page to page. I think I've spoken here about a poem in comic book form, not illustrated but somehow paneled. I'm still not sure how this would turn out, but I have ideas. And Skreemer was another way to meditate on the future of my art.

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